Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ralph (d.1144?)
RALPH (d. 1144?), bishop of Orkney, whose name usually appears as Ralph Nowell, was a native of York, where he became a priest (‘Actus Pont. Ebor.’ in Historians of the Church of York, ii. 372, Rolls Ser.; Hugh the Chantor, ii. 127). York writers assert that, apparently about 1110, Ralph was elected (by men of the Orkneys) to the bishopric of the islands in the church of St. Peter at York. He was consecrated before 1114 by Thomas, archbishop of York, to whom he made his formal profession (Act. Pont. Ebor. l.c.). The primate of Trondhjem, however, claimed ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the Orkneys, and Ralph, as the nominee of the archbishop of York, was ignored by prince, clergy, and people of the Orkneys (Flor. Wig. ii. 89, Engl. Hist. Soc.) He never went into residence, and the bishopric was filled by the archbishop of Trondhjem. But Ralph's position was upheld by Calixtus II and Honorius II, who successively addressed letters to the kings of Norway directing his restoration, and describing him as the ‘canonically elected and consecrated bishop’ (Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi. 1186). Ralph, however, did not waste his life in litigation, but spent it usefully as a suffragan of York and Durham.
Ralph staunchly supported Thurstan [q. v.], archbishop-elect of York, in his struggle for the independence of the see of York against the claims of Canterbury. He visited Thurstan during his exile in France, and in October 1119 was at Rheims just before the opening of the council, when Thurstan was consecrated to the archbishopric of York, 19 Oct. 1119 (Hugh the Chantor, l.c., p. 164). Next day, upon the opening of the council, Ralph alone of the English and Norman bishops dared to take his seat beside the metropolitan (ib. p. 166). On his return to England he had to face the anger of Henry I. Ralph, however, declared that he and the archdeacon who had accompanied him had not gone to Rheims for the purpose of being present at Thurstan's consecration (ib. p. 172).
In 1138 Ralph represented the aged archbishop at the Battle of the Standard. Some writers improbably ascribe to him the well-known exhortation to the English army (Rog. Hov. i. 193, Rolls Ser.; Hemingburgh, i. 59, sq., Engl. Hist. Soc.; Brompton, Ap. x. Scriptt. col. 1026), which Ailred of Rievaulx [see Ethelred] assigns to Walter Espec [q. v.] Ralph was certainly conspicuous in exhorting and absolving the English host (John of Hexham, ib. col. 262, and Richard of Hexham, ib., col. 321).
In 1143 Ralph acted as suffragan of William of St. Barbe, bishop of Durham. In that year he, with two others, represented the latter at the consecration of William FitzHerbert [q. v.], archbishop of York, at Winchester (John of Hexham, l.c., col. 273). This is the last trustworthy mention we have of him.[In addition to the authorities quoted in the text, see Sym. Dunelm. ii. 293, 315; Hen. Hunt. 262 sq. (Rolls Ser.); Torffæus Orcades, pp. 158–9, ed. 1697; Keith's Scottish Bishops, pp. 219–20; Stubbs's Registrum Sacrum Anglicanum, p. 25; Freeman's Norman Conquest, v. pp. 214, 268; Raine's Lives of the Archbishops of York, pp. 168, 182–5, 223.]