In the two centuries after 1066 the face of Europe was transformed by the growing power of the papacy. Its supreme authority was clarified and proclaimed in the new study of theology and canon law. Its ability to govern the western church was established through new administrative structures. In the course of the twelfth century England, Scotland and Wales became fully integrated into this papal world. The consequences for secular politics and ecclesiastical life were profound.
It was to the papacy the rulers of Gwynedd appealed in the thirteenth century to settle the succession of the principality and complain about the oppressions of Edward I. Likewise it was to the pope that the kings of Scotland sent, if unavailingly, to ask permission for a full coronation. In the politics of England, in part because King John had made the kingdom a papal fief, the role played by the pope and his legates was as remarkable as it was usually constructive. After John’s death the ultimate authority in temporal affairs of the legates, Guala and Pandulf (1216–21), was universally accepted by the king’s party. Guala, with the regent William Marshal, sealed the new versions of Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217, while Pandulf, after the regent’s death in 1219, issued the crucial order giving control of day-to-day government to the justiciar Hubert de Burgh. Henry III never forgot his debt to the papacy, hence in part his trusting and disastrous entanglement with the pope over the affairs of Sicily. During the subsequent period of reform and rebellion both sides constantly made their case at Rome, the papal bull quashing the Provisions of Oxford being central to Henry III’s temporary recovery of power in 1261. Subsequently Gui Foulquois, legate in 1263–4 and later Pope Clement IV, fulminated against Montfort’s regime, while his successor, Ottobuono, later Pope Adrian V, laboured wisely and indefatigably to restore peace to the country after Montfort’s death. He also played a key role in negotiations between England and Wales, issuing the letter which proclaimed the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267.
The involvement of the papacy in British politics was in large measure a response to demand. That was equally true of the growing part played by the papacy in ecclesiastical government, especially when it came to the dispensation of justice. The background here was the acceptance that there were certain categories of plea which were the concern of the church, not the state. In England since before the Conquest that had been true of moral and spiritual causes concerning such things as marriage, adultery and wills. The settlement after the Becket dispute had likewise subjected criminous clerks to ecclesiastical jurisdiction (see above, p. 208). In the course of the twelfth century the division between church and state was also clarified when it came to disputes over property. Those over advowsons, the right to appoint parish priests, were to go to secular courts, and one of Henry II’s assizes, that of ‘darrein presentment’, was introduced to hear them. Cases over the property (and there was a large amount of it) which the church held for secular services, that is for rents or knight service, were also the preserve of the state. On the other hand property granted ‘in free alms’ and held simply for spiritual services was the concern of church, as were questions of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and disputes over elections to abbacies and bishoprics.
A considerable body of these ecclesiastical cases could be settled in the court of the bishop, but the growing awareness of papal authority encouraged reference to Rome either in the first instance or on appeal. Cases of major importance, especially over elections, were heard at the curia itself, but in more routine cases the pope’s response to appeals was to appoint local ‘judges delegate’ who would hear the cases back in Britain; one of the first know examples followed an appeal made by Bishop Urban of Llandaff in 1132. More than anything else in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was the growing flood of appeals to Rome and consequent appointment of judges delegate to hear them which (as Jane Sayers has put it) bound the provinces to Rome and Rome to the provinces. Many such cases were between ecclesiastics and involved conflicts over jurisdiction, and property. Important laymen resorted to the pope in disputes over marriages and wills, while knights and many smaller fry frequently appeared before judges delegate in cases over land, tithes and parochial jurisdiction. A large part of the life of the country was embraced by the apparatus of papal government.
If the papal role in the dispensation of justice, like the growth of the English common law, was a reaction to local demand, that was not the case in two other areas where, from the late twelfth century, the pope became more directly involved in dealing with both the British and the wider European church: these areas were taxation and provisions. In asserting his right to tax the church the pope was able to reach a modus vivendi with the king of England because taxation was often – notably in the case of the Sicilian affair – for joint royal and papal purposes. That did not, however, make it other than deeply unpopular with the church. Even more unpopular was the way the pope asserted his right to provide, in effect to appoint, where necessary or convenient, candidates to ecclesiastical office. Here he could certainly come into conflict with kings, especially when he intervened in disputes over elections to bishoprics, the case of Canterbury under King John being the classic example. Later, both John of Cheam, bishop of Glasgow (1259–68), and John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury (1279–92), were provided against royal wishes. But since the pope also allowed many royal candidates, both in England and Scotland, to reach the episcopal bench, here too accommodation was possible. The real unpopularity of provisions came lower down the scale, when the pope appointed his officials and relatives to parish churches and to cathedral and other canonries. Those provided were usually absentees, simply taking the revenues. If they did show up, as Italians they would not speak the language. In either case, they had prevented the patrons, bishops, abbots, abbesses, and lay lords (in the case of parish churches), from appointing their own candidates. Resentment was inevitably tinged with hostility to foreigners. In 1232 there were attacks led by the Yorkshire knight Robert Tweng, on the property and persons of Italian appointees in several parts of England. In 1245 complaints about provisions were loudly voiced by the English delegation at the papal council at Lyons. The general venality of the papal court made matters worse; ‘oiling palms, not singing psalms’ was often thought to be the way to make progress there. The papacy was well aware of the unpopularity of provisions and often tried to limit their number, yet it had to support its officials, as it also required money to defend its independence from the Hohenstaufens and other enemies in Italy. These were the necessary conditions for the fulfilment of its primary purpose, the purpose of the whole church: the cure or care of souls.
If that mission were to be fulfilled, all committed ecclesiastics agreed that the church needed reform. Equally, whatever the criticisms, no one could doubt that since the mid eleventh century the papacy itself had been reform’s standard-bearer. To that end under both William the Conqueror and Henry I (in 1125) it had despatched legates to England who had presided over reforming councils. Similarly in the thirteenth century, councils were held by the legates Otto (1238–41) and Ottobuono (1265–8). The commissions of both covered the whole of Britain. Otto held a council in Scotland, while representatives from the Scottish church attended Ottobuono’s great assembly in London in 1268.
Even more important for papal leadership of reform were the great central councils in which the pope brought together the whole of the Catholic church. These were the Third Lateran Council of 1179 and the Fourth of 1215, the latter attended by nine bishops from England, four from Scotland and two from Wales. In a modern English translation the seventy-one decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council run to thirty-three closely printed pages. The need for such legislation was intensified by changing ideas about the spiritual life of ordinary people, ideas which made the business of the cure of souls all the more difficult.
Part of the background here related to the concept of the afterlife. Both the Bible and the visions of holy men revealed how, on death, one’s soul might either descend to the torments of Hell, like the rich man in the Dives and Lazarus parable, or (like Lazarus himself) be carried away by angels into Abraham’s bosom, the state of bliss or Paradise enjoyed by the righteous. In either condition one awaited the reunion with the body and the ultimate agony or ecstasy brought by the Last Judgement. What though of the general run of men and women who deserved neither Paradise nor Hell? Here Paris theologians after 1170, following on from St Bernard, developed and popularized the idea of a definite place between the two, namely Purgatory. Certainly one was punished there, but the very idea of purgation implied hope. One might move up through the stations of Purgatory, and perhaps even escape altogether and reach Paradise. One English friar, Warin of Orwell, was said to have ‘passed through Purgatory without delay and gone to the Lord Jesus Christ’. If such were the possibilities it became crucially important to consider how they could be realized, and one way at least of shortening the time in Purgatory was through proper confession and penance here on earth.
In regulations which opened up a new pastoral mission for the church and potentially transformed the life of the laity, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that ‘everyone of either sex’ should confess all their sins at least once a year to their own priest and strive to perform the penance then enjoined. Penance before 1215 had often been imposed on a tariff basis with fixed penalties for various types of sin. Now the ideal was that it should be varied by the priest in accordance with the needs of each individual as discovered in the confessional. The priest was to be ‘like a practised doctor pouring wine and oil on the wounds of the injured, diligently inquiring into both the circumstances of the sinner and the sin’.
The Fourth Lateran Council’s injunction about confession and penance was immediately followed by the statement that all Christians were to receive ‘with reverence’ the sacrament of the eucharist at least every Easter. The stress here upon the eucharist reflected the way the notion of transubstantiation, as developed in the twelfth century, had, in the words of Miri Rubin, ‘turned communion into an enormous event’. By attending the daily Mass every Christian could ‘see his God on earth every day’, see him at the moment when the bread was elevated by the priest and ‘transubstantiated into the real body of Christ’, to quote passages from English diocesan legislation of the 1220s and 1230s. When communion was actually taken, the body of God was not merely seen but actually tasted. This supreme experience was not to be assayed lightly and was closed to anyone in a state of sin, unlike attendance at Mass itself. Consequently, the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council directly linked communion with confession and indicated that for the laity both might perhaps take place only once a year.
