Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alexander (d.1148)
ALEXANDER (d. 1148), bishop of Lincoln, was a Norman by birth, the son of the brother of that famous Roger, bishop of Salisbury, ‘nepos ejus ex patre’ (Will. Malm. Hist. Novell. lib. ii. p. 102), who, from being a humble parish priest in the suburbs of Caen, had risen through the favour of Henry I to be bishop of one of the chief sees of England, and, as chancellor and finally justiciar, had become the most powerful man in the realm. The name of Alexander's mother, we learn from the Lincoln obit book, was Ada. Alexander was adopted by his uncle, and brought up by him in the utmost luxury, ‘nutritus in summis deliciis’ (Hen. Hunt. p. 226, ed. Twysden), imbibing from him that pride of place and love of lavish display, ‘superbiæ non tepidus æmulator’ (Wykes, Chron. Rer. Anglic. Scriptores, ed. Gale, ii.), which caused him to be known in after days as ‘Alexander the Magnificent.’ Alexander and his cousin Nigel, afterwards bishop of Ely, received a liberal education, such as to qualify them for the dignities they were destined to fill (Will. Malm.), to which their uncle's all-powerful influence with Henry I speedily raised them. On the elevation of Everard to the see of Norwich in 1121, Alexander was appointed by Roger to the archdeaconry of Sarum. He only held this dignity two years. Bishop Robert Bloet of Lincoln was struck with a fatal apoplectic fit in January 1123, while riding with the king and Roger of Salisbury, and the latter obtained from Henry without delay the promise of the vacant see for his nephew. Alexander's official nomination took place the following Easter at Winchester, where Henry was holding his court, and on 22 July he received consecration at Canterbury from the newly appointed archbishop, William of Corbeuil, who had just returned from Rome with his pall. The gatehouse of Eastgate in the city of Lincoln with the tower over it was granted to him as his episcopal residence by Henry I (Dugdale, Monast. (1830), viii. 1274, No. xliii.) Two years later, 1125, Alexander, probably for the purpose of receiving investiture at the hands of the pope, accompanied the two archbishops, William of Canterbury and Thurstan of York, and John the bishop of Glasgow, on that momentous visit to Rome, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the view of securing the subordination of the see of York, condescended to receive legatine authority from Honorius II, from which event, writes Dr. Inett, ‘we are to date the vassalage of the church of England.’ On his return to England we find Alexander taking part in the councils held during this period, chiefly directed against the marriage of the clergy. He and his uncle Roger were present at the council of Westminster in 1127, when the sentence of deprivation was pronounced against every parish priest who was guilty of the crime of matrimony (Flor. Wigorn. Contin. p. 85, published by Eng. Hist. Soc.), a sentence which, though solemnly renewed in 1129, was rendered ineffective by the connivance at the married clergy by the king, unwilling that ‘the good old customs of England should be changed.’ As one of the chief ecclesiastics of the realm, Alexander was present when, on 4 May 1130, the ‘glorious choir of Conrad,’ added to the cathedral of Canterbury, was consecrated by Archbishop William in the presence of Henry I and his brother-in-law, David, king of Scotland (Eadmer, Historia Novorum, c. 26). In 1134, Henry being then in Normandy, Alexander and Archbishop William crossed the Channel to lay before the king some dispute relating to their diocesan rights ‘pro quibusdam consuetudinibus parochiarum suarum’ (Hen. Hunt, ut supra, p. 220), of which we know nothing definitely.
