The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The voice of John Wyclif

Category: 14th century

In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was at one time a mighty and magnificent institution. It covered the whole of the Christian world with such an organisation that no one could be unaware of its existence. It controlled the life of every human being from the moment of birth to the last dying breath. It determined both his actions and his thoughts.

But during the Middle Ages, there rose for a short period a voice successful in making itself heard in its attack upon such power and authority. It was the voice of the Yorkshire-man, John Wyclif, born in 1320 and Master of Balliol College,Oxford, in 1360.

His attack was vigorous and certain, ruthlessly exposing the weaknesses of the religious organisation. First, he opposed pilgrimages, in which people travelled to worship highly doubtful relics — bits of wood said to be from the Cross, and thorns from the Crown.

Then, with even greater daring, he attacked the corrup­tion in the Church — clergymen who failed to set an exam­ple because they had become too wealthy to worry about God, or were too busy counting their money to attend Church du­ties. This wealth of the Church was obtained from baptism, marriage and burial fees, collections, gifts, rents from lands, and tithes (the right of the clergy to one-tenth of the value of a person’s property).

Moreover, not only did the Roman Catholic Church inEnglandobtain considerable wealth, but a large proportion of such wealth was transferred toRome— indeed, five times as much money went fromEnglandto the Pope as to the English king: and it was a further insult that the Pope’s law- courts could overrule English law-courts in certain cases.

However right his objections to the Roman Catholic Church might have been, Wyclif was only successful when he did not advance too far, when he attacked only the faults of the Roman Catholic Church. But he attacked the faith, too. This lost him support, and he was forced to retire. His move­ment failed. But Wyclif had given a warning to the Church… One hundred and fifty years after his death came the Re­formation when the Roman Catholic Church was to suffer for not heeding the warning.

From A Social and Economic History by A. H. Stamp

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