The responsibilities all this placed on the priest were awesome. He alone could act as a confessor. He alone could perform the miracle of turning the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. As a confessor, he represented the church at its most personal and individual. As a celebrant of the communion he represented it at its most universal, the same ritual being performed every day throughout the parishes, abbeys and cathedrals of Catholic Europe. The basic structures governing the life of the local priest were comparable throughout Britain and Europe and had both strengths and weaknesses. During the twelfth century Scotland and Wales had followed England in gaining episcopal dioceses (ten and four respectively) with defined territorial limits and regular succession of bishops. The Scottish bishops had no metropolitan head and were accountable directly to the pope. In England, where there were fourteen dioceses, Durham and Carlisle (together with Gallo-way in Scotland) came under the metropolitan authority of York. Theother English dioceses were subject to Canterbury, as were the dioceses in Wales, Llandaff and St Davids in the south and Bangor and St Asaphs in the north. By 1200 the English dioceses were divided into archdeaconries, rural deaneries and parishes. A similar structure was developing in Wales and Scotland. By 1300 St Andrews was fairly typical of a prosperous British diocese. It was composed of two archdeaconries and seven deaneries, and had 124 parishes.
In some ways this was an impressive structure which enabled the life of the parish to be monitored by a hierarchy of officials. Yet it had serious defects. Since it was often the local lord who had built and endowed the church around which the parish was formed, he naturally appointed the cleric, the rector, who ruled it. As a result the right of appointment (the advowson) was in diverse hands: king, baron, knight, bishop or monastery, the last because it was with advowsons that many monasteries were endowed. The rector derived his income from the land attached to the church (in England, the glebe) and also from the right to a tenth of the produce from the parish’s land (the tithe). It was King David’s order that tithe (‘tiend’) be paid in Scotland, which really initiated the parochial system there. Often these resources made rectors very wealthy, many (according to thirteenth-century valuations) having incomes of £15 a year and upwards, £15 being the minimum level at which a layman qualified for knighthood. It was this situation which produced the great evil which bedevilled the medieval church: the appointment to livings of men simply not interested in the cure of souls. Patrons frequently regarded the advowson as simply an item of property with which they could support clerical servants and relations, which was why disputes over advowsons were the business of the secular courts. In many cases such appointees drew the income and rarely went near the parish, hence the scandal of non-residence. Some indeed gathered a whole clutch of livings, hence the scandal of ‘pluralism’; and there was yet another scandal, the failure of many rectors to take the trouble to become priests at all – hardly necessary if they had no intention of doing the job. Instead they remained in minor orders. Another variant was when monasteries ‘appropriated’ the churches of which they had been granted the advowsons and took over the entire revenues for themselves. In all these cases the parishes were run by a motley assortment of deputies, vicars and chaplains, living on pittances, often ill-educated, and not up to the job. Gerald of Wales laughed at priests who confused Barnabas and Barabbas and Judas and St Jude! The value of livings could also have a rather different tendency, namely to encourage a married and hereditary priesthood, two further evils stigmatized by reformers, although such priests could sometimes be effective pastors.
It was these problems, Europe wide, which the Fourth Lateran Council faced up to, issuing a series of decrees designed to secure an educated, resident, remunerated, continent and committed priesthood; one which did not, as the decrees said, play dice, frequent mimes and taverns, and stay up at night gossiping and feasting. The efforts made by English bishops after 1215 to put these decrees into practice is one of the most impressive features of the thirteenth-century church. At first sight the extent of such activity might seem surprising, given the number of royal servants on the episcopal bench. Although in theory bishops were to be freely elected by the canons or monks attached to their cathedrals, in practice such electing bodies, willingly or unwillingly, often took full account of the wishes of the king. So, as we have said, did the pope if he intervened. As a result, between 1215 and 1272 twenty-two of the seventy-eight bishops appointed in England were royal officials associated with the wardrobe, chancery, exchequer or law courts. In fact, however, very few of these men were simply uninterested in reform. Many left royal service on their appointment, a striking indication of how powerful reforming ideas had become. Thanks in part to their training in government, they were often efficient diocesans. They also (though not always) helped to secure the co-operation between church and state on which such work depended. The king also acknowledged the need for bishops whose background was ecclesiastical. Eight of the seventy-eight bishops appointed between 1215 and 1272 were monks, while as many as forty had university degrees and some were celebrated scholars. The latter were particularly significant in linking the church to wider intellectual currents in Europe. Paris scholars included Richard le Poore, bishop of Salisbury and Durham (1217–28–37) and Thomas Cantilupe, bishop of Hereford (1275–83). Nicholas of Farnham, bishop of Durham (1241–9) had taught medicine at Bologna, Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry (1224–38) theology at Toulouse, and John de Pontoise, bishop of Winchester (1282–1304) civil law at Modena. Pontoise was a Frenchman provided to Winchester by the pope. Throughout the thirteenth century a leaven of foreigners reached the English episcopal bench, in part thanks to Henry III’s patronage of his wife’s Savoyard kin. Boniface of Savoy, archbishop of Canterbury from 1245 to 1270, was no scholar but, by turns high-handed and honey-tongued, he vigorously defended ecclesiastical privileges, paid off his predecessor’s debts and reached sensible compromises in disputes over archiepiscopal jurisdiction. His will made separate provision for his burial depending on whether he died in England, France or either side of the Alps.
In their efforts to carry through reform after 1215, the bishops were, of course, building on the work of their predecessors. When the Fourth Lateran Council urged proper examination of those chosen for the cure of souls it was essentially reinforcing existing practice. From at least the mid twelfth century English bishops had been asserting the right to institute those appointed to livings, which meant they could reject those unqualified. Some of Henry II’s best bishops, notably Gilbert Foliot of London, Roger of Worcester and Bartholomew of Exeter, took their duty to find suitable priests extremely seriously. Bishops in the same period were also (again anticipating the decrees of the Council) beginning to set up ‘vicarages’ by stipulating that where a living had been appropriated by a monastic house, a ‘perpetual’ vicar was to be appointed to run the parish with a decent and fixed portion of its revenues. Archbishops were also beginning to hold synods for the whole of their provinces. Archbishop Richard of Canterbury’s was the first in 1175, and it promulgated a whole series of reforming decrees. How far individual bishops were holding diocesan synods in the twelfth century is unclear, but they became characteristic features of the thirteenth century, when they were usually held annually. The decrees promulgated at his synod by Richard le Poore, bishop of Salisbury around 1219, based on those of the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils, were widely copied by other bishops. They had 114 clauses and encompass thirty-seven modern printed pages. The bishops were also far from issuing simply a series of ‘dont’s’. With the Statutes of the Coventry and Lichfield diocese was circulated a tract on confession and penance, part of a large body of literature to help the priest in this fundamental area.
The work of the bishops at their best was seen in the largest of all the English dioceses, that of Lincoln. Two of its bishops had extraordinary qualities. The first, Hugh of Avalon (1186–1200), was made a saint, and the second, Robert Grosseteste (1235–53) deserved to be. Both were outsiders. Hugh was a Burgundian whom Henry II in his pious final phase had plucked from the only Carthusian monastery in England, at Witham. Grosseteste was an Englishman from a lowly background who had studied at the provincial schools of Lincoln and Cambridge and perhaps also at Paris. He had then worked as a humble diocesan administrator before becoming a pre-eminent teacher of theology at Oxford. Both men were elderly on reaching the episcopate, yet were utterly fearless in putting the cure of souls before everything else. Both urged worldly ecclesiastics (like Hubert Walter and William Ralegh) to devote themselves to spiritual matters. Both showed deep respect for women. Both agonized over appointments and rejected candidates they thought unsuitable, infuriating the king. Few could have imitated Hugh’s courage when he got hold of King Richard and shook him until his wrath subsided into laughter. Hugh also initiated the work which led to the complete rebuilding of his cathedral in the thirteenth century, golden in its oolitic limestone, inspirational on its ridge above the Lincolnshire plain.
Yet Hugh was more tolerant and less organized than Grosseteste, a reflection of their contrasting personalities and of the growth of administration and learning between the twelfth century and the thirteenth. ‘Three things are needed for bodily health, food, sleep and a joke,’ remarked Grosseteste, but it was Hugh who made the jokes. ‘Well, I won’t be the water for him to drink,’ he laughed when reminded that Richard I thirsted for gold as a hydropsical man for water. The combination of righteous passion, threats, ingenuity and learning seen in Grosseteste’s correspondence with William Ralegh over bastardy (so powerful that one has an almost physical sense of his presence on the page) was quite foreign to Hugh’s humane and humorous nature. Hugh was much in demand as a judge delegate, but at heart disliked business, refusing to attend the hearing of his own accounts. Grosseteste, in contrast, composed a series of rules to guide the countess of Lincoln (Margaret de Lacy) in the administration of her household. He likewise innovated when it came to the visitation of his diocese.
