Open main menu


BEK, ANTONY I (d. 1310), bishop of Durham, was the son of Walter, baron of Eresby, in Lincolnshire. As a young man he attracted the notice of Edward I, and was nominated by him bishop of Durham in 1283. He was already well provided with ecclesiastical preferments; for he held five benefices in the province of Canterbury, and was archdeacon of Durham. At the time of his nomination to the see the monks of Durham were at variance with the archbishop of York about his rights of visitation. They knew that the archbishop would not accept anyone unless he were supported by the king, and they accordingly elected the king's nominee without opposition on 9 July 1283. Bek was consecrated at York on 9 Jan. 1284-5, and immediately after his consecration the archbishop, John Romanus, ordered him to excommunicate the rebellious monks. Bek refused, saying, 'Yesterday I was consecrated their bishop: shall I excommunicate them to-day?' At Bek's enthronement the claims of the archbishop of York led to another dispute. The official of York contested the right of the prior of Durham to instal, and Bek, in the interests of peace, set them both aside, and was installed by his brother Thomas, bishop of St. David's.

Antony Bek was a prelate of the secular and political type. He was one of the most magnificent lords in England, and outdid his peers in profuse expenditure. His ordinary retinue consisted of a hundred and forty knights, and he treated barons and earls with haughty superiority. Besides the revenues of his bishopric he had a large private fortune; and though he spent money profusely he died rich. He delighted in displaying his wealth. Once in London he paid forty shillings for as many herrings, because he heard that no one else would buy them. At another time, hearing that a piece of cloth was spoken of as 'too dear even for the Bishop of Durham,' he bought it, and had it cut up for horse-cloths. Yet he was an extremely temperate man, and cared nothing for pleasure. He was famed for his chastity, and it was said that he never even looked a woman in the face. At the translation of the relics of St. William of York he was the only prelate who felt himself pure enough to touch the saint's bones. He was a man of restless activity, who needed little sleep. He used to say that he could not understand how a man could turn in his bed, or seek a second slumber. He spent his time in riding, with a splendid retinue, from manor to manor, and was a mighty hunter, delighting in horses, hawks, and hounds.

Such a man was sure to find political employment, and Edward I used him for his negotiations with Scotland. In 1290 he was one of the royal commissioners at Brigham to arrange the marriage of the king's son I Edward with Margaret, the infant queen of Scotland. When this was agreed to, Bek was made lieutenant for Margaret and her husband; but this office soon came to an end by Margaret's death (Rymer, Fœdera, ii. 487-91). Next year Bek accompanied Edward I to Norham, and, on account of his eloquence, was one of those appointed to address the Scottish estates. Throughout the proceedings which led to the recognition of Baliol as king of Scotland, Antony Bek was one of the chief advisers of Edward I. In 1294 he was sent as ambassador to Adolf of Nassau, to arrange an alliance with Germany against France. In 1296 Bek joined Edward I in his expedition against Scotland. He led one thousand foot and five hundred horse, and before him was carried the sacred banner of St. Cuthbert. Baliol was helpless before Edward's army, and Bek was deputed to receive Baliol's submission in the castle of Brechin. When the war of Scottish independence broke out, Bek again joined Edward I in his second expedition to Scotland in 1298. His first exploit was the siege of the castle of Dirleton, which he had great difficulty in taking. In the battle of Falkirk Bek commanded the second division of the English forces, and, when he came near the foe, ordered his cavalry to await reinforcements before charging. 'To thy mass, bishop,' cried a rough knight, ' and teach not such as us how to fight the foe.' He spurred on, was followed by the rest, and routed the enemy.

Soon after his return from this campaign Antony Bek seems to have lost the king's favour, and was involved in ecclesiastical disputes which lasted for the remainder of his lifetime. In 1300 he proposed to hold a visitation of the convent of Durham, where some of the monks were dissatisfied with their prior, Richard de Hoton. Prior Richard declined to admit the bishop as visitor unless be came unattended. He feared to admit the bishop's retinue, which would practically enable him to enforce his decisions. Hereon Bek suspended the prior, and on his continued contumacy deposed and excommunicated him. The quarrel led to breaches of the peace, and at last the king interposed as mediator. He decided that the prior was to continue in office, and the bishop was to visit the convent accompanied by a few chaplains. He declared that he would go against that party which opposed his decision. The haughty bishop would not give way. He refused to withdraw his deposition of Prior Richard, and called on the monks to make a new election. When they demurred, he appointed Henry de Luceby, prior of Lindisfame, to the office. To set up his nominee he called the men of Tynedale and Weardale to besiege the abbey, which was reduced by hunger. Then he seized Prior Richard and put him in prison, whence Richard managed to escape, and carried his grievances before the king and parliament, which was assembled at Lincoln. There were many who joined in his complaints of the bishop*s arrogance. The barons of the palatinate were not sorry to see Bek called to account. The men of the bishopric complained that they had been compelled to serve in the Scottish war contrary to their 'haliwere,' or obligation to fight only in defence of the patrimony of St. Cathbert. Edward was irritated by Archhishop Winchelsey's adhesion to the papal policy, and was inclined to look with disfavour on clerical pretensions. He asked Bek if he had stood with him in 1297 against the earl marshal and the Earl of Hereford. Bek answered that he had been on their side because he thought they sought the honour of the king and his realm. From that time forward Edward I was Bek's enemy.

