Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnell, Robert
BURNELL, ROBERT (d. 1292), bishop of Bath and Wells and chancellor of England, was descended from a knightly family in Shropshire, and was born at their seat of Acton Burnell, near Shrewsbury (Rot. Pat. 12 E. I. m. 6). After he became famous the monks of Buildwas forged a genealogy which traced his family back to the Conquest; but in authentic history it is known for less than a century before his birth, and in the preceding generation it had been disgraced by one of its house becoming a felon and outlaw. The exact relationship of Burne11 to the earlier members of his family is unknown. He was one of at least four brothers, probably not the eldest, though death apparently put him early into the possessions of his family. He had, however, adopted the church and the law for his profession, and appears first as a clerk of Prince Edward, to whom he attached himself very early in life, and whose intimate friendship he soon obtained. In November 1260 Burnell accompanied Edward to France. Three years afterwards he had obtained sufficient wealth to begin to acquire large estates in Shropshire. In 1263 he apparently accompanied Edward to Shrewsbury, and received a patent of protection during the Welsh campaign of that year. In March 1265 he received another safe-conduct into South Wales to transact business on Edward's behalf. In 1266 Henry III allowed him to impark his land within the royal forest (Rot. Pat. 50 H. III, m. 1), and in 1269 granted to Acton the privilege of a weekly market and two annual fairs. In July 1270 he received a patent of protection as a ‘cruoe signatus,’ and is described as about to accompany Prince Edward on his crusade. The highest ecclesiastical preferment Burnell had as yet attained was the archdeaoonry of York. But on the eve of the rince’s departure the death of Boniface of gavoy (8 July 1270) left the arcbbishopric of Canterbury vacant, and Edward made a strong effort to secure the succession for his faithful friend and clerk. Not content with urging Burnell’s claims by letter, Edward hurried to Canterbury, broke open the doors of the chapter-house, and vehemently pressed his election on the hesitating monks, But their reply that they must follow the dictates of the Holy Spirit threw the prince into a violent passion. He returned to Portsmouth, whence he embarked on 19 Aug., highly indignant with the monks, who, on his withdrawal, elected their own prior, Adam of Chillenden. This dispute made Pope Gregory X the ultimate arbiter of the question, and his appointment, of the Dominican Robert Kilwardby settled Burnell's chances (An. Wav.; Wykes; Cotton, p. 145). If Buruell went with Edward to Palestine, he must have very soon returned. He was nominated, along with the archbishop of York and Roger Mortimer, to act as the prince’s locum tenens and deputy during his absence (Shirley, Royal Letters, ii. 3-16); and his appointment as one of Edward's executors ( 8 June 1272) was another mark of his patron’s esteem. The three locum tementes became, on Henry III’s death (19 Nov. 1272), regents of the kingdom until the return of their absent principal. They nominated a chancellor, held a great council, received fealty oaths to the new king, and, under legatine pressure, heavily taxed the clergy. Their government was peaceful and successful (An. Winton. ; An. Wav.)
Edward's return was soon followed by Burnell’s appointment as chancellor (21 Sept. 1274), an office held by him for the eighteen remaining years of his life. On 23 Jan. 1275 he was elected bishop of Bath and Wells, and on 7 April consecrated at Merton by his old rival Kilwardby (Wykes, but the An. Wigorn. say ‘apud Londinium’). On every opportunity Edward strove to obtain for him urther promotion. On Kilwardby`s retirement to Rome in 1278 the king persuaded the monks of Christ Church to postulate for Burnell, who was then in Gascony on royal business (Wykes, in An. Mon. iv. 279) as archbishop. An earnest letter of entreaty from the king accompanied their postulation to Rome (Rymer, i. 559, ed. 1704); but Nicholas III yielded to his entreaties only so far as to appoint a commission of three cardinals to examine Burnell’s fitness. After long inquiries, circumstances came to the pope's ears which, he declared, maade it impossible for him to consent to Burnell’s appointment, and he nominated the Franciscan ohn Peckham instead. Edward concealed his disappointment, and again on 20 March 1280 his influence obtained the election of Burnell to WVinchester, But the pope simply bade the chapter proceed to a new election (An. Wav. in An. Mon. ii. 393; An. Wigorn. 177. iv. 478).
