The Morningstar

For many years before the beginning of the Reformation, the Bible was an almost unknown book. Except for the Waldenses, who lived among the valleys in the Alps of southern Europe, and who had for hundreds of years retained the Bible in their native tongue, it had been locked up in a language known only to the highly educated. As centuries passed, the darkness appeared to increase in intensity; but by the beginning of the fourteenth century, in many countries there appeared tokens of the coming dawn. Just as in the darkness of the night time sky the morning star can be seen, brightly shinning, giving promise of the near approach of day, so in fourteenth century England there arose a man who was destined to strike a blow against Rome that would eventually result in the freeing of men, churches and nations. He was the herald of reform, not only for England but for all of Christendom.

Born in 1324 in the parish of Wycliffe, John followed his ancestors in taking as his surname the place of his residence. There is little known of his early life, for history has preserved for us almost nothing of the personal incidents in his life. The services done for his own time and for future generations are the things that have occupied the interest of historians.

At the age of sixteen, Wycliffe was sent to Oxford. A quick mind, a penetrating intellect and a retentive memory allowed him to advance very quickly in the learning of his day. In addition to his other studies, Wycliffe became proficient in both church and civil law. This branch of learning was to be especially valuable to him in the coming battle that was soon to arise between the crown of England and the pontiff of Rome.

While in college, Wycliffe’s attention was directed to the Scriptures. In the study of God’s Word he found satisfaction for the great want of his soul. As he studied, the determination arose within him to share the truths he had discovered. His devotion to truth, however, could not help but bring him into conflict with Rome. However, to properly understand the situation, we need to go back a century in time.

In 1205, Hubert, the primate, or head of the church in England, died. The same night, in a secret meeting, the churchmen, without consulting with the king, elected Reginald as the new archbishop of Canterbury. By the next morning, Reginald was on his way to Rome to receive his confirmation from the pope. When King John learned what had taken place, he was furious and set about to elevate the Bishop of Norwich to the position. Then both parties—the king and the churchmen—sent their representatives to Rome to plead their cause.

The man who then reigned as pope was Innocent III. Innocent, who was vigorously pursuing the course laid out by Gregory VII—that of humbling the pride of kings—was working with all the skill and power at his command to make the power of kings subject to the papal see. John had appealed to the pope to arbitrate the case, and in this he had revealed his weakness and the pope was not slow to recognize the advantage and to make the most of it. Innocent annulled both elections and appointed his own nominee, and personally friend, Cardinal Langton to be archbishop.

King John could clearly see the danger and feel the humiliation implied in the step taken. The See of Canterbury was the highest seat of dignity and jurisdiction in England, excepting only that of the throne itself. In an age when ecclesiastical authority was even more to be feared than kingly power, this was a dangerous threat to the authority of the king and to the national independence. Filled with the bitterness of humiliation, John ordered all of the prelates and abbots out of England and refused to seat the pope’s appointee. Unfortunately, John was one of the weakest of England’s kings, and the man he was dealing with is generally considered one of the most ambitious of medieval popes.

The pope was not slow to strike back, placing all of England under interdict. To be under interdict meant that the gates of heaven were locked and that no one in England could enter. All who died were condemned to wander as disembodied ghosts in some doleful region, amid unknown sufferings, until it should please the pope to open heaven to them. The church doors were closed and the dead were buried in ditches or open fields, while marriages were performed in church yards.

The king braved this situation for two whole years. Eventually, Innocent pronounced the sentence of excommunication upon him, deposing him from his throne and absolving his subjects from allegiance to him. It was one thing to pronounce the king deposed but quite another to enforce the decree. In order to accomplish this, the pope recognized that he needed an army, and looking around, he determined to secure the assistance of Philip, the French king. Promising Philip the kingdom of England as his prize, the pope succeeded in obtaining his help.

King John and the pope's legate

When John saw the fearful danger he was in, his resolve left him and he determined to make peace with the pope at any cost. As a part of the bargain, the king agreed that he and all future kings of England should hold England as tenants of the land, on condition of loyalty to Rome. In recognition of this arrangement, England would make an annual payment of a thousand marks to Rome. Should John or any of his successors default in payment, they would immediately forfeit all right to their dominions, which would immediately revert to Rome. On May 15, 1213, it is said that the king met with the papal legate and placed his crown at the legate’s feet. The haughty legate there upon kicked it around as though it was a worthless object before placing it again on John’s head.

The barons of England were appalled at John’s cowardly stand. Determined not to be slaves of the pope, they unsheathed their swords and vowed to maintain the ancient liberties of England, or die in the attempt. Appearing before the king in April of 1215, they presented him with a charter confirming the rights of England. Though the king stormed and at first refused, on June 15, 1215, John signed the Magna Charta at Runnymede. This, in effect, told Innocent that John revoked his vow of vassalage and took back the kingdom he had laid at the pontiff's feet.

King John signing the Magna Carter

When the news reached Innocent, he correctly interpreted the significance of what had taken place. He realized that the Magna Charta was a great political protest against, not only himself, but also the whole system he represented. In it he saw the beginning of an order of political ideas and a class of political rights entirely antagonistic to the fundamental claims of the papacy. He was infuriated and immediately declared that, as the king had signed the charter under threat of force, the whole transaction was null and void.

The bold attitude of the barons saved the independence of England, and though future kings of England came to the throne without taking the oath of loyalty to the pope, they continued, year by year, to send the thousand marks which John had agreed to pay. At last, during the reign of Edward II, (1307–1327) the annual tribute payment was quietly stopped without protest from Rome.

Nearly thirty-five years passed without any payment being made. Then suddenly and quite unexpectedly, in 1366, Pope Urban V demanded not only the annual tribute but all of the arrears. Urban, however, was not dealing with John but with Edward III. During the hundred years that had passed since the signing of the Magna Charta, England had been increasing in strength and greatness. Not only had she advanced as a center of learning but she had won some brilliant military victories and was already beginning to be feared and respected by the nations of the continent. When the summons from the pope arrived, England hardly knew whether to meet it with indignation or with derision.

While acting as chaplain for the king, the position he now held, Wycliffe showed that the papal assumption of authority over secular rulers was contrary to both reason and revelation.

At this moment the eyes of all of Europe were on England. Should England submit, it would so greatly add to the prestige and power of the papacy, while effectively working to reduce the whole world to subjection to Rome. The crisis was a great one, the outcome of which would determine whether the tide of papal oppression would continue to expand, engulfing more fully the whole world, or from that point on, recede. The king and the nobles united in denying the pontiff’s claim to temporal authority and in refusing the payment of the tribute. Even though it was Edward III and Parliament who issued the decision that struck the blow against papal tyranny, it was Wycliffe who was the real champion in turning the tide of the battle.

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