John Wycliffe:  The Morning Star (1984)

 

 

 

Director:     Tony Tew. 

Starring:     Michael Bertenshaw (John Purvey),  James Downie (Boy),  Peter Howell (Dr. John Wycliffe),  Barrie Cookson (Dr. Nicholas Hereford),  Jeremy Roberts (Throckmorton),  Peter J. Cassell (Batkal),  Mel Churcher (Wycliffe's Niece),  Noel Howlett (Archbishop Sudbury),  Robert James (Bishop Courtenay),  Malcolm Terris (Sheriff),  Martin Matthews (Prisoner),  Sebastian Abineri (Peasant Husband),  Anna Lindup (Peasant Wife),  Keith Buckley (John of Gaunt),  Colin Russell (Squire Newberry).

early English dissident from Roman Catholic Church ; founder of Lollard Movement, predecessor to Luther

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"During the latter half of the fourteenth century great forces were at work in England. The medieval world was coming to a close but the new world was not yet ready to be born. The Black Death had killed one third of the people and though the Crusades were over, the Hundred Year War with France was still in progress. The peasants were impatient for a better life. The Church, which had brought civilization and order to medieval Europe had grown in wealth and power. But there were no Bibles in the English language and the Gospel became diluted with superstition and half truths. From within the Church voices began to call for reform. One such voice belonged to John Wycliffe."

Lutterworth, a market town in the Harborough district of southern Leicestershire, England.

A group of clergy oversee a man digging with a shovel looking for the bones of Dr. John Wycliffe. A man and his son are watching the digging. The man says that the church is trying to rid itself of a bad memory that has haunted it for over forty years. The son wants to know who this Wycliffe is, so his father starts the tale.  Dad first met Wycliffe when he was a student at Oxford. Wycliffe was the best teacher and best preacher he ever heard. He was the most brilliant scholar and philosopher of his period. Wycliffe believed that the church had strayed away from the true meaning of the New Testament of the Bible. And when he spoke his mind, his troubles really began.

Flashback. The English clergy hears from the Pope that this Wycliffe must be forced back into conformity immediately. Bishop Courtenay tells the Archbishop he is very willing. He says earlier failures to silence Wycliffe were due the protection provided to him by John of Gaunt (d. 1399), who is the uncle of the young Richard II (reign 1377-1399).

Wycliffe speaks with a group of students. He mentions his trial at St. Paul’s that took place the previous year. He was not allowed to say a single word in his own defense. A mob disturbed the trial rescuing Wycliffe from a possible death sentence. Now he faces a new trial, this one to be at Lambeth (that is, the London Borough of Lambeth, aka Waterloo). Looking on the bright side, Wycliffe sees the trial as an opportunity to get his message across to people.

Afraid for his welfare, Wycliffe’s niece asks him not to go to Lambeth. The Friars are saying that her uncle is a heretic and he will be seized. Wycliffe alienated the Friars because he told them they act like parasites leeching off the poor, while not being educated enough to read a passage from the Bible.

Going with Wycliffe is a man named Nicholas. One their way to Lambeth, they are to stop to speak with John of Gaunt. The two men are accompanied by two students and a horse carrying supplies.

Along the way they run in a sheriff with a prisoner, a highwayman. The prisoner tells Wycliffe that the laborers' wages have been held constant for twenty-five years and yet the costs keep going up for all kinds of goods. So he felt he had to be a highwayman. The highwayman tells Wycliffe that he bought an indulgence from his local priest and now has God’s forgiveness. Wycliffe tells him that forgiveness cannot be purchased with a few coins. He must be truly be repentant to have God’s grace.

A poor man asks Wycliffe to help his wife who can’t get over her grief over losing a child. Their child was not baptized because they had no money at the time. The woman says that she cannot be comforted because a Friar told her that the souls of the unbaptized infants are cursed to wander forever. Wycliffe tells the woman this is an old wives’ tale that is just not true.

John of Gaunt tells Wycliffe that he won’t be able to save him this time. John says that his father King Edward III (reign 1327-1377) died a view months ago and now they have the ten year old Richard II as the king. The boy king is under the power of very ambitious men and they see John of Gaunt as their enemy. John is very worried about Wycliffe because the man just doesn’t understand the politics of his situation.  He tells Wycliffe that at Lambeth Palace his most dangerous enemy will not be Archbishop Sudbury, but Bishop Courtenay. He urges the great scholar to be diplomatic and moderate.

At Lambeth Bishop Courtenay begins his questioning of Wycliffe. He is critical of Wycliffe’s insistence that if the church misuses and abuses its powers, then the civil authority has a right to correct the church. Wycliffe also says the church should not have extreme material wealth as it does. The church owns one third of the land of England. He reminds the Bishop that Christ and his apostles lived in poverty. Wycliffe says the church should help feed the poor and starving with its vast wealth. The Bishop says that Wycliffe seeks to undermine the authority of the church.

The Bishop asks what would replace the authority of the church once Wycliffe has destroyed it? Wycliffe says: the holy scriptures. A messenger arrives with a document for the Archbishop. It is a letter from the Queen Mother, Joan of Kent, speaking on behalf of Richard II. She writes that Wycliffe has given the Crown long and valued service. The Queen Mother wants the court to refrain from handing down any final judgment. Court is adjourned for the time being.

