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Reference group
Wycliffites (act. c.1370–c.1420) were followers of the Oxford philosopher and theologian John Wyclif. Recent historical analysis has generally concluded that no useful purpose is served by differentiating between Wycliffites and Lollards among those allegedly led by Wyclif into heresy, but for the purposes of this article the former term is used to designate those disciples in Oxford who knew Wyclif before he left the university in the autumn of 1381, or who probably learned their views within the academic world before c.1420. The three men who dominated the group within Wyclif's lifetime are Nicholas Hereford (of Queen's College), Philip Repyndon (an Oxford-trained Augustinian canon), and John Aston (Merton College). All three were specifically targeted in the condemnation of Wyclif's views and of his followers emanating from the Blackfriars Council of May–July 1382; the first two had come to prominence from their outspoken sermons in Oxford respectively on Ascension and Corpus Christi days that year. Repyndon reverted to orthodoxy in the early autumn and followed a successful career in the church; his desertion was particularly deplored and mocked by those who remained faithful to the Wycliffite cause, even if he apparently retained some sympathy with reformist ideas. Hereford in July 1382 eccentrically appealed to the pope and fled to Rome; after escaping from a papal prison there in 1385 he returned to England where he continued to propagate Lollard ideas until about 1391 when he switched to persecuting in the orthodox cause. Aston's career is less well documented: his preaching of heterodox opinion was persistent and covered a large area, his recantation in November 1382 after an impertinent defence was short-lived, and he can be traced sporadically preaching heresy from 1383, allegedly until his death before August 1407.

Associated with these three in Oxford during Wyclif's lifetime were Laurence Stephen alias Bedeman (Exeter College), Thomas Bryhtwell (Exeter, later Merton), and John Purvey. The last of these was the most persistent but the most elusive: his association with Wyclif was claimed by the chronicler Henry Knighton (whether in Oxford or in Lutterworth is unclear), edicts against his teaching are traceable intermittently between 1387 and 1401, and he died in prison following the revolt led by John Oldcastle, Baron Cobham, in January 1414, when he was arrested at the confrontation in St Giles's Field, London.

Beyond these, several other Oxford men were associated with Wycliffite sympathies before Wyclif's death in December 1384; it is not easy to know how extensive their commitment was. Many of Wyclif's opinions, on the papacy, the religious orders, and the endowment of the church, had a strong contemporary appeal. How many of those who briefly supported Wyclif would have endorsed his rejection of transubstantiation in the eucharist is uncertain; more widespread seems to have been support for his advocacy of vernacular preaching and biblical translation—as, for instance, from Richard Ullerston of Queen's. Of those who distanced themselves from earlier positions Robert Rygge (Exeter, later Merton) is a typical case: he seems to have supported Wycliffite views in the late 1370s, and in the spring of 1382 as chancellor of the university he was responsible for inviting Hereford and Repyndon to preach and resisted the publication of the Blackfriars condemnations in Oxford. But by November 1382 he had moved his allegiance and secured acceptance of his orthodoxy, claiming that university politics, rather than doctrinal conviction, explained his actions. Even William Barton (Merton), despite leading the opposition to Wyclif in 1380–82, was claimed by Bedeman to have been the man described earlier by Wyclif as a particular friend. The careers of Thomas Bryhtwell, Thomas Hulman (Merton; d. 1385), Robert Alyngton (Queen's; d. after c.1393), Henry Crump, and John Ashwardby (possibly of Oriel) all include episodes that appear to show Wycliffite sympathies. The Testimony of William Thorpe, datable to about 1407, speaks of an Oxford group of associates who approved of and tried to implement Wyclif's ideas, mentioning, in addition to Repyndon, Hereford, Aston, and Purvey, also Geoffrey Pickering (a Cistercian) and Robert Bowland (a clerk).

Despite the defections, and the increasingly active episcopal pursuit of Lollards throughout the country, sympathy with Wycliffite views persisted in Oxford at least until the 1420s. Thorpe claimed to have known Wyclif there, as well as the early group of disciples; his career as a Lollard propagandist at least to August 1407 is fitfully traceable. Two principals of St Edmund Hall, William Taylor and Peter Payne, were notorious heretics in the early fifteenth century: Taylor was repeatedly cited from 1406 until his burning at Smithfield in March 1423; Payne contrived the issue of a testimonial to Wyclif's orthodoxy and uprightness of life with the seal of the Oxford congregation in 1406, bluffed his way past the authorities in 1410–12, but had fled to Bohemia by August 1413, there to become one of the leaders of the Hussite movement until his death in 1455/6. The first decade of the fifteenth century saw particular concern with Wyclif and his ideas in Oxford: later at the Council of Basel in 1433 Payne taunted Peter Partridge, by then chancellor of Lincoln, with having converted him then to Wycliffism, a taunt made credible by Partridge's surviving notebook. Thomas Netter, a Carmelite, never himself tempted into doctrinal sympathy, was declaredly impressed by Wyclif's logic, and recalled a debate in Oxford in 1405–6 about an authority used by Wyclif to support his eucharistic views.

