Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Courtenay, William

1354826Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 12 — Courtenay, William1887William Hunt

COURTENAY, WILLIAM (1342?–1396), archbishop of Canterbury, fourth son of Hugh Courtenay, earl of Devon, and Margaret Bohun, daughter of Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Edward I, was born in the parish of St. Martin's, a suburb of Exeter, in or about 1342. After receiving his early education in his father's house, he was sent to Stapledon Hall, Oxford, where he graduated in law, being described both as Doctor Decretorum and D.C.L. (Fasciculi Zizaniorum, pp. 288, 498). In 1367 he was chosen chancellor, and the university having successfully resisted the claim of the Bishop of Lincoln to control its right of election, he was admitted without the episcopal confirmation. He obtained a bull of confirmation from Urban V, declaring that the election of a chancellor by the university was valid without the interference of the diocesan (Munimenta Academica, i. 229). His election displeased the friars; for he had taken part with the university in its struggle to enforce upon them obedience to its rules; and in spite of an agreement into which they had lately entered, they cited the chancellor to Rome. This, however, was an infringement of the rights of the crown, and the citation was quashed (ib. 226; Wood, Antiquities of Oxford, i. 480). Courtenay held prebends in the churches of Exeter and Wells, and on 24 March 1369–70 was made a prebendary of York. In this year also he was elected bishop of Hereford, and his defect in age having been made up by a papal bull dated 17 Aug., he was consecrated on 17 March 1370, and enthroned on 5 Sept. following. As bishop he allied himself with the party of the Prince of Wales and William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, who opposed the attacks made on the clergy by John of Gaunt, and he vigorously upheld the rights of the national church against the twofold oppression of the pope and of the crown, to which it was exposed. Neither at this, nor indeed at any other period of his career, does his conduct appear to warrant the assertion that he was ‘influenced by party, not principle’ (Hook, Lives, iv. 322). The welfare of the church of England and good government in church and state seem to have been the ends for which he laboured; and though, judged by the light of after days, some parts of his policy, such as his opposition to Lollardism, may fail to command sympathy, they certainly were not held to be contrary to the principles that became a loyal churchman or a constitutional statesman. He took a prominent part in vindicating the rights of the church in the convocation of 1373. When the king's demand for a subsidy was laid before the clergy, they declared that they were utterly undone by the exactions, not merely of the crown, but of the papacy, which were repeated nearly every year, and that they could help the king better ‘if the intolerable yoke of the pope were taken from their necks,’ and on this condition only they promised a tenth. Then Courtenay rose in anger, and loudly declared that neither he nor any of the clergy of his diocese would give anything until the king found a remedy for the evils from which the church suffered (Wilkins, Concilia, iii. 97; Wake, State of the Church, p. 303). The course of action seems to have been settled by agreement between him and Sudbury, bishop of London, who belonged to the Duke of Lancaster's party.

