Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif

Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif

Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif

Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif


John Wyclif was the fourteenth-century English thinker responsible for the first English Bible, and for the Lollard movement--persecuted widely for its attempts to reform the church through empowerment of the laity. This study argues that John Wyclif's political agenda was based on a coherent philosophical vision ultimately consistent with his earlier reformative ideas. Several of Wyclif's formal, Latin works proposed that the king should take control of all church property and power in the kingdom, a vision close to what Henry VIII was to realize 150 years later.


In 1377, John Wyclif had need of powerful political support. He had been summoned to Saint Paul’s by Archbishop Sudbury to account for heretical arguments threatening to the foundations of the church in England. So on February 19, Wyclif appeared at the arraignment with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and arguably the most powerful man in the kingdom. Wyclif, once an Oxford metaphysician, had become an associate of John of Gaunt two years earlier, and had begun arguing for the reduction of the church’s political influence and her material wealth shortly thereafter. Gaunt was, and still is, widely believed to be eager to supplement his political power at the expense of the church, and Thomas Walsingham encourages us to believe that Gaunt’s support of Wyclif that February afternoon was that of a patron for his valued servant.

Had Gaunt been self-interestedly using Wyclif as his polemicist, he had made an odd choice. Wyclif’s arguments for the absolute power of the king were framed neither in the theocratic kingship language of the AngloSaxon and Anglo-Norman tradition, nor were they couched in the more contemporary Aristotelian terms favored by other champions of secular authority. On the contrary, Wyclif used language that had, until then, usually been employed by papally sponsored churchmen. His arguments were framed interms of Grace-founded dominium, redolent of Archbishop Richard Fitzralph’s defense of ecclesiastical property-ownership. Talk of Grace as the true source of earthly justice was part of an established Augustinian tradition in England that had its immediate foundation in

Thomas Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae, ed. E. M. Thompson, Rolls Series 64 (London, 1874), p. 115; Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, ed. H. T. Riley, 20, Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores R S 28 (London, 1862), vol. 1, pp. 324–5. See also Herbert Workman, John Wyclif: a Study of the English Medieval Church (Oxford, 1926), vol. 1, pp. 284–93; and Joseph Dahmus, The Prosecution of John Wyclyf (New Haven, 1952), pp. 7–34.

For the earlier, Christ-founded English tradition, see E. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957), pp. 42–61; and Janet Nelson, “Kingship and Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought 350–1450, ed. J. H. Burns (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 239–42.

See Katherine Walsh, A Fourteenth-Century Scholar and Primate: Richard Fitzralph in Oxford, Avignon and Armagh (Oxford, 1981).

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