Bishop Courtenay sees the hand of John of Gaunt behind the letter of the Queen Mother. He says Wycliffe once again has escaped their judgment. The man is dangerous. He has sent many itinerant priests into the countryside to preach his message, but the Bishop says he can hardly condemn him for that given the poor performance of their own clergy.  Bishop Courtenay now decides to purge Oxford of Wycliffe’s Lollard heresies. The academic world must turn its back on the man’s teachings. Then the nobility will turn to the church and away from Wycliffe.

Wycliffe remained at Oxford. Pope Gregory died. The church separated into two parts with two rival popes: Pope Urban VI in Rome and Pope Clement VII in Avignon, France. Wycliffe was able to write freely and his ideas became even more bold.

Wycliffe publishes a book containing his attack on the church doctrine of transubstantiation (the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist). John of Gaunt is furious saying that now Wycliffe has gone too far. He immediately heads for Oxford.

He bursts into the office of Wycliffe. He is furious saying that an attack on transubstantiation is an attack on the mass. He must retract his position at once. Wycliffe defends his belief saying that transubstantiation was unknown to the fathers of the church. The doctrine was only proclaimed less than 200 years ago. John doesn’t care. He says that Lords Gloucester and Arundel pull the strings of their puppet Richard II and they are dangerous men. He is fearful that chaos will reign in England. He says: "Your stubbornness puts you at Courtenay’s mercy." Wycliffe says he will not sell his soul. John hugs Wycliffe fearing he will not see his face again.

Wycliffe goes to speak to the peasants who Nicholas warns are on the brink of insurrection. Nicholas warns of the repercussions to Wycliffe if he becomes associated with a revolt of the peasants. John speaks to a delegation of peasants and agrees with the rightness of their cause. Wycliffe tries to advise the peasants against the use of violent tactics because this is not Christ’s way. The men reject Wycliffe’s advise saying there has been too much talk already.

In May and June of 1381, a Peasants’ Revolt began in England. The peasants demanded the end of serfdom. Their leaders were Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw. The peasants burned down John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace and killed both the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury (who was also Lord Chancellor) and the king's Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales.  Eventually, the Knighthood put down the rebellion. The nobility and the church blamed Wycliffe for the revolt. He was the one who taught the peasants that God thinks the peasants are important enough to have even earthly rights.

Bishop Courtenay becomes the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Courtenay now goes after Wycliffe. He sends a letter to Chancellor Rigg of Oxford. Rigg tells Wycliffe that Courtenay has appointed a Council of Twelve to oversee Oxford University. And his own authority is now by license of that Council. Their first order is to deprive Wycliffe of all academic privileges. Wycliffe wonders how will he be able to continue his work.

Two students talk to Wycliffe. They are foreign students and say they have copied all his works so they now have the complete writings of John Wycliffe. They will take the works to Bohemia. They urge him to come with them to Prague. Wycliffe thanks them, but he will stay in England.

Wycliffe prays to God and He tells him in a way to go to Lutterworth. He tells Nicholas that the only authority they need is the word of God. He will use his exile to translate the scriptures into English. Nicholas warns him that this will raise the ire of his enemies, especially the Archbishop. Wycliffe only pays attention to his dream of making the Bible available to all of his countrymen and women.  The translation work starts. Wycliffe has many volunteers and students to help him. Everyone thought of the work as a form of worship.

When they finish the work, the problem becomes how to get the word of God out to the common people. In his second year at Lutterworth, Wycliffe suffered a stroke that left him partly crippled. He has to walk with a staff. He now has a new flock of priests to go out among the people. He thanks them and God.

Archbishop Courtenay prepares the ground to silence Wycliffe. His heresies now include the idea that any man can preach the word of God. What need will there be of priests if any man can preach? And he has translated the Bible into the common tongue. The Archbishop says that all itinerant priests shall be arrested and imprisoned. A condemnation will be issued against Wycliffe and he shall be delivered to the Council.

Wycliffe did not appear at the third trial because he suffered another stroke that left him paralyzed. So they tried Wycliffe in absentia. Wycliffe dies.

Back tot he present. The digging for Wycliffe’s bones continues. They find many of the bones and burn them. After his death, Wycliffe’s beliefs continued to spread in England and Europe. John Hus of Prague was one of his disciples. In England many of Wycliffe’s followers were put on trial and ordered to recant. Those who recanted later renounced their recantations.

Thirty years after Wycliffe’s death, the Council of Constance ordered that John Hus be burned at the stake and that the bones of Wycliffe be dug up and burned to ashes. The father tells his son they think that this would stop the ideas of Wycliffe, but they will never be able to accomplish this.

 

Good movie.  It explains quite clearly the teachings of John Hus, which later would be part of the revolt of Martin Luther and the rise of Protestantism.  The position of the Catholic church was also clearly explained.  And quite a bit of the historical background is given within the movie, which is nice.  Peter Howell as Wycliffe was just great.  He really looked like a very religious and very good man.  The movie was short and sweet and I was glad there was no heavy handed approach to the subject of religion. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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