John of Gaunt and John Wyclif

John of Gaunt

John of GauntJohn of Gaunt and John Wyclif

Rev, J. E. Healey, S.J. (Bellarmine Hall, Toronto)

CCHA: Report, 29 (1962), 41-57


Historians have always been somewhat puzzled at the alliance of two such men as John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster and third son of Edward III, and John Wyclif, controversialist and reformer. A generation or so ago, it was not merely puzzling but downright embarrassing that the “Morning Star of the Reformation” should have been linked with such an unprincipled politician as Gaunt. Nowadays, historians question sharply the validity of this title for Wyclif, although Miss McKisack warns us against a too precipitate revision. John of Gaunt, on the other hand, has not received a full coat of whitewash; no doubt he would be pleased to learn that he is no longer considered an arch-villain, though he might indeed prefer even that to Anthony Steel’s description of him as “an amiable nonentity of no special attainments.”

Background of the Times

One may wonder legitimately to what extent Wyclif (or even Gaunt) would be remembered today, had it not been for the circumstances of the time; it is indeed quite possible that these thrust both men into a prominence that more settled times might have precluded. For it was an unsettled period indeed, when these men came to the fore; an unsettled period that almost exactly paralleled their prominence in the national life. Miss McKisack writes of the decade from 1371: “General uneasiness, rising at times to panic, manifested itself in three open assaults on the executive.” And K. B. McFarlane speaks of Edward III’s last years as “one of the most confused periods in fourteenth-century history.” The decade opened in 1371 with something like a palace revolution whereby the predominantly clerical administration was replaced by laymen. However, too much should not be made of this incident. Many historians consider it an anti-clerical outburst; I prefer to consider it an outburst of dissatisfaction on the part of the war-hawks against the unsuccessful conduct of the war with France by the clerical heads of administration.

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