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On a rocky point, overhanging the Tees in Yorkshire, a manorhouse stood, in which once lived the Wycliffes of Wycliffe.* There, probably in 1324, a boy was born, who has gilded the family name with undying lustre. Among the rich woodlands of that fertile valley he grew up, taught, we know not certainly where or by whom, until he reached his sixteenth year.
Then a new world opened upon the country squire's son. Travelling to Oxford on horseback, and spending, no doubt,
many weeks upon the rough and perilous journey, young 1340 Wycliffe was entered as a commoner upon the books of
Queen's College, a newly founded school. From Queen's
he soon removed to Merton. The students of Oxford in that day were, as we learn from Chaucer's pictured page, as strongly marked out into reading men and fast men as they are in our own century. Among the motley company that rode out of the Tabard gateway down the Canterbury road, there was “a clerk of Oxenforde,” lean and logical, who would rather have had twenty red or black-bound books at his bed's head than wear the richest robes or revel in the sweetest joys of music; and in violent contrast to this good threadbare bookworm, the Miller in his tale gives a fulllength portrait of the dissolute "parish clerk Absolon," who, clad in
* The name Wycliffe means the "cliff by the water." from their manor.
The family took their surname
THE DOCTOR OF DIVINITY,
hosen red and light-blue kirtle, with a snowy surplice flowing around his dainty limbs, and the windows of St. Paul's carved upon his shoes, minced through the service of the parish church, Many such did John Wycliffe meet in the streets and schools of Oxford ; but his place must have been, not among the fast men in the brew-houses, ringing with the sounds of fiddle and dance, but among the red-bound books in his quiet rooms, else how could he have won a Fellowship in Merton, which was then considered the most learned college in Oxford ?
His rise was rapid. In 1361 he was presented to the college living of Fylingham; and towards the close of the same year he was elected Master of Balliol College. Four years later, the Primate appointed him to the Wardenship of Canterbury Hall, in the room of the deposed Wodehall.
Mendicant friars at that time swarmed all over England, who, by the sale of relics and pardons “all hot from Rome,” fleeced the poor country folk of their hard-earned groats. Such a one was the Pardoner of the “Canterbury Tales,” who sold clouts and pigs' bones as holy relics, for money,'wool, cheese, and wheat, swindling even the poorest widow out of her mite; and all the while, amid the farrago of old stories, with which he pleased his gaping audience, taking up the hypocritical cry, "Radix malorum est cupiditas.” Such canting and cheating kindled rage in the honest heart of Wycliffe, who directed his sturdy eloquence against them. In his treatise called Objections to Friars, he maintained that the Gospel in its freedom, without error of man, is the sole rule of religion. And thus he struck the key-note in the noble music of his life.
In 1372 Wycliffe took the degree of D.D. at Oxford, and thus became qualified to lecture as a Professor of Divinity. Armed with this new power, the plain-speaking, true-hearted Englishman gathered a band of pupils in a wooden hall, roughly plastered and roofed with thatch, like all Oxford at that date, and there lifted up his voice boldly against the corrupted doctrines and the swollen avarice of the Church.
His fame led the rulers of England to send him, in 1374, as
WYCLIFFE AT OLD ST. PAUL's.
envoy to Bruges, to protest against certain encroachments of the papal power. A momentous journey it was to Wycliffe, for at Bruges he seems to have become acquainted with John of Ghent, Duke of Lancaster, who shielded the daring reformer in many a perilous hour. Already there was thunder in the air, gathering and blackening
round Wycliffe's path. A charge of heresy was laid 1377 against him, and he was summoned before the Houses of
Convocation. On the 19th of February, 1377, a vener
able man, his face "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,” stood within old St. Paul's, a grey beard sweeping his breast, a dark belted robe flowing to his feet, and a tall white staff held firmly in his thin hand. But he did not stand alone. The eldest living son of the King, and the Earl Marshal of England stood by his side; for Lancaster and Percy loved and honoured the brave Oxford Doctor. The storm passed harmless by. A dispute which rose between Lancaster and Bishop Courtney as to whether the accused should sit or stand, Courtney insisting on the latter, excited so fierce a tumult that the meeting was dissolved. During all the evening shouting mobs ran riot through the streets of London.