Alexander, like his far greater uncle Roger, presents an example of the secular type of ecclesiastics, to which the greater part of the bishops of that day belonged, displaying far more of the temporal potentate than of the spiritual dignitary, rather barons than bishops. Holding their lands by military tenure, surrounding themselves with armed retainers, builders and fortifiers of castles, they were distinguished from the wealthy and powerful laymen by little more than their spiritual powers and clerical immunities, and a celibacy which was too usually merely nominal. The contemporary author of the ‘Gesta Stephani’ gives us this portrait of Alexander (the translation is from Canon Perry's Life of St. Hugh, p. 73): ‘He was called a bishop, but he was a man of vast pomp and of great boldness and audacity. Neglecting the pure and simple way of life belonging to the christian religion, he gave himself up to military affairs and secular pomp, showing, whenever he appeared in court, so vast a band of followers that all men marvelled’ (Gest. Steph. (Eng. Hist. Soc.), p. 47). The immense revenues he derived from his ecclesiastical estates were insufficient for his profuse expenditure, and he is charged by his contemporaries with abusing his power to extort money by unjust means to maintain his splendid retinue and ostentatious living. Henry of Huntingdon, writing after his death of a patron whom in his lifetime he had styled ‘pater patriæ, princeps a rege secundus,’ ‘flos et cacumen regni et gentis,’ says: ‘Desirous to excel other nobles in his magnificent gifts and the splendour of his undertakings, when his own resources did not suffice he greedily pillaged his own dependents to bring his smaller means to a level with the larger means of his rivals. But yet in this he failed, since he was one who was ever squandering more and more’ (Hen. Hunt. p. 226, ed. Savile).
The Normans were mighty builders. Alexander shared to the full in the passion of his age and rank. He emulated his uncle Roger, celebrated as the greatest builder of his age, in the extent and magnificence of his architectural works. These were first military works. At the three chief points of his episcopal domains, Sleaford, Newark, and Banbury, he raised strong castles, on the plea—‘ut dicebat’—that such fortresses were absolutely necessary in a time of lawlessness and violence for the protection and dignity of his see, ‘ad tutamen et dignitatem episcopii’ (Will. Malm. Hist. Novell. lib. ii. p. 102; Girald. Cambr. Vit. Remig. cap. xxii. vol. vii., Rolls Series). Then, when the tide of fortune was turning, and he was made to feel, as William of Newbury has reported (c. vi.), ‘that that sort of building was not looked on as altogether suitable to the episcopal character, he began to build religious houses, as it were to expiate his fault, erecting as many monasteries as he had erected castles, and filling them with religious men.’ The earliest of these foundations was the Cistercian house of Haverholme, near Sleaford, established in 1137 and transferred to Louth Park in 1139, Haverholme being made over to the newly established order of Gilbertines of Sempringham. In 1138 Alexander erected another Cistercian monastery at Thame, and in 1140 a house of Austin canons at the deserted seat of the bishopric at Dorchester-on-Thames. He also rebuilt the chancel of the mother church of Lindsey St. Mary's at Stow, in the best style of the day, vaulting it with stone; and on the partial destruction of his cathedral at Lincoln by fire, we are told that he restored it with such wonderful skill that it was ‘more beautiful than before and second to none in the realm;’ and to guard against a second conflagration he roofed the whole edifice with a stone vault, one of the earliest examples in England of what had long been a common feature on the other side of the Channel (Gir. Cambr. Vit. S. Remig. ubi supra; Hen. Hunt. ut supra, p. 225). It is noted, however, by Giraldus that these ‘works of satisfaction’ were built out of the revenues of the church, not out of Alexander's private means, so that he was ‘robbing one altar to clothe another,’ and depriving himself of all merit in what he did.
