John Wycliffe and Lollardy: Background information when reading Revelations

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by Mary Sharratt

Revelations by Mary Sharratt X
Revelations by Mary Sharratt
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2021, 320 pages

    Apr 2022, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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John Wycliffe and Lollardy

This article relates to Revelations

Print Review

Portrait of John Wycliffe In Mary Sharratt's historical novel Revelations, the protagonist is tried for heresy when suspected of preaching the tenets of Lollardy, a medieval religious movement that deviated from the Roman Catholic Church's approved doctrine.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion in Europe, led by a church hierarchy with the Pope at its head. A schism known as the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, resulting in congregations breaking from the established church and rejecting the Pope's authority. Protestantism didn't arise in a vacuum, however, and some of the beliefs espoused by the reformers were first proposed more than a century earlier by English theologian John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384).

A lecturer at Oxford University, Wycliffe believed in the primary importance of the Bible, and consequently claimed the scriptures should be published in the vernacular (English) so that people could interpret the text for themselves. This was a revolutionary idea, since the Church strongly discouraged the creation or preaching of Biblical texts in any language other than Latin. Wycliffe thought that religious institutions such as the priesthood and the papacy were invalid. He also denied some of the basic tenets of Catholicism, such as transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine served at the Eucharist are actually transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ). Needless to say, he wasn't terribly popular with the church authorities; he was charged with heresy in 1378 and forced out of Oxford in 1381, but he continued to preach his views and was never tried for his beliefs.

Although Wycliffe was no longer at Oxford, like-minded former colleagues continued to promote his ideas, which proliferated through the end of the century, and the word "Lollard" was applied to those who followed in his footsteps. It isn't clear from whence the term arose, although one likely origin is a derivation from the Dutch word for "to mutter" — a reflection of some of the Lollards' worship practices that involved reading the scriptures out loud.

There was no codified list of beliefs that all Lollards espoused; however, a document known as the Twelve Conclusions, delivered to Parliament in 1395, served as a general outline of the group's principles. In addition to the criticisms of the Church mentioned above, the Conclusions were against holy war and the use of art in worship.

The coronation of Henry IV in 1399 saw a crackdown on heresy in general and Lollardy in particular. In 1401 England passed a statute permitting the burning of heretics; subsequent persecution largely drove the Lollards underground. Their suppression was exacerbated by the arrest of Sir John Oldcastle, who, after being brought to trial for Lollardy, hatched a plot to kidnap the King to force the creation of a commonwealth. Although Oldcastle was captured and executed, his actions caused authorities to equate Lollardy with political revolt, ratcheting up the pressure to find and eliminate all traces of it. The movement was never entirely stamped out, however, and the group's beliefs were ultimately subsumed under the Protestant Reformation.

Portrait of John Wycliffe originally published in Bale's "Scriptor Majoris Britanniae" (1548).

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article relates to Revelations. It first ran in the May 19, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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