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While he confined himself to such questions, success was certain, and he stood upon safe ground. But even then, his opponents saw good reason for suspecting his opinions upon points which he had not yet ventured to attack; and the Monks, hostile as their feelings were toward the Friars, made common cause with them against Wicliffe. Canterbury Hall had been founded by the Primate Simon de Islip, who appointed a Monk of his own church Warden; but, finding him an unfit person, on account of his hasty temper, ejected him, and placed Wicliffe in his stead. Upon Islip's death, his successor, Simon Langham, took part with the Monks, and ejected Wicliffe. Wicliffe appealed to Rome. That Court was prepossessed against him, and yet might perhaps have pursued the policy of winning him by favourable treatment, if a circumstance had not occurred while the cause was pending, which led him to take a decided part. Edward III. had refused that homage to which King John had subjected his successors, and Urban V. threatened, that, if it were not performed, he would cite him to Rome, there to answer for the default. A sovereign of Edward's ability and renown was not thus to be intimidated; the feeling of the country was with him, and the Parliament affirming that what John had done in this matter was a violation of his coronation oath, declared that if the Pope proceeded in any way against the King, he and all his subjects should with all their power resist him.
The Papal claims were defended by a Monk, in a treatise, published as books were before the discovery of printing, by the dispersion of numerous transcripts, and written with such ability that it produced considerable impression upon those into whose hands it
But he ventured to challenge' Wicliffe upon the question, who, coming forward with superior ability in a better cause, produced a conclusive reply; in reward for which, when the appeal concerning the Wardenship was decided against him, he was appointed Professor of Divinity. And as a farther mark of favour, the living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire was given him.
Hitherto his opposition to the Papal authority had been purely constitutional, and if he had yet satisfied himself concerning the corruption of the Romish doctrines, that judgement was rather implied than expressed in his discourses from the pulpit and his
1 Lewis's Wicliffe, p. 19.
exercises in the schools. Implied it was by his silence upon some of those doctrines, and his constant reference to Scripture, in which he was so well versed, that when contemporary teachers were designated each by some epithet characteristic of their scholastic talents, the Gospel Doctor was the appellation by which he was known. But certainly it could not have been avowed when, two years after his appointment to the Divinity chair, he was named, with other ambassadors, to meet the Pope's representatives at Bruges, and resist his pretensions to the presentation of benefices in England, an injurious practice, against which several statutes had been passed. The negotiation lasted nearly two years : and it is probable that what he then had opportunities of discovering, convinced him that the system of the Papal Court and its doctrines were equally corrupt. For, on his return, he attacked it in the boldest manner, maintained that the Scriptures contained all truths necessary to salvation, and that the perfect rule of Christian practice was to be found in them only; denied the authority of the Pope in temporal matters ; proclaimed that he was that Man of Sin, the son of Perdition, whom St. Paul prophetically describes, “sitting as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God,” and denounced him as Antichrist. These opinions he openly preached and published, appealing to the Scriptures for their proof; and they were propagated by his disciples, who attacked the Friars in their own manner, preaching to the people, and going about, as he himself did, barefoot, and in plain frieze gowns. It was not long before he was accused of heresy, and orders came to Sudbury the Primate, and Courtney the Bishop of London, to have him arrested, and kept in close custody till they should receive further instructions. But the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, who was then governing the kingdom during the latter days of his father, protected him with a high hand, and he was still so popular in Oxford, that when a Nuncio was sent thither, requiring the University, under pain of the severest penalties, to deliver him up for justice, the threats were disregarded. The Archbishop, finding it impossible to proceed in the summary manner which the Pope ordered, summoned him to appear within thirty days before him and the Bishop of London, at a Synod
1 Lewis's Wicliffc, p. 2.
held in St. Paul's; and Wicliffe, confident in his cause and in his protectors, hesitated not to obey. During the interval between the citation and appearance, a circumstance occurred which contributed alike to incense the Prelates against him, and to strengthen his interest with the Government. Richard II. had just succeeded to his grandfather's throne, and in his first Parliament the question was debated, whether, the kingdom being then threatened with an invasion from France, they might not for their own defence detain the treasure due to the Pope, although he required it on pain of ecclesiastical censures. Opinions differing upon this question, it was referred to Wicliffe for decision ; ... less, it may be presumed, for his celebrity as a casuist, than because the ruling party knew in what manner he would decide. His answer was, that both by the law of the nation and of the Gospel, it might be withheld when self-preservation required it. The Pope could only claim it as alms; but charity begins at home; and it would be madness, not charity, to send that money out of the realm, which was wanted for its defence.
On the day appointed, Wicliffe appeared before the Synod, with four bachelors of Divinity, one from each of the Mendicant Orders, to assist him, ... thus showing, that even among the Friars themselves, he had found disciples and coadjutors ; and with John of Gaunt, and Lord Percy the Earl Marshal, as his friends and protectors. With whatever intent these powerful Barons accompanied him, their conduct was such as discredited the cause.