The chief crisis in Alexander's career took place in 1139, in the early years of Stephen's reign. The oath imposed by Henry I on the bishops and chief men of the realm at the Westminster Council, held Christmas 1126–27, had been taken by Alexander, following the lead of his uncle Roger, and they had sworn later again and again with every religious safeguard, that, on Henry's death without a male heir, they would receive his daughter, Maud, as ‘lady of England and Normandy.’ Nevertheless the uncle and nephew had not scrupled to transfer their allegiance to Stephen. When very early in his reign, in 1137, Stephen crossed to Normandy to defend his duchy, which had been invaded by Geoffrey of Anjou, Bishop Alexander was in his train, and was probably present when Stephen received investiture of the province from Lewis, and his young son Eustace did homage and became the man of the king of France (Hen. Hunt. p. 222; Annal. Waverl., Annal. Monast. (Rolls Ser.), ii. 226). In the civil anarchy which followed, the loyalty of Alexander, as of his powerful kinsmen Roger and Nigel of Ely, became strongly suspected. The possession of castles, so many and so strong, placed these prelates in a position of independence which rendered them dangerous to the crown. Stephen's suspicions were carefully fomented by his lay advisers, jealous of the overweening power of the churchmen. Unwisely listening to their persuasions, he resolved to make himself master of the three bishops and their castles. The occasion taken was the sitting of a great council at Oxford in the summer of 1139. The bishops, when cited to the council, obeyed reluctantly. A fray which arose between their men and the followers of Count Alan of Richmond about their quarters, which had ended in bloodshed, offered the desired pretext for action. Stephen arrested Alexander and his uncle, the former in his lodging, the latter in the court itself, together with the bishop of Salisbury's son and namesake, ‘Roger the Poor,’ the king's chancellor—Nigel, bishop of Ely, managed to effect his escape—and threw them into prison until they should have surrendered the castles which he asserted they were fortifying against him. The bishops' claim to have the matter judicially investigated, and their offer to render any satisfaction which might be legally due, were contemptuously rejected. Their only hope of enlargement lay in giving up their castles and all they contained. Roger's strong castle of Devizes, after a vigorous defence by Nigel of Ely and Maud of Ramsbury, Roger's mistress, the chancellor's mother, was surrendered to Stephen on his threat of starving the elder Roger and hanging the younger. The king then hastened with his army across England to Alexander's castle of Newark-on-Trent, dragging with him its builder, whom, meanwhile, he had kept in harsh imprisonment, ‘sub vili tugurio,’ with the assurance, when the siege was laid, that he should taste no food till the fortress was surrendered. It needed all the tears and prayers of the famished bishop to induce the garrison who were holding the castle to surrender. Alexander's other castles of Sleaford and Banbury speedily followed, leaving Stephen master of the situation (Gesta Stephani, 50; Will. Malm. Hist. Novell. ii. 20; Ord. Vit. 920; Flor. Wigorn. Contin.; Hen. Hunt. 223; Hoveden, 277; Wykes, ii. 23).
This outburst of indiscreet energy, so alien to Stephen's general mildness, was the turning-point in Stephen's reign, after which his fortunes steadily declined (Stubbs, Early Plantagenets, p. 18). Such illegal violence had arrayed the whole church against him. In less than two months from the seizure of Alexander and his uncle, a great ecclesiastical council was held at Winchester (29 Aug.), under the presidency of Stephen's brother, Henry of Blois, as papal legate, to take cognisance of their sovereign's crime. Stephen was actually summoned before the synod. No formal sentence was passed, but, according to the author of the ‘Gesta Stephani’ (§ 51), Stephen made satisfaction for his ecclesiastical offence by laying aside his royal insignia and submitting to some form of penance. But no submission could undo Stephen's rash act. The day after that on which the council was held, 30 Sept. 1139, Maud landed in England; and the horrible period of anarchy and civil war began. Alexander espoused neither side openly, prudently waiting the turn of events to declare himself for the winner. We may hope that his diocese was the gainer, and that he gave heed to the weighty words of the council held at this period, that bishops should not possess castles, but devote themselves to the spiritual care of their flocks (Flor. Wigorn. Contin. ut supra, iii. p. 116). The next time we see Alexander, he is performing his religious functions as bishop in his own cathedral. This was on Candlemas day, 2 Feb. 1141, at the solemn mass which preceded the ‘battle of Lincoln,’ from the field of which Stephen was carried off a prisoner to Bristol castle, in punishment, some said, for his previous violence to God's ministers, and for having converted the western part of the holy house of St. Mary of Lincoln into a fortress furnished with engines of war for the purpose of attacking the neighbouring castle, then held by the rebel Earls of Lincoln and Chester (Will. Malm. Hist. Novell. iii. 39). The holy service, we are told, was disturbed with portents of coming misfortune. The huge wax taper, ‘cereum rege dignum,’ offered by the king, broke in two, as he put it in Alexander's hands, an omen of the crushing of the king's power. The chain by which the pyx hung above the altar suddenly snapped asunder, and the sacred wafer fell to the ground at the bishop's feet. A month later we find Alexander at Winchester, taking part, in the solemn reception in the cathedral of the Empress Maud by the legate, Bishop Henry of Blois, 3 March 1141, and in the synod which followed, in the presence of Archbishop Theobald (7 April); he was one of those who, having, it is recorded, previously obtained the king's leave, bent to the times and swore allegiance to his rival (‘impetrata venia ut in necessitatem temporis transirent,’ Will. Malm. Hist. Novell. lib. ii. 105). A terrible accusation is brought against Alexander, together with his brother bishops of Winchester and Coventry, by the author of the ‘Gesta Stephani,’ of having helped to aggravate the miseries of those days of anarchy, not only by conniving at the acts of cruelty and rapacity of the barons and their retainers which were turning the land into a hell, ‘fearing to strike with the word of God those children of Belial,’ but even by openly imitating their evil deeds, extorting money by torture and imprisonment.
