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Apostles, as recorded in the Bible, more than the doctrines and decrees of popes and councils. He was chaplain to the king, and gained converts to his views from the royal household. By his own exertions and the aid of the numerous itinerating priests, whom he educated and sent about the country to preach his doctrines, he was so successful in spreading his sentiments, that, according to Knighton, a contemporary historian, every second man in the kingdom had become a convert.
It would seem ungracious in us to complain of the editors of Wycliffe's Bible for not giving, as an introduction to that work, a full and authentic memoir of the author's life. The Christian world owe a great debt of gratitude to these learned and indefatigable scholars for what they have actually accomplished. It was a long and laborious work to collate the various manuscripts, and carry through the press a publication of this magnitude. They assure us that they have spared no pains to render these volumes complete. A considerable portion of their time during twenty-two years has been spent in accomplishing their task. Of course they must be much interested in the life of Wycliffe, and they are, no doubt, abundantly qualified by their investigations to write a better biography of him than any that has hitherto appeared. We hope they may yet find time and inclination to prepare such a work. The reader naturally wishes to see, in connection with this important version of the Bible, something more concerning the author of it than the very imperfect account that is contained in a note to the Preface.
In the year 1324, or about that time, according to the conjectures of all his biographers, Wycliffe was born, in the parish bearing the same name, in Yorkshire, England. Nothing is known of his childhood or early youth. In the year 1340, at the age of sixteen years, he was admitted as a student at Queen's College, Oxford, which was then just founded. He was soon transferred from this to Merton College of the same University, which, from having been longer established, possessed superior advantages, and at that time could boast
The name is spelt in nearly twenty different ways. We have fol. lowed the editors of the Bible in this matter. Lewis, Baber, and Le Bas spell it Wiclif.
of having connected with it some of the most learned men of the age. The college students at that period devoted most of their time to the study of scholastic theology and civil law. The works of Aristotle were held in the highest esteem, and regarded as the great avenue to all knowledge. The logic and metaphysics of this master were studied by the aid of Latin interpreters, as the Greek language was then almost entirely neglected in England. Wycliffe took high rank as a scholar. Even the Roman Catholic historians confess that he was a subtile disputant, and second to none in philosophy. He did not, however, confine himself to the prescribed studies. He carefully read the writings of the fathers, and became an admirer and disciple of St. Augustine. Although the Sacred Scriptures were then almost entirely neglected by the ecclesiastics, Wycliffe devoted much time to their study.
In the year 1356 there appeared a tract entitled “ The Last Age of the Church.” This has generally been ascribed to Wycliffe, and is considered his first production. As the authorship is doubtful, and the tract itself unimportant, we pass it over without more particular notice.*
About the year 1360 Wycliffe appears as a bold and successful assertor of the rights of the University against the Mendicant Friars, who had become so numerous and powerful at Oxford as almost to threaten the entire ruin of the University. They had by flattering but false pretences induced a large number of the young students who resorted to Oxford to be educated to leave the University for the monastery; and so powerful had been their influence that, it is said, the number of students was reduced from thirty thousand to six thousand. In testimony of their gratitude for his services, and in compliment to his talents, the University made him, in 1361, Master of Baliol College, and presented him to the living of Fillingham, which he afterwards exchanged for that of Ludgershall.
Four years after, in 1365, he was appointed Warden of Canterbury Hall in Oxford by Archbishop Islip, its
* This little tract was elegantly printed in black letter, at Dublin, 1840, edited, with notes, by Rev J. H. Todd, D. D.
founder. The diploma conferring this honor declares Wycliffe to be “a person in whom his Grace' very much confided, and on whom he had fixed his eyes for that place on account of the honesty of his life, his laudable conversation, and knowledge of letters." Islip died the next year, and Bishop Langham was raised to the See of Canterbury He was a monk, and was strongly attached to the religious orders which Wycliffe had so boldly censured. His dislike to the Reformer was so great, that he deprived him of the office which the founder of the college had conferred upon him. An appeal was made to the court of Rome; but, after a delay of four years, the Pope confirmed the action of the Archbishop. This decision may have been influenced somewhat by the part which Wycliffe had taken in a controversy between the Pope and King Edward the Third. He had powerfully defended the rights of England against the arrogant demands of Rome.