Visitations of their dioceses to teach and inspect the local clergy became a key weapon in the thirteenth-century bishop’s armoury. Yet when Grosseteste visited as bishop of Lincoln he was told he was innovating, his predecessors having simply inspected the religious houses in the diocese. In fact conscientious bishops in the twelfth and earlier centuries, like Wulfstan of Worcester (1062–95), had gone out to preach, confirm, and dedicate churches. Lanfranc himself, when based on his manors, had inspected the neighbouring clergy. What was new, and an important change, was the formality and organization of such visitations. In each rural deanery Grosseteste summoned before him the clergy and people. He himself preached to the former, while the friars preached to the latter, and heard confessions and enjoined penances. At these meetings in each deanery Grosseteste issued statutes governing the life of the clergy: they were to know and expound the ten commandments, seven sins, seven sacraments, and what was needed for the sacrament of true confession and penance. They were also to attend to prayer and the reading of the scriptures, visit the sick day and night, teach the people to bow at the elevation of the host and the boys (girls are not mentioned) the rudiments of the faith. They were also, of course, to be resident, in proper orders, strangers to taverns and dice, and both unmarried and without ‘suspicious’ women in their houses. Such injunctions were typical of diocesan legislation of the period. Hugh’s own statutes were perfunctory in comparison.
Setting off these stars were other effective Lincoln bishops. Grosseteste’s predecessor, Hugh of Wells (1209–35), was a former chancery clerk, yet he devoted himself to his diocese, and initiated what is the earliest surviving bishop’s register, with one section devoted to his activity in setting up vicarages, another to instituting rectors and vicars. Such a record was clearly important as a safeguard against pluralism. It also shows Hugh rejecting appointees on grounds of insufficient learning or accepting them on condition they continued to study. A later bishop, Oliver Sutton (1280–99), gained the see by means of family connections, but was ‘a man most just, most steadfast and most pure’ (as his registrar put it), spending almost all his time in ceaseless visitations of his diocese. Below such visitations in Lincoln and elsewhere, an important role fell to the archdeacon who was supposed to make his own checks on the local clergy, holding general meetings in each deanery once every four weeks.
How effective these efforts were in improving the standing of the parish priest and by extension the spiritual life of his flock is impossible to measure. Records of visitations and of the procedures in decanal courts reveal a depressing round of whippings imposed on the laity for sexual misconduct, though only on the lower classes (it was ‘not seemly for a knight to do public penance’). A married and hereditary priesthood does seem to have slowly disappeared from England in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for what that was worth. Great strides were certainly made in setting up vicarages where livings had been appropriated by monasteries, but vicars employed by other rectors, together with the crowd of clerks and chaplains serving in many parishes, were less well provided for. Such clerks (not in priests’ orders), moreover, were often married. Of the nearly 2,000 candidates for institution to benefices examined by Hugh of Wells, the majority do not seem to have been priests and thus cannot have functioned as such in their parishes, unless they subsequently took orders. When a visitation took place in part of Kent after Archbishop Pecham’s death in 1292, only one of nineteen parishes passed muster completely. Six of the rectors were absentees (as were some of the vicars), four of them ‘doing no good in the parish’. The fact was that, as all the legislation acknowledged, it was possible to get dispensation from the pope to be non-resident and also to hold livings in plurality. Despite Pecham’s valiant efforts in the area it was impossible to insist that all rectors were priests. The idea that the income from parish churches should support clerks working for, or just connected with, pope, bishops, king and nobles was simply too deeply ingrained to be overthrown. Grosseteste, who did put the cure of souls before anything else, came into conflict over appointments with the pope and fellow bishops as well as with the king.
It may be wrong, however, to paint too gloomy a picture. Even if many of those he instituted to livings were non-resident, it is still significant that Hugh of Wells only rejected for lack of learning 100 of his nearly 2,000 candidates. Visitation records were themselves designed to criticize, not commend. Literary sources can sometimes give a very different picture. At Haselbury in Somerset around 1125 the priest Brictric spent days and nights praying and singing psalms in his church. His wife, Godida, made vestments for the services. After clerical marriage became impossible, some at least of the ‘suspicious women’ found by visitations in priests’ houses may have been worthy successors of these good clergy wives. If their children could no longer follow in the living (as did the son of Brictric and Godida), perhaps they worked as chaplains within their fathers’ parishes and as incumbents elsewhere. Chaucer’s parson was poor, yet learned and charitable. He preached the gospel, visited the sick, and was generally ‘rich in holy thought and work’. There may well have been many like him in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Within the English church there was a positive desire to help with the work of reform elsewhere in Britain. In 1214 Lincoln cathedral prepared a digest of its customs for the Scottish church of Moray. The progress of reform in Scotland and Wales is, however, even harder to trace than in England. Certainly there were Scottish bishops active in the cause. David de Bernham, chamberlain of King Alexander II, followed the path of many English royal clerks by resigning to concentrate on diocesan affairs when he became a bishop. At St Andrews (1240–53) he issued statutes which showed the familiar concern to secure parishes run by incumbents who were celibate, resident and ordained. A provincial council in 1242 sought to endow vicarages with a fixed income (of ten marks), a particularly necessary measure in Scotland where possibly half the parishes were appropriated to religious institutions.
In Wales too there were particular problems, one being that livings were divided between large numbers of ‘portionists’, a consequence of the partibility of inheritances sanctioned by Welsh law. Not surprisingly, the general impression from Meirionydd’s tax returns of the 1290s is that the local clergy were grindingly poor. The problem of hereditary succession to livings was also acute; priests were either married or had mistresses, it hardly mattered which because in Welsh law sons born in or out of wedlock were treated equally. Welsh law also made marriage a secular contract and one very easily ended by a form of divorce. Far from universally rebelling against all this, Welsh clerics were involved in producing the thirteenth-century law books which contained such uncanonical passages and were clearly in sympathy with their sentiments. And why not? If Gerald of Wales condemned the marriage practices of the Welsh, he also extolled their fervent piety. In the twelfth century, the religious community at Llan-badarn Fawr by Aberystwyth was a family enterprise, and notable both for its learning and pastoral concern. Attitudes, however, were changing. The way the ruling families in thirteenth-century Wales made their marriage practices more ‘respectable’ had already been noted (see above, p. 427). The Welsh law books themselves did not all sing to the same tune and some accepted the canon law ban on clerical marriage. Although we know little of their activities, there were bishops whose whole background must have made them committed reformers: Thomas Wallensis of St Davids (1248–55), for example, was a scholar of international repute who had been an archdeacon in the Lincoln diocese under Grosseteste. Admittedly, when Archbishop Pecham visited Wales after the Edwardian conquest he still lamented the portionary churches, and considered the clergy the most ignorant he had met. But then he was scarcely uncritical about the situation in England either.
Throughout Britain the struggle to reform the state of the local clergy was, therefore, hard and unending. It is when we turn attention instead to the monastic and religious orders that the picture appears brighter. Certainly the phenomenal spread of those orders between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries revolutionized the religious and social face of Britain, as it did that of the rest of western Europe.
In 1066 there were around forty-five Benedictine monasteries in Britain, none of them north of the Wash or west of the Severn. In Wales and Scotland there were clas and Culdee churches, but these were organized more like old English minsters than Benedictine monasteries (see above, pp. 115, 122). The immediate effect of the Conquest was to re-invigorate the English houses and massively enrich continental ones with English and Welsh resources. The new nobility also began at increasing pace to found houses in England and Wales, some independent, some daughter houses of individual continental monasteries, some (like the priory at Lewes) part of the great order of Cluny. In 1150 ninety-five Benedictine and Cluniac houses had been founded in Britain since 1066, nineteen of them in Wales. The movement had embraced the north of England and also been taken (by the royal family) in a small way into Scotland. The English and Welsh monasteries, initially at least, were very much houses of conquest, situated close to castles and proclaiming that the new nobility had come to stay. Like the priory founded by the Clares at Clare and later moved a short distance to Stoke to be less cheek by jowl with the castle, they often helped to foster a sense of community between lord and tenants.
There were also impelling spiritual reasons for such foundations, beyond, that is, merely giving thanks in a general way for the Conquest. Monks were very clear that life in the world was sinful, especially for knights habituated to violence. The way to be saved was by embracing the monastic profession. Confronted by these arguments, many knights became monks. The transition was eased by parallels between the professions because entrants exchanged ‘the belt of knighthood in the secular world for the military service of a monk in a monastery’, as the Selby abbey chronicler put it. Some did so in health, others when approaching death. They also placed their sons and daughters in monasteries as child oblates, hence the close relationship between many monasteries and the surrounding nobility and gentry. Becoming a monk was thus one solution. Another (and the two were not mutually exclusive) was actually to found or endow a monastery. This secured the services of monks offering prayers for the donor’s soul and constituted a great act of alms-giving; ‘alms extinguisheth sin as water does fire’, remarked the monk bishop Herbert Losinga.