The decision of parliament was in favour of the dispossessed prior, and he went off to Rome with letters from the king in his favour. Pope Boniface VIII reinstated him in his office, and summoned Bek to answer for his doings. Bek paid no heed to the papal summons, and Boniface VIII threatened him with deprivation. On this Bek set out for Rome, without asking the king's permission, in 1302, for which breach of decorum Edward I seized the temporalities of his see, and administered them by his own officials. At Rome Bek displayed his usual magnificence to the amazement of the people. 'Who is this?' asked a citizen as he saw the bishop's retinue sweep by. 'A foe to money' was the answer. Bek won over the cardinals by his splendid presents. One admired his horses, whereon Bek sent him two of the best, that he might choose which he preferred. The cardinal kept both. 'He has not failed to choose the best,' said Bek. Bek showed that he was no respecter of persons. He gave the benediction when a cardinal was present. He amused himself by playing with his falcons even during his interviews with the pope. Boniface VIII admired a temper so like his own, and dismissed the prior's complaints against Bek. On his journey Bek was in danger through a tumult which arose in a North-Italian city between his servants and the citizens. The mob stormed the house in which he was, and rushed into his room, exclaiming 'Yield, yield!' 'You don't say to whom I am to yield,' said the bishop; 'certainly to none of vou.' His dauntless bearing soon quelled the disturbance.

When Bek returned to England he made submission to the king, and recovered the possessions of his see. But he could not endure to be defeated by Prior Richard, and on the death of Boniface VllI again accused him to Benedict XI, who died before he had time to decide the case. Still Bek renewed his complaints to Clement V, who deprived Prior Richard of his office, and conferred on Bek a mark of his special favour by creating him patriarch of Jerusalem in 1305. However, Prior Richard, nothing dismayed, took another journey to the papal court, and, furnished with a thousand marks, succeeded in obtaining a reversal of the sentence. It did him little service; for he died before he could set out homewards, and his possessions were taken by the pope's treasury. Bek was now delivered from this troublesome quarrel; but Edward I would not leave him in peace. On the ground that he had obtained instruments from Rome injurious to the rights of the crown, the king deprived him of the liberties of Barnard Castle and Hartlepool, which had been conferred on him after the forfeitures of Baliol and Bruce. The accession of Edward II saw Bek again restored to royal favour. In 1307 the young king granted him the sovereignty of the Isle of Man. Thenceforth Bek was at liberty to wreak his vengeance upon the friends of the refractory prior. In 1308 he visited the convent of Durham, and suspended for ten years those monks who had taken part against him. His injured pride led him to commit a dishonourable action, which had far-reaching effects on the history of the north of England. William de Vesci, lord of the barony of Alnwick, died in 1297 without lawful issue, and left his castle and barony of Alnwick to Bek, in trust for an illegitimate son until he came of age. Stung by some disrespectful words of the lad, which were reported to him, Bek broke his trust, and sold the barony of Alnwick to Henry Percy in 1309, thereby increasing the importance of the Percy house which afterwards became so powerful. Bek died at Eltham on 3 March 1310-11, and was buried in the cathedral of Durham. He was the first to whom this honour had been granted; though, out of reverence to St. Cuthbert, his body was not permitted to enter by the door, but through an opening made in the wall.

Bek was a man of great liberality, and spent much money on building. He made the churches of Chester-le-Street and Lanchester into collegiate churches, and endowed a dean and seven prebends at each. He founded the priory of Alvingham in Lincolnshire, and built the castle of Somerton, near Lincoln. He converted the manor-house of Auckland into a castle. He built the castle of Eltham, and gave it to the queen, while he similarly gave Somerton to the king. In all points he is one of the most characteristic figures of his time.

[The chief authority for Bek's life is Robert de Graystanes, De Statu Ecclesiæ Dunelmensis, published in Wharton's Anglia Sacra, and more accurately edited by Raine for the Surtees Society, 1839. Besides this are scattered mentions in Walsingham's and Hemingford's chronicles, and in the documents in Rymer's Fœdera and Prynne's Brevia Parliamentaria, vol. iii. Much about his quarrel with John Romanus, archbishop of York, is in the Rolls of Parliament. Of modern writers the fullest account is given by Hutchinson, History of Durham, i. 228-58; also by Low, Diocesan History of Durham.]

M. C.