Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Colin's Little Known Facts: John Wycliffe and Lutterworth

The fourteenth century religious reformer John Wycliffe was Rector at the Leicestershire market town of Lutterworth.

John Wycliffe was born around 1330, the son of the lord of the manor of Wycliffe-on-Tees, a small village near Richmond in Yorkshire.

He first appears in history as a clerk at Oxford University in 1356, where his views on religious matters marked him as a rebel and a troublemaker.

He saw through some of the corrupt ways of the Church at the time, including the selling of indulgences (“give me some money and I will assure you that God has forgiven your sins”). Speaking out against these practices made him many enemies, although he was not the only one to condemn them – so did his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”.

Wycliffe was also the first man to translate the Bible into English. People often ask what on earth the point of that was, given that very few could read. But, when attending church, it was not unusual to hear a preacher reading from the Bible, and it was obviously desirable to understand what was being said.

Wycliffe spent his last few years, effectively in exile, at Lutterworth. He would probably have been in even more serious trouble had he not been (like Chaucer) under the protection of the powerful John of Gaunt, one of whose homes was Leicester Castle.

He certainly preached at St. Mary de Castro Church in Leicester, the same church where Chaucer was married.

Wycliffe died on 31st December 1384, having suffered a stroke at church. The door through which he was carried is still known as Wycliffe’s Door.

Such was the hatred felt by the Church for him, however, that even his mortal remains were not allowed to rest in peace. A mob sent by the Bishop of Lincoln dug up his bones and burned them, before throwing the ashes into the River Swift. This is probably the origin of the later legend of the supposed disposal of the bones of Richard III into the River Soar at Leicester.

His followers, however, continued to cast doubts on aspects of Church teachings, and were known as the Lollards. His writings were a great influence on Martin Luther, usually credited as being the father of the Protestant churches.

John Foxe, in “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”, called Wycliffe “the morning star of the Reforamation”, an appellation which has stuck across the centuries.

There is a prominent memorial to John Wycliffe in Lutterworth town centre.