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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Wicliffe and the Pope’s encroachments in England

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

We rejoin Wicliffe who remained 20 years at Merton College, Oxford, as scholar and then fellow.

In 1360 he became Master of Balliol College. He was by now qualified to give public lectures in the university on the Books of Scripture, though forbidden to trespass upon the Sentences of Peter of Lombardy, a dubious privilege reserved for higher grade of Bachelors and Doctors in Theology.

In teaching others, Wicliffe unwittingly prepared himself for his future destiny as Reformer and adversary of the popes. In 1365 he was appointed to the new Canterbury Hall founded by Simon de Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury. Its constitution demanded fellowships be held by four monks and eight rival secular priests. Broils rapidly arose leading to the monks dismissal and the advancement of Wicliffe to the Wardenship. Islip soon died, and Langham, himself a former monk, succeeded him and immediately reinstated his expelled bretheren and displaced Wicliffe from his post. Wicliffe appealed to the Pope; but Langham had the greater influence at Rome, and after a long delay, in 1370, the cause was given against Wicliffe.

King John

In order to understand this power struggle we must go back a century to the time of King John. This brave but despotic king was reigning when in, 1205, Hubert, the Primate of England, died. Junior canons of Canterbury met clandestinely that very night, and unconstitutionally elected Reginald, their sub-prior as Archbishop of Canterbury and clandestinely installed him by midnight. By dawn Reginald was en route to Rome for the Pope to confirm his election. John immediately advanced the Bishop of Norwich to the primacy and also sent representatives to Rome where the all powerful Innocent III was reigning at the noonday of papal power. Innocent annulled both elections and appointed Cardinal Langton. The king had appealed to the Pope; and Innocent saw in this a precedent not to be let slip, for putting within the gift of the Pontiff for all time coming what, after the Papal throne, was then the most important dignity in the Roman Church.

England smitten with interdict

John had appealed to the pope and been overridden. The throne of England excepted, Canterbury was England‘s premier seat and now a foreign ecclesiastical power had appointed one to fill it. John immediately saw the danger. Could the pope perhaps even depose him? Waxing bold he deposed the canons of Canterbury and ordered all the prelates and abbots to leave the kingdom. The Pontiff simply smote England with punishing interdict. The king had offended, and the nation must be punished along with him. Superstitious men suddenly saw the gates of heaven locked in their faces. The suffering departed must now wander forlorn as disembodied ghosts in some doleful lower region, amid unknown sufferings, till it should please the pope to reopen heaven‘s gates. Church-doors were closed; altar lights extinguished; the bells silenced; crosses and images taken down and infants were baptized in the church-porch. Marriages were celebrated in the church-yard and the dead buried in ditches or open fields. No one durst rejoice, or eat flesh, or shave his beard, or pay any decent attention to his person or apparel. The ban of the Pontiff sent the land into drab mourning.

The Crown of England surrendered to the Pope

King John braved interdict for two years. Innocent then excommunicated John, deposing him from his throne and absolving his subjects from allegiance to him. To execute this sentence the pope offered England to Philip Augustus, King of France. Philip prepared an invasion force. King John‘s obstinacy forsook him. He sought interview with Pandulf, the Pope's legate, submitted himself unreservedly to the Papal See. He promised full restitution of losses to the priests and "resigned England and Ireland to God, to St. Peter, and St. Paul, and to Pope Innocent, and to his successors in the apostolic chair; he agreed to hold these dominions as feudatory of the Church of Rome by the annual payment of a thousand marks; and he stipulated that if he or his successors should ever presume to revoke or infringe this charter, they should instantly, except upon admonition they repented of their offense, forfeit all right to their dominions." The king did homage to Pandulf 15th May, 1213 with all the humiliating rites feudal law required of vassals before their liege lord. Taking off his crown ,it is said, John laid it on the ground. Pandulf kicked it about like a worthless bauble and then picking it from the dust, replaced it upon the craven head of the pitiful monarch.

But the barons were enraged and swore to maintain England‘s ancient liberties. At Oxford in April, 1215 they challenged John with a charter "which consecrates the liberties confirmed by Henry II., and which you also have solemnly sworn to observe". The king forgetting his already existing debasement stormed, "I will not grant you liberties which would make me a slave". But eventually on the 15th of June, 1215, John signed the Magna Charta at Runnymede. This effectually declared to Innocent the revocation of John‘s vassalage, and the reinstatement of his kingship. Furious Innocent instantly launched his fiery anathemas for he was sufficiently astute to realise that Runnymede and the Magna Charta struck at the roots of the power of the triple tiara. He must strangle it at birth before others are inoculated with such impiety. Fulminating a bull from the plenitude of his apostolic power and authority of his commission set by God "to pluck up and destroy, to build and to plant" kingdoms he annulled and abrogated the Charter, declaring all its obligations and guarantees void.

The barons intervene

The bold barons had saved the independence of the nation. After Innocent, feebler popes saw Kings of England mounting the English throne without taking the oath of fealty to the Pope. The thousand marks tribute which John had forfeited was paid for a while but later quietly dropped by Edward II without protest.

Then suddenly haughty Urban V demanded it again in 1365. This pope accompanied his demand with the threat that should the then king Edward III fail to make payment, not only of the annual tribute, but of all arrears, he would be summoned to Rome to answer before his liege lord, Urban V in person , for contumacy. This was in effect to say to England, "Prostrate yourself a second time before the Pontifical chair". The England of Edward III. was not the England of King John; and this demand, as unexpected as it was insulting, stirred the nation to its depths. During the century which had elapsed since the Great Charter was signed, England's growth in all the elements of greatness had been marvellously rapid. She had fused Norman and Saxon into one people; she had formed her language; she had extended her commerce; she had reformed her laws; she had founded seats of learning, which had already become renowned; she had fought great battles and won brilliant victories; her valour was felt and her power feared by the Continental nations; and when this summons to do homage as a vassal of the Pope was heard, the nation hardly knew whether to meet it with indignation or with derision.

Swarms of alien priests

What made the folly of Urban in making such a demand the more conspicuous, was the fact that the political battle against the Papacy had been gradually strengthening since the era of Magna Charta. Several stringent Acts had been passed with the view of vindicating the majesty of the law, and of guarding the property of the nation and the liberties of the subject against the persistent and ambitious encroachments of Rome. Nor were these Acts unneeded. Swarm after swarm of aliens, chiefly Italians, had invaded the kingdom, and were devouring its substance and subverting its laws. Foreign ecclesiastics were nominated by the Pope to rich livings in England; and, although they neither resided in the country nor performed any duty in it, they received the revenues of their English livings, and expended them abroad. For instance, in the sixteenth year of Edward III., two Italian cardinals were named to two vacancies in the dioceses of Canterbury and York, worth annually 2,000 marks. "The first-fruits and reservations of the Pope," said the men of those times, "are more hurtful to the realm than all the king's wars."

Papal exactions

In a Parliament held in London in 1246, we find it complained of, among other grievances, that "the Pope, not content with Peter's pence, oppressed the kingdom by extorting from the clergy great contributions without the king's consent; that the English were forced to prosecute their rights out of the kingdom, against the customs and written laws thereof; that oaths, statutes, and privileges were enervated; and that in the parishes where the Italians were beneficed, there were no alms, no hospitality, no preaching, no divine service, no care of souls, nor any reparations done to the parsonage houses." But this was only part of the background which was to rouse Wicliffe to fight for reform and England`s independence from the papacy.

(Chapter 2 Book 2 is unduly long and the remainder will be incorporated in Chapter 3)

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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