This spiritual dimension explains the phenomenal success of the Cistercians. Founded at Cîteaux in Burgundy in 1098 and energized by Bernard of Clairvaux (St Bernard), by the 1150s there were over 300 houses throughout Europe. The first English house was founded in 1128 at Waverley in Surrey, being followed in the early 1130s by Rievaulx and Fountains in Yorkshire. A period of dramatic growth then followed, the result being the establishment of some eighty-five houses in Britain, including nineteen from the order of Savigny which merged with the Cistercians in 1147. Of the total, thirteen were in Scotland and fifteen in Wales, the major expansion in England being over by 1152 and in Britain generally by 1201. The Cistercians were born of a burning desire to practise the Benedictine rule in all its intended austerity, solitude and simplicity, shorn of the comforts, worldliness and liturgical accretions found in many contemporary houses. As so often in the history of monks and friars, it seemed far easier to found a new order than to reform an old one. The Cistercians, however, hoped to preserve their purity through rules and organization. Each monastery was inspected annually by the house from which it had been founded. The governing body was the general chapter held every year at Cîteaux, which had to be attended by all the abbots. Cistercian churches were to be plain, without triforiums and elaborate sculptures, while the houses were to be founded preferably in regions wild and remote. Another unique feature enabled such wastes to be managed and the houses to be supported without recourse to the world, for each monastery had its own ‘in-house’ labour force composed of laymen, but laymen who were fully part of the order. Since many of these conversi, as they were called, were peasants, the order had a broad social appeal.
Cistercian monasteries could still of course be dynastic. Rievaulx’s valley ran down from the castle at Helmsley, home of its founder Walter Espec, the great minister of Henry I. Requiring only tracts of uncultivated wasteland, and sometimes (as in the disorders of Stephen’s reign) receiving land to which the donor’s title was disputed, they could also be inexpensive to establish. The role of the order in Wales was particularly important. Unlike the earlier Benedictine and Cluniac foundations, its houses were not adjuncts of conquest. The lifestyle of the monks and the location of their houses matched Welsh temperament and terrain. Nine of the houses were either founded by the Welsh themselves or were in Welsh-ruled areas. Eleven received benefactions, sometimes substantial, from native donors. The Lord Rhys of Deheu-barth embraced Strata Florida, while Strata Marcella was founded by Owain Cyfeiliog of southern Powys. Although Margam was established by Robert, earl of Gloucester, native donors considerably outnumbered Anglo-Norman. The compelling appeal of the early Cistercian movement is revealed in the Life of its greatest English abbot, Ailred of Rievaulx (1147–67), by his disciple Walter Daniel. In meditation ‘the whole strength of Ailred’s mind poured out like a flood upon God and his son’; in prayer he made himself ‘light and easy for the leap to heaven’. This spiritual exaltation, far from turning Ailred proud, taught him tolerance and compassion towards others in their difficulties. Indeed, he considered those virtues to be Rievaulx’s ‘supreme glory’. He was never other than realistic about human weakness. No wonder that under such an abbot Rievaulx’s numbers rose to 140 monks and 500 conversi and lay servants. The church on feast days, as Walter Daniel put it, was crowded with brethren ‘like bees in a hive’.
There was another form of religious house which spread with remarkable speed in the twelfth century, namely that of the Augustinian or Black canons. These were houses not of monks but of priests who could go out into the world, though they lived together without personal possessions under the common rule outlined by St Augustine of Hippo. A variant later in the century was provided by the Premonstratensian canons who followed a more austere way of life influenced by the Cistercians. The pastoral role of such houses, with the priests supervising and sometimes serving the parish churches which often formed part of the endowment, was one of their main attractions, complementing as it did the enclosed activities of the monks. Old minster churches, for example at Launceston and Taunton, were often organized by bishops as Augustinian houses, as were the priests running hospitals and serving nunneries and cathedrals. The same thing happened to clas churches in Wales, and Culdee ones in Scotland. Since Augustinian houses were usually small and required limited endowment they could be founded by minor barons and knights, hence in part their popularity. But the initial drive behind the foundations in the early twelfth century came from the court of Henry I; it was associated with all but ten of the forty-three houses founded by 1135. It was King Alexander and King David who brought the movement to Scotland, establishing the Augustinians at Scone and St Andrews. In native Wales, where the Black and White canons fitted as well as the Cistercians, Llywelyn the Great brought the Premonstratensians to Gwynedd. By 1300 there were well over 200 Augustinian and Premonstratensian houses in Britain.
In the mid thirteenth century Henry III’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, established a Cistercian abbey at Hailes in Gloucestershire, and his minister, John Mansel, the Augustinian house at Bilsington in Kent. But the great age of monastic, foundation and endowment was over by 1200. Existing houses continued to acquire property but through purchase (often to round off existing estates) rather than by pious gifts. Where nobles continued to be buried in monasteries, that reflected more family tradition than spiritual empathy with the house concerned. The fact was that even the Cistercians were losing the cutting edge of their spirituality. Gerald of Wales described how they had transformed their wildernesses into highly profitable terrain, often for sheep farming, and how they built fine churches and monastic buildings, and possessed ‘all the wealth you can imagine’. The cost of building was probably the reason why so many Cistercian houses fell heavily into debt to the Jews. A great monastery like Furness, in a pleasant valley, with its kitchen, refectory, chapter house, dormitory, and infirmary all in warm red local stone, together with running water for drinking and drainage, offered a comfortable existence. That was even more the case with the old Benedictine houses. At Westminster Abbey, studied by Barbara Harvey, the monks in the later Middle Ages consumed in calorific terms considerably more than ‘a rather heavy, moderately active’ man does today. Alcohol contributed 19 per cent of the daily energy, as compared with 5 per cent in today’s average diet. A great deal of monastic time was also devoted to administration and estate management. At Bury St Edmunds the hawk-eyed Abbot Samson (1182–1211) had far more praise for the monks involved in the abbey’s administration than he did for those in the choir carrying out their conscientious and mellifluous round of services. According to his biographer and chaplain, Jocelin of Brakelond, Samson’s own deeds ‘worthy of immortal record and renown’, were those by which he freed the abbey from debts, increased its income and defended its privileges.
The decline in monastic endowment brought into greater prominence and quite probably increased the scale of a different form of alms-giving; alms-giving for the support of the poor and distressed. Christ himself had made clear in his description of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31–35) that such acts of charity were absolutely necessary for salvation. The blessed were precisely those who had fed and clothed the poor and nursed the sick, in so doing, as Christ explained, feeding, clothing and nursing himself. Christ thus was present in the poor, just as he was present in the bread and wine of the eucharist. Such charity could take two forms. One was the support of the institutionalized poor who lived in ‘hospitals’, which were often in effect almshouses. The other was the giving of money or food directly to the ‘naked poor’ who ‘beg from door to door’. There was a feeling that not all beggars were deserving. At Beaulieu abbey distributions were limited to the old, the young and the weak, the able-bodied by implication being excluded. The weak, however, would certainly have included those weak from hunger and in the thirteenth century there were plenty of such people about. It was common, in fact, for the wealthy to engage in both forms of alms-giving. King Henry III, in feeding hundreds of paupers at court every day and giving generously to the hospitals and leper houses he passed on his travels, was unique only in the scale of his activities. By his time it was far more common for a successful man to found a hospital than a religious house, and there was a network of such institutions across England. A related reason for such charity was to ‘harvest the prayers’ of paupers, especially for the souls of the dead. Henry III marked the anniversaries of dead relatives by ordering thousands of paupers to be fed – indeed in the case of his sister Isabella the number was over 100,000. In his will Archbishop Boniface gave money to numerous hospitals who were all to pray for the health of his soul.
Equally prominent in Boniface’s will were his gifts to friaries both in England and on the continent. The spread of the friars throughout Europe was the most important religious phenomenon of the thirteenth century. It was they who filled the spiritual vacuum left by the monks. To support the friars, as we shall see, was to support the poor, and that was certainly a key to their success. Even more important, however, was the way in which the friars served the needs of a new and changing society, served, that is, an educated laity who through confession were moving towards a more personal religion, and through penance and other forms of piety were working out their own salvation in the world, unimpressed by the argument that it could only be found in the cloister. The crusade, as we shall see, had taken away much of the stigma of knighthood; arms could be a holy calling. For this new audience preachers were essential and so were effective confessors. The Fourth Lateran Council, therefore, enjoined bishops to appoint men to travel their diocese to carry out ‘the office of sacred preaching’, and to place men in cathedral and conventual churches (usually in major towns) to hear confessions, impose penances and do ‘everything else for the saving of souls’. The Council might well have been drawing up a job description for the friars.
