Post-classical history

The Poitevins Rule England

WITH the fall of Hubert de Burgh, Peter des Roches found himself in a position to exercise full control of the realm. With his usual perspicacity, however, he saw that he himself was regarded with suspicion and dislike and that it would be wiser to keep himself in the background. Accordingly he delegated a representative to assume the post of first minister to the King. The representative, of course, was his son, Peter des Rivaux, who has already been mentioned. Peter des Rivaux was not a man of much personality or showy abilities, but he had a tremendous capacity for solid work and on all counts he was the perfect sword arm for the wily bishop to employ. He assumed at once the office of treasurer and from this foothold proceeded to put into effect the ambitious plan of the bishop for the consolidation of all power in the realm. The custody of escheats and wardships (where crown officials could most easily wax prosperous) was given over to him. He was made chief justice of the forests. All the King’s houses passed into his active stewardship. A clean sweep was made of the shrievalties, and the appointment of new sheriffs was left in the hands of the fast-climbing Poitevin. He was careful to retain three of the most strategic in his own hands, Sussex, Staffordshire, and Shropshire, although some records say he had twenty-one. Finally he was made castellan of many of the great castles which had been in Hubert de Burgh’s hands, Dover and the strong fortresses in the Marcher country.

All this was on the surface and did not depart too much from the activities of Hubert at his peak; underneath, however, a revolution was being effected. Authority was being centralized as it had never been before, and the new first minister was undertaking the active supervision of all administrative branches. The business of government was being overhauled and fitted together into one piece, a change which had merit when compared with the chaos of earlier centuries but which had one supreme weakness, that in the wrong hands it amounted to despotism and tyranny.

There was little doubt in most minds that power had now fallen into the wrong hands. Without understanding fully what was going on, and perhaps not aware of the new concept of organized control, men sensed that things had reached a highly dangerous stage. Mercenary bands were being imported from the Continent as in the dark days of John’s reign. It was a disturbing picture: tight-lipped officials sitting in the Westminster offices and managing all affairs of state down to the most minute details of a scutage dispute; foreign soldiers keeping watch on the battlements of Dover and swaggering in the streets of London; a callow king excited and exuberant over this taste of what he believed to be absolute power.

Peter des Roches, always arrogant, had become insufferable in his pride. He looked on the English people with scorn. On one occasion, when the King was urged to listen to those who should be regarded as his natural advisers, the peers of England, the bishop laughed and said in loud and truculent tones, “There are no peers in England!” a remark which flew from one end of the kingdom to the other and caused the barons to hate him more than ever.

In spite of the growing tide of discontent, however, the wily churchman was skillful enough to prevent any immediate consolidation of his opponents. The whispering campaign he maintained kept the barons at odds with each other. The King’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, had shown a tendency at first to side with the barons. He was a calculating, young man, however, and Peter des Roches managed to win him back by flattery and promises. He accomplished the same results with the powerful earls of Chester and Lincoln. Realizing that the opposition to his party would always center around the sons of the Good Knight, the five young Marshals who constituted the strongest and wealthiest family in England, the bishop sought by every means to build up a counterbalance among the other nobles of substance and power, and for a time succeeded in this.

The barons were realizing for their part, but much too late, that it had been a mistake to combine with the foreigners against Hubert de Burgh. With all his faults Hubert had been an able administrator and he had ruled as an Englishman who understood the people and their ways. Now he was a fugitive across the Wye, and the Poitevins, with the help of a few unscrupulous Englishmen, were ruling the land.


Stephen Langton had been succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury by Richard Grant, sometimes called Richard of Wethersted. The name Grant seems to have been applied because of his commanding height. He had been chancellor of Lincoln and reached the primacy as a compromise choice.

He was one of the bitterest of Hubert de Burgh’s opponents, and the outstanding event of his brief two years as archbishop was a visit to Rome, where he proceeded to give a most uncompromising and uncomplimentary report of the King’s minister. Gregory seems to have been convinced, Richard having a convincing tongue as well as a forceful personality. The primate was returning in a triumphant mood to England when he died in the Franciscan monastery at Umbria. He was buried there in his finest robes. Robbers opened and rifled his tomb, but they found it impossible to take the costly archiepiscopal ring from his finger and ran away in great fear. When news of his death reached England, the whispering campaign against Hubert de Burgh acquired a new impetus. The archbishop’s death, it was declared, had been due to poison administered by agents of the justiciar.

