Born ca. 1330 to a prominent North Yorkshire family, he was enrolled by age 15 in Oxford's Balliol College. There he studied law, logic and the arts, before going on to pursue the study of theology, having been influenced by philosophers like Robert Grosseteste, Henry of Bracton and King Edward III's war chaplain Thomas Bradwardine. Spending the greater part of his life at Oxford, he became a Fellow of Merton in 1356, Master of Arts at Balliol in 1360, and Doctor of Divinity in 1372.
As a teacher and philosopher, Wycliffe earned a reputation of being second to none and he introduced a number of revolutionary ideas into the stream of late medieval thought via his many treatises and publications. Often these were in defense of the sovereign rights of the king against the authority of the papacy and the church hierarchy. He wrote, "England belongs to no pope. The pope is but a man, subject to sin; but Christ is the Lord of lords, and this kingdom is held directly and solely of Christ alone" (De civili dominio-1376).
Above all, he revered the Bible as the living word of God and the highest authority for both the church and the individual, and made clear he believed it the right and duty of every Christian to know the Bible (De veritate Sacrae Scripturae-1378). This logically led him to conclude that the laity of his homeland ought rightly to have the Scripture in their native tongue. He reasoned, "Englishmen learn Christ's law best in English. Moses heard God's law in his own tongue; so did Christ's apostles." Persecuted doggedly by church officials in both England and Rome, particularly by the powerful Bishop of London William Courtenay, he was protected by equally influential friends in the court of King Edward III. But after Edward's death in 1378, much of his support began to wane. He had for many years been critical of what he saw as the many abuses by the church at Rome and its sway as essentially a foreign power upon England. The Great Schism, which occurred in the same year after the death of Pope Gregory XI, served as a catalyst for what became his most controversial writings, among them De apostasia-1379, De potestate papae-1379, and De eucharistia-1380, the latter in which he argued against the relatively new doctrine of Transubstantiation (which had been declared church doctrine in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council). Wycliffe opposed the doctrine that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally became the body and blood of Christ. Rather, he believed that the presence of Christ was received based upon the faith of the participant. Wycliffe's view of the Eucharist was the last straw for many who had stood by him up to that point, including his beloved Oxford. Courtenay, now Archbishop, was finally able to successfully convene a council in 1382 which condemned many of Wycliffe's statements as either heretical or erroneous.
Relegated to his long time parish at Lutterworth, he turned his full attention to the completion of his Bible translation and to its subsequent revision, as well as the sending out of his lay preachers to those he loved best, the common people of England. In 1384, he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Another stroke late in the same year claimed his life.
Persecution of the Lollards increased steadily until, after the ascension to the throne of Henry IV in 1399, it became a wave of repression culminating in the first statute passed for the burning of heretics. Many of the Lollards were martyred during the ensuing years, and the movement was driven largely underground, biding its time through the century that followed until the Reformation broke out in Europe and in England. In 1415, the Council of Constance officially declared Wycliffe a heretic and ordered his exhumation and casting out of the 'sacred ground' of the church cemetery. Another 12 years passed before this was carried out; his bones were disinterred and burned, and the ashes cast into the little fast-flowing Swift River nearby.
The historian Thomas Fuller wrote, "Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; they into the main ocean; and thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which is dispersed over all the world."
Even as Wycliffe's ashes flowed to the vast oceans of the world, so the Gospel of Jesus Christ flowed from Wycliffe's English Bible into the hands of future generations of his countrymen, and from there to the whole of the English speaking world, and onto the vast ocean of all the mother tongues of all the people of the world.