The English theologian and reformer John Wyclif (c. 1330-1384) was the most influential ecclesiastical writer in England in the second half of the 14th century.
John Wyclif's denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, his strong belief in the sole authority of Scripture, and his views on the right of the laity to confiscate Church property brought him under attack by the ecclesiastical leaders of his day. His ideas, however, had an important shaping effect on the Lollard movement in England and on the Hussite movement in Bohemia, and his career and ideas anticipated the work of later English reformers in the 16th century.
During the second half of the 14th century a series of changes took place in England and elsewhere that altered the nature of English society in a manner that was to last for several centuries. In spite of occasional lulls, England was involved throughout this period in a war with France that ultimately resulted in the loss of English territory on the Continent. The war also hastened a growing separation between the English Church and the papacy, which from 1305 until 1378 was resident at Avignon and French-controlled and which after 1378 was split into two rival factions that further eroded respect for the authority and sanctity of the Holy Office. Both in literature and in theological writings many doctrines and practices of the Roman Church were coming under attack, with the result that England increasingly moved in the direction of nonconformity. The political and social discontent of the period, one evidence of which was the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, increased the authority of Parliament as the forum for settling disputes and for altering governmental policy. England also experienced in this period a revival in vernacular literature, in which the leading figure was Geoffrey Chaucer.
Little is known of the life of Wyclif before he arrived at Oxford, where he remained throughout most of his life. It seems most probable that he derived from a family of the lesser gentry in the area around Richmond. In 1356 he completed his arts degree at Oxford as a junior fellow of Merton College. Soon he shifted his affiliation to Balliol College, where, before 1360, he was elected master. During the summer of 1361 Wyclif resigned that position to accept the richest benefice within the gift of that college, namely, the rectorship of Fillingham In Lincolnshire. On the basis of that income he rented rooms in Queen's College and pursued his theological degree, which he completed in 1372. Although eventually critical of pluralism and absenteeism, as a student he held more than one benefice at a time and was not always conscientious enough to pay a vicar to perform the services for which he was receiving the revenues.
In 1372 Wyclif entered the service of the King as a theological adviser and diplomat. The year before, he had attended Parliament in the company of two Austin friars, who argued there the thesis that dominion, or the right to exercise authority and to own property, was granted by God only to those in a state of grace. Sinful clergy might, therefore, be justifiably deprived of their property by a pious layman on behalf of the common good. This concept, known as the lordship of grace, suited the government and the lay members of Parliament who were attempting to raise funds in support of the war against France and who were having difficulty convincing the clergy to undertake half of those expenses.
Wyclif made this issue his own, and in a series of treatises during the next few years he argued for the validity of expropriation by the government of a certain portion of the Church's wealth. His attack was directed primarily against the monastic establishments in England rather than against the mendicant friars who, at least in theory, supported the idea of apostolic poverty and directly served the needs of the people. Although he may have been sincere in his campaign, his antagonism toward the monks resulted in part from his dismissal from the wardenship of Canterbury College at Oxford in 1371 in favor of the monk Henry Woodhall. Moreover, Wyclif's arguments in favor of disendowment brought him opportunities and rewards that he had been slow to acquire before, such as the rectorship of Lutterworth, given to him by the King in 1374 and upon which he eventually retired, and an appointment in the same year to a commission that met with papal delegates in Bruges over the question of papal taxes and the right of filling vacancies in major English sees and abbacies.
In 1376 Wyclif became closely associated with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a younger son of the ailing king, Edward III. During the last years of Edward's reign and the minority of Edward's grandson, Richard II, Gaunt exercised control of the royal government. Until 1378 Wyclif was protected by Gaunt from being disciplined by Church leaders as a result of his treatises attacking ecclesiastical possessioners. When, in 1377, Wyclif was called to St. Paul's Cathedral by William Courtenay, Bishop of London, to answer for his writings, Gaunt and his closest associates were there on Wyclif's behalf, hoping to use the occasion to propagandize the cause of taxing the Church. The bishop was frustrated in his attempt to convict Wyclif, but the incident increased the animosity that the people of London held for Gaunt and for his party. The next year Wyclif was summoned to Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, to answer charges of false teaching. Again the royal family intervened, and Wyclif was freed with the warning to cease teaching questionable doctrines.
The year 1378 was a crucial date in the life of Wyclif. The return of the papacy to Rome and the papal election that year resulted in the election of two popes, an Italian, resident at Rome, and a Frenchman, resident at Avignon. While the papal schism weakened the position of the papacy in taking action against Wyclif in England, it also permitted a reconciliation between the English government and the Italian pope, thus decreasing the usefulness of Wyclif. He was encouraged by his royal protectors to put down his pen and to return to the academic debates of Oxford.
The cause of reform, however, had captured Wyclif's imagination, and he did not cease to write and publicize his views. Beginning in 1378 he wrote a series of polemical and doctrine treatises that slowly carried him in the direction of heresy. The first work was On the Truth of Holy Scripture; it was a harmless and somewhat incoherent defense of the inspiration of Scripture and of the importance of its literal meaning. In another work, On the Church, Wyclif restricted true membership in the Church to the elect, or predestined, a group known only to God and which might not include the pope. Since one could not alter this judgment of God, prayers for the dead were useless. In his works On the Office of King and On the Power of the Pope he raised temporal power above that of the Church and tried to demonstrate that the authority claimed by the papacy had no foundation in Scripture or the life of the early Church.
The work of Wyclif that most disturbed his contemporaries was On the Eucharist, composed in 1379. In this book he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation and the idea of Christ's real, or corporeal, presence in the Eucharist after consecration. According to Wyclif, the validity of the sacrament depended upon the sanctity of the one receiving it, not on the consecration of the priest.
Wyclif's attack on such a firmly established doctrine of the Church of his day and his simultaneous attack on the mendicant friars left him almost totally without supporters. Early in 1381 he was condemned by the chancellor of Oxford for teaching heretical doctrine on the Eucharist and prohibited from further expressing his views. Ignoring the advice of friends to remain silent, Wyclif published a defense of his condemned opinions under the title Confession and, with that parting shot, left Oxford for his rectorship at Lutterworth, where he remained until his death. In 1382 Wyclif composed his last work, the Trialogue, in which he summarized many of his earlier opinions and called for a vernacular translation of the Bible for the use of uneducated priests and the literate laity.
The best introduction to the life and thought of Wyclif is Kenneth B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (1952). Recent works include Edward A. Block, John Wyclif: Radical Dissenter (1962), and John Stacey, John Wyclif and Reform (1964). For background information consult Herbert B. Workman, John Wyclif: A Study of the English Medieval Church (1926), and George M. Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe (repr. 1963).