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Religious Conflict in Fourteenth-Century England
In the fourteenth century England, like the rest of Europe, began to develop in new directions.
We've seen political and military novelties:
A change in the relative positions of laity and clergy, which had been slowly taking place for a long time, was becoming increasingly obvious to all observers. The leaders of lay society were less patient with the special privileges of the clergy; laymen of all ranks questioned the vast wealth of the church -- wealth that was not all that much greater than before, but which seemed more irritating; and many genuinely religious people, lay and clerical both, criticized the spiritual failures of the church.
The institutional church, led by the pope, his cardinals, and the bishops, was less and less the source of new ideas and spiritual leadership, and increasingly an embattled establishment trying to maintain the position it had gained in earlier eras.
The political side of the conflict between lay and clerical interests
The centralization of the church under the pope had begun as a reaction to disorder. The reforming clergy had morale, education, and organization on their side; lay rulers were initially at a disadvantage and lost ground to church government. But as secular governments became better organized, the prestige of the centralized church was bound to decline.
The "state," meaning successful princes backed by their own bureaucracies and tamed vassals, could guarantee order better than the church could.
One turning point in that long struggle occurred in the 1290s, when Philip IV and Edward I insisted on taxing the clergy not for the crusade or for a papally sponsored war, but for their own war against each other. Both kings had the political strength to face down the pope when he objected.
Yet the pope's power to regulate and tax the clergy of western Christendom did not disappear. Indeed, through the 14th century his power increased dramatically, in what Richard Southern has called an inflationary spiral.
The wars of the late thirteenth century had made Rome ungovernable. The papal court fled to France in the early 1300s and did not return to Italy for decades. A new papal court was built, on a lavish scale, on the borders of France, in Avignon, and expensive new wars were launched to restore the papal position in Italy. To pay for these projects, and to keep their control of the church intact, the popes increased the number of agents in the provinces and bureaucrats in the capital. Much of what they did was raise money.
It was during the fourteenth century that the sale of indulgences became
a mass market operation.
Thus, despite recent reversals, the pope's power was more evident
at the grassroots than ever before. The pope gained authority by absorbing
many of the prerogatives of local bishops.
The English were irritated all the more because the papal court seemed to favor their enemies. Avignon was not officially part of France, and the popes were not French puppets. But the popes, their cardinals, and their other servants were French themselves, and it angered English people paying high taxes for a French war to see money from English benefices going to French-speaking absentee clergy.
At mid-century, this issue came up regularly in parliament. There were
statutes passed against papal provisions, that is, papal appointment of
English clergy. The king, however, never really enforced those laws. He
merely used them to extort approval of his own clerical candidates from
In the old days, a passive laity had been content with the intercession of monks and the protection of the saints. Since the eleventh century at least, devout members of the laity began to look for more. They wanted preaching, they wanted to learn the Scriptures, they wanted to follow a Christian way of life without necessarily entering a monastery or a convent.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the Franciscans and Dominicans were the most popular bodies within the church because they met the spiritual needs of the laity best. By the end of the 14th century, the mendicants (begging clergy) had lost their first enthusiasm, and some of their early popular respect.
People still resorted to them for guidance and to make confession, but there were just as many who saw the friars as corrupt, poor in theory but not in practice, cajoling their clients for handouts instead of rebuking them for their sins. In the view of the most concerned laymen and clergy, what had been the cutting edge of the church was now blunted.
The appearance of heresy in England
Heresy, meaning religious revolt against the established church, had been fairly common in most parts of Europe since A.D. 1000, but rare in England.
In England, the power structure was secure and unambiguous enough to compel obedience in matters as serious as religious belief and discipline. The appearance of an energetic heresy was indicative that something basic was changing.
The origin of the heresy was equally interesting, and equally ominous. Unlike earlier heresies, this one was led by a solid member of the establishment: an Oxford scholar, a theologian of the first rank.
Such a figure was more influential, at least in the short run, than a hundred wandering preachers. He had access to the highest powers in the land, and for a few years poured into their ears the not unpopular message that the clergy had grown too rich and too corrupt, and needed to be corrected by the secular power.
His name was John Wyclif.
Wyclif, his ideas, and his patrons
Wyclif was not obviously born to be a radical. He was a Yorkshireman whose talents and connections led him to Oxford. Beginning in the 1350s, he began to pursue a doctorate in theology, a quest that usually took twenty to twenty-five years.
His first notoriety was not in theology as such, but in philosophy, where he forcefully argued a novel, if not wholly original, position. He rejected the reigning skepticism among scholars that God could be known through logic.
