Chapter 1: The Martyrdom of John Wycliff (1324-84), by Philip George

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 1: The Martyrdom of John Wycliff (1324-84), by Philip George

Political, Economic and the Ecclesiastical Context

Wycliff was born in about 1324. The Pope was then living in Avignon, which placed him under the domination of the king of France. England being in a state of chronic hostility to France, Wycliff was naturally not unwilling to take an anti-papal attitude. The Avignon papacy created so much unrest in Ecclesiastical circles and in later years, the still more unsettling Great schism. Also at this time England suffered the ravages of the Black Death (1343-80). This was a kind of bubic plague, brought from China and India along the trade route. It was extremely contagious. Those whom it attacked died within a matter of hours and there was no known remedy for it. Not a country of Europe escaped from it. The total effect of this sudden sweeping pestilence was, that in a matter of less than two years, it destroyed some four million people in western Europe. (Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church, London [N.d], p.125.) This Black death had made labor scarce in England and the Serfs were demanding more and more from their lords. A period of unrest followed as the peasants strove often with great violence for their freedom. (Christopher O. Mahony, Church History, Alwaye: Pontifical Institute of Theology and Philosophy, p. 105.)

His Life and Work

Little is known of his early life except that he gained a reputation at Oxford of being a brilliant student and was even called ‘the greatest scholar of his time’. He soon distinguished himself for his zeal for the welfare of the Church. He was distressed at the sad condition of the Church of his day, the money shown by so many of the clergy from the pope himself to parish priest and he had been influenced by Franciscan spirituals and similar groups. In 1374, he became Rector of Lutterworth in England and from that time, until his death in 1384, he divided his time between his academic work and his parish.

There are two major factors that led England to rehearse Reformation. The first major irritant was the flow of wealth from English Church to Pope i.e. to France and this money was spent for the war against England. In 1333 Edward III refused to pay any longer the tributes that King John of England had pledged to Popes in 1213, in 1351 statute of provisions sought to end papal control over the personnel or revenues of English beneficence. Wycliff supported this view. Thus he gained the support and the protection from John of Gaunt who was the fourth son of Edward III and became the most powerful man in the kingdom. The secondary cause of the reformation in England was the low moral life of the clergy. Wycliff became a noted teacher at Oxford, where he made a great reputation as a preacher and as a theologian. His teaching mainly consisted of three elements: first, the doctrine of lordship, secondly, the supreme authority of the scriptures, and thirdly his conception of the church and the Eucharist. (Will Durant, The Reformation, New York, Simon & Schuster 1957, p.30.)

The Doctrine of Lordship

His doctrine of lordship was contained in two Latin treatises De Domino Divine (Concerning Divine Lordship) and De Civili Domine (Concerning Civil Lordship). His theory is all lordship, whether in the sense of political authority or of individual property, derives ultimately from God. It is a trust from God. (H.L. Lefever, The History of Reformation, Madras: CLS, 1954, p. 25.) Abuse and authority or possession is a breach and a divine trust. Obviously God’s trustees must be honorable men and therefore he argues that the dishonor proves a man unworthy of God’s trust.

The righteous man thus must be said to be the lord of all things which are to be held in common by those who are "in grace as in the case of Christ and His disciples and the early Church after his ascension. On the other hand, the unrighteous man who is in mortal sin has no right to possess anything. His lordship is invalidated by his sin, therefore can’t be said to possess it. (James Mackinnon, The Origins of the Reformation, London: Longmans, 1939, p. 84.) However, Wycliff was not so careful in his remarks concerning the Church. He maintained that if Church misuses its property then it is left to the state to confiscate all its property, if necessary diverting them to the maintenance of the poor and to other good objects. (H.C. Lefever, p.26.) This teaching aroused bitter opposition of the clergy. Wycliff was sum-moned to appear before an ecclesiastical court and it was only due to the forceful protection of the Duke of Lanchester, he escaped condemnation. The Pope issued a number of bulls against him demanding his arrest and committal to prison. But John of Gaunt from motive of self interest, also the enemy of the hierarchy, was powerful enough to afford his protection to Wycliff. He was ready to do so in view of the fact that the persecutors of Wycliff were his political enemies.