Then King Edward died, and his grandson Richard reigned. So marked a man had Wycliffe become in this Reformation struggle, that the first Parliament of Richard II. submitted to him a question, "Was it lawful to keep back the treasure of the kingdom for its own defence, instead of sending it away to the Pope ?” Who can need to be told the reply?
This could not go on without drawing forth thunder from the banks of Tiber. Five bulls, couched in the fiercest words, were launched against that “master in error,” John Wycliffe, who was forthwith to be committed to jail. Summoned before a synod at Lambeth in April 1378, he replied to all charges manfully, and to honest minds most convincingly. And yet, in spite of this increased boldness, he was not seized and martyred; because nearly all English laymen were on his side—some from political motives, others on religious grounds. The pope and his creatures,
THE SHUTTING OF HIS DIVINITY CLASS.
though their hearts burned to smite him down, dared not do so, for they feared the people.
It was then that a wasting sickness seized him at Oxford. His health, worn out with study, gave way under the mental wear of these troubled years. He lay, as it seemed, on the point of death, when eight men-four doctors to represent the mendicant friars, and four aldermen of the town-entered his chamber. They came to talk the old man into an undoing of his life's work—into a penitent recantation of what they called his errors. He listened until they had done, then“ holding them with his glittering eye,” he signed to his servant to raise him in the bed, and in strong, defiant tone he cried, "I shall not die, but live; and again declare the evil deeds of the friars !” What could they do but grow pale and go ? As he lay panting on the pillow, new life shot through his tingling nerves; and in no long time he rose again from that bed to do glorious battle in the cause of truth.
His attack upon transubstantiation drew upon him the wrath of his University. One day in 1381 the Chancellor entered his class-room, and in the hearing of his scholars condemned his teaching as heretical. This finally led to the shutting of his class. But it was not in the power of Chancellors or Primates to stop the spread of light in the land. Though proceedings were taken against the disciples of Wycliffe—and all the more bitterly when that fiery adherent of the pope, Courtney, became Archbishop of Canterbury—yet their number constantly increased. Not one voice, but many were now heard in the land.
“ Poor priests,” as they were called, trudged barefoot even into the remotest hamlets, preaching, in defiance of the clergy, wherever they could gather a crowd to hear them, in church, church-yard, market-place, or fair. So the good seed was sown broad-cast over England; and, though often trampled fiercely down by the infuriated priesthood of a later day, especially in London and the great towns, in many a green far-off country nook it sprang and ripened and safely bore its golden fruit.
Nearly five years before he was silenced at Oxford, Wycliffe had become Rector of Lutterworth, a Leicestershire parish, watered
THE PARSON OF LUTTERWORTH.
by the little river Swift. Until 1381 his time was about equally divided between his cottagers in Leicestershire and his students at Oxford. But after that date he devoted himself with earnest heart to the work of a country parson; and never does the great Dr. Wycliffe, first scholar of his day and keenest logician of the Oxford halls, seem so truly great as when we trace his footsteps among the hovels of Lutterworth. A sorry place it would have seemed to a townsman of smart modern Lutterworth, glowing with red brick and gaslight. Two or three rows of thatched cabins, built chiefly of lath and plaster, straggled along the sloping banks of the Swift. From the uneven street one stepped in upon a foul earthen floor. The rafters above hung thick with black soot, for there were no chimneys, and the smoke found its way out of door or window as it best could. There, in the meanest hut, might the good rector be often seen, cheering with kind words the sick peasant, who had then no better bed than a heap of straw, and no softer pillow than a log of wood. The morning he spent among his books, revising a Latin treatise, or adding some sentences to the English Bible that was fast growing beneath his patient pen. In the afternoon he girt his long dark robe about him, took his white staff, and went out among his flock. And on Sundays, clad in a gorgeous vestment, adorned with golden cherubs, of which some tarnished fragments are still shown, he preached the truth in homely, nervous English words, from that pulpit of carved oak which stands in Lutterworth Church-a sacred memorial of one who has worthily been called “The morning star of our English Reformation.”
So passed the last years of this great life. In his sixtieth year, while he was engaged in sacred service within the chancel
of Lutterworth Church, paralysis, which had already Dec. 31,
shaken his frame severely, struck him down to die. A 1384 day or two later, in the last hours of the dying year, his A.D.
great intrepid spirit passed away from the clouds and
toils of earth. More than forty years had swept by, when the pent-up vengeance of his enemies, from which the living man had been mercifully