Before the proceedings could begin, they engaged in an angry altercation with Bishop Courtney, who appears to have preserved both his temper and his dignity, when Lancaster had lost all sense of both. Here, however, the feeling of the people was against Wicliffe, probably because he was supported by an unpopular Government; and when the citizens who were present heard Lancaster mutter a threat of dragging their Bishop out of the Church by the hair of his head, they took fire; a tumult ensued; the Synod was broken up, and the Barons were glad to effect their escape as they could. In consequence of this disturbance, an imprudent bill was brought forward the same day in Parliament, by Lord Percy, that London should be governed by a Captain, as in former times, instead of
a Mayor, and that the sole power of making arrests within the city should be vested in the Earl Marshal. The member for the city, John Philpot, manfully opposed this attempt upon the liberties of London : a riot ensued the next day; Lancaster and the Earl Marshal escaped up the river to Kingston; and the mob, to show their detestation of the Duke, hung his escutcheon upon gibbets in the open places of the city, as if he had been a convicted traitor. By the interference of the Court, and of the Bishops, who, notwithstanding the occasion of these troubles, supported the cause of Government as that of order, with the whole strength of their authority, the Duke and the City were reconciled; one of the conditions being that, in atonement, probably, for the death of a Priest in his service, whom they had murdered in their fury, the citizens should maintain a great wax taper marked with the Duke's arms, to burn continually before the image of our Lady in St. Paul's.
These tumults having been appeased, Wicliffe was cited to appear before the same Prelates, at Lambeth. He obeyed ; and delivered in a written explanation of the points upon which the charges of heresy against him were founded. The strength of his defence would have availed him little, if Sir Lewis Clifford had not suddenly entered with authoritative orders, forbidding them to proceed to sentence. It is not, however, likely that any protection could long have upheld him against the ecclesiastical authority, if a schism had not at this juncture occurred to weaken the Papal power, and shake its very foundations. Wicliffe seized the advantage which was thus offered him, and set forth a tract upon the schism, exposing the absurdity of ascribing Infallibility to a divided Church. He published, also, a treatise upon the Truth of Scripture ; and that his countrymen might be enabled to try his doctrines by that test, he translated both the Old and New Testament into the English tongue. There were several partial versions in the Anglo-Saxon language, but these had long become obsolete ; and the portions of Scripture,
1 I cannot but consider Sir Thomas More's authority as decisive upon this subject: his words are,—“Myself have sene and can shew you Bybles fayre and old, wryten in Englyshe, whych have ben knowen and sene by the Byshop of the dyocyse, and left in ley mennys handys and womens, to suche as he knew for good and catholyke folke, that used it with devocyon and sobernesse.” (Dialoge, book iii. c. xv.) He had previously said, that these translations “ were allredy well done of olde, before Wyclyffys days.” Lewis has endeavoured to disprove this ;
which had previously been rendered into English, were in few hands.
It is related of him, that before he had completed this most important undertaking, he fell dangerously ill at Oxford, and some of the Friars, hoping that the prospect of death might bring with it fear of ecclesiastical censures, waited upon him to require that he would revoke what he had taught against the Mendicant Orders. Having listened to them patiently, he desired his attendant to raise him on his pillow, and then looking at them sternly, replied, “I shall not die, but live still further to declare the evil deeds of the Friars !” When he attacked them, he had the Secular Clergy and the better class of Regulars in his favour; and when he opposed the Papal authority, he acted in unison with the wishes of the Government and the spirit of the country. But he now proceeded to impugn the doctrine of Transubstantiation, showing what absurdities and contradictions it involved, ... and then all favour failed him : for the people implicitly believed this doctrine, the Clergy rested their loftiest pretensions upon it, and the Government had no inclination to interfere in points of mere theology. When Wicliffe published his “ Conclusions” upon this subject, and offered to defend them in the schools, the University forbade any of its members to hold or defend such doctrines, on pain of imprisonment. He appealed, consistently with his principles, to the King in Parliament; but his appeal was rejected. His patron, Lancaster, admonished him to submit, in these matters, to his ecclesiastical superiors : and he was summoned before an ecclesiastical court at Oxford, to explain his doctrine. A retractation was expected. On this occasion his consummate skill in the language of the schools, appears to have saved him both from the consequences of avowing his opinions and the dishonour of denying them. The doctrine which he held, is that which the Church of England afterwards adopted : and by declaring his full belief of the real presence in the Sacrament, while he kept clear of all attempt at explaining the inscrutable manner of that presence, he so far satisfied the court, that he was dismissed without censure; and yet so fairly preserved but I do not think any reasoning can possibly outweigh the positive affirmation of such a man as Sir Thomas More, upon a matter of fact, on which he could not be mistaken. His words may imply that there existed a complete translation ; but are not necessarily to be taken in that extent.