The demand, especially in the towns, for a more personal and intellectual religion had already generated movements in France and Italy, notably the Waldensians, founded by Waldes, a merchant of Lyons, and the Humiliati, who became established in many cities in northern Italy. The friars shared certain characteristics with these movements and were also strictly orthodox doctrinally and in their acceptance of papal authority. Encouraged by Innocent III in the most inspired move of his pontificate, they canalized spiritual aspirations which might otherwise have run down less orthodox paths and were a major force in combating heresy in Europe and preventing its appearance in Britain.
St Dominic, a priest from Castile, had precisely conceived his movement as an order of preachers to battle against the Albigensian heretics in France. In 1217 he extended the mission world-wide and his followers were soon organized into territorial provinces with an elaborate system of elective officials. Dominic was inspired by a vision of ‘the apostolic life’, the life led by Christ and his apostles. This was even more the case with St Francis (1181–1226), the son of a cloth merchant from Assisi. A revelatory passage for him had been Matthew x:7–9 where Christ sent out his apostles, declaring,
As ye go, preach, saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand… provide neither gold, nor silver nor brass in your purses… neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves for the workman is worthy of his meat.
Francis’s movement was therefore based on preaching and poverty. As his Rule declared:
The brothers shall possess nothing, but as pilgrims and strangers in this world… they shall confidently seek alms and not be afraid… This is the highest degree of that sublime poverty, which has made you my dear beloved brethren, heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven.
The brothers were not, however, to wander as individuals. Like the Dominicans, they were to live in a disciplined way as members of a family, usually in town houses for it was in towns that they could reach the largest audiences. Very soon an elaborate constitution for the government of the order was in place. By 1358 the Franciscans had 1,400 houses throughout Europe and the Dominicans 635.
The Dominicans arrived in England in 1221 and the Franciscans in 1224. No one could doubt their commitment, given their abject poverty. Nor was their message in any way simplistic, an important feature, given the audience. The preaching was not haphazard but was based on model sermons circulated from Paris. It was followed up by the hearing of confessions and the imposition of penances. The Dominicans were all priests (so they could hear confessions) and learned, designedly so. ‘The purpose of study is preaching and of preaching the salvation of souls,’ remarked Humbert of Romans, master general between 1254 and 1263. The Franciscans too, for the same reason, became increasingly a learned order, and one dominated by the priestly element. Indeed the Franciscan theological school in Oxford, established initially under Grosseteste, became one of the most famous in the university.
Townsmen, knights, academics and monks rushed to join the orders. The scholar Adam Marsh became a Franciscan ‘for love of most high poverty’. Within twenty years of their arrival in England the Dominicans had established nineteen town houses and the Franciscans thirty-nine, the numbers by 1300 being respectively fifty-one and fifty-five. A large house might have as many as forty members. The property was usually given by the townsmen themselves. In London the Franciscans’ chapel was built by the mayor, William Joyner, who also gave £200 towards other buildings. By 1260 there were also nine houses in Scotland and five in Wales, the Franciscans having been introduced to Gwynedd by Llywelyn the Great himself. The friars were not merely on a mission to towns and townsmen. They appealed equally to kings, princes and nobles, often acting in a highly personal capacity as confessors and spiritual counsellors. The Franciscan John of Darlington was confessor to Henry III, and Adam Marsh the counsellor of the queen and of Simon and Eleanor de Montfort. Above all, the friars were welcomed by the bishops, who saw them rightly as exactly the force of trained preachers and confessors the Fourth Lateran Council had demanded.
The success of the friars inevitably provoked hostility, some of it justified. Matthew Paris, monk of St Albans, complained that their buildings rivalled regal palaces in height. Parish priests were angered at losing money from confessions and burials to the friars, another area of mendicant activity. There were also tensions within the orders, especially among the Franciscans, where the needs of a properly based pastoral mission inevitably cut across Francis’s original concept of Christ-like poverty as almost an end in itself. The order continued in its refusal to own property, but needing houses and churches got round the problem by having these held for it in trust. Some of the original leaders made desperate attempts to preserve the original ideals. The head of the English province, William of Nottingham, appeared at the provincial chapter in a torn habit made of the coarsest material and sat on the ground. ‘I did not become a friar for the purpose of building walls,’ he declared, and at Shrewsbury ordered the stone wall of the dormitory (built by the townsmen) to be pulled down and replaced by one of mud. But in the end, it was with a note of despair that he prayed God to send a new order to inspire and stimulate his own in the way of perfection.
For all their problems, the friars had a profound impact on the spiritual life of the country. In the twelfth century, as David d’Avray has remarked, a sermon by an educated preacher was an event; in the thirteenth it was a normal part of town and court life. The extent to which the friars had entered the fabric of society was reflected in wills, for example that of the clerical administrator William of Wendling (died 1270). Although the founder of a Premonstratensian house at Wendling in Norfolk, he made gifts to the Dominicans at Sudbury, to the Franciscans at Yarmouth and Ipswich, and to both orders at Norwich, King’s Lynn, Dunwich and Cambridge. Joan, wife of Llywelyn the Great, was buried with the Franciscans at Llanfaes in Anglesey, and Beatrice, Henry III’s daughter, with the Franciscans of London, where the heart of her mother, Queen Eleanor, was also laid to rest.
There had long been opportunities for noblewomen to lead lives dedicated to religion. One way of doing this was to become a recluse. Loretta, widowed countess of Leicester, lived as ‘the recluse of Hackington’ in Kent from 1211 until 1265, using her contacts to help the early friars. Another way was to enter a religious order. In 1066 there were ten nunneries in Britain, all south of the Wash. By 1300 there were over 150, many of them situated between the Wash and the Tees. There were ten in Scotland though none north of the Tay, and four in Wales. Male founders were diverse, partly because such houses were often small, and like houses of canons were affordable by minor barons and knights. However, it was the Lord Rhys who established the nunnery at Llanllÿr in Ceredigion, and Henry II, as part of his penance after Becket’s murder, who re-founded Amesbury as a daughter house of Fontevraud. It was there that Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, retired and was buried. The chief female order in England, however, was not that of Fontevrault but the native Gilbertines. This had its origins in a cell for a group of female religious established by Gilbert of Sempringham at Sempringham in Lincolnshire around 1131. By 1216 there were nineteen Gilbertine houses, although with two thirds of them in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, this remained essentially a local order. Many had four elements: nuns, lay sisters, lay brothers living according to Cistercian rules, and male canons who lived according to the rule of St Augustine, the nuns and the canons together making these in effect ‘double houses’.
Noblewomen, usually as widows, could also found nunneries for themselves, using their inheritances or marriage portions to do so. Godstow near Oxford was established in the 1130s by Edith, widow of William de Lancelene. Around a hundred years later, Lacock in Wiltshire was the creation of the widowed Ela, in her own right countess of Salisbury. During her long widowhood between 1243 and 1282 Isabella, countess of Arundel, founded Marham in Norfolk. Quite apart from upbraiding Henry III for his injustices (see above, p. 416), she also enjoyed close spiritual relationships with Edmund of Abingdon, archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard Wych, bishop of Chichester: Lives of both were dedicated to her. Edith de Lancelene and Countess Ela became abbesses of their foundations. Many female heads proved determined and effective rulers. Those of Wherwell abbey, near Salisbury, rebuilt the house after its destruction in the violence of Stephen’s reign, secured forest privileges from Richard I and used all the tricks of the trade to resist papal provisions in the thirteenth century.
