Wells, John (d.1388) (DNB00)


WELLS, JOHN (d. 1388), opponent of Wycliffe, was a Benedictine monk of Ramsey, who studied at Gloucester College, Oxford, the Benedictine establishment to which most of the great houses of that order in the southern province sent their more studious members to receive a learned education. There he proceeded doctor of divinity, apparently in 1377. He was for thirteen years ‘prior studentum’—that is, head of Gloucester College. Wells became conspicuous as a bitter opponent of Wycliffe, when the reformer published in the university his attacks on the monastic ideal of life and his denunciation of all ‘religiones privatæ.’ Several passages in Wycliffe's Latin works seem to be drawn up in answer to Wells's defence of the monastic life. The chief of these are ‘Sermonum tertia pars, Sermo xxx’ (Sermones, ed. Loserth, iii. 246–248, 251–7, Wyclif Soc.) and Sermo xxix (ib. iii. 230–9). The latter argument is verbally repeated in Wycliffe's so-called second treatise ‘De Religione Privata’ (Wyclif, Polemical Works, ii. 524–34, ed. Buddensieg, Wyclif Soc.) Analogous arguments are also used in the first treatise ‘De Religione Privata’ (ib. ii. 496–518), which, however, Dr. Buddensieg does not regard as being certainly the work of Wycliffe. In all these passages Wells is not mentioned by name, but simply as ‘quidam dompnus,’ ‘dompnus niger,’ ‘quidam reverendus monachus,’ and, less politely, as ‘quidam canis niger de ordine Benedicti.’ The identification is pretty clear, however, on the strength of the passages quoted from Wycliffe's sermons in ‘Fasciculi Zizaniorum,’ pp. 239–41 (Rolls Ser.), where he is specifically said to be attempting to refute the arguments of ‘quidam vir venerabilis dictus Wellys, tunc monachus de Rameseye.’ In the title of the manuscript he is called ‘dom. Willelmus,’ but this was corrected by Bale.

Wells was one of the doctors of divinity who subscribed the ‘Sententia’ of William of Berton [q. v.], chancellor of Oxford, which condemned the Wycliffite doctrine of the eucharist (Fasciculi Zizaniorum, p. 113). This decree was probably issued early in 1382 (Poole, Wycliffe and the Movement for Reform p. 105). During Lent 1382, when Nicholas of Hereford [q. v.] was preachin Latin at St. Mary's, and urging that no person ‘de privata religione’ should be allowed to take a degree, Wells joined with the Carmelite doctor Peter Stokes [q. v.] in complaining of this doctrine to the new chancellor, Robert Rygge [q. v.], who took no notice of their charge (Fasciculi Zizaniorum, p. 305). In May 1382 Wells was present at the Earthquake council, held at the Blackfriars, London, being the only non-mendicant D.D. present, save perhaps among the bishops (ib. p. 499, cf. p. 287; Wilkins, Concilia, iii. 158). He was the first of the doctors to ‘determine’ in the council, and a contemporary Wycliffite poet gives a spiteful account of his windy and feeble arguments against Wycliffe and Hereford. His face, yellow as gall, showed what sort of man he was, and Hereford easily put him to silence (Wright, Political Poems, i. 260, Rolls Ser.) Among the many articles condemnatory of Wycliffe's teaching drawn up at the council, five condemned the reformer's views as to religious orders, and three (articles 20, 21, and 22) specifically upheld the positions that Wells had maintained against Wycliffe (Fasciculi Zizaniorum, pp. 281–2). It was doubtless on information given by Wells and Stokes that Rygge shared in the condemnation of the council.

On 9 July 1387 Wells was sent by the presidents of the general chapter of the English Benedictines on a mission to Urban VI. His own abbot of Ramsey was one of those who appointed him. His business was to intercede with the pope for the deprived and imprisoned cardinal of Norwich, Adam Easton [q. v.] But he was also appointed general proctor of the English Benedictines to explain their needs to the pope and transact other business (cf. Raine, Letters from Northern Registers, pp. 423–4, Rolls Ser.) The pope was then residing at Lucca, whence in September he moved to Perugia (Creighton, Hist. of the Papacy, i. 88–9). It was at one of these towns that Wells pleaded in vain for Easton, who was only released after Urban's death. In any case, he attended or followed the pope to Perugia, where he died in 1388, and where he was buried in the church of Santa Sabina (Tanner, Bibl. Brit.-Hib. p. 757). His zeal against Wycliffe had given him the name of ‘Malleus hereticorum.’

Bale enumerates the following works of Wells: 1. ‘De socii sui ingratitudine, lib. i.’ 2. ‘Epistolæ ad diversos, lib. i.’ 3. ‘Pro religione privata, lib. i.’ 4. ‘Super cleri prerogativa, lib. i.’ 5. ‘Super Eucharistiæ negotio, lib. i.’ (Script. Brit. Cat. cent. vi. No. 82). To these Tanner (p. 757) adds ‘Contra Wycliff de religione privata’ (from Wood's ‘Hist. et Antiq. Oxon.’ i. 189), but this is probably the same as 3.

John Wells of Ramsey may be easily confused with a contemporary John Welle or Wells, also a doctor of divinity, but a Franciscan. The particulars of the Minorite doctor's career are collected by Mr. A. G. Little (Grey Friars in Oxford, pp. 78, 175, 311, Oxford, Hist. Soc.), who identifies him with the ‘John Wells, a friar,’ who took part in the disputed election to the chancellorship at Oxford in 1349, and (more doubtfully) with the Franciscan lector ‘John Valeys’ in that university, and the ‘Johannes Vallensis Anglus qui diu Londonii Theologiam docuit,’ who in 1368 was promoted to the ‘magisterium’ at Toulouse by order of Urban V (Wadding, Annales fratrum Minorum, viii. 209). He is more clearly the ‘John Welle, Minorite, S.T.P.,’ who was addressed as papal chaplain in 1372 (ib. viii. 533). In 1378 a large amount of property belonging to him was stolen from his house in London, but was partly recovered when the thief, his servant, Thomas Bele, was arrested at Cambridge (Little, pp. 311–12; Cal. Patent Rolls, 1377–81, p. 133). From the amount of his possessions, Mr. Little conjectures that he may have been warden of the London convent.

[Authorities cited in the text.]

T. F. T.