England’s John Wycliffe embodied Protestantism long before Luther, and the Reformation could have broken out in England 130 years before it began in Germany. It was aborted, however, by a mob and a boy.
During Wycliffe’s day, England was an unhealthy place. Few reached age 40. There was little public sanitation, and the stench of latrines, tanneries, and livestock sullied the air. The plague struck with frightening regularity—in 1361, 1368, 1375, 1382, 1390—taking one in three and nearly half the clergy. The population grew angry and social order deteriorated. A poll tax in 1380 sparked violence, and Wycliffe, finding himself quoted by rebel leaders, tried to distance himself from the revolt. But many felt his reformer’s message had contributed to the uprising.
On June 10, 1381 mobs swarmed through Canterbury, sacking the palace of Archbishop Sudbury. On June 11 revolutionaries rolled like a flood toward London. “Now,” they said, “the reign of Christian democracy will begin and every man will be a king.”
King Richard II hid in the Tower of London as the horde stormed the capital. The next morning he agreed to meet with the insurgents in North London. Rebel leaders, unsatisfied with his answers, rushed back to the tower, seized Archbishop Sudbury while he was singing Mass in the chapel, forced his neck on a log, and hacked off his head (which required eight strokes to do the job). Mobs pillaged and murdered at will. The shaken king retired to his mother’s apartments near St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The next morning, June 15, 1381, Richard took the sacrament and rode out to face the rebels. When a skirmish erupted, he rode bravely toward the masses, shouting, “Sirs, will you shoot your king? I will be your captain; you shall have from me that which you seek.” The rebels hesitated, and the people sided with Richard. The tide turned. The king, his state, and the official Church of England were preserved; the revolt was crushed; William Courtnay, who hated Wycliffe, was named archbishop; and the Reformation was deferred until another day.
King Richard II, incredibly, was only 14 years old.
Who makes these things happen? Who controls human events? I do! I am the Lord. I was there at the beginning; I will be there at the end. Islands and foreign nations saw what I did And trembled as they came near. (Isaiah 41:4-5)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). June 15.