Female houses, however, remained ‘inferior’ to those of men, and not merely because they were fewer and generally poorer. The key difference was that women could not be priests, hence the need for the attached canons who could perform that function. Also young unmarried women, far more controlled by their families than young men, could find it much harder to follow a religious vocation. Christina of Markyate came from a wealthy family of old English stock based in Huntingdon, and enjoyed her father’s trust, keeping the keys of his treasure chest. Yet to escape parental pressure to marry, having already survived attempted rape by the bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard, she had to flee disguised as a man, and then live in hiding with male recluses, enduring terrible privations in her tiny cell. Ultimately she made the same transition as the foundress of Godstow (also initially a recluse), and became the prioress of a community at Markyate. As her Life shows so well, to fulfil her overpowering sense of vocation and ‘preserve her virginity for God’ had taken quite extraordinary courage, ingenuity and hardiness. In pursuing that vocation she had been helped as well as harmed by men. In general, as we have seen, monastic writers remained open-minded about the women with whom they came into contact (see above, p. 415). Yet it is also true that as institutions in the twelfth century, male monasteries became increasingly uneasy about, and indeed sought to terminate, arrangements whereby they had taken nuns under their wing, either through the women living in close proximity or being formally part of a double house. Marton in Yorkshire, for example, into the reign of Henry II was a double monastery of nuns and Augustinian canons, but the nuns then moved to Moxby and set up on their own. Among the Gilbertines, hints of scandal eventually led to a far stricter separation between male and female elements. Of the new orders, the Cistercians were particularly unhelpful to women. Gilbert of Sempringham had asked for his order to be taken under the wing of the Cistercians, only to be told that they ‘were not permitted authority over the religious life of others, least of all that of nuns’. Many of the nunneries founded in the twelfth century adopted a Cistercian way of life, though largely unofficially. In 1213 such houses were placed under neighbouring Cistercian foundations, but in 1228 further affiliations were forbidden and existing links diminished. The whole attitude – or so it seemed – was to wish the women would go away. The friars were equally unwelcoming. Both Dominic and Francis attracted female followers, and a female order of friars would have recruited heavily. Yet none was ever sanctioned. The sisterhood founded by Clare of Assisi, Francis’s disciple, was enclosed; so were the women the Dominicans incorporated into their order. Having jumped the wall themselves, the friars made sure the women stayed behind it. William of Nottingham asserted that women were deceitful and malicious and by their blandishments turned the heads even of the devout. The ability of women to fulfil a religious vocation was always restricted by such attitudes.
Just occasionally with the laity in this period it is possible to penetrate a little behind the external forms of religion. Hubert de Burgh (died 1243), justiciar and earl of Kent, was a self-made man, yet he did not give thanks, as he would certainly have done a hundred years earlier, by founding a monastery. Instead he was a patron of the Dominicans and gave them his London house at Holborn. When they moved to what is now Blackfriars after he died, they took his body with them. Hubert was typical of the period in founding a hospital, that of St Mary Dover, a thank-offering for his sea victory against the French in 1217. He must also have added the exquisite early thirteenth-century chancels to the churches at three of his properties, Burgh itself, Grosmont in Wales, and Banstead in Surrey where he died. One aid to Hubert’s devotions was his psalter: when a fugitive in 1233, ‘he ruminated on the Psalms of David in the Psalter he had with him for comfort’. Earl Waltheof, executed by the Conqueror in 1076, was said to have learnt the Psalms by heart as a child. What was new was the growing number of lay men and women possessed of psalters and able to read them for themselves, a point we shall return to later.
As he read his psalter in 1233, Hubert implored the aid of the Virgin Mary, and immediately heard a voice saying, ‘Do not fear, the Virgin will rescue you.’ The words were repeated again and again until rescue came. The Virgin was naturally the focus of Hubert’s prayers because her willingness to intercede with Christ and the intimate proximity which enabled her to do so were the subject of contemporary sculpture, stained glass and painting. The most pervasive image was of the Virgin praying before Christ as he crowned her; this depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin virtually replaced the earlier Triumph of the Virgin, in which she sat crowned beside the King of Heaven. Prayers might also, of course, be offered to the saints for they too stood around the throne of God. Herein lay the value of pilgrimages because the saints, it was believed, were all the more likely to exert their power when supplicants were in close proximity to their remains. Pilgrimages were also made to places with relics associated with Christ himself. Hubert de Burgh and Henry III frequently visited Bromholm priory in Norfolk where pieces of the Holy Cross were preserved. Later Henry III presented to Westminster Abbey in a great ceremony a phial containing drops of the Holy Blood, outdoing Louis IX who had built the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house the Crown of Thorns. Bodies, of course, were divisible and those of some saints were infinitely divided. The proliferation of relics made private collections possible. Collectors did not have to go to the saints, they had them permanently in their possession. Among the treasure of Hubert’s wife, sister of the king of Scotland, was a silver cross, double gilt, in which were set rubies, emeralds and relics. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln built up a relic collection of fabled size and quality. He needed frisking on leaving any shrine for he was always trying to break bits off bodies, on one occasion biting a fragment out of Mary Magdalene’s arm bone before slipping it to his chaplain in classic pickpocket mode. Henry III’s collection was equally impressive. It included relics of numerous saints as well as of the golden gate of Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary and the burning bush.
The importance of intercession to the Virgin and the saints was made all the more important by the doctrine of Purgatory, for they surely had the power to lessen one’s term there. But – as in Hubert’s case – they could intervene in this life too. This was a world in which the belief in prodigies, wonders and miracles was widespread; hence the space devoted to them by nearly all the chroniclers. While out on a ravaging expedition during the 1215 civil war, a figure of Christ crucified appeared to Hubert de Burgh in a dream, saying, ‘When you next see my image, spare me’, something he did the following day when a priest ran up to him carrying a crucifix, begging for his church to be preserved from plunder. Hubert was convinced this pious act was the reason why God restored him to the king’s favour in 1234. As he had remarked earlier in a private letter to the chancellor, there was no hope of success in this life ‘unless God gives aid, by whose grace all effective work is achieved, and without whom no one can triumph over his enemies’. Nothing is known of Hubert’s attitude to the Mass, but it was central to the daily religious life of his master, King Henry III, who was very much in tune with contemporary views about the ceremony’s importance. There was no question of Henry doing business during the service like Henry II, or hoping it would be over as quickly as possible like Henry I. Henry III’s own records show that he regularly attended two Masses a day, and even three on great festivals. Like his bishops in their diocesan legislation he strove to ensure that the reserved host, the bread turned into the body of Christ kept permanently in every church, was decently housed, and on his journeys he constantly made gifts of precious cups for that purpose. When Louis IX, reflecting another strand in contemporary thought, reminded Henry that it was important to hear sermons as well as attend Masses, Henry replied that he preferred rather to ‘see his friend’ (at the elevation of the host) than hear about him.
Neither Hubert de Burgh nor Henry III ever went on crusade, but both took the cross and professed the intention of going. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the crusade was part of the air that everyone breathed.
The First Crusade was launched by Pope Urban II in 1095. It culminated in the taking of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099 and the setting-up of crusader states in the east. Of these by far the most important and long-lasting was the kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived the loss of the Holy City itself and was only terminated by the fall of Acre in 1291. The existence of this state was central to the crusades because it provided a base for operations and also – since the state was constantly under threat – the need for them. Deciding to crusade was a formal act which required the sanction of the church and was symbolized by the sewing of a cross to one’s clothes. One became ‘signed with the cross’, crucesignatus, the word from which ‘crusade’ comes. It was perfectly possible for individuals to seek the church’s sanction at any time, and groups of crusaders were constantly on the move to the east. There were also, however, a small number of great crusades, like the First, publicly proclaimed by the papacy and generally preached throughout the west usually in response to some great emergency.
Duke Robert of Normandy, the Conqueror’s eldest son, was one of the leaders of the First Crusade, but participation by the great Anglo-Norman magnates was limited. Thereafter the pattern changed. A substantial contingent of Anglo-Norman nobles went on the Second Crusade, launched in 1146, including Waleran of Meulan, earl of Worcester, William de Warenne, earl of Surrey, and William Peverel, the last two dying on the expedition. When the Patriarch of Jerusalem begged Henry II to crusade in 1185 the king pleaded his home duties, but the refusal damaged his reputation despite the money he had been sending to the east, and was anyway unsustainable after the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. In the event, of course, it was Richard who led the Angevin contingent on the Third Crusade in 1190, taking with him a large group of England’s lay and ecclesiastical elite. Later, magnates from either side in the civil war went on the Fifth Crusade of 1218–21 which was designed to capture Damietta. In 1240–41, contingents departed under Henry III’s brother Richard of Cornwall and his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. Henry’s own response to Louis IX’s crusade was to take the cross himself (in March 1250), and although he never set out, his commitment was genuineenough. Ultimately Henry’s son, the future Edward I, unlike Henry II placed the cause of the crusade above domestic considerations. Despite the parlous condition of the kingdom after the Montfortian civil war, he led a large body of knights to join Louis IX’s second crusade of 1270, continuing to the Holy Land even after Louis’s death.
From what has been said so far the crusade seems essentially an enterprise involving Anglo-Norman and English magnates. But it was not quite like that. The Welsh chronicle the Brut took a close interest in the crusades and remarked on the passage of Welshmen to the Holy Land. Gerald of Wales’s best-known work describes his tour of Wales in 1188 to preach the Third Crusade with Archbishop Baldwin, an enterprise, so he liked to think, which inspired some 3,000 people to take the cross. There is evidence that Scotsmen took part in all the main crusades, including the first, where they were distinguished more for their piety than their military equipment. Later Patrick II, earl of Dunbar, joined the crusade of Louis IX, dying at Marseilles in 1248. Adam, earl of Carrick, got further and died in 1270 at Acre. The crusade, it has been claimed, was one of the factors which helped to integrate Scotland into the fold of western Christendom.