On the promotion of Sudbury to Canterbury in 1375, Courtenay was translated to the see of London on 12 Sept., and received the temporalities on 2 Dec. following. The struggle between the constitutional party and the court came to a climax on the meeting of the ‘Good parliament’ in the next year, and Courtenay was appointed a member of the committee of magnates associated with the commons to assist them in their deliberations (Rot. Parl. ii. 322; Stubbs, Constitutional History, ii. 428). The dispersion of the parliament was followed by the failure of its work. In the course of this year Courtenay served on a commission to settle a dispute that had arisen at Oxford between the faculty of law and the rest of the university (Wood, History and Antiquities, i. 488). About this time a bull of Gregory XI against the Florentines, with whom the pope was then at war, was brought into England. Wherever they were, the Florentines were to be pronounced excommunicate, and their effects were to be forfeited. Courtenay published this bull at Paul's Cross. He was always ready to obey the pope when the interests of the national church were not at stake. As a constitutional politician, he probably was glad to forward the downfall of the Italian merchants, from whom the king had long derived the money he wasted in extravagance, and as bishop of London he was no doubt willing to gratify the citizens, who were jealous of foreign traders. The Londoners pillaged the houses of the Florentines, and made a riot. This caused the interference of the city magistrates, and they sided with the king, who took the foreigners under his protection. The bishop was summoned before the chancellor to answer for his conduct. He was reminded that he had acted in defiance of the laws of the realm in publishing the bull, and was ordered to revoke certain words he had used at Paul's Cross. With some difficulty he obtained leave to do this by one of his officials, who declared from the pulpit that the people had misunderstood the words complained of (Chronicon Angliæ, p. 109; Fœdera, viii. 103, 135; Hook). At the meeting of convocation, on 8 Feb. 1377, Courtenay made a vigorous protest against the conduct of the archbishop in withholding the summons that should have been sent to the Bishop of Winchester. He pointed out the injustice with which the bishop had been treated by the government, and urged the clergy to make no grant to the crown until he had received his summons. His opposition was successful. Wykeham took his seat, and John of Gaunt, in whose interest the archbishop had acted, was foiled. The quarrel between the two parties was carried on by the prosecution of Wycliffe, who was allied with the duke in the attempt to bring humiliation on the churchmen. Courtenay virtually attacked Lancaster when he cited Wycliffe to appear before the archbishop at St. Paul's on 23 Feb. The bishops sat in the lady chapel, and many nobles were with them. The church was crowded with the Londoners. Wycliffe appeared attended by the duke and Lord Percy, the earl marshal. They could scarcely pass through the crowd, and the earl ordered his men to clear the way. His order was obeyed with some roughness, and Courtenay, indignant at his conduct, declared that had he known he would have so acted he should not have entered the church if he could have prevented it. Hearing this, the duke declared that he would exercise his authority there whether the bishop would or no. When they came to the lady chapel, the marshal with a sneer called for a seat for Wycliffe. Courtenay objected to this, saying that it was contrary to law and reason that an accused clerk should be seated when before his judges. The duke grew red with anger, for he saw that the bishop had the better in the dispute. He shouted that he would pull down the pride of all the bishops in England, and, addressing Courtenay, added: ‘Thou trustest in thy parents, who can profit thee nothing; for they shall have enough to do to defend themselves.’ Coutenay answered with some dignity that he trusted in God alone. Still more enraged, the duke muttered that, rather than bear such things, he would drag the bishop out of the church by the hair. The Londoners heard the threat, and cried out angrily that they would not have their bishop insulted, and that they would sooner lose their lives than that he should be dishonoured in his own church, or dragged from it by violence. The court broke up in confusion. Later in the day the citizens rose against the duke, and proposed to slay him and burn his residence of the Savoy; but Courtenay interfered, reminding them that it was Lent, and no season for such doings. At his bidding the riot ceased, though not before many insults had been heaped upon Lancaster (Chron. Angliæ, p. 119, from which Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ii. 801, and the writer of the early translation in Archæologia, xxii. 257, took their accounts; Walsingham, i. 325).

Although Courtenay was appointed a member of the council of government formed on the accession of Richard II, he appears for a while to have absented himself from it, on account of a fresh offence committed by the duke. Robert Hale, a squire with whom Lancaster had a quarrel, escaped from the Tower, where he was confined, and took refuge in Westminster Abbey. In defiance of the privilege of sanctuary, an attempt was made to drag him from the church, and when he resisted, both he and a servant of the abbey were slain. The archbishop excommunicated the offenders, and Courtenay published the sentence, with full solemnity, at St. Paul's every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. The duke, to whom the outrage was generally attributed, persuaded the council to order him to desist. To this order, however, Courtenay paid no attention, and Lancaster declared that he was ready, if he received permission, to go to London and drag the bishop to the council, in spite of the ‘ribalds’ of the city. Meanwhile the archbishop and Courtenay received bulls from Gregory XI urging them to take measures against Wycliffe, and accordingly they cited him to appear before them at St. Paul's on 18 Dec., though a later date was afterwards named, and Lambeth was appointed for the place of hearing. Wycliffe, however, at this date had considerable influence at court (Fasciculi Zizaniorum, p. 258), and a strong party among the Londoners, headed by John of Northampton, was favourable to him. The Princess of Wales sent a peremptory message forbidding the prelates to proceed against him, and the prosecution came to nought. In the course of this year (1378) Courtenay, it is said, was offered the cardinalate. A large body of cardinals withdrew their obedience from Urban VI at a meeting held at Anagni on 9 Aug. The pope hastily appointed twenty-six others, and wished to strengthen his party by gaining the most powerful of the English churchmen. If the story of the offer is true, and there seems no reason to doubt it, Courtenay was too sincerely devoted to the national interest to be dazzled by it (Walsingham, i. 382; Godwin, De Præsulibus, 794 n.) On the suppression of the peasants' insurrection, in 1381, he obtained a respite of two days for John Ball (d. 1381) [q. v.], who was sentenced to death on 13 July; for he was anxious about the state of the rebel's soul (Walsingham, ii. 32).