Supreme Authority of the Scripture

Wycliff’s acceptance of the scriptures as the rule of life finds expression in nearly all his works but especially in his treatise De Veritate Sacrae Scriptures (on the truth of the Holy Scriptures) published in 1378, the year in which the papacy ranked to its lowest ebb, with the ‘Great schism’, when a new pope was elected in Rome in opposition to the pope of Avignon. This event sharpened his antagonism to the papal system and led him still further to seek the basis of all authority in the Bible. ‘Holy Scriptures’ he said, is the highest authority for every Christian and the standard of faith and all human perfection. The Bible is unique above all the tradition, and decrees of the Church and it is absolutely and literally true, because it is divinely inspired knowledge of the word of God which alone was necessary to salvation and not to know scripture is not to know Christ. (Ibid., p. 27) The reading and preaching of the word of God are therefore more important than any sacrament. The Bible needs the accessories such as masses, fasting, prayers to saints, tradition and papal decretals to make its message valid. (Gordon Leff, Heresy in the middle ages, Vol. II, [New York: Barnes and Nobles Inc. 1969], p. 519.)In this Wycliff stated clearly the later reformation principle of the supreme authority of scripture and as a consequence of this, he sought to make the knowledge of the scripture more general. Though ignorant himself of both Greek and Hebrew, he collected a number of Latin versions of the Bible and with the aid of commentaries by the Fathers and other scholars sought to prepare an accurate English version. This further alienated him from the papacy and he was accused of Vulgarizing the gospel which Christ gave only to clergy and doctors of the Church.

Church and the Sacraments

His appeal to the scripture of the Holy authority led him to denounce all those sacraments and other institutions which had no scriptural warrant. On this basis, he disapproved of penance and confession (ear- whispering), but most of all, he denounced the mass, the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

Under the influence of Augustine, he disapproved the visible Church in the name of invisible Church. He said that Church as a body of predestined existed independently of space and time, it owed allegiance to no one except to Christ, who according to him is the chief Abbot. (Roysdale G. William, History of Christianity in the Middle Ages, Vol. II, [New York: Abingdon Press, 1960], p. 519.)

He created an alliance between individual and the apostolic tradition against present hierarchy with far reaching results. He said the first duty of the priest as Christ’s disciple was to understand and to expound it. This was more important than sacrament or lord’s prayer. (Ibid.) Since God eternally decided who was to be saved and who was to be damned, so nothing remained to agency of intermediaries over prayer. He charged against the authority of pope, cardinals, Church hierarchy and against the material wealth and corruption of the Church. He was even considered as a militant moralist who was prepared to use force to reform the Church. He rejected the pope as anti-Christ. He blamed Constantine for inaugurating the papacy. He exalted the supremacy of king over all mankind, His power fashioned in the image of Christ; the Pope also was subject to the royal power. He denounced the doctrine of Transubstantiation. According to this view, the bread and wine after the prayer of consecration became the body and blood of Christ. This doctrine was considered as the pillar of medieval priestly power and sacramental teaching.

Wycliff is not very clear in his explanation on Eucharist. In the year 1381 Wycliff published twelve conclusions against the doctrine of Transubstantiation. This doctrine is based on a distinction which the scholastic philosophers drew between the ‘substance’ of essence of a thing and its accident’s, its material form and qualities which were not found in the bible; therefore he challenged them and it was at this period that the authorities began their serious attempts to suppress his teaching as heretical. (Margaret Dearnesty, A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1800, [London: Methu Ltd., 1973], p. 226.) The theological implication of the view would be to deny that it is not at all possible for the sacramental bread to lose its ‘bread nature’ (substance and yet for the qualities accident) shape, taste, color, etc. to remain. It would be impossible on this view for the substance to be transferred to a completely different group of qualities, as when the substance of the Lord’s body is said to be transformed to the qualities of bread. (Lefever. op.cit. p. 28.) He argued that it is blasphemy of associating Christ’s body with corruptibility of host’s physical elements and so subject him to any physical indignities which it might undergo. (Lefever, Ibid., p. 552.)

Wycliff denied that the accidents of the bread could remain without the substance or essence of bread and since the accidents manifestly do remain, he was positive that the bread remained bread. On the other hand, he hesitated to say that the consecrated bread was ‘mere symbol’ of the body of Christ. (Ibid., p. 28.)

So he said that the bread and wine are ‘active symbols’, really conveying what their symbolism are, without losing their original material nature. In the consecrated elements, he said Christ is really present and, they really become that which they ‘habitually represent’. So, he seems to have held a view very similar to that later view brought forward by Luther and generally known as ‘Consubstantiation’, the doctrine that Christ is present in, with and under the element. Luther, however, held that the body and blood of Christ are literally and materially present alone with the element, whereas Wycliff could get no further than rather ambiguous expression ‘this sacrament is the body of Christ in the form of bread’. (Ibid., p. 29.) The king and the university condemned this doctrine and requested him not in preach this doctrine, but he refused to comply and instead published a lengthy treatise in defense and amplification of his teaching. Thus he lost the support of the king and the noblemen.

