If extortion and tyranny such as this severed the English clergy from the Papacy, their own selfishness severed them from the nation at large. Immense as was their wealth, they bore as little as they could of the common burthens of the realm. They were still resolute to assert their exemption from the common justice of the land, and the mild punishments of the ecclesiastical courts carried little dismay into the mass of disorderly clerks. Privileged as they were against all interference from the lay world without, the clergy penetrated by their control over wills, contracts, divorce, by the dues they exacted, as well as by directly religious offices, into the very heart of the social life around them. No figure was better known or more hated than the summoner who enforced the jurisdiction and levied the dues of their courts. On the other hand, their moral authority was rapidly passing away; the wealthiest churchmen, with curled hair and hanging sleeves, aped the costume of the knightly society to which they really belonged. We have already seen the general impression of their worldliness in Chaucer's picture of the hunting monk and the courtly prioress with her love-motto on her brooch.
Over the vice of the higher classes they exerted no influence whatever; the King paraded his mistress as a Queen of Beauty through London, the nobles blazoned their infamy in court and tournament. "In those days," says a chronicler of the time, "arose a great rumour and clamour among the people, that wherever there was a tournament there came a great concourse of ladies of the most costly and beautiful, but" not of the best in the kingdom, sometimes forty or fifty in number, as if they were a part of the tournament, in diverse and wonderful male apparel, in particoloured tunics, with short caps and bands wound cord-wise round their head, and girdles bound with gold and silver, and daggers in pouches across their body, and then they proceeded on chosen coursers to the place of tourney, and so expended and wasted their goods and vexed their bodies with scurrilous wantonness that the rumour of the people sounded everywhere; and thus they neither feared God nor blushed at the chaste voice of the people." They were not called on to blush at the chaste voice of the Church. The clergy were in fact rent by their own dissensions.
The higher prelates were busy with the cares of political office, and severed from the lower priesthood by the scandalous inequality between the revenues of the wealthier ecclesiastics and the " poor parson" of the country. A bitter hatred divided the secular clergy from the regular; and this strife went fiercely on in the Universities. Fitz-Ralf, the Chancellor of Oxford, attributed to the Friars the decline in the number of academical students, and the University checked by statute their admission of mere children into their orders. The older religious orders in fact had sunk into mere landowners, while the enthusiasm of the Friars had in great part died away and left a crowd of impudent mendicants behind it. Wyclif could soon with general applause denounce them as sturdy beggars, and declare that " the man who gives alms to a begging friar is ipso facto excommunicate".
Without the ranks of the clergy stood a world of earnest men who, like " Piers the Ploughman," denounced their worldliness and vice, sceptics like Chaucer laughing at the jingling bells of their hunting abbots, and the brutal and greedy baronage under John of Gaunt, eager to drive the prelates from office and to seize on their wealth. Worthless as the last party seems to us, it was with John of Gaunt that Wyclif allied himself in his effort for the reform of the Church. As yet his quarrel was not with the doctrines of Rome but with its practice, and it was on the principles of Ockham that he defended the Parliament's indignant refusal of the " tribute "which was claimed by the Papacy. But his treatise on "The Kingdom of God " (De Dominio Divino) shows how different his aims really were from the selfish aims of the men with whom he acted. In this, the most famous of his works, Wyclif bases his action on a distinct ideal of society. All authority, to use his own expression, is "founded in grace." Dominion in the highest sense is in God alone; it is God who, as the suzerain of the universe, deals out His rule in fief to rulers in their various stations on tenure of their obedience to Himself. It was easy to object that in such a case " dominion "could never exist, since mortal sin is a breach of such a tenure, and all men sin.
But, as Wyclif urged it, the theory is a purely ideal one. In actual practice he distinguishes between dominion and power, power which the wicked may have by God's permission,and to which the Christian must submit from motives of obedience to God. In his own scholastic phrase, so strangely perverted afterwards, here on earth " God must obey the devil." But whether in the ideal or practical view of the matter, all power or dominion was of God. It was granted by Him not to one person, His Vicar on earth, as the Papacy alleged, but to all. The King was as truly God's Vicar as the Pope. The royal power was as sacred as the ecclesiastical, and as complete over temporal things, even the temporalities of the Church, as that of the Church over spiritual things. On the question of Church and State therefore the distinction between the ideal and practical view of "dominion" was of little account. Wyclif s application of the theory to the individual conscience was of far higher and wider importance. Obedient as each Christian might be to king or priest, he himself, as a possessor of " dominion," held immediately of God. The throne of God Himself was the tribunal of personal appeal.
What the Reformers of the sixteenth century attempted to do by their theory of Justification by Faith, Wyclif attempted to do by his theory of" dominion." It was a theory which in establishing a direct relation between man and God swept away the whole basis of a mediating priesthood on which the mediaeval Church was built; but for a time its real drift was hardly perceived. To Wyclifs theory of Church and State, his subjection of their temporalities to the Crown, his contention that like other property they might be seized and employed for national purposes, his wish for their voluntary abandonment and the return of the Church to its original poverty, the clergy were more sensitive. They were bitterly galled when he came forward as the theological bulwark of the Lancastrian party at a time when they were writhing under the attack on Wykeham by the nobles; and in the prosecution of Wyclif, they resolved to return blow for blow. He was summoned before Bishop Courtenay of London to answer for his heretical propositions concerning the wealth of the Church. The Duke of Lancaster accepted the challenge as really given to himself, and stood by Wyclifs side in the Consistory Court at St. Paul's. But no trial took place.