The incident is worth reciting only because of the light it casts on the estimate in which Hubert (this was just before his fall) was held. His power was believed to be so great that he had agents everywhere and no one who offended him or threatened his control was safe from his vengeance, even if hidden away in the most obscure corner of Christendom.

The election of a successor to Richard of Canterbury proved an unusually difficult matter. The Canterbury chapter, which had the right, nominally at least, of choosing the archbishop, decided to assert itself and rushed through the election of one of its number, a man of advanced years who was so unfitted for the post and so much of a nonentity generally that both Pope and King were indignantly opposed to him. When the doddering appointee reached Rome, eager for confirmation, Gregory got rid of him by putting him through an examination before a board of cardinals. The poor brain of the chapter’s choice became fuddled in the face of the probing by gimlet-sharp cardinals, and he failed to answer a single question to the full satisfaction of his inquisitors. He was flatly rejected then and sent back to England. Two other candidates were brought forward and both were rejected. It then occurred to the Pope that there was in England a man of great holiness about whom all Christendom had been hearing.

The twelfth century had seen the multiplication of the great monasteries in England, first the Benedictines, who were called the Black Monks, and then the reforming offshoot, the Cistercians or Gray Monks. One of the largest and best endowed was the Benedictine abbey of Abingdon. Within sight of its walls, in a small town wedged into a neck of land where the Ock emptied into the Thames, a couple named Rich had raised a family of five children. The Rich family typifies the deep and unswerving faith of the times: Reinald, the father; Mabel, the devoted and fanatical mother; Edmund, the spiritual eldest son; two other sons and two daughters, all of whom were intended for the Church, despite the fact that they owed their surname to their fine share of land and other possessions. Reinald retired to the monastery of Eynsham to spend the last years of his life in contemplative peace. Mabel wore a hair shirt next to her skin and clamped it tight with iron stays. She rose without fail at midnight and spent the remaining hours of darkness in prayer and supplication. When Edmund was a small boy she gave him presents to induce him to fast. He needed little in the way of inducements: from his earliest boyhood he refused food on Sundays until he had sung the psalter through. His brothers and sisters were almost equally devout.

It is with Edmund that history is concerned. He grew up a handsome lad and fully in accord with his mother’s rigid conceptions of devotion. When he and Robert, his next-of-age brother, went to Paris to become students at the university, their mother convinced them it would be ungodly to travel in ease as became scions of a wealthy family. They begged their way and depended on alms while there. They remained in Paris for several years, eagerly acquiring knowledge, each receiving a haircloth shirt from their mother on graduating. After her death Edmund went to Oxford, where he became the first great teacher in that rapidly growing institution. It is not recorded where he taught, but no doubt he gathered his students about him in one of the thirty-two houses on School Street which were given over to the uses of the university. Certain it is that he had a great influence over the students who flocked in from all parts of England, filled with the first thirst for learning which the race had manifested. He was a clear and convincing speaker and an earnest expounder.

It was during his Oxford days that Edmund acquired his reputation as the saintliest man in England. He always wore a hair shirt as his mother had done, bound in tightly, perhaps, by the iron stays she had bequeathed him. He never used his bed but slept lightly and briefly in a chair or on the floor, rousing himself at midnight to resume his meditations and prayers, not wishing to waste a moment more than was necessary in forgetful sleep. He made a knot of rope-cloth and beat himself unmercifully with it. His knees became callused from the long hours he spent on them in prayer.

Edmund had not yet taken priestly orders, but from his own funds he constructed a chapel in Oxford for the better training and care of his pupils. They paid him a mere pittance (a few shillings a year, no more), but he had so little regard for any kind of reward that he would take the small pieces of money, cover them in a flowerpot on his window sill, and say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It was understood that the needy could help themselves to the coins buried in the earth, and no doubt many of them did.

It was during his term at Oxford that he had a vision of his mother coming to a blackboard covered with geometric problems which he taught as part of the quadrivium (the advanced course at the university) and substituting for them the three circles of the Trinity. This warning from beyond the grave led him to take holy orders. He soon became the most noted orator in the country. People flocked to hear him preach, attracted by his clarity, his simplicity, and his avoidance of disputation. His eloquence reached its stage of highest manifestation in 1227, when at the express command of the Pope he went out through the country and preached the latest Crusade. It is recorded that on several occasions rain fell all about the crowds who listened to him but that never a drop touched tunic or hood of the attentive audiences. He made many converts in these years of his pulpit eminence, particularly old William Long-Espée, the Earl of Salisbury, who had been a rough-and-tough fighting man all his life and had given small thought to eternity. After the earl’s death his widow Ela depended on Edmund for spiritual guidance, and it was on his advice that she built and endowed Lacock Abbey.