The Lollards and the Peasants revolt

Wycliff’s teachings created much disturbance in England. From 1377 onward he began to send out itinerant preachers of his views all over the country These people known as Lollards, preached chiefly evangelical poverty against the rich, luxurious life of many churchmen. (Christopher O’Mahony, op.cit., p.32.) Since it was a time of much unrest among the underprivileged, many thought that this preaching contributed to the peasant uprising of 1381. On the occasion of a new government tax, thousands of peasants marched on London from all over the country and burned the palace of the duke of Lancaster and also murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wycliff himself supported the peasants with a pamphlet called ‘peasants and lords’. Since Wycliff had now lost the support of highly placed personages, the new Archbishop of Canterbury took strong action against his doctrine in a special national synod in l382. (Ibid., p. 33.) However he was allowed to end his days in peaceful retirements at his Lutterworth presbytery. When Henry IV became the king of England, he suppressed the Lollards. So the Wyclifites had to transfer their activities to Bohemia where they were known as Hussites. (James Mackinnon, op.cit., p. 184.)


Wycliff’s life is a great lesson to us. Usually people treat Reformation as one of the past historical events. But it is not so. It is an ongoing process and has a constant impact upon the people of the present. Today’s Church is almost packed with so many evils, like caste discrimination, poverty, racism, etc. In this situation we must rethink what is Reformation in relation to the existing unjust social order. So we need today people like Wycliff in our society.

Wycliff’s life is very much an inspiration to people in our society. Reformation is a fact to be accepted, not a notion to be discussed. We should also restate what is theology and what is theologizing. If theology is to be vital, it has to be responsive to the social, political, economic and cultural realities which are ‘real’ to that society. In order to do so, we are expected even to reconstruct some of the theological concepts in relation to, but different from traditional understanding of theology as we have seen in the life of Wycliff. The chief subject of all our theological thinking and decision making are people for whom I believe, Jesus came to demonstrate his self-giving love over against the pentateuchal law.

Wycliff is considered as the morning star of Reformation. He initiated and shown forth a bright light of moral and doctrinal reform of the church and society in a time of darkness. Many of the ideas of the later Reformers were reflected in these predecessors. Their national consciousness and their preaching made a great impact among the common people who faithfully carried their reformers’ work throughout the following centuries.

As in Wycliff’s time in the present context, we have to reform the theology and theologizing. We have to make contextual Theology. As per the context, several theologies had emerged: Black theology, Liberation theology, Minjung theology, Feminist theology and Dalit theology are some of the emerging theologies.

In India we have inherited western theology which imposes white theology. How is the bible relevant to us in a pluralistic context of India? How is the church responding to caste system? These are some important issues to deal with.

The New Economic Policy of India has badly affected the poor people. In the New Economic Policy, only 10% of the elites are the real beneficiaries. Recent price hike in the petroleum goods hit the poor people very badly. So the church and the leaders have to conscientise common people about the bad effects of all these things. So we need to reform the present unjust social order. Since the members of the church are mostly the oppressed, marginalized dalits, the Church has to safeguard the interests of the poor and create an awareness among them of their rights and obligation.



Brinton, Henry, The Context of the Reformation, London: Hutchinson Education Ltd.. 1968.

Cannon William Roysdale, History of Christianity in the Middle Ages, New York Abingdon Press, 1960.

Durant, Will. The Reformation, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957.

Fasber, K, ‘Catherine of Siena’ in New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. III, New York McGraw Hill Book Co., 1966.

Hughes, Philip. A Popular History of the Catholic Church, London: Surns and Babel; n.d.

Lefever, H.C., The History of Reformation, Madras: CLS, 1984. Leff Gordon. Heresy in the Litter Middle Ages, Vol. II, New York: Barnes and Nobles Inc., 1967.

Macdonald Shirley, They Chose to Belong, Melbourne: Dove Communication Ltd., 1978.

Mackinnon James, The Origins of Reformation, London: Longmans, 1939.

McNeil John, T., Makers of Christian Tradition, New York: Harper & Row, 1935.

O. Mahony Christopher, Church History, Alwaye: Pontifical Institute of Theology and Philosophy. 1974.