Efforts by Archbishop Thomas Arundel to extirpate Wyclif's books and restore the university's orthodoxy led in 1407 to the issue of his constitutions designed to regulate the activities of both clergy and laity throughout his province. In Oxford in 1410 a bonfire of books at Carfax occurred; in 1411 a list of 267 unacceptable conclusions drawn from fourteen of Wyclif's texts was published and forwarded to the Council of Constance where it was duly condemned, along with Jan Hus as their endorser, in 1415. Despite the public condemnation, sympathy with Wycliffite views seems to have persisted, most evidently in Merton College. A group of Merton men, including William James, John Gamylgay, Richard Whelpyngton, and Thomas Lucas, together with Robert Lychlade (whose college is unspecified), had been in trouble for heresy in 1395, though most had been welcomed back to Oxford by 1399; the activity of some of these may have spread heresy in areas contiguous with Merton property in the north-east and in Leicestershire. Lychlade seems to have provided access to Wyclif's De ecclesia to two Czechs in 1406–7; Lucas still in 1416 was urging disendowment and supported Oldcastle; James, after many years of imprisonment for Lollardy, was in 1420 allowed to abjure but remained in confinement.

The Oxford association of other prominent Wycliffites is less easy to establish. Despite William Swinderby's erudition evident in his own defences in the 1380s and 1390s, he described himself as ‘only simply lettered’ and no trace of an academic history has emerged. His disciple Walter Bryt, denounced to Bishop John Trefnant of Hereford in 1390 and tried by him in 1393, was equally erudite and has been tentatively identified with the Merton author of a Theorica planetarum. Richard Wyche, finally burned for heresy in June 1440 after a career intermittently of unorthodox bent, seems likely to have been an Oxford graduate, though his heresy was detected in the north and subsequently in London.

Faced with the growing hostility of both ecclesiastical and civil authorities to the ideas and adherents of Wyclif, those suspected of such views or associations had to be careful to conceal their unorthodox activities; consequently they are hard for modern historians to establish. But connections between some of those already mentioned, and between them and other Lollards, are sporadically traceable. Wyche knew Thorpe and Oldcastle, Thorpe in turn, apart from the Oxford men of his youth, knew Taylor; Taylor in and around Bristol collaborated with Thomas Drayton, a notorious and long-standing preacher of heresy. Several of the Oxford men had associations with the so-called Lollard knights: Hereford was protected by both Sir John Montagu (later third earl of Salisbury) and Sir William Neville, Payne and Lychlade collaborated with people in Sir Thomas Latimer's village of Braybrooke in assisting two Czech visitors in 1406–7 to obtain texts by Wyclif. Whether the appeal of Repyndon and Hereford to John of Gaunt back in 1381–2, an appeal that is echoed by hints in Wyclif's own writings, should be interpreted as indicative of the duke's sympathy is less clear. At various stages of his career, Sir John Oldcastle seems to have attracted support from Oxford Wycliffites.

Oxford has been suggested as the place of origin for a number of Wycliffite texts, Latin and English. Certainly Oxford's book resources seem most likely to have been called on for the Latin Lollard handbook the Floretum and its abbreviation the Rosarium. The English Glossed Gospels, though heavily indebted to the Catena aurea, went back to Aquinas's sources for amplification, and are another probable Oxford production. Still more ambitious than these and similar, less transparent, books was the first English translation of the entire Bible. This enterprise was evidently a collaborative effort, involving scrutiny of Latin vulgates, of patristic commentaries, and then, following a closely literal version, a consistent revision towards an idiomatic, free-standing translation. Even if the wide distribution of this last seems most likely to have used London commercial book-producers, the scholarly work that underlies the translation probably drew on the resources, in men and in books, of Oxford. Perceived as dangerous by Archbishop Arundel, who attempted to suppress it, the translation in whole or in part was very widely disseminated in manuscript up to the 1530s. Names cannot be firmly attached to the workers, though Hereford's name is found abbreviated on two copies and Purvey was later conjectured to have been involved; the collaborative enterprise as a whole testifies to the energies of the Oxford Wycliffites.

Anne Hudson

Sources  

Knighton's chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G. H. Martin, OMT (1995) [Lat. orig., Chronica de eventibus Angliae a tempore regis Edgari usque mortem regis Ricardi Secundi, with parallel Eng. text] · J. Taylor, W. R. Childs, and L. Watkiss, eds. and trans., The St Albans Chronicle, 1: 1376–1394 (2003) · W. W. Shirley, ed., Fasciculi zizaniorum magistri Johannis Wyclif cum tritico, Rolls Series, 5 (1858) · W. W. Capes, ed., Registrum Johannis Trefnant, CYS, 20 (1916) · The testimony of William Thorpe, Two Wycliffite texts, ed. A. Hudson, EETS, 301 (1993) · HoP, Commons, 1386–1421 · K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian kings and Lollard knights (1972) · J. I. Catto, ‘Wyclif and Wycliffism at Oxford, 1356–1430’, Hist. U. Oxf. 2: Late med. Oxf., 175–261 · A. Hudson, The premature reformation: Wycliffite texts and Lollard history (1988) · M. Jurkowski, ‘Heresy and factionalism at Merton College in the early fifteenth century’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 48 (1997), 658–81 · R. Hanna, ‘Dr Peter Partridge and MS Digby 98’, Text and controversy from Wyclif to Bale: essays in honour of Anne Hudson, ed. H. Barr and A. M. Hutchison (2005), 41–65 · J. I. Catto, ‘A radical preacher's handbook, c.1383’, EngHR, 115 (2000), 893–904 · A. Hudson, ‘Which Wyche? The framing of the Lollard heretic and/or saint’, Studies in the Transmission of Wyclif's Writings (2008) · A. Hudson, ‘Notes of an early fifteenth-century research assistant and the emergence of the 267 articles against Wyclif’, Studies in the Transmission of Wyclif's Writings (2008)