In 1372 Wycliffe was appointed, by the Chancellor and Regents of the University, Professor of Divinity. This was the greatest honor which they could offer him, and it shows conclusively the high estimation in which he was then held by the learned authorities of that ancient and renowned institution.
The new professor was soon called from the legitimate duties of his office again to take part in the controversy, which had been renewed, between the court of Rome and the English sovereign. The Pope had demanded the annual payment of one thousand marks as tribute money, and as an acknowledgment that the sovereignty of England was under the authority of the successor of St. Peter. Edward the Third had for several years declined making these payments. A demand was now urged that all arrearages should be paid, and the specified sum be annually transmitted. In case of refusal, it was threatened that his Majesty would be cited to appear and answer for such neglect in the court of the Sovereign Pontiff, who, it was said, had become his civil no less than his religious superior. The king submitted the question to the decision of Parliament, and it was resolved that the claim should be resisted by force if necessary. Wycliffe wrote with great ability on the subject, maintaining the rights of England against the
demands of Rome. Another matter in dispute between these two powers related to the bestowment of certain benefices in England. The king found it necessary or expedient, in 1374, to send an embassy to the Pope to treat concerning the liberties of the Church in England ; and Wycliffe, who was at that time one of the royal chaplains, was appointed, in connection with the Bishop of Bangor and others, for that purpose. tiations were conducted at Bruges, and required the absence of Wycliffe from England for about two years. But little practical benefit resulted from the negotiations; but our Reformer had a good opportunity, whilst engaged in this embassy, to study the policy of the Pontiff. He returned to England more thoroughly convinced than before of the gross corruption of the Church of Rome. Whilst absent on his mission he received several marks of the royal favor, the most important of which was the presentation to the rectory of Lutterworth, a living which he retained till his death. On his return from the Continent, his time was divided between the duties of pastor and those of professor. His zeal in exposing the errors and vices of the corrupt Church of Rome was now considerably increased, and his opportunities for disseminating his views were very great.
At Oxford he lectured with such ability and power, that “almost every thing he said was regarded as an oracle," * and he was “by the common sort of divines esteemed little less than a god.” † Even Knighton, his bitter enemy, was obliged to acknowledge his great learning and talents, and to declare that “ he was the most eminent doctor in those days.” As a preacher and pastor in his parish at Lutterworth, he was as faithful and earnest as in his duties at the University. He preached not only on Sundays, but also on the several festivals of the Church. A portion of each day was devoted to visiting the sick and relieving the wants of the destitute. There is good reason to suppose that he was the model from which his friend and follower, Geoffrey Chaucer, depicted the character of The Good Parson.
* Lewis, History of Translations, etc., p. 17. | Lewis, Life of Wycliffe, p. 2.
“A better preest I trowe that nowher non is.
He taught, but first he followed it himselve." * Wycliffe's doctrines gave much offence to the apologists of the Romish Church, especially the clergy. He was summoned to appear before a convocation which met at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, in February, 1377, to answer for his heresies. On the day appointed for his appearance he went attended by the Duke of Lancaster and Lord Percey, two personages of high authority at that time, who were determined that no harm should befall him. An angry altercation arose between them and the Bishop of London, and the assembly broke up without taking any further notice of the Reformer and his alleged errors.
The discomfited and enraged ecclesiastics were not willing to let the matter rest here. Complaints were made to the Pope against Wycliffe as a dangerous heretic, and the Pontiff issued his mandate in May, 1377, that he should be arrested and kept in safety till further orders from his Holiness. Bulls to this effect were sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. A special messenger was despatched to the University of Oxford, with an order that they should give up their professor of divinity. The king received a letter from the Pope requesting him to lend his assistance in the prosecution. These bulls, although all bearing date in May, 1377, were for some cause detained till November. When they were received, it was with very different feelings by the different parties to whom they were addressed. The Bishops, who were probably the instigators of the proceedings, acted with alacrity in the matter. But the University was so indignant, that at first it was debated whether the messenger should be received, or dismissed with disgrace. Wycliffe, however, concluded to appear before his accusers and answer them face to face. In January, 1378, he attended the synod which had assembled for the purpose at Lambeth, and handed in a paper containing a statement and explanation of his opinions. What course the sy nod
* Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 526 – 531.