Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William (1095?-1174)

WILLIAM (1095?–1174), bishop of Norwich—his surname appears in various forms as Turbe, Turbo, or de Turbeville—was one of the boys whom Herbert de Losinga [q. v.], bishop and founder of the cathedral and monastery of Norwich, took under his protection to be educated in the monastic school at the beginning of the twelfth century. He was evidently a lad of great promise, and Bishop Herbert bestowed upon him much personal care and instruction, and watched his progress in his studies with peculiar interest. The young William acquired much facility in writing Latin verse, passed through the usual course of the trivium and quadrivium, and even read Aristotle's topics and the categories under his patron's eye. He appears soon to have been employed as the schoolmaster of the monastery, and in due course was admitted as a professed monk among the brethren. When Bishop Herbert died in 1119, William can hardly have been more than twenty-five years old; but not many years after Bishop Eborard's consecration to the see, his name appears as witnessing a charter of confirmation, being then sub-prior of the monastery. He must have become prior before Eborard's episcopate was half over, for already in 1144 he showed himself a very masterful personage in the convent, with a tendency to assert himself as against the bishop, who evidently did not cordially co-operate with him. At the Easter synod held this year, the announcement by a secular clergyman that a Christian boy had been murdered by the Norwich Jews, and his body miraculously discovered, produced a profound sensation. Prior William at once threw the whole weight of his influence into the scale to support the truth of the story [see William, 1132?–1144].

At the diocesan synod held next year, an unsuccessful attempt was made to revive the agitation against the Norwich Jews, and to bring about a general recognition of the ‘martyrdom’ of the murdered boy. Just about this time Bishop Eborard resigned his bishopric, and the Norwich monks, bringing some pressure to bear upon King Stephen, were allowed to elect their prior to the bishopric of Norwich, notwithstanding some strong opposition raised by a party at the head of which was John de Caineto, the sheriff (Thomas of Monmouth, bk. ii. § 15). Bishop William was accordingly consecrated by Archbishop Theobald some time in 1146.

His promotion to the episcopate, so far from making him relax in his efforts to promote the cult of the boy saint of Norwich, rather served to stimulate his zeal. He bore down all opposition on the part of the Norwich sceptics, and removed the body of the little martyr no fewer than four times from one burial-place to another, and each time to a position of greater honour in the cathedral, and in 1168 he founded and consecrated the memorial chapel of ‘St. William in the Wood’ on the spot where the boy's body was said to have been discovered. Some traces of the chapel still remain on Mousehold Heath about a mile from the city of Norwich.

Bishop William assisted at the consecration of Hilary, bishop of Chichester, in August 1147; of Geoffrey of Monmouth as bishop of St. Asaph in 1152; and of Roger Pont l'Evêque as archbishop of York at Westminster Abbey on 10 Oct. 1154. He was also one of the sixteen English prelates who assisted at the coronation of Henry II at Westminster on 19 Dec. 1154.

Meanwhile John of Salisbury [q. v.] had conceived a high opinion of Bishop Turbe, to whom many of his letters are addressed, some of them of considerable interest. He seems to have taken a prominent part in protesting against the imposition of scutage in 1156. The king returned a not uncourteous answer, but the scutage, he said, must be paid (John of Salisbury, Ep. 128). The bishop was present at the submission of Hugh Bigod, first earl of Norfolk [q. v.], in May 1157, and his name appears among the signatories attesting a charter which Henry then granted to the priory. Two months later we find him attending the great council held at Northampton on 17 July. During the next five years we hear no more of him, but when Becket was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury on 3 June 1162, the bishop of Norwich was among those who took part in the ceremony. He was one of fourteen bishops who are said to have recognised the ‘customs’ at the council of Clarendon in January 1164 (Eyton, p. 67). When Archbishop Thomas retracted his assent, Bishop William and Joscelin, bishop of Salisbury, threw themselves at the feet of the inflexible archbishop, but could not move him (Rog. Hov. i. 221).

When Becket took refuge with Louis VII in France, Bishop William returned to his diocese, and, during the years that followed, showed himself on all occasions a most staunch and uncompromising partisan of the archbishop. In fact, he was the one and only English bishop who from first to last never wavered in his fidelity to Becket. As far as he was personally concerned the crisis came as early as 1166, when the archbishop had been two years in exile. Robert de Vaux, a sub-tenant of Roger Bigod, father of the powerful Hugh, earl of Norfolk, had apparently early in the reign of Henry I founded a house of Augustinian canons at Pentney on the Nar, a few miles from Lynn, and this man's grandson, William de Vaux, was now prior of the monastery. Under great pressure exercised by Earl Hugh, who claimed them as lord of the fee, the prior had weakly surrendered certain estates of the monastery. The canons resisted the claim, protested against the surrender of the estates, and appealed to the pope to decide the matter.

In June 1166 Alexander III excommunicated the earl, and it now became the duty of the bishop of Norwich to promulgate the papal decree. To do so at such a moment was to incur the certain displeasure of the king, and to bring upon himself the fierce animosity of one of the most powerful earls in England. But Bishop William was not the man to hesitate or play the craven. Entering the cathedral church of Norwich with his pastoral staff in his hand, he mounted the pulpit and publicly pronounced the sentence of excommunication against the mighty earl, and, having thus discharged what he believed to be his duty, he laid his staff upon the high altar and solemnly defied any man, king or noble, to take it away; then he turned his back upon the episcopal palace, and once more took up his residence with the monks in the Norwich priory. The sentence against the earl was subsequently annulled, and on his submission he was absolved. During the three months following Becket's return he kept up a frequent correspondence with Bishop William, and in a letter of 9 Dec. he announced his intention of soon visiting his faithful friend at Norwich. Three weeks later (29 Dec.) he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Bishop William's memorial elegiacs on the date of the primate's assassination are to be found in one manuscript of the ‘Chronicle of Gervase of Canterbury’ (i. 232).

After the death of Archbishop Thomas we hear very little of Bishop William. On 9 June 1172 a disastrous fire broke out in Norwich Cathedral, which wrought great destruction in the church, and tradition has it that the bishop's last days were saddened by this calamity. On the other hand he lived to rejoice at the canonisation of his friend the archbishop by Alexander III in 1173. He died in January 1174. Bishop William had the reputation of being a learned and accomplished scholar in an age which had not a few of such men. At his suggestion Thomas of Monmouth drew up his account of the ‘Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich,’ and from this author we learn that his patron was celebrated for his eloquence and gift of speech not only in his own diocese, but even at Rome. That he was a credulous and superstitious person cannot be doubted. He can hardly be regarded as a great prelate; he certainly was not a man in advance of his age, and but for his steadfast and unwavering fidelity to the great archbishop to whom he clung with the tenacity of a fanatic, and his having so vehemently forced upon his diocese the cult of the boy saint, the story of whose reputed martyrdom produced such widespread and dreadful effects in the after times, we should have known very little about him.

[Since Blomefield's days (Hist. of Norfolk, iii. 474) much information on the career of Bishop William has come to light, and may be found in Goulburn and Symonds's Life and Letters of Herbert de Losinga, 1878, vol. ii.; The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, ed. A. Jessopp and M. R. James, Cambridge Press, 1896; and in the Memorials of Thomas Becket, especially vols. vi. vii. (Rolls Series). On the canons of Pentney see Eyton's Itinerary of Henry II, p. 95 n. See, too, John of Salisbury's Epistles, ed. Migne. The date of the fire in the cathedral is derived from a manuscript in Trin. Coll. Cambr., a manuscript which Hardy thinks was compiled by a Norwich monk (Cat. iii. 25).]

A. J.