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Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Date Posted:

Wicliffe’s Battle With Rome For England’s Independence

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

A worldly dominion cannot stand without revenues.

Tithes, annats, investitures, appeals, reservations, expectatives, bulls, and briefs were so many drains for conveying the substance of the nations of Christendom to Rome. Every new saint cost the country of his birth 100,000 crowns. A consecrated pall for an English archbishop was bought for £1,200. In the year 1250, Walter Gray, Archbishop of York, paid £10,000 (around 4.5 million pounds today) for that mystic ornament without which he could perform no official duty. It was rightly said, "If Rome gives anything, it is trifles only. She takes your gold, but, gives nothing more solid in return than words. Alas! Rome is governed only by money". It was computed that the tax paid to the Pope for ecclesiastical dignities was five-fold that paid to the king from the whole realm. This weakened the king and impoverished the realm and eventually depopulated the land.

Provisors and Praemunire

To remedy these intolerable grievances a series of enactments were passed by Parliament. In the twentieth year of Edward III's reign all alien monks were ordered out and their revenues given to English scholars. Later the revenues of all livings held by foreign priests were given to the king. It was enacted further, that no Englishman should bring into the realm any demands from Rome without declaration to the Cinque Ports officials, "upon loss of all he hath" or even execution.

Two statutes, those of Provisors and, three years later, Praemunire became famous. The first declared it illegal to procure any presentations to any benefice from the Court of Rome, or to accept any living otherwise than as the law directed through the chapters and ordinary electors. All such appointments were to be void, the parties concerned in them were to be punished with fine and imprisonment, and no appeal was allowed beyond the king's court. Praemunire forbade all appeals on questions of property from the English tribunals to the courts at Rome, under pain of confiscation of goods and imprisonment during the king's pleasure. Even so Rome practised some successful evasion. But each time Great Britain performed an act of resistance to the Papacy there came along with it a quickening of her own energies and a strengthening of her own liberty. So was it now that her soul began to bound upwards.

Urban's insolent demand

This was the moment chosen by Urban V to advance insolent demands. Popes continually signally fail to read the signs of the times and this was no exception. The people and Parliament were tired of exactions, and the King was in no mood for repairing to Rome as Urban commanded, and paying a thousand marks for permission to wear the crown which he was so well able to defend with his sword. Edward assembled his Parliament in 1366, and, laying the Pope's letter before it, bade it take counsel and say what answer should be returned. Wicliffe was present and his notes are preserved. The decision at which the Parliament arrived was unanimous. "Forasmuch as neither King John, nor any other king, could bring his realm and kingdom into such thraldom and subjection but by common assent of Parliament, the which was not given, therefore that which he did was against his oath at his coronation, besides many other causes. If, therefore, the Pope should attempt anything against the king by process, or other matters in deed, the king, with all his subjects, should, with all their force and power, resist the same".

Wicliffe coaches Parliament

Thus far had England, in the middle of the fourteenth century, advanced on the road to the Reformation. Urban had put the matter in unmistakable light. In demanding payment of a thousand marks annually, he translated, as we say, the theory of the temporal supremacy into a palpable fact. The theory might have passed a little longer without question, had it not been put into this ungracious form. The halo which encompassed the Papal fabric during the Middle Ages began to wane, and men took courage to criticize a system whose immense prestige had blinded them hitherto.

And Wicliffe as teacher of the barons and commons, had propounded these doctrines from his chair in Oxford before they were proclaimed by the assembled estates of the realm. But for him the demand of Urban might have met a different reception. The firm attitude assumed effectually extinguished the hopes of the Vatican, and rid England ever after of all such irritating and insolent demands.

The Pope did have a supporter in England, though not in Parliament. A monk, whose name has not come down to us, stood forward to demonstrate the righteousness of the claim of Urban V. This controversialist laid down the fundamental proposition that, as vicar of Christ, the Pope is the feudal superior of monarchs, and the lord paramount of their kingdoms. Thence he deduced the following conclusions: - that all sovereigns owe him obedience and tribute; that vassalage was specially due from the English monarch in consequence of the surrender of the kingdom to the Pope by John; that Edward had clearly forfeited his throne by the non-payment of the annual tribute; and, in fine, that all ecclesiastics, regulars and seculars, were exempt from the civil jurisdiction, and under no obligation to obey the citation or answer before the tribunal of the magistrate. Singling out Wicliffe by name, the monk challenged him to disprove the propositions he had advanced.

The King's peculiar clerk

Wicliffe took up the challenge despite having a cause pending in the Vatican at that very moment. If he vanquished the Pope in England, how easy would it be for the Pope to vanquish him at Rome! Wicliffe did not conceal from himself this and other greater perils, but nevertheless stepped into the arena. He opened debate styling himself "the king's peculiar clerk". We infer from this that the royal eye had already lighted upon his erudition and talents, and that one of the royal chaplaincies had been conferred upon him. Wicliffe's conducted matters with great moderation, displaying courage, prudence and wisdom. He stated simply reasonable objections to the pope's temporal power - the natural rights of men, the laws of the realm of England, and the precepts of Holy Writ. "Already a third and more of England is in the hands of the Pope. There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is king or Urban is king. We make our choice. We accept Edward of England and refuse Urban of Rome". Thus it was from his bow the arrow was shot by which the temporal power of the Papacy in England was wounded. He elevated matters from a dispute between himself and a monk to a lofty controversy between the King of England and the Pontiff of Rome.

England's stand

Wicliffe's service to England was very great. The power that sought to reduce the whole earth to vassalage was being challenged. If England should bow herself before the Papal chair, and the victor of Crecy do homage to Urban for his crown, what monarch could hope to stand erect, and what nation could expect to rescue its independence from the grasp of the tiara? The submission of England would bring such an accession of prestige and strength to the Papacy, that the days of Innocent III. would return, and a tempest of excommunications and interdicts would again lower over every throne, and darken the sky of every kingdom, as during the reign of the mightiest of the Papal chiefs. The crisis was truly a great one. It was now to be seen whether the tide was to advance or to go back.

Wicliffe the real champion

The decision of England determined that the waters of Papal tyranny should henceforth recede, and every nation hailed the result with joy as a victory won for itself. To England the benefits which accrued from this conflict, were lasting as well as great. The fruits reaped from the great battles of Crecy and Poitiers have long since disappeared; but as regards this victory won over Urban V, England enjoys at this very hour the benefits resulting from it. But it must not be forgotten that, though Edward III and his Parliament occupied the foreground, the real champion in this battle was Wicliffe. Wicliffe did lose his wardenship of Canterbury Hall, to which he had been originally appointed by the founder, and from which he had been extruded by Romanist Archbishop Lingham. His appeal to the Pope in 1367 was lost in 1370 so Langham's monks retook sole possession of Canterbury College. Lose his wardenship Wicliffe may, but far more importantly he had contributed enormously to the saving of the independence of his country. In winning this fight he had done more for England than if he had conquered on many battle-fields. But he had yet greater services to render to his land, and even greater penalties to pay for his patriotism. Soon after these events he took his degree of Doctor in Divinity - a distinction more rare in those days than in ours. The chair of theology to which he was now raised, extended the circle of his influence, and paved the way for the fulfilment of his great mission. From this time onwards Wicliffe began to be regarded as the centre of a new age.

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

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