Interest in the crusade was not confined to the baronial and clerical elite. There were county knights from Yorkshire on the Third Crusade, one group led by Ralph de Tilly heroically saving a siege engine from capture by the Moslem defenders of Acre. On the Second Crusade men from London, Southampton, Dover and Ipswich were all present at the siege of the Islamic city of Lisbon, which was attacked on the way to the Holy Land. Lists from the early thirteenth century of those from Cornwall and Lincolnshire who had failed to fulfil their crusading vows included tanners, blacksmiths, millers, cobblers, butchers, ditch-cutters and several women. In twenty Lincolnshire cases poverty was given as the reason for the failure to fulfil the vow.
Clearly, far from everyone who took the cross actually went to the Holy Land. Indeed, the church increasingly accepted money payments for the commutation of vows. It is easy to see why initial ardour might cool. The dangers of the crusade were great, many crusaders never returning, and the financial costs were high. Yet there were also compelling reasons for undertaking the expedition. Jerusalem itself was a magnet, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, the centre of the world in thirteenth-century mappae mundi. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem had not dried up with the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. They were frequently enjoined by the church as penance for sin, and could be regarded as the climax of a man’s spiritual life. To go on crusade was frequently described as aperegrinatio, a pilgrimage. The crusade, of course, was a pilgrimage with a difference. The aim was not merely to visit but also to defend or recover Jerusalem. Here was the appeal for the warrior elite of the west, one which transformed the very nature of knighthood. Churchmen had long stressed the sinfulness of fighting, but now knights could fight in a war which was not sinful but holy. Instead of their martial activities necessitating penance, they were themselves acts of penance, at the very least cancelling out all previous punishments imposed by the church in the confessional. For those who died on the crusade, there was also the promise of remission of all sins and direct entry into Paradise. As Guibert of Nogent declared after the First Crusade, knights no longer had to abandon the world for the monastic life to achieve salvation. Instead they could attain God’s grace while still pursuing their own careers. Behind that belief there lay another cardinal fact about the crusades, one which did more than anything else to certify their worth throughout Europe. The crusades were absolutely ‘official’, being made so by the highest of all authorities, the pope himself. It was the pope who had conceived and launched the First Crusade. It was his authority which sanctioned all subsequent crusading activity.
Crusaders could thus hope for reward in the next life. They might also gain name and fame in this. The exploits of Richard I in the Holy Land, depicted in tiles and paintings, later adorned the palaces of Henry III. Henry’s own tutor, the knight Philip Daubeny who went to the Holy Land three times and died there, earned an obituary from Matthew Paris: ‘a noble man, devoted to God and strenuous in arms’; in a crusader war and piety marched together.
Considerations of piety and reputation, as modern historians, notably Simon Lloyd and Christopher Tyerman, have stressed, functioned within existing political and social structures. Both Richard I and Henry III were sincere in taking the cross, but in doing so they were also continuing their competition with the Capetian kings of France. The great majority of those who travelled from England did so in retinues, the retinues of great lords, the king (in 1189) and the heir to the throne (in 1270). Such retinues were shaped by the same ties of tenure, money and neighbourhood which operated in society generally: in 1270 the Lord Edward built up a force of 225 knights by paying lords to bring them (see above, p. 410). Among those accompanying Edward there were also distinct regional groupings, with contingents from the north, East Anglia and the Welsh Marches. Ties of family were also important in bringing crusaders together. On the Fifth Crusade the earls of Chester and Derby were brothers-in-law, while John de Lacy was soon to marry Margaret, Chester’s niece, a union probably arranged on the crusade itself.
Crusading did not merely reflect existing society and politics, it also impacted upon them. The raising of money to finance the expeditions of magnates, knights and lesser individuals brought significant amounts of land onto the property market. At the highest level, Duke Robert gained funds for the First Crusade by leasing Normandy to William Rufus, who levied a tax in England to raise the required amount. Later, Richard I’s rush for money in 1189 destabilized government in England and enabled Scotland to recover its independence. In the early 1250s Henry III built up the treasure for his abortive expedition by selling numerous charters licensing new markets and fairs, with important effects on the economy. There were those who took the cross for entirely secular reasons with little intention of ever going. This was because from the moment of the vow a crusader, in church thinking, was entitled to various privileges, and to some extent this was accepted in English law. For example, taking the cross could be a way of delaying lawsuits and gaining a moratorium on debts. In Magna Carta John himself was conceded the ‘crusader’s respite’, which lasted at least three years, for dealing with several controversial issues, including the royal forests. There was another way too in which the crusade entered English politics. The pope always had the power to confer the privileges of crusaders on those who undertook some equivalent mission, for instance fighting against heretics in what became known as the Albigensian crusade. After John’s death Guala, the papal legate, had in effect done the same in England, promising those who supported the young King Henry remission of their sins and signing them with the cross ‘as though they were fighting against pagans’. So ingrained was the link between the crusade and righteous warfare that in the 1260s Simon de Montfort, son of the Montfort who had led the Albigensian crusade, moved to exploit it. Before going into battle he and his followers confessed their sins and signed themselves with the cross.
No one could avoid the crusades. An elaborate apparatus was developed to preach them, of which Gerald’s tour of Wales in 1188 was part. They also had in a sense a permanent presence in Britain, thanks to the crusading orders of the Knights Templars and Knights Hospitallers. These were founded in the first half of the twelfth century, the first to protect the roads approaching Jerusalem, the second to give succour to those who reached the east. Beyond that, both orders came to play very similar roles in providing expert military support for the crusading state. The recruits lived under a rule, that of the Templars being influenced by Cistercian practices and that of the Hospitallers by Augustinian. All this had an impact on the home front because the orders set up houses in the west both to administer the properties given in support of their activities and to act as recruiting centres. By the end of the thirteenth century there were eighty-four houses in Britain, fifty of them founded in the thirteenth century; clearly there had been no falling-off in crusading commitment. Although the great majority of the houses were in England, both orders were important in Scotland where King David (1124–53) established them with extensive privileges. His successor King Malcolm granted the Hospitallers, and probably the Templars too, one toft in each royal borough. Another Hospitaller patron was Fergus of Galloway (died 1161). Eventually both orders came to hold a string of tiny properties throughout much of Scotland as well as some more extensive baronies. The international links of the Templars meant they began to act as bankers, so that money deposited at the London Temple, where both king and magnates often stored treasure, could release money from the Paris Temple to pay a debt in France. The Temple church in London, like others of the order, was circular and was modelled on the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There, under splendid knightly effigies, were buried William Marshal, the regent of England (died 1219), who had gone to the Holy Land in the 1180s, and two of his sons, a permanent reminder of the salvation and the status the aristocracy hoped to secure from the crusades.
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Hubert de Burgh read his psalter for ‘solace’. The desire to do that, and to understand the Latin Mass, was a major factor in driving forward lay literacy, both male and female. Indeed it was often for noblewomen that a new form of devotional book was produced from the mid thirteenth century, the Book of Hours (essentially a prayer book), perhaps invented by the Oxford illustrator William of Brailes. Hubert’s ability to read was equally empowering in his role as the king’s chief minister, enabling him to check a debt in the pipe rolls, or interpret the letters which poured in to him with their requests and complaints; the sixty or so from 1219 to 1221 which survive are a fraction of a much larger number. The way English society was transformed between 1066 and the early fourteenth century by the escalating use of documents for business and the resulting growth of ‘pragmatic literacy’, literacy that is for the practical purpose of using business documents, is the theme of Michael Clanchy’s classic book From Memory to Written Record
There may already have been a good deal of pragmatic literacy in England before 1066, and it continued to develop thereafter. From around 1090, as David Bates has shown, individuals increasingly recorded agreements in documents called ‘chirographs’ and ‘conventions’. Since these often employed narrative and contextual detail to explain and affirm the agreements they recorded, they suggest a society working out and negotiating its own ways to memorize and understand transactions, achieving in the process a considerable degree of pragmatic literacy.