He was appointed treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral in 1219 and he continued in that office for fifteen years, his reputation for saintliness growing all the time. It was freely recognized, however, that his gentleness made him a poor financial administrator. He gave away his own stipend with such openhandedness that he would have nothing to live on for at least half of each year and would be compelled to eke out an existence with the help of friends.

He had been appointed prebend of Calne, an ancient town snuggling quietly in the midst of Salisbury Plain, and he was here at his prayers one afternoon when a great shouting arose outside his window. A servant, almost breathless with excitement, rushed into the oratory to tell him the news. Remaining on his knees and seeming to take small interest, Edmund heard that a deputation had arrived to notify him of his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. What he said on hearing this astonishing word has not been recorded, but it was clear that he was deeply disturbed. He had no desire for such high preferment and he doubted his fitness for the post. He remained in prayer for several hours. In the meantime the members of the deputation, who had expected to be received with joyful acclaim, had become puzzled and resentful. They partook of a frugal meal, the household being, as usual, poorly stocked, while listening to the low murmur of the prayers rising from the humble man in the oratory.

The mood of the disgruntled deputation changed when at nightfall Edmund emerged to greet them. He was now approaching his sixty-fifth year, his frame was frail from a lifetime of privation, his eyes were deeply sunk in his wasted countenance. With the first word he spoke, however, his magic asserted itself. The group of churchmen who made up the delegation listened in astonishment and awe as the ascetic preacher told them he could not accept the honor. He had neither the strength nor the capacity, he said, to undertake the headship of the Church. He was better fitted to the humble work he was doing and he earnestly entreated that this message be taken back to the chapter and acted upon.

Although impressed with the humility of Edmund’s attitude, they crowded about him, urging him to reconsider. They told him of the impasse which had been reached at Home and of the quick agreement as soon as his name had been advanced. Edmund, filled with a premonition of what this translation to greatness would mean, remained unconvinced. He accompanied them to Salisbury, however, and to the cathedral where from a multitude of tents and sheds the walls of the nave were rising in majestic grandeur. Here the bishop and other high officers of the see joined in urging him to consent. It took a long time to beat down his doubts and his conviction of unworthiness. In the end, however, he gave in and a triumphant Te Deum was sung over him in the midst of the bare high walls.

And then something came to pass which can only be compared to the change made in Thomas à Becket by his elevation to the archbishopric. The saintly Edmund of Abingdon, realizing the responsibilities of his office and the great need the Church had for uncompromising leadership, became as bold as a lion. He knew that he must fight the Pope who had selected him in order to save England from the spiritual loss resulting from absenteeism and plurality, that he must oppose the King and his bad councilors, that he must purge the Church of evils. The gentle, soft-spoken, scholarly Edmund, better fitted to the soft debates of the cloisters and to rapt prayer on callused knees than to facing selfish and worldly men, drew his sword with firm resolution and took up the good fight.


The first organized opposition to the new form of tyranny under the Poitevins came, therefore, from the bishops. To the great surprise of everyone, and the consternation, no doubt, of Henry and his chief officers, it was the gentle and saintly man they had plucked from the obscurity of a country cathedral who led the attack. Without waiting for his consecration as archbishop, Edmund called together his suffragans at Westminster and won their support to a move against the men who ruled the pliable King. They passed a resolution of censure which did not mince words.

“Lord King,” it read in part, “we tell you, in the name of God, that the counsel you receive and act upon—that, namely, of Peter, Bishop of Winchester, and of Peter des Rivaux—is not wise or safe but is dangerous as regards the realm of England and dangerous to yourself. These men hate and despise the English nation and, when the English assert their rights, they call them traitors. They estrange you from your people and alienate the affections of the people from their King.… We solemnly warn you that we shall put into effect against you the censures of the Church.…”

Two months later, having been consecrated in the meantime, the new archbishop led a deputation of the barons and the bishops to confront the King. Edmund was spokesman and he delivered his warning with all the force and eloquence of which he was capable. Henry gave way easily. Lacking resolution even in his ill-doing, he promised an investigation of conditions. Promises meant nothing to Henry, however, and he continued thereafter to act in concert with the men against whom the criticism had been directed, even taking them with him on a tour of the country in the spring. The sharp attack of the archbishop had shaken him, without a doubt, but it would take a touch of steel to bring him to the distasteful fulfillment of his pledge.

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