Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

John Wyclif (1324-1384)

You are not going to hear about a great king or prince now, not about a man who won a great many battles and gained great victories, but about a very great and good man who worked silently and bravely amid much opposition and even hatred. I mean John Wyclif, the first man who translated the Bible into English.

He was born at a place called Wyclif, in Yorkshire. Who his parents were, whether he had any brothers and sisters, how he spent his childhood, we do not know. We lose sight of him entirely till we find him going to Oxford at the age of sixteen.

When he was at Oxford Wyclif must have heard of the state of England at this time—how selfish the clergy were, what large sums of money they sent to the Pope every year, how little they attended to their people and parish, how rich and worldly they were.

When Wyclif heard this, when he knew the way the poor were neglected and forsaken, his heart burned, he longed for the clergy to be reformed and to be shown the right way to do their duty.

He worked very hard at Oxford, with great success. He lived a strict hard life himself, and grew very thin and worn-looking. He had a quick, restless temper and great energy. As they watched the pale face and thin form of Wyclif poring over his books, few men thought what a great reformer he was soon to become.

While Wyclif was working and thinking and writing at Oxford, a terrible illness broke out in England, so terrible that it was called the "Black Death."

By this dreadful plague a very large number of people were swept away, especially in the East of England. Many died in the large towns, amongst which Norwich and Bristol suffered very severely; round Norwich more than half the clergy died, while in Bristol the living could hardly bury the dead. "The sheep and cattle strayed through the fields of corn, and there were none left who could drive them." Harvests rotted on the ground, because there were none to reap, food rose in price, and the whole country cried for help. Although Wyclif was still working very hard at Oxford, his eyes were open to the distress of the country. He wrote a book, for which he had to answer afterwards, in which he said that the "Black Death" was a punishment on the monks and priests for their idleness and neglect of duty. Year after year did Wyclif study at Oxford, before he felt he was worthy to teach others.

At the age of thirty-seven Wyclif was made rector of a parish called Fillingham, in Lincolnshire, and there for seven years he worked hard among his people. He still found time to write pamphlets showing how slothful the priests of this time were, and how influenced they were by the Church of Rome. The Pope appointed many Italians to English livings, and this too Wyclif tried to show was not right. At the end of seven years Wyclif was made head of a college at Oxford, and there he taught well and diligently for many years, though his teaching met with much opposition. Soon after he was given the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he wrote many more tracts and pamphlets.

All this time a quarrel was going on between the barons and clergy. The barons were angry because the clergy refused to give any money for the common good of the country, but gave it all to the Pope and abbots, or spent it themselves. The barons were supported by John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. and brother of the Black Prince, and also by John Wyclif.

Soon after this Wyclif was summoned to appear before the Bishop of London to answer for a book he had written against the clergy. On the appointed day, Wyclif stood in St. Paul's Church, calm and collected; John of Gaunt stood by his side. The church was crowded from end to end, and a passage had to be forced for Wyclif to pass through the dense throng. The Bishop spoke rudely to Wyclif, and John of Gaunt, the "fiery Duke," answered angrily for his friend. Fierce words passed, John of Gaunt said he would "drag the bishop out of the church by the hair of his head." The people grew angry, and a few rushed to the bishop's side. Others furiously went up to John of Gaunt, and it was with great danger and difficulty that Wyclif and the fiery Duke escaped.

Before the end of the year Edward III. died, and Richard, son of the Black Prince, became King of England. He was not old enough to govern for himself, so John of Gaunt was appointed to rule till Richard was old enough. Now although John of Gaunt seemed to be very kind to Wyclif, and really did do some things for him, yet on the other hand he made Wyclif a tool in his hands to do whatever he wished. It seems rather curious that such a great man as Wyclif should have been mistaken in his friend. Soon after this a dreadful insurrection broke out, and as some of the blame was unjustly laid at Wyclif 's door, I must tell you a little about it.

The people, as you know, did not like John of Gaunt, and they hated him still more when he raised a tax on them, because he wanted money. The tax was the same for rich and poor, and it was this, that caused a general rising. It was worst in Kent. One and all rose under a man named Wat Tyler, and marched to London. John of Gaunt fled when he heard of the large numbers who were coming. The peasants entered London and then desired to see the king.

"I am your king and lord," began the young Richard as he looked at the throng of peasants, "what do you want?"

"We want you to free us for ever," shouted the peasants; "we will no longer be slaves, we will have cheaper rent for our lands, and pardon for the past."

"I grant it," answered the boy king, amid shouts of joy, "if you will all go home quietly." Many did go home, but many still remained under Wat Tyler.

They demanded another meeting with the king; once more Richard met them fearlessly. Hot words passed between Wat Tyler and the Mayor, and it ended in a scuffle in which Wat Tyler was killed.

"Kill, kill!" shouted the crowd; "they have killed our captain."

The young king rode forward, crying, "Tyler was a traitor, I will be your leader."

The crowd melted away and the king returned quietly home.

Some thought that Wyclif had helped to stir up the peasants against the lords by his writings and preaching, at all events he gradually lost the favour of the higher classes. No longer able to rely on support from the wealthy, he applied himself to the poorer classes. He wrote tracts in the English tongue, he went about preaching among them with a body of men, who believed in him and thought as he did. He wore coarse clothes, and walked about bare foot. The people soon learnt to like his "clear, rough, homely English," the speech of the ploughman and trader. He taught them from the Bible, and told them things out of the Bible they had never heard before. For the Bible at this time was a sealed book to the poor; it was all written in Latin, and the poor people did not know any Latin. The more they heard Wyclif talk about the Bible, the more they longed to read it; and their joy was great when they heard that Wyclif had already begun to translate it for them.

In 1381 Wyclif was forbidden to teach any more at Oxford, so he went back to Lutterworth, the rectory that had been given him some years before, to spend some of his last years in finishing his translation of the Bible into English, so that all should be able to read it, rich and poor alike. Many of his scholars or disciples helped him. It was a long and weary task, but he was buoyed up by the thought that all would be able to have a Bible now, and learn about the good God, after he was dead. He was in weak and failing health, but he worked on silently, faithfully for the people. He finished it some time before his death, and spent the last years of his life in rest and peace at Lutterworth. The Bible was translated, but the translator was not to live to see the good it did in later years.

While at service one day in the parish church at Lutterworth, Wyclif was taken very ill, and the next day the great reformer passed quietly away.

Wyclif had lived before his time: the work he had begun, the sloth and wealth of the priests he had seen and tried to remedy, the power of the Pope in England he had fought against, these things were fully seen and realized two hundred years later, when the great Reformation took place. Wyclif "sowed the first seeds" of the Reformation. His writings were very numerous, and had he never translated the Bible by which he is so well known, his tracts and books alone would have made his name.

Great was the sorrow of his scholars and followers when they heard that their great master and teacher would never be among them again. But they would try and follow his example. Their master had sent them out to teach and explain the Bible to the poor people, they would still go and get many more to help them. Wyclif's followers were called "Lollards." It was a name given them by the enemies of Wyclif, and means "idle babbler."

The great Reformer was dead—the first translator of the Bible into English, the "father of English prose." Wyclif had shone forth as a star amid the darkness, and with his death the darkness again closed in nearly as black as before.