Historical Lectures and Addresses/Bishop Grosseteste and his Times, 2nd Lecture

from Historical Lectures and Addresses. A course of lectures delivered in St. Paul's Cathedral in November, 1895.

The worst difficulties which beset Grosseteste at the beginning of his Episcopate concerned the distribution of patronage. It will be worth while to say a few words on this question—a question which still troubles us at the present day, and about which things are said which are by no means always accurate. Patronage in England has had a curious history. It would seem that in early times the building of churches and their endowment was almost entirely the doing of the landowners. The great landowner of a district would build a church for his people and endow a priest to serve it. In consequence, the right of presentation and the right also of deprivation were absolutely vested in the landed proprietor. Feudalism of course accentuated the sense of proprietorship, and it needed a great many ecclesiastical councils and canons to modify it. But in the twelfth century it became established, at all events as a principle, that the right of the patron was not an absolute right, but a right annexed to a spiritual office. The power of the patron was limited to choosing a man for the office, provided that that man was a fit and proper person to appoint. The bishop had the right of refusing the man so nominated, should he not be fit for the office, and therefore in a sense the right of the patron was no longer absolute. He might present, but his presentation did not hold good until it was accepted by the bishop. After many struggles this position was accepted by the great lords in England. But just as the bishops had succeeded in asserting their claim to supervise the nominations of patrons, the Pope, when he took possession of England as a papal fief, claimed absolutely to override the rights of the episcopate. In other words, no sooner did the Church of the land make good its spiritual position than that spiritual power was at once ruined by papal interference. The local patron had begun by regarding the right of presentation merely as a piece of property, but at the very moment when an attempt was made to rectify this abuse, in stepped the Pope, and treated it again as property, the only difference being that it became property which had passed from lay hands to his own. He, in fact, claimed the right of appointing to any benefice, overriding the rights of patrons, giving the benefices to whom he would, chiefly to Italians and other foreigners, who seldom, if ever, resided on their benefices.

Now Grosseteste was resolved to prevent improper presentations to livings, whether on the part of patrons, or on the part of the Pope, and the chief energy of his reforming activities at the beginning of his episcopate was directed to this end. Even before he was consecrated, he was asked to confirm the appointment of a man presented to him, who was in bearing a layman, and looked more like a soldier than anything else. In this case the patron was a monastic body. Very soon afterwards we find Grosseteste refusing a number of presentations. Amongst these was a minor, a boy who hardly knew his letters, and Grosseteste remarked that he would as soon allow a paralytic to take the helm in a storm as to institute such a one to a cure of souls. At the same time, he expressed his willingness to make the boy an annual payment of ten marks to enable him to continue his studies until such time as he would be more fit for the office. To another patron, Grosseteste sent the answers made at his examination, by the man whom he had presented, in proof of his entire unfitness for the post.

Grosseteste also attempted to remedy another abuse, that of a beneficed priest letting out his benefice to a monastic body to be farmed by them. The farming out of livings was very convenient to foreigners. They let their lands to a monastery at a fixed rent, and the monastery made what profit they could out of the bargain. We find Grosseteste refusing the request of the papal Nuncio to allow a certain man to put his living out to farm, on the ground that it would not be for the advantage of the living or the benefit of the place; moreover, he said, religious bodies ought to preach contempt of the world in all that they did, but by their farming of lands they preached the exact contrary, to the great danger of religion and the loss of souls. The Nuncio answered by threatening him, and telling him that everybody would be astonished by such conduct, which was quite unprecedented. Grosseteste replied that he could not act contrary to the dictates of his conscience.

Grosseteste had also to deal with an application about a case of appropriations, which was a way of founding a monastery cheaply. When a landowner wished to establish a monastic body on his land, it had been found possible to endow an abbey cheaply by handing over to it a church already in existence, on condition that the monastery undertook to look after the parish. Thus, the Abbot of Tewkesbury went to Grosseteste to consult him about the church of Great Marlow, to which he wished to appoint a youth belonging to a noble house, who would in turn let out the lands of the church in farm to the abbey. Grosseteste refused the request, but felt obliged to make some little compromise in the matter.

Another point which very much disturbed Grosseteste all through his episcopate was the appointment of clerics to be itinerant justices. No doubt clerics were better educated than laymen in those days, and it was on that account that the King frequently appointed them to be justices of assize. On the Abbot of Ramsey being appointed to such an office, Grosseteste wrote to the King, pointing out that it was contrary to the Abbot's vows, and that no one who had taken such vows ought to pass a capital sentence. At the same time, Grosseteste wrote to Archbishop Edmund urging him to take the matter up. The Archbishop was a good, learned and pious man, but he was weak, and he wished to defer the question to a council. On all sides we find Grosseteste interfering to put down evil customs. He tried to persuade the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln to put down the Feast of Fools which occurred yearly in the cathedral itself; and, at his first visitation, he removed seven abbots and four priors, and generally struck terror whilst he inspired respect.

