The name is also spelled Wycliffe: he was a religious reformer born around 1330. An intriguing thing is that for hundreds of years Wyclif was assumed to be the sole translator of the Bible from Latin into English. This is logically now thought to be untrue, since one man translating the entire Bible (and writing down the translation) would require perhaps sixty years of daily work.
More sensibly, historians now regard him as being ‘one of a large group’ who took part in the enterprise. The result is known as the ‘Wyclif’ or ‘Lollard’ Bible, which was used as standard until the 17th century ‘King James Version’.
He was at Oxford University as an academic and ecclesiastic, publishing various works of philosophy and logic, but became best known for his theological compositions. Inevitably, this being the fourteenth century, he was accused of heresy (in 1382) when he was fifty. He might have been burned, but already had the support of the King and the royal family and this saved him from the faggots. He was encouraged by Edward III in the latter years of his reign, and by Richard II during his minority.
John Wyclif achieved the miracle of not being killed for his beliefs, and the Lollards maintained and supported many of his beliefs, though Lollard-hunting was a favourite sport for many nobles and ecclesiastics for a considerable time to follow.
It is not quite true to say that the Lollards were all followers of Wyclif. The rather odd nickname applied to anyone in the fourteenth century who was brave enough to be openly critical of the Church. The name itself derives from the Dutch – lollaerd, meaning roughly a person chewing or mumbling the words when at prayer.
Serious Lollardry began in the 1370s when Oxford’s trained clerks promoted a series of beliefs based on Wyclif’s teachings on papal and ecclesiastic authority. There were wars everywhere, minor uprisings across Europe, the plague or Black Death threatened everyone. Populations were nervous, and felt their religion could help little, or in any practical manner.
The Lollards attacked the unnaturalness of celibacy of priests, they saw indulgences as a priestly fraud, pilgrimages as nothing much more than a travelling fiesta. King Richard II, who did not feel as sympathetic towards the Lollards as had his grandfather Edward III, was true to his character in that he publicly called for restraint of Lollard claims for ecclesiastic equalities, at the same time maintaining in his household several knights known to be Lollards.
It required the reign of Henry IV (Bolingbroke the usurper) to turn the English monarchy against Lollardry. Henry backed Archishop of Canterbury Arundel in a tremendous persecution. The beheadings and fires began. They continued under Henry V, hero of Agincourt, who died young but not before enjoying the public roasting of many Lollards, which he attended in person.
Sir John Oldcastle was a prominent Lollard who planned an uprising in January, 1414. It failed, but Shakespeare later re-invented Oldcastle as ‘Sir John Falstaff’ in both parts of Henry IV, and mention was made of the same character on his death bed in Henry V. The Bard then gave Falstaff a whole play – The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Lollardry (or Lollardy) gradually petered out in England, remaining a minute spark in the minds of craftsmen, artisans and a few priests, though its basic tenets flared up again when Protestantism inspired by Martin Luther hit Germany and the rest of Europe, replacing Catholicism in many states, including Britain under Henry VIII.