On 30 July Courtenay was elected to the see of Canterbury, vacant by the murder of Simon Sudbury. The royal confirmation was given on 5 Aug., the translation was made by a papal bull dated 9 Sept., and the temporalities were granted on 23 Oct. The archiepiscopal cross was presented by the prior and convent of Christ Church on 12 Jan. following; on the 14th Courtenay, though he had not yet received the pall, married Anne of Bohemia [q. v.] to the king, and on the 22nd crowned the new queen. He received the pall on 6 May. The great seal was committed to him on 10 Aug., and accordingly he opened parliament on 9 Nov., delivering the sermon in English (Rot. Parl. iii. 98). In this parliament the charters granted to the villeins were annulled. Courtenay resigned the chancellorship on the 18th, and it has been suggested that his retirement, which was completed by the surrender of the seal on the 30th, may have been connected with a desire to see some amelioration effected in the condition of the villeins (Stubbs). Early in 1382 Courtenay received a formal complaint from parliament against Wycliffe, dwelling, as it seems, not merely on his heretical opinions, but on the disturbance of the peace of the realm occasioned by his preachers, demanding that the archbishop and his suffragans should take decisive measures against him, and promising them the support of the crown. Accordingly, on the close of the parliament, Courtenay nominated a committee of bishops, doctors, friars, and others to pronounce on the opinions of the reformers. This council, as it was called, held its first session for business on 21 May, in the monastery of the Black Friars, at London, in the presence of the archbishop. Its proceedings were disturbed by the shock of an earthquake; and from this circumstance, to which each party gave a different meaning, it was called the ‘Synod of the Earthquake.’ Wycliffe's opinions were condemned, and on the following Whitsuntide a solemn ‘procession’ or litany was performed in London, at which Courtenay appointed Dr. John Kynyngham to preach against them. The archbishop further attacked the whole Lollard party at Oxford. While proceeding against a prominent member of it named John Aston [q. v.] at the Black Friars, on 20 June, he was interrupted by the Londoners, who broke into the room where he and his council were sitting. At Oxford his commissioner, Dr. Peter Stokys, was so terrified that he believed his life to be in danger. Courtenay recalled him, and compelled Dr. Rygge, the chancellor, who favoured the Lollards, to beg pardon on his knees. On Rygge's return to Oxford he again acted with the Wycliffites. The archbishop now appealed to the council, and after a short struggle brought the whole party to submission. On 18 Nov. he held a convocation of the clergy at St. Frideswide's, and received the recantation of the leading men of the party. It is asserted that Wycliffe appeared before him. This is highly doubtful. It is certain that if he did so he did not, as his enemies pretended, make any recantation, and that he was allowed to depart unmolested (Knyghton, col. 2649). In this year Courtenay obtained a statute commanding the sheriffs and other officers of the king, on the certification of a bishop, to arrest and imprison all preachers of heresy. This statute did not receive the assent of the commons, and on their petition it was repealed in the next parliament, as an infringement of their right of legislation. Courtenay, however, held royal letters empowering the bishops to imprison persons accused of heresy in their own prisons, and to keep them there until the council should determine what should be done with them. In 1388 the king, at the demand of parliament, issued letters calling on the archbishops and bishops to seize heretical books, and to imprison teachers of heresy. Accordingly the next year Courtenay made an attack on the Leicestershire Lollards, in virtue of the letters of 1382. He laid the town of Leicester under an interdict until the offenders were discovered, and having found them received their recantations on 17 Nov., imposing slight penances on them. In 1392, while the king was sitting in council at Stamford, the archbishop held a council of bishops and clergy at the house of the Carmelites in that town, and received the abjuration of a heretic. The failure of the attempt at legislation in 1382 had, however, left the churchmen no other means of enforcing submission than that which belonged to their old spiritual jurisdiction (Stubbs, Constitutional History, ii. 488, iii. 356).