He believed that knowledge of God was not only possible, but that it was the only true knowledge. It was also accessible in the Bible and in the writings of the church fathers, but mainly in the Bible. This may sound either commonsensical or simplemindedly fundamentalist to you, but it attracted a lot of attention from his academic peers. In the early 14th century, Ockham had apparently proved, with brilliant and impeccable logic, that theology was impossible. Wyclif, with equally compelling logic, said that real theology, certain knowledge about God, was indeed possible. This made him very attractive to some academics, and an object of suspicion among others.
Besides being a philosopher, Wyclif was a priest and a passionate believer in the Gospel, and from his near fundamentalist philosophical stance, he saw much that was wrong in the church of his time. He saw little scriptural warrant for the powers of the papacy or the hierarchy of ecclesiastical offices and institutions. This freed him to criticize errors and abuses, even those that emanated from the papal court.
In the early 1370s, Wyclif's ideas began to attract attention outside of academic circles -- or perhaps he went peddling his ideas. The commoners in parliament, upset by the expenses of war, were blaming the financial crisis on the church, which was too wealthy and prone to tax evasion. John of Gaunt, the effective regent, was known to be sympathetic to this view; so were forces in the church. In the parliament of 1371, when the clerical ministers were dismissed and the clergy heavily taxed, two Augustinian friars, representing an order that claimed to be poor already, were brought into to argue that it was right and just to tax the rich clergy.
Wyclif was in the audience observing. He about to begin a career as a high powered consultant to John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. The next year, Wyclif was receiving a retainer from the crown.
Over the next few years Wyclif spent his time justifying theologically and philosophically a course of action that the lay leaders of society were already considering -- the confiscation of clerical wealth for the uses of the state.
For Wyclif, though, money was not the main thing: authority within the church was.
The older view, held by the pope and his subordinates, was that the visible church was the vehicle of God's grace and therefore of true authority. The pope, as Vicar of Christ, was the rightful leader of Christian society.
Wyclif said the real church was not the visible institution, but the "elect," those whom God had predestined to salvation. Only the elect, those in a state of grace, had any right to exercise authority. Holding office alone was insufficient warrant. Anyone of bad character, any obvious sinner, including the pope, forfeited his just claim to power.
Furthermore, Wyclif aimed this critique of power squarely at the church. If the church erred, as many thought it did, it was up to the lay rulers to correct it. If the pope was worldly, he was a heretic who ought to be deposed by the lay rulers. Wyclif dodged the obvious problem -- who will correct or depose an unjust lay prince? He was too anxious to reform the church to give this serious consideration -- or perhaps, with his dreams of royal implementation of his ideas, it was inconvenient to think about that subject.
The ideas that Wyclif put forth were inflammatory, and gave theoretical encouragement for parliamentary attacks on ecclesiastical wealth, which were frequent between 1371 and 1381.
He himself appeared in the first parliament of Richard II (1377) to argue that in case of necessity it was lawful for the English government to sequester papal funds. He was called before a church court in England in 1378 to answer for his ideas. The princess of Wales, the mother of the young king, exerted her influence and he went free.
That same year Wyclif was back in parliament on behalf of John of Gaunt, condemning the right of sanctuary on theoretical grounds.
Although Wyclif was actively promoting extreme measures against clerical independence, he was not a puppet of his patrons. He saw himself as a teacher of the truth, and he followed his arguments to their logical and very extreme conclusions.
He had become convinced by 1379, if not before, that the highest power claimed by the priesthood was a fraud. He began to attack, first in lectures and later in a book, the orthodox doctrine of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation meant that when a priest blessed the sacramental bread and wine at mass, it was actually turned into the body and blood of Christ. It might look like bread and wine still, but in essence it was Christ.
It was the miraculous power of transubstantiation that set priests and bishops apart from the laity, and justified their superior role in the church. But transubstantiation could not but be offensive to Wyclif. Philosophically he thought it was nonsense. Theologically it was a doctrine not found in Scripture. Politically, it was a prop for the corrupt hierarchy of his day.
Wyclif, who like later Protestants thought that preaching and teaching should be the main occupation of the clergy, was willing to grant that Christ was sacramentally or mystically present in the Eucharist, but not that His body and blood were actually there.
In promoting such a dangerous idea, Wyclif went well beyond the desires of his patrons. His own institution, Oxford University, felt compelled to move against him. Nobody was willing to take up his cause. The Duke of Lancaster visited him and told him to shut up about the Eucharist. Wyclif, now in exile from Oxford, continued to write works that were clearly heretical by most people's standards.
Wyclif had clearly overreached himself. If he wanted to be the power behind the throne of an English reformation, he had blown it. His certainty that he knew the truth had led him to isolate himself from the court. But the inflammatory possibilities of his theories were soon to be demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible -- when disgust with a worldly church contributed to the Peasant's Revolt.
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