Pagnell, about five miles south of Olney. His name would seem to be of French origin. From the date of his ordination we may conclude he was born in or a little before 1354, and, from his association with Wiclif, that he was educated at Oxford. For some time before Wiclif's death, 1384, Purvey was intimately associated with him at Lutterworth, and became one of Wiclif's most devoted disciples, winning the honour of a place beside Nicholas of Hereford [q. v.] and John Aston or Ashton [q. v.]
It was doubtless during Purvey's Lutterworth residence that what was certainly the great work of his life was conceived, and partly at least executed, viz. the revision of the translation of the bible, which had already been completed by his master and by Hereford in 1380. This 1380 translation is in a language hardly to be called English. It is a verbatim rendering of the Vulgate, with little or no consideration for the idiomatic differences between the Latin and the English tongues. Wiclif's own part offends less in this respect than Hereford's; but the work of each needed anglicising or englishing; and this was the improvement Purvey set himself to carry out, probably with Wiclif's concurrence if not at his suggestion, and with the assistance of other scholars. In the ‘General Prologue,’ which was certainly composed by Purvey, there is an excellent account of his new and famous version. It was not merely a revision of the older copy, but substantially a new work based upon it. ‘A simple creature,’ Purvey writes, ‘hath translated the Bible out of Latin into English. First, this simple creature had much travail, with divers fellows and helpers, to gather many old Bibles and other doctors and common glosses, and to make one Latin Bible some deal true; and then to study it anew, the text with the gloss and other doctors as he might get, and specially Lire [de Lyra] on the Old Testament, that helped full much in this work; the third time to counsel with old grammarians and old divines of hard words and hard sentences, how they might be best understood and translated; the fourth time to translate as he could to the sentence, and to have many good fellows and cunning at the correcting of the translation.’
He was probably in the midst of this noble undertaking when Wiclif died in 1384. From Lutterworth Purvey then seems to have gone to Bristol, a city well known for its sympathies with the new religious movement, where probably, in 1388, his version of the bible was completed. There, too, and in other parts of the country, he served as one of that body of poor preachers which Wiclif had organised. He was soon a marked man. In August 1387 he was forbidden by the bishop of Worcester to ‘itinerate’ in his diocese; and in the two following years his books were placed among those which the bishops of Worcester, Salisbury, and Hereford were authorised to seize. In 1390 he was himself imprisoned; but even in prison he continued his course as a faithful Wiclifite, writing a commentary on the Apocalypse, founded on notes of certain lectures of Wiclif, probably heard in his undergraduate days. Besides this and the Bible version, other works from his hands were: ‘Ecclesiæ Regimen,’ an indictment of the corruptions of the church, and ‘De Compendiis Scripturarum, Paternarum Doctrinarum et Canonum.’ From the former of these one Richard Lavenham or Lavyngham [q. v.] in 1396 collected ‘the heresies and errors of the Rev. [Domini] John Purvey, priest.’
How long Purvey lay in prison we do not know; but in 1400–1 he was brought before convocation; and, unable to face a death by burning, such as the brutal bigotry of his persecutors had just inflicted on William Sawtrey [q. v.], he submitted to the humiliation of ‘confessing and revoking’ his aberrations from the regnant orthodoxy (see his ‘Confessio et Revocatio’ in Fasciculi Zizaniorum). For a time Purvey remained at peace with his enemies. They were, no doubt, anxious to attach to their side one so capable and so energetic. In August 1401 he was inducted to the vicarage of West Hythe, Kent. But, like others of his party who had been similarly terrorised, he was ill at ease in his new position. In October 1403 he resigned his living. During the next eighteen years he doubtless preached where he could. According to Walden, he held the tenet ‘Omnes sacerdotes teneri ad predicandum sub pena peccati.’ In 1421 he was imprisoned by Archbishop Chicheley. There is reason to believe he was living in 1427, or later. According to Messrs. Forshall and Madden, some handwriting of his appears on a manuscript at Trinity College, Dublin, containing a memorial to Cardinal Beaufort, and Henry Beaufort was not raised to the cardinalate till 1427.
[The Holy Bible in the Earliest English Versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers, ed. Forshall and Madden, 4 vols., 1850; Lechler's John Wycliffe and his English Precursors, transl. and ed. by Professor Lorimer, new ed. 1884; Fasciculi Zizaniorum, &c., ed. Shirley (Rolls Ser.), 1858; Netter of Walden's Doctrinale Antiquitatum Fidei Ecclesiæ Catholicæ, vols. i. and ii. of the 1757 Venice edit.; Knighton's Chronica, bk. v. apud Twysden's Hist. Angl. Scriptores x.]