In 1382 Courtenay began a visitation of his province, and after he had visited Rochester, Chichester, Bath and Wells, and Worcester, he proceeded to hold a visitation of Exeter. Here he met with resistance; for after he had, according to custom, ordered the ordinary jurisdiction of the bishops to be suspended, he delayed his visitation so long that the period during which such suspension could lawfully be continued had elapsed, both in this and in other dioceses. The bishop, Thomas Brentingham, therefore warned the clergy and people of his diocese to pay no heed to the archbishop's visitation, and finally appealed to Rome on the matter. Nevertheless Courtenay proceeded with his visitation, and excommunicated all who disobeyed him, the bishop himself among them. The bishop's men caught one of his officials near Topsham as he was carrying a citation directed to their master, ordering him to appear before the metropolitan, and this they forced the man to eat, wax seal and all. The king was so enraged at this, that the bishop was glad to make his peace with the archbishop and to drop his suit at Rome. The Bishop of Salisbury tried to secure himself by pleading that the right of visitation had lapsed with the death of Pope Urban VI, who had granted bulls empowering the archbishop to hold it, and by procuring an exemption for himself and his diocese from Boniface IX. Courtenay, however, was a better canonist than his suffragan. He knew that though he had obtained these bulls as a cautionary measure, his right did not depend on the papal permission, and he declared that he would make a visitation of the diocese in spite of the exemption. Accordingly, he dealt so sharply with the bishop that he soon brought him to submission. In 1389 he gave notice of his intention to visit the Benedictines of Oxford, who resided in Gloucester College. This announcement created great excitement, both in the university and among the order throughout England. An elaborate scheme was devised by the abbot of Westminster for defeating his claim, and the abbot of St. Albans sent a monk with an urgent letter, begging him not to prosecute it. The archbishop asked the messenger to dinner in a kindly fashion, and afterwards tried to prove to him that the house was really a college. He went to Oxford, and met the monks in the church of St. Frideswide's. Although they refused to admit his claim, they treated him with respect. Courtenay, though quick-tempered and jealous of any attempt to slight his authority, was at the same time generous and good-natured, and when the monks appealed to his kindness, he freely abandoned his design (Walsingham, ii. 190–2; Vita Ricardi, ii. 115; Wood, History and Antiquities, i. 522. For another illustration of Courtenay's character see the Chron. of a Monk of Evesham, p. 58). He gave considerable offence by his attempt to levy procurations at the uniform rate of 4d. in 20s. throughout the province, to defray the expenses of his visitation. This demand was resisted, especially in the diocese of Lincoln, and the question remained unsettled at his death.