Alexander, having replenished his coffers by suchlike acts of barefaced rapacity, in 1145 paid a second visit to Rome. A new pope had just taken his seat on the throne of St. Peter, Eugenius III, the friend of St. Bernard. As on his former visit, when his prodigal liberality procured for Alexander the title of ‘the Magnificent,’ he lavished money with the utmost profusion, both in his private expenditure and in his gifts. His welcome was in accordance. He was received with the utmost honour by the pope and the whole court, who, after his prolonged stay—for he did not leave Rome till the following year—pursued their open-handed guest with grateful memories and vain regrets (Hen. Hunt. lib. viii. 225.) During his absence the conflagration of his cathedral had occurred, to which reference has already been made, and the first work of the bishop on his return to his diocese, where he was received with the utmost reverence and joy, was to restore the blackened and roofless walls of the stern Norman church of Remigius to more than its original beauty and to add a stone vault (ibid.) It was at the close of the year 1146 that Stephen, having at last got his powerful subject, the Earl of Chester, into his hands by treachery and obtained the surrender of the castle of Lincoln and other strongholds as the price of his ransom, feeling himself for the first time a king in fact, kept his Christmas at Lincoln, and, in defiance of an ancient prophecy denouncing disaster to any monarch who should thus adopt full regal state within its walls, was crowned there anew. Neither the place where, nor the person by whom, the ceremony was performed, is recorded; but we can hardly be wrong in concluding that it took place in the renovated cathedral at the hands of Bishop Alexander. Alexander's career was now nearly at an end. The summer of the following year he started for Auxerre to pay a visit to Pope Eugenius, who was sojourning in that city. He was again honourably received by the pontiff, but the excessive heat of the season injuriously affected his health, and on his return to England he brought with him the seeds of a low fever, which proved fatal at the beginning of the next year, 1148 (Hen. Hunt. p. 226). He was buried in his cathedral on Ash Wednesday, but no monument marks his grave, and its place is unknown. Henry of Huntingdon, whose patron he was, and who dedicated to him the history he had written at his request, though not sparing his faults, gives this attractive description of Alexander's person and character: ‘His disposition was always kind; his judgment always equal; his countenance at all times not only cheerful but joyous.’ A letter is extent addressed to him by St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the occasion of one of the canons of his cathedral entering the Cistercian order. The saint's warnings ‘not to lose the lasting glory of the next world for the sake of the transient glory of a world of shadows, nor to love his possessions more than his true self, lest he thereby lose both,’ afford an instructive comment on the notorious worldliness of his life (Bernard, Ep. lxiv.) Alexander's relatives profited by his episcopal patronage. He made his brother David archdeacon of Buckingham, and his nephew William archdeacon of Northampton. The last-named appears to have been his uncle's executor, handing over to the dean and chapter the books bequeathed to them by Alexander, viz. Genesis (imperfect), the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John, and the Book of Job, all glossed, the canonical Epistles and Apocalypse, and a volume containing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles.