Condemnation of John Wyclif

Reformer John Wyclif was condemned for attacking English Church authority and advocating a separation of church and state. A number of theological reforms that he propounded were later adopted by the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

John Wyclif (sometimes spelled Wycliffe) was an English ecclesiastic and statesman of the first order. His early life, partly spent preparing himself at Oxford for an ecclesiastical career, saw England in the throes of great changes. Everywhere an air of restlessness prevailed as a result of the long and costly Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) with France, to which the Black Death (bubonic plague) added social, physical, and psychological horrors. A rising middle class caused dislocations of society, and the increasingly heavy taxation levied on England by an unsympathetic papal court at Avignon aroused national resentments. [kw]Condemnation of John Wyclif (1377-1378)
[kw]Wyclif, Condemnation of John (1377-1378)
Wyclif, John
England;1377-1378: Condemnation of John Wyclif[2930]
Government and politics;1377-1378: Condemnation of John Wyclif[2930]
Religion;1377-1378: Condemnation of John Wyclif[2930]
Literature;1377-1378: Condemnation of John Wyclif[2930]
Wyclif, John
John of Gaunt
Simon of Sudbury
Ockham, William of
Marsilius of Padua

Wyclif, quick in mind, tenacious of memory, and profound in religious sympathies, hungered for security in a cleansed Church. He carried out his campaign for a reformed Church Church reform;England both as an academic and as a popular preacher. He was ordained a priest in 1355 and established himself as a popular preacher. In 1374, the Crown presented him with the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire that would serve as the base of his reform movement until his death. Additionally, however, he continued his academic training and accepted a position a Oxford where he lectured with few interruptions from 1360 to 1381. He served as a member of the famous Good Parliament and early advocated English national resistance to unjust financial claims made by the Papacy. His work, De civili dominio (on civil dominion or lordship; 1895-1904), presented the arguments that were used by the Good Parliament to resist papal claims.

John Wyclif, from a portrait in a 1581 edition of Jean de Laon’s Vrais Pourtraits des hommes illustres.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

While it is extremely difficult to trace the precise course of Wyclif’s intellectual maturation and the development of his controversial views, his impact on his contemporaries was so great that he became an intellectual institution among European liberals and reformers by the time of his death in 1384. His initial attacks on the Church focused on the abuse of Church power. Skeptical of the famous Donation of Constantine Constantine, Donation of (exposed as a fraudulent document in 1440), Wyclif was firmly against the Roman clergy possessing either secular property or office. As a close corollary, Wyclif later held that the Church ought not to interfere in the secular affairs of Christians, least of all in the affairs of Christian princes who were themselves ordained by God to their high offices. Finally, Wyclif argued that secular rulers had a moral obligation to restrain the excesses of clergymen who trafficked in secular matters, and supported the right of civil authorities to confiscate the properties of clerics that were improperly attained or legally misused. He was supported in these attacks and received political protection from John of Gaunt John of Gaunt who shared his anticlerical views.

Wyclif’s criticisms escalated following the Great Schism (1378-1417) Great Schism (1378-1417) . The French, angered by the appointment of Urban VI as pope, appointed their own pope, Clement VII Clement VII (antipope) , leading to a conflict in Church authority. Angered by the obvious political intrigue in Church politics, Wyclif gradually evolved a series of doctrines that served effectively to undermine the whole structure of the organized Church. In pamphlets and lectures, he began to attack historical papal claims and prerogatives in both the religious and the secular spheres. He questioned the time-honored concept of Petrine supremacy and the power of the pope to excommunicate, and went so far as to call the pope the Antichrist, a claim later to be reiterated by Martin Luther. The sale of indulgences he viewed as fraudulent, and he declared that there could be no justification for the hierarchy within the Church itself, much less for a differentiation between priest and layman. He also attacked such standard medieval practices as the veneration of relics, communion in one kind for the laity, pilgrimages, confession, penance, and absolution, asserting that each Christian had ultimately to be responsible for his own conduct.