It is hard to determine Burnell’s precise share in the great legislative acts of Edward I’s time. But his constant and intimate association with his master, the strong bonds of personal friendship that plainly united the sovereign and minister, and the facts that Bnrnell's elevation to the chancery marks the beginning of Edward’s legislative reforms, and that alter his death few more great statutes were passed, combine to suggest that Burnell largely shared in the glory of the work. But not in lawmaking only was Burnell’s influence felt. His resolution in 1280 to settle the chancery, which had hitherto followed the court, at London as a fixed place where suitors could always find a remedy for their grievances (An. Wav. and An. Wigorn. in Annales Momastici, ii. 393, iv. 477), marks an important epoch in the history of that court. In general politics also Burnell took a leading share. He was almost always in attendance upon the king, whether in Aquitaine, Wales, or Scotland, and was prominent as at least the mouthpiece and the executor of the policy which Edward pursued in relation to the French crown, the annexation and pacitication of Wales, and the award of the crown of Scotland among its rival claimants. After his death Edward's assumption of a harsher and more peremptory attitude shows how great a check Burnell had been on the narrower and less genial sides of his master’s character (Stubbs, Const. Hist. ii. 305). On several occasions the multiplicity of his business or his absence abroad necessitated the appointment of deputies to discharge his business as chancellor. In 1275 the statute of Westminster I, a code in itself, began the legislative work which went on among as Burnell was chancellor. In the same year Llewelyn of Wales had the assurance to require Burnell as a hostage on his going to London to perform homage. In 1276 (12 Nov.) Burnmell took part in the council at Westminster which gave judgment against Llewelyn (Parl. Writs, 1. 5), and next year was summoned to send his service against the Welsh prince (ib. i. 195). In 1277 Burnell was one of three commissioners selected to determine the security for David’s fidelity on his restoration to his forfeited fiefs, and was appointed to conduct Llewelyn to London to fulfil his long-delayed feudal duties. Early in 1278 he was employed on important business in France and Gascony (Rymer, ii. 109). In 1282 and 1283 he was constantly engaged in Wales or the borders. He was present at the drawing up of the statute Rhuddlan, In the latter year he entertained the king and parliament at his own house, Acton, where the statute De Mercatoribus was passed. ln_ 1285 he presided over the parliaments which passed the statutes of Westminster II and the statute of Winchester. In May 1286 he accompanied Edward to France, taking the great seal with him, and remained there until August 1289 (see Stubbs, Const. Hist. ii. 123). During their absence the judicial system fell into confusion, and on his return he was placed at the head of the commission which inquired at Westminster into the complaints against the judges (An. Dunstable in An. Mon. iii. 357; An. E. I. and E. II. ed. Stubbs, i. 98). A wholesale removal of the justices followed the presentment oftheir report in 1290. The close of Burnell's life was much occupied in Soottish affairs. He pronounced at the great meeting opposite Norham the king’s intention to act as arbiter (An. Reg. Scot. 242-246; Rymer i. 762). His baptism during 1291 of Edward I's infant grandson, Gilbert of Gloucester, shows the personal relations between king and minister kept up to the last. On 14 Oct. 1292 Burnell attended at Berwick, probably with a view to pronouncing Edwards decision in favour of Balliol. But on 25 Oct., nearly a month before the great suit was concluded, he died, apparently suddenly. His body was conveyed to Wells and buried there on 23 Nov.
lt is a remarkable proof of Burnell's energy that he was able to make such mark as he did upon the history of Wells. He found in its deanery and prebends an easy means of 'preferring his nephews or sons. He procured many franchises and liberties for the church of Wells, and acquired for it the possession of five new churches. He brought to an end the long-standing feud between the bishops of Wells and the abbots of Glastonbury, and gave up his claims to the patronage of the abbey in return for royal cessions of property, that made the bishop completely lord of the city of Bath. He built at his own expense the episcopal hall at Wells, which rivalled the works of Gower at St. David‘s, and was only surpassed in dimensions by the great hall of the bishop’s castle at Durham. His command of the royal ear enabled all his as Burnell benefactions to be firmly secured by royal charters and muniments (Canonici Wellensis Hist. de Episcopis Bath. et Well. in Anglia Sacra, i. 566, with Wharton’s note; Adam De Domerham, De Lite infer Episc. Batlon. et Monach. Glaston., ed. Hearne; Godwin, Catologue of Bishops of Bath and Wells; Phelps, History of Somerset, ii. 108; Freeman, History of Wells Cathedral; Cassan, Bishops of Bath and Wells.
In general ecclesiastical politics Burnell was thrown a good deal into opposition with his old rival Archbishop Peckham, whose uncom promising zeal for the privileges of his order, no less than his activity against moral abuses must have been equally obnoxious to the chancellor. The ‘Register of Peckharn,’ 373, 424, 430 (Rolls Series, ed. C. T. Martin, 1882-4), shows how uneasy the relations of Burnell and his metropolitan continued to be. At one time urnell accused Peckham of obtaining papal letters to prevent his further promotion, and in 1284 Peckham asked the Roman curia to any the current report that when Winchester was vacant: he informed the pope of ‘certain defects’ of Burnell's character which effectually stopped his appointment (dxliv.) At another time Burnell accused Peckham of refusing him justice in the court of arches dxviii), while Peckham suspected Burnell of using spiritual censures in order to get in the debts of merchants whose services were useful to the crown (cccclvi.)
