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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
BA English
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Unit-2 Anti Clerical Movement

Learning Outcomes

After the successful completion of the unit, the learners will be able to:

  •  dissect the forces that led to the emergence of the anti-clerical movement in Britain.
  • compare the features of clerical movement with Reformation in England. f discern the features of the Lollard movement.
  • evaluate the anti-clerical features of modern times with that of early medieval or medieval times.


We live in a world where social media becomes the public platform where anyone can level an allegation against faith or belief or doctrine. It is shared and passed on to all those who possess an electronic media device. Can you think of a society where there were no such devices and only feeble voices of a limited number of people were echoed in the society? Or where people feared to criticise and had no liberty to hold a free-thinking mind? The following content would let you know about the initial steps taken toward religious Reformation in England.

Anti-clericalism, Lollards, Transubstantiation, Indulgences

In medieval Europe, the common man was never in direct contact with the Holy See (the government of the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope) or the King. They were related to the local clergy in the town and when these clergymen failed to fulfil their duties, it was viewed as a failure of the system. The word anticlericalism is used to denote the attitudes and mentalities which produce mild criticism against the clergy and may lead to loud protest and violence. It was a reaction of the people against the church involvement in social, economic and political matters of the country in excess. It sometimes contained ideas based on theology, philosophy and history. A notable feature of the movement was that it was not launched by the laymen alone, instead, the members of the lower clergy also were a part of it. The goal of anti-clericalism was to make religion a strictly private activity.
Many a time anti-clericalism has led to violent attacks against the clergy, destruction of religious sites, and seizing of church property. As a part of the movement there occurred violence and attacks against the local clergy in England. There were examples of local people entering the church and manhandling the vicar in many places as seen in the case of Pawlett in Somerset in 1540. In the medieval period, both the clergy and the laymen expressed anti-clerical attitudes irrespective of the religious sects they belonged to. The anti-clerical movement was often based on theology, philosophy and history. The movement at a later stage gave birth to the Reformation movement across Europe beginning with the Lutheran dissent. In England, the earliest form of anti-clerical movement was expressed by the Lollards, who were the followers of John Wycliffe. They severely criticised the institutional church and anticipated the English Reformation. The obvious source of early anticlerical sentiment arose long before the actual launching of Reformation in England by Henry VIII. Anti- clericalism existed throughout the Christian history. However, it was prominent in the transitional period between the medieval and modern period, i.e., the period that just followed the Renaissance. Later, during the Enlightenment period, scholars like Voltaire strongly opposed the rampant corruption in the Catholic Church. The most obvious source of early anticlerical sentiment arose long before the formal establishment of the Reformation, beginning in the 14th Century with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, where satire was used to hint at underlying frustration amongst the masses.
John Wycliffe: John Wycliffe represents the early example of the anti-clerical movement in Britain. He was an English theologian, philosopher and reformer who lived between 1330 and 1384 AD. He was a product of Oxford university. He was a member of the deputation sent by the English King Edward III to solve the differences between the papacy and the crown. He vehemently criticised the church policies and argued that the church itself was corrupt and sinful. He called for a return to evangelical poverty, and simple living. He stated that the Church was already wealthy enough and it was the English authorities and not the Church authorities who should tax the people. He pointed out that Christ exhorted his disciples to lead a life of poverty and not a life in the pursuit of wealth. As his views attracted considerable attention, Pope Gregory XI issued five papal bulls (an official papal letter or document) against Wycliffe and callied him ‘the master of errors’ by asking for his arrest in 1377 AD.
After two years he started attacking the church systematically through his arguments mainly against transubstantiation (the change by which the substance of the bread and wine used in the Eucharist, ie. Holy Communion, becomes the body and blood of Christ) and denied the doctrine that the church hierarchy possessed a direct succession from Jesus. He also departed from the church doctrines of indulgences, and confession and emphasised the learning of the Holy Bible as the sole authority. In 1382 he translated the Bible into English which was till then available only in Latin. He was alleged to have instigated the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. His followers were known as Lollards. His works were banned by the Church. His teachings, though suppressed, continued to spread. His steps of systematically attacking the base of the Catholic Church were later adopted by Martin Luther who initiated Reformation in Germany and began the Protestant Movement in Europe. Therefore, Wycliffe is hailed as the ‘Morning Star of Reformation’ in England.
3.2.1 Lollard Movement
The first heretics of England are popularly known as the Lollards. They were the followers of John Wycliffe. The name Lollard, used with disapproval, was derived from Middle Dutch, meaning ‘mumbler.’ The first group to be called Lollards were some of the colleagues of Wycliffe at Oxford. The group was led by Nicholas of Hereford. Gradually the movement gained followers outside Oxford. The townspeople, merchants, gentry and sometimes even the lower clergy followed Lollard’s ideals. Several of the royal households and a few members of the House Commons extended their support to the movement. With the accession of Henry IV in 1399, a wave of suppression broke out against the Lollards. William Sawrey, the first martyr of the Lollard movement was burned alive in 1401. After a few years there broke out a revolt by the Lollards under Sir John Oldcastle, which was suppressed by the king.
The movement started working underground from then on mainly among the artisans and the tradesmen.
It was not a systematic organisation in the modern sense. They were bound together by a set of beliefs. These beliefs varied in focus and intensity from person to person. Following ideas were associated with the Lollards.
1. The pope had no part to decide worldly affairs.
2. The church was too engrossed in worldly affairs.
3. Monasticism had deviated from the path of spiritualism.
4. The Bible should be made available to all in local languages.
5. It is wrong to use divine power for individual gains.
6. All are brothers and equals.
Although the Lollards started as a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church, the state and nobility viewed it as a threat to their existence and an incitement to upheaval or rebellion. Initially, the crown of England used the movement as a tool to attack the Catholic Church. Later on, especially after Henry IV (Reign from 1399 to 1413) came to power, the crown suppressed the Lollards. When the anger of the working classes erupted in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, it was seen as a result of the work of the Lollards. It has to be pointed out that the work of Wycliffe was available only to the educated classes but we can assume that he sympathised with the lot of the peasants. In the coming century, the term Lollard came to be used to castigate political opponents.
The Lollard movement could be seen as a spontaneous movement that came up in England. It was neither officially founded by Wycliffe nor had any organisational setup. The members of Lollard movement preferred to continue the anti-clerical propaganda held by Wycliffe and utilised every single opportunity to attack the establishment of the Catholic Church. Though in the initial stages the Crown used the movement as a weapon against the Catholic Church in the power struggle, at a later stage they were apprehended for their radical views. The most important impact of the movement was the mode of criticism they inaugurated against the Church which was adopted by the later reformers like Martin Luthur. Their views on transubstantiation, confession, authoritative succession and indulgences were accepted by the latter during the formation of his ninety-five theses. Thus Wycliffe has been appropriately described as the Morning star of Reformation in England.

  •  In medieval Europe, the term anti-clericalism stood for criticising the clergy and the Catholic Church for its corruption and moral decay.
  • Often the members of the clergy themselves were critical of the corruption and worldly spirit of the structural aspects of the Catholic church.
  • People even became martyrs as a result of the suppression of the movement by the kings and the Catholic Church because it basically pointed towards egalitarian ideas.
  • The movement was also based on philosophical, theological and historical ideas.
  • John Wycliffe was one of the early leaders of the ant-clerical movement in Britain.
  • The followers of Wycliffe were called Lollards.
  • The Lollard movement laid the foundation for the future religious reformation in Europe.

Objective Type Questions

1. Who was called the ‘the master of errors’ by the pope in the 14th century?
2. What was the name given to the followers of Wycliffe?
3. Who was the first martyr of the Lollard movement?
4. Who led a revolt of the Lollards?
5. Who was known as the Morning Star of Reformation in England?
6. Who led the Lollard movement in England after the period of Wycliffe?
7. Who is the author of the book ‘The Canterbury Tales’?
8. Who led the Lollard movement in England after the period of Wycliffe?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. John Wycliffe
2. Lollards
3. William Sawrey
4. John Oldcastle
5. John Wycliffe
6. Nicholas of Herefold.
7. Geoffrey Chaucer
8. Nicholas of Hereford


1. Analyse the factors that led to the rise of the anti – clerical movement in England.
2. Briefly discuss the Lollard Movement.

Suggested Readings

1. Rowse, A.L. The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society , Ivan. R. Dee Publisher, 2000.
2. Carter, E.H. Mears,, A History of Britain, Stacey International, 2012.
3. Amt, Emilie. (Ed.), Medieval England, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, 2000.
4. Brown, Eric. English History, A Concise Overview of the History of England from Start to End, Guy Saloniki, 2019.
5. Trevelyan, George Macaulay. Illustrated English Social History, Pelican, 1964.
6. Morgan, Kenneth O (Ed). The Oxford History of Britain, OUP Oxford, 2010.
7. Pritchard, R.E. Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times,
The History Press Limited, 2003.
8. Bailey, Richard. Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language , Cam- bridge University Press, 2009.
9. Bucholz, Robert and Newton Key, Early Modern England, 1485-1714 ,Wiley- Blackwell, 2003.
10. Jenkins, Simon. A Short History of England, Profile Books, 2018.
11. Churchill, Winston, A History of English-Speaking Peoples, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.