In the part taken by Courtenay in the limitations placed on the exercise of papal authority in England during the reign of Richard II there is no proof of the assertion that his ‘principles and character had changed’ from what they were in his earlier years (for the contrary view see Hook, iv. 383). When the statute of provisors was confirmed and enlarged (13 Ric. II, st. 2, c. 2) in 1390, he joined with the Archbishop of York in entering ‘a formal protest against it, as tending to the restriction of apostolic power and the subversion of ecclesiastical liberty.’ Three years later, when the conduct of the pope called forth the statute of præmunire (16 Ric. II, c. 5), the sharpest check placed on the interference of Rome until the time of Henry VIII, Courtenay had a hand in carrying the measure, and drew up a protest, not against the allegation contained in the preamble, but guarding the lawful and canonical exercise of papal authority, by words which are embodied in the statute itself (Stubbs, Constitutional History, ii. 598, iii. 330). In both these cases his conduct was consistent with the most jealous regard for national rights, and any apparent inconsistency is to be explained by his sense of what was demanded of him by his office. And though in 1389 he took some measures to collect a subsidy in obedience to the pope's orders, his action in the matter in no way proves his approval of the tax—it was simply what he was bound to do, unless he wished to embroil himself in a personal quarrel with the pope. The king ordered that the subsidy should not be levied, and the archbishop obeyed the command, which he may possibly have instigated, and which he probably approved. He regarded the king's extravagance and bad government with sorrow, and while he successfully resisted the attempt of the commons in 1385 to seize on the temporalities of the clergy, he faithfully adhered to the party opposed to the luxury of the court, and so upheld the cause with which the commons were led to identify themselves (ib. ii. 468, 470). In this year he was instigated by the lords of his party to reprove the king for his evil conduct, and he fearlessly told him that unless he ruled differently he would soon bring ruin on himself and on the kingdom. Richard fell into a rage, and would have struck the archbishop had he not been restrained by his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock. He abused him violently, and declared that he would take away the temporalities of his see. Courtenay was forced to take refuge in Devonshire. According to one account, the king pursued him on the Thames, and he was forced to flee in the habit of a monk (Walsingham; {sc|Mon. Evesham}}; Adam of Usk). He was one of the eleven commissioners appointed by parliament towards the end of the next year to regulate the household and the general administration of the kingdom. Richard took active steps to overthrow the authority of these commissioners, and war became imminent. The archbishop acted as mediator between the two parties. He persuaded the king not to resist the lords, and on 17 Nov. 1387 brought them into Richard's presence in Westminster Hall, and prevailed on him to give them audience (Chron. Angliæ p. 387). Courtenay died at Maidstone, Kent, on 31 July 1396. He left directions that he should be buried there, and a flat stone, part of an altar-tomb, in Maidstone church is said to have been placed there in memory of him. It was probably intended that he should lie there; but his body was taken to Canterbury, and buried, in the presence of the king and of a great number of bishops, earls, and barons, at the feet of the Black Prince, near the shrine of St. Thomas (Thorn, col. 2197; Hook). Courtenay founded the college of St. Mary and All Saints in the parish church of the archiepiscopal manor of Maidstone, leaving the residue of his property for the erection of the college, and joining with it the hospital established by Archbishop Boniface of Savoy [q. v.] He repaired the church at Meopham, Kent, and founded five scholarships in Canterbury College, Oxford.

[Munimenta Academica, ed. Anstey, i. 229 (Rolls Ser.); Fasciculi Zizaniorum, ed. Shirley, (Rolls Ser.); Wood's Antiquities of Oxford (Gutch), i. 480, 488; Wake's State of the Church, 303; Wilkins's Concilia, p. 111; Chronicon Angliæ, ed. E. M. Thompson (Rolls Ser.); T. Walsingham, Historia Anglicana (Rolls Ser.); Knyghton ap. Decem Scriptt. (Twysden); Chron. Mon. de Evesham, ed. Hearne; Vita Ricardi II, ed. Hearne; Chron. Adæ de Usk, ed. E. M. Thompson (Royal Soc. of Literature); Rolls of Parliament, ii. 322, iii. 98, 141; Rymer's Fœdera, viii. 103, 135; Foxe's Acts and Monuments, ii. 801 (ed. 1843); Archæologia, xxii. 257; Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy), ii. 292; Godwin, De Præsulibus, 120, 186, 489, 497; Dugdale's Monasticon, vi. 1394; Chron. W. Thorn ap. Decem Scriptt.; Stubbs's Constitutional History, ii. 428–38, 460–488, 598, iii. 330, 356; Hook's Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, iv. 315–98.]

W. H.