Wyclif sharpened his attack on Church authority by offering sweeping doctrinal claims that stood in opposition to orthodox beliefs. He proclaimed that Scripture alone is the final authority in matters of faith. He likewise declared that each individual stands alone before God and has no need for a priest or Church to act as mediator. One of the most radical views was his denial of transubstantiation Transubstantiation , the belief that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the celebration of the Eucharist. To popularize his views, he made his most outstanding contribution to popular religion by supporting the translation of the Bible into the developing English vernacular. In 1378, he also supported the commissioning of lay preachers, the Lollards Lollards , to preach his doctrines in a simple style to the masses. Theology;England

That Wyclif was allowed to preach such doctrines at Oxford is a revealing commentary on the dissatisfaction then current in England. Only twice was Wyclif required to testify about his views; and on neither occasion was he permanently silenced. It was obvious that the authorities of Oxford were not willing to interfere with his brilliant lecturing, and the Church was also apparently hesitant to make a formal issue of his views. In 1377, however, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury Simon of Sudbury commanded Wyclif to appear before a special convocation at Saint Paul’, London. Wyclif’s supporters of all classes came out in force, and a large crowd of Londoners invaded the hall of convocation to defend him. A near riot resulted, and the proceedings were canceled.

Eventually, the pope took note of his heretical views and formally requested an inquiry into his work. In 1377, Gregory XI Gregory XI addressed letters to the archbishop of Canterbury and other dignitaries, declaring a number of points in Wyclif’s writings heretical and demanding that he be silenced. Heresy;Wyclif Wyclif was to be arrested and taken before the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, who were to conduct the inquiry into his revolutionary views. Part of the basis for the attack on Wyclif was his heavy reliance on the work of both William of Ockham William of Ockham , a realist whose views challenged some Church doctrines, and Marsilius of Padua Marsilius of Padua who had seriously attacked the right of the Church to be involved in the affairs of the secular state. For several reasons, the two prelates did not take action against the heretical Oxford don for many months. Perhaps they resented orders from a “schismatic” pope, who was suspected of being a tool of French foreign policy. Perhaps the nation was too preoccupied with the death of Edward III and preparations for the coronation of the new king. It is also possible the Wyclif’s support among many of the British intelligentsia of the period made circumspection necessary. In 1378, Wyclif was again summoned by the archbishop to London, but this time to the relative privacy of Lambeth Palace. Word again reached Wyclif’s supporters, however, and a noisy crowd quickly gathered outside the gates. The clergy present, wishing to avoid a debacle like the one they had witnessed the year before, merely recommended that Wyclif cease discussing such controversial matters in public.

Wyclif’s last moments.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The year 1381, however, marked the outbreak of the short-lived Peasants’ Revolt Peasants’ Revolt (England, 1381) and a change in Wyclif’s fortunes. While Wyclif had no direct role in the revolt, many of those involved had been influenced by Wyclif’s attack on Church authority. In response to the revolt, political and religious conservatives banded together, and Wyclif lost much of his royal political support. Wyclif was again summoned by the archbishop to London to the Blackfriar’s convent for a hearing. The new archbishop was William of Courtenay, a longtime opponent of Wyclif. Despite continued support from the Oxford faculty for Wyclif as a person, the faculty found it necessary to bow to Church pressure. Although Wyclif was not arrested, he was required to withdraw from Oxford and from public preaching. He retired to Lutterworth, where he engaged in an intense period of pamphlet and treatise writing and from which he continued to direct the Lollard movement. After the Council of Constance (1414-1418) Constance, Council of (1414-1418) condemned 251 articles of his writings in 1415, Wyclif’s body was disinterred, burned, and scattered on unconsecrated ground.


Wyclif’s movement was nothing short of a revolution in the medieval Church. He greatly influenced Jan Hus in Bohemia, who also spoke out for radical Church reform, and his views merely went underground for a time to reappear later in the Reformation.

Further Reading

  • Hall, Louis Brewer. The Perilous Vision of John Wyclif. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983. A comprehensive biography of Wyclif that is grounded solidly in the political and social unrest of the time.
  • Hudson, Anne. The Premature Reformation: Wycliffe Texts and Lollard History. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. A comprehensive account of the political and theological views of Wyclif and the Lollards, with a discussion of their influence on the later Reformation.
  • Hudson, Anne, and Michael Wilks, eds. From Ockham to Wyclif. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1987. Includes essays on Wyclif and locates his work in the context of early Church reformers.
  • Lahey, Stephen E. Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Part of the Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought series. Includes a bibliography and index.
  • Lechler, Gotthard. John Wycliffe and His English Precursors. London: Religious Tract Society, 1878. This work remains a standard for all Wyclif research.
  • Stacey, John. John Wyclif and Reform. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964. A good study of Wyclif’s influence on Church reform in England and on the later Reformation.