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On this day in history in 1384, died John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe was a theologian who conceived the basic tenets of Protestantism, a century before the birth of Martin Luther.

Wycliffe was born about the year 1330 at Hipswell, Yorkshire, to a farming family who owned tracts of land, centred in the town of Wycliffe-on-Tees. During his rudimentary early education, it was discovered that the young Wycliffe had more of a leaning towards scholarship than the family business of husbandry, and therefore he was sent to the varsity, where it was hoped he could pick up enough knowledge to earn a living as a priest.

Wycliffe learned his theology at Oxford. He was a quick learner, an eager interpreter of scripture and was apt at theological debate. By 1360, he had risen to master of Balliol College, but made no real progress within the church, as he was not as adept at gaining profitable employment as he was at the study of scripture. He began to become disillusioned with the church, criticising its focus on wealth and its disregard of its duty of pastoral care.

This drew Wycliffe to the attention of the king, Edward III, who, in 1374, employed him to create arguments against the church, in his power struggle with the pope. Edward was disgruntled because Pope Urban V was taxing the English clergy, and obliging them to send sums of money to him. Edward thought that this drain on the nation’s monetary resources badly disrupted the English economy, especially the Royal monopoly of the wool trade.

Wycliffe contended forcibly on the king’s behalf. He baffled the papal legates with arguments on the ideals of Christian poverty, and that the church should not concern itself with worldly matters. He further pointed out that the king had all the armed men in the realm under his control, and that if the pope should try to enforce tax collection, he would be in for a big shock when his legates came up against the king’s knights. This argument struck with more force than the line against ecclesiastical poverty, and obliged the papal delegates to drop their claim.

Flushed with success, Wycliffe started writing and publishing articles attacking the church. He was encouraged by Edward’s younger son, John of Gaunt, who effectively ran the government in Edward III’s old age, and later when his successor, Richard II, was a minor. Wycliffe argued that the church should give up all its wealth and poverty, and hand them over to the Crown, and just concentrate on spiritual matters. He argued that he bible should be translated into English so that people could read it themselves, without a priest to translate. He said that some of the clergy’s teachings were falsehoods, particularly the doctrine of transubstantiation, which declared that a priest had power to miraculously transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the physical body of Christ. In short, Wycliffe had invented the concept of Protestantism, two centuries before Luther.

Wycliffe attracted a great following. His fans were usually country gentlemen, who liked the idea of reading scripture in English, translated by Wycliffe. His followers were known as the Lollards, who banded together in a revolutionary movement, and would have created a premature Reformation, had not John of Gaunt lost faith in his protégé.

In 1381, there took place the great Peasants’ Revolt, in which the revolting peasants burnt down Gaunt’s palace, the Savoy, and attacked his favourite college, Corpus Christi, Cambridge. Gaunt lost his nerve, believing that Wycliffe’s attacks on the church had precipitated a general feeling of discontent against authority in general and him in particular. Gaunt acted to put down Wycliffe’s propaganda, allowing the bishops to bring charges of heresy against him.

The charges came too late. In 1382, Wycliffe suffered a stroke and had great difficulty writing and publishing his material. In 1384, he suffered a second stroke and was incapacitated. He died on 31st December 1384, but the Lollards continued to adhere to his beliefs for 20 years or so until eventually the movement was put down. In the early Sixteenth Century, Wycliffe’s ideas were resurrected wholesale by a German monk called Martin Luther, who used them to protest against the church and so created the concept of Protestantism.

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