It was in this fertile ground that a huge increase took place in the output of documents by royal government. The way in which the need to master this output almost forced laymen into pragmatic literacy is a central argument of Clanchy’s book. The number of writs and charters produced by the Norman kings may not have been that large. They do not seem to have influenced the forms of private chirographs and conventions which were derived rather from practice in France and Normandy. The decisive increase in the king’s output probably took place with the formation of the common law in the reign of Henry II (1154–89), because every litigant required a writ from the chancery to initiate his action. It was also between 1154 and 1199 that the chancery gave set forms to the charters, writs patent and writs close which it issued, the three types of document developed from the Anglo-Saxon sealed writ. Then from 1199 it began to record its output (apart from the writs initiating the common law actions) on a series of annual rolls. In their modern often highly abbreviated printed form, the rolls down to 1307 fill forty-six volumes and contain some 23,000 pages. Around four scribes have been identified as working in the chancery around 1130. In the fourteenth century there were over a hundred. A series of rolls, apparently begun in the 1200s, recorded the receipts and issues of the king’s chamber and the daily expenditure of his household on food, drink and the stables. From the late twelfth century the king’s courts began to keep rolls recording the cases they heard, rolls which thereafter grew steadily in length. There were corresponding increases in the size of the pipe rolls and the other documents produced by the exchequer. (For further detail see below, pp. 474–5.)
The forms of royal output and its related habits of mind had a profound impact on the rest of society, something shown in the way private chirographs recording agreements were eclipsed by the more authoritative official versions provided from the 1190s by the king’s judges: no less than 42,000 of the government’s copies of such chirographs survive down to 1307. During the twelfth century the charters issued by great lay lords came to imitate very closely royal charters, just as the mounted warriors on their seals imitated the seal of the king. This was a trend which came to embrace the nobility of Wales and Scotland as well as of England (see above, pp. 425, 428–9). In the thirteenth century great lords, lay and ecclesiastical, started to imitate the king in their use of household records of daily expenditure on food and drink, in their pipe rolls (those of the bishop of Winchester began in the 1200s), in the plea rolls of their courts, and in their writs giving orders to local officials: within a short period in 1250 Richard de Clare, earl of Gloucester, fired off three to his bailiff at Cranborne. The use of writing was also filtering down through society. Members of the gentry kept numerous records relevant to the running of their estates and sometimes copied them into cartularies. Even peasants used charters to convey land to one another. A register compiled by Peterborough abbey contains over 450 of such documents.
In order to understand for themselves what the documents, so central to their lives, actually said rather than relying on clerks to tell them, people from all sections of society had the incentive to achieve a degree of literacy. Here reading was the important skill and one probably much more prevalent than writing. How common the ability to read was among the peasantry is impossible to know, but it seems to have been widespread among the freemen and gentry who staffed most juries: ten of thirteen men on a Norfolk jury in 1297 apparently could read. For members of the gentry who were having to deal with a deluge of royal writs both as litigants and holders of local office, reading skills must have been particularly valuable. Nearly all the documents which had to be read were, of course, in Latin, so the language had to be learnt as well as reading itself. At the lowest level, perhaps tuition was provided by parish priests. Within noble households there were formal textbooks, the ‘Book which teaches us Clergie’ (that is Latin), doubtless expounded by mothers and chaplains. At the highest level, Simon de Montfort sent his sons to be educated by Grosseteste, with the result that his eldest, Henry, who was killed at Evesham, was able in a fine clear hand to write his father’s will.
Hubert de Burgh could read Latin but no contemporary described him as ‘literate’ (literatus). That was a term reserved for those with an altogether superior form of learning, usually achieved by formal study at an institution of higher education. Such institutions in the thirteenth century began to be called universities. Some of Henry III’s household knights were literate in this sense, though usually when they had been educated as clerks and had become knights in later life. Essentially the only people who were ‘literate’ were clerks.
In England, clerks without higher education could always rise to the top in government through the chancery or the exchequer. Common lawyers, indeed, had no alternative other than to train through the courts, and were eventually not clerks at all (see below, p. 481). For many ambitious men, however, higher education seemed absolutely essential. From the late eleventh century the content of that education was being transformed by the rediscovery of lost works of Aristotle, the revived study of Roman law, the new collections of canon law, and the increasing interest in Arabic medicine and mathematics. In the basic arts degree, through lectures and disputations in large part on Aristotle, the student was schooled in logic, grammar and rhetoric, thus learning how to speak and write correctly and reason analytically. The skills achieved were transferable to all branches of government and administration. They also prepared one for yet higher studies in law, medicine and theology. The great expansion of ecclesiastical litigation placed a premium on canon lawyers. In the 1170s the abbot of Battle was upbraided for failing to send his relatives to the schools to study the law and the decretals, for they could then have defended him in lawsuits. For the most ambitious, intellectually and spiritually, study of theology had to be the goal. It was also, for the friars, a vocational requirement, effective preaching depending on knowledge of the Bible.
In the twelfth century the great centres of international learning were at Paris, Laon, Liège, Bologna and Salerno. It was at such schools that so many English clerics involved in the Becket dispute had studied, including Becket himself. In the 1200s the masters (that is, teachers) of the Paris School began to form themselves into a formal corporate body, which they called a ‘university’, and masters elsewhere soon followed their example. English schools in the twelfth century lacked international status, but several offered a perfectly good education. Grosseteste himself studied at the school of Lincoln. In the next century two centres came to eclipse all the others, forming the only English universities.
In 1231 Henry III issued letters in favour of both the ‘universities’ of Oxford and Cambridge. He had heard that there was a ‘multitude’ of students at both places who could not be disciplined by the chancellor and the masters. Henceforth no one was to be allowed to study who was not under a ‘master of scholars’. At the same time Henry rejoiced at the multitude of clerks flocking to both universities, including those from overseas (there had been trouble at Paris), ‘from which great advantage and honour comes to us and our kingdom’. To sustain this popularity, he ordered rents to be fixed ‘according to the custom’ of each university. Clearly both Oxford and Cambridge were very much going concerns, and were conceived as playing important roles in the life of the kingdom. The constitutions of both were heavily influenced by that developing in Paris. The corporate body, the university, was formed by the teaching masters, and as the letters of 1231 implied, no one could teach who had not been admitted to it. The chief officer of the corporation was the chancellor whose court (in Oxford) had disciplinary authority over the students. In Cambridge it was more a matter for the individual masters.
The letters of 1231 treat the two universities as equal but in fact Oxford was both older and more important. Although it never really recruited internationally in the same way as Paris, it was described by Matthew Paris in the 1250s as (after Paris) ‘the second school of the church’. There had almost certainly been a school at Cambridge before the 1200s, but the real inception of the university came with an exodus there of Oxford scholars in 1209 after the first of the town–gown disputes. Oxford’s history as a centre of learning is traceable (with gaps) back to Theobald of Étampes, who was teaching there in the early twelfth century. By the 1180s, Gerald of Wales, at least in his later recollection, was able to read his new book about Ireland to ‘the doctors of the diverse faculties and their best pupils’. By the 1200s there were faculties of law, arts and theology, the last two being the ones for which Oxford later became most famous. The settlement after the 1209 exodus was followed by the appointment of the first chancellor in or soon after 1214.
The factors which explained Oxford’s emergence included its central location which made it a frequent meeting-place for ecclesiastical councils, and its two large religious houses (Osney and St Frideswide’s) whose constant litigation before judges appointed by the pope required the service of trained lawyers. Oxford, moreover, was not the seat of a bishopric which meant that (unlike Paris) it could grow up free from immediate episcopal supervision. Even so, the assertion by the bishop of Lincoln, in whose diocese Oxford lay, of his right to appoint the chancellor caused constant friction. Some of Oxford’s advantages were shared by other towns, notably by Northampton where there was also an important school. But Oxford had one key advantage, namely the Thames, which made it a much more important centre of communications.
In the 1260s the position of Oxford and Cambridge was finally assured. Students had defected from Cambridge to Northampton with the intention of setting up a university there, this with the king’s encouragement. But when Oxford students sought to join them, the bishops of the kingdom protested: harm to Oxford was harm to the English church. So the government closed the new university down and returned studies at Northampton to their previous levels. There was evidently a clear conception of the difference between a university and an ordinary school. Not long after this, the oath taken by Oxford masters forbade them to teach anywhere in England save at Oxford or Cambridge. There was to be a monopoly. This did not apply to Scotland or Wales, yet no universities were created there in this period. Up to a point Oxford and Cambridge served the whole of Britain. Thomas Wallensis taught the Franciscans there between spells as a professor in Paris and bishop of St Davids. William Wishart, bishop of St Andrews, and William de Bernham, nephew of David de Bernham, another St Andrews bishop, were both graduates. And it was an Anglo-Scottish magnate, John Balliol, and his wife Dervorguilla (daughter of Alan of Galloway), who founded one of the first Oxford colleges. But it was to England that the universities chiefly ministered. As a royal charter of 1355 put it, Oxford had produced ‘most learned men by reason of which the kingdom, as well as its priesthood, has been adorned and strengthened in manifold ways’.
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In 1275 Edward I ordered John de St Denis, ‘custodian of our privileges’, to ‘transcribe and register our privileges, instruments and other documents as we have enjoined him’. He was clearly well aware of the importance of written records in the assertion of his authority. On reaching the throne he had much reassertion to do.