The private habits of the chancellor were not such as to satisfy even the low standard of ecclesiastical decorum then exacted, and may well have barred him from the arch-bishopric, An unpleasant feature of his character was his insatiable greed. His ambition was to found a baronial family in Shropshire. To make his native village of Acton a flourishing town, to rebuild his ancestral house on a scale adequate to entertain kings and parliaments and to increase his estates were oljects cbnstantly pursued by him for nearly thirty years. So early as 1272 his own kinsfolk were among the jurors of Condover who complained that the future minister of the king who destroyed the political importance of feudalism was withdrawing Acton from the jurisdiction of the hundred moot. With the acquisition of Castle Holgate from the Templars and the Earl of Cornwall, Burnell had obtained an honour the possession of which made his heirs peers of the realm (see, on all points connected with Burnell's relations to Shropshire, Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, especially vol. iv.) On his death he was rn possession of estates in nineteen counties, and the holder, in whole or part, of eighty-two manors; of which no less than twenty-one were in Shropshire, eight in Somersetshire, eight in Worcesters ire, and thirteen in Kent and Surrey, where a series of his estates extended from Woolwich and Bexley to Sheen and Wickham, almost encompassing South London (Cal. Inquis. post Mortem, i. 115). When we add to these vast estates the ecclesiastical preferments lavished on his kinsmen, the vast portions assigned to his daughters, whom he married to great nobles, all that he himself held despite the laws against pluralities, and the ‘mirabilis munificentia’ (Wykes, A. M. iv. 262) that marked all his expenditure, we can hardly wonder that the archbishop, a zealous upholder of the mendicant orders, objected to his further promotion.
Burnell was not very successful in his efforts to found a family. Two of his brothers were slain on the Menai Straits by the Welsh in 1282 (Trivet, p.305; Rishanger, p. 102). His third brother, Sir Hugh, died in 1286, leaving a son, Philip, who wasted the uncle’s patrimony, and was one of the first persons of distinction to suffer by the facilities for recovering trader’s debts which the statute of Acton Burnell had alforded (see Eyton, Shropshire). He died in 1294, only two years after his uncle. Twice his descendants were summoned by writ to the House of Lords, but before the fourteenth century was over the peerage became extinct (Courthope, Historic Peerage, p. 85). Only a few ruins now remain of the great hall at Acton in which the parliament held its session, and modern alterations have almost destroyed the identity of Burnell‘s great house, built with timber from the royal woods, strengthened with a wall of stone and lime, and crenellated hy special royal license (Rot. Pat. 12 E. I, mm. 17 and 6).
Burnell’s faithfulness, wisdom, and experience must be set against the greediness and the licentiousness and the nepotism that stained his private character (An. Dunst. in An. Mon. iv. 873). His kindness of heart, his liberality, affability, love of peacemaking,' and readiness in giving audience to his suitors brought him a good share of his master’s popularity. The intimate friend of Edward I could hardly have been lacking in some elements of justice. The confidential minister of the greatest of the Plantagencts was almost necessarily a great statesman. The ecclesiastic who stood up for the crown against the Franciscan primate prepared the Way for the later assertions of national independence. The author of the statute of Rhuddlan and the ordinance De Statu Hiherniæ played an important part in the process of unifying the British islands. The monk of Worcester was full justified in saying that his peer would not lie found in those days (An. Wig. A. M. iv. 510; cf. An. Dunst. A. M. iv. 373; Rymer, i. 559, Canonicus Wellensis in Anglia Sacra, i. 566).
[The chief authorities for the various aspects of Burnell’s career have been already enumerated in the course of this article. Of his family, early history, and relations with Shropshire, everything known has been judiciously collected by Eyton. His political career can be traced in the calendars of the Close and Patent Rolls, in Rymer’s Foedara, and in the clam allusions of las chroniclers, particularly those included in Luard’s Annales Monastician the Rolls Series. The Canon of Wells is the best authority for what he did in his own diocese. The Register of Peckham gives, with his relations to the airchbisllop, his general ecclesiastical policy. Short modern lives are to be found in Godwin’s Catalogue of Bishops of Bath and Wells, Cassan's Bishops of Bath and Wells, and a skeleton of facts and dates in Le Neve’s Fasti Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ; of the longer lives, that of Lord Campbell (Lives of the Chancellors, vol. i.) is careless and inaccurate, and much inferior to the biography in Foss (Judges of England, iii. 63-7; Biographia Juridica, p. 143).]