In 1237, affairs in England were in such a bad way that Henry III. in his perplexity turned to the Pope for advice and asked for a legate. In spite of the remonstrances of the Archbishop, Otho was sent as legate. The English clergy and people objected most strongly, and complained that the King had brought in a legate to change the State. At first, in face of so much opposition, Otho was conciliatory, and acted in a way that was beneficial to English interests. He came also bringing reformed constitutions for the English Church. The decrees of the last Lateran Council held in 1215 had not been promulgated in England, and Otho, at a council held in London, took the necessary steps for their promulgation. These constitutions show what great laxity existed in the Church. For instance, they ordained that all churches were to be consecrated within two years of their foundation. It would seem that churches were built and used without any thought of their ever being consecrated, or even dedicated. It was also ordained that priests demanding fees for sacraments were to be deprived, that churches were not to be farmed, that no one was to be inducted or instituted to a living who was not at least in deacon's orders, and ready to be ordained priest. Residence was enforced and pluralities were denounced; clerical attire was ordered to be worn, and the married clergy were to be deprived. Ecclesiastical preferment was not to pass from father to son. That tendency was probably one great reason why the lay temper was in favour of clerical celibacy. It is remarkable to note that an objection was raised to the attempt to abolish pluralities. Walter de Cantelupe, Bishop of Worcester, maintained that the holding of several benefices was an old custom, and he saw no reason why it should be abolished. He clearly held the view that clerical benefices were property, and consequently that anything which tended to diminish the value of that property ought to be resisted. Walter de Cantelupe also objected to a provision regulating the diet of monks, and prescribing that they were not to eat meat on more than four days in the week. He seems to have regarded the rule as part of a general system for regulating monasteries, and he felt that as monasteries became regulated, they became more and more centralised and more and more dependent upon Rome, and therefore anti-national. However, Cantelupe was apparently overruled and all the constitutions were passed.

When these constitutions were passed, Grosseteste sent them out into his diocese, promulgated them on all sides, and made a visitation in accordance with them. In the course of this visitation, he found it necessary to consecrate the three great churches of Ramsey, Sawtrey and Peterborough. How difficult any reform of the abuses of the Church was is shown by the fact, that at the very moment of the promulgation of these constitutions, Grosseteste was brought into conflict with the legate, who wished to break his own constitutions and nominate a pluralist to a prebend in Lincoln Cathedral without consulting the Bishop. Against this, Grosseteste loudly protested, pointing out that, when benefices were conferred by superior authority, without the consent of the patron, only troubles and scandals were likely to occur.

The legate, however well he might behave, was unpopular in England. In 1238 he went to Oxford on a visit, and resided at Osney. Whilst there he was, as a foreigner, an object of ridicule to the students. They crowded to Osney to have a look at him and his household. On going into the kitchen they found a foreign cook, and mocked at him. In his anger the cook took up a ladle of soup and threw it over one of the students. The student retaliated by killing the cook. A riot ensued, and the legate had to flee. He complained to the King, and Henry sent orders to his officers to arrest and imprison thirty of the students, while at the same time the legate laid Oxford under an interdict and excommunicated the ringleaders. Grosseteste, as bishop of the diocese in which Oxford was situated, and being interested in all that occurred there, resented the imprisonment of the students and their excommunication; and in his turn excommunicated all those who had laid hands on his clerks. So over this unhappy affair various jurisdictions were in conflict The position was somewhat difficult, but a compromise was at last devised. Otho removed his excommunication, the Oxford students came before him and apologised, the prisoners who had been taken by the King's orders were released, and thereupon Grosseteste pardoned the King's officers and removed his excommunication.

It was a natural consequence of his severity that Grosseteste should have enemies who sought to curtail his power. Amongst the foremost of those who withstood him were the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln. They did so on the ground that he had no right to visit them as they were an "exempt" jurisdiction. Grosseteste insisted that the right was inherent in his office and could not be abrogated. Accordingly he suspended the Dean, the Precentor and the Sub-dean from their offices, and announced that he was coming to visit the Cathedral. When he came he found nobody there to receive him. Grosseteste then proposed that the matter should be referred to the legate for settlement. The Dean and Chapter demurred. Then Grosseteste proposed certain arbitrators. That was agreed to, but it came to nothing; and, in fact, the quarrel was never made up but lasted throughout the Bishop's life. The Chapter tried to bring the case before the King's Court. Grosseteste was most indignant, and reproved them for trying to destroy the privileges of the Church by bringing a purely ecclesiastical matter before a secular tribunal. Then the canons produced a forged document about the foundation and privileges of their church. They produced it publicly, but the forgery was detected as soon as the document was brought forward. This is a curious example of the great number of forged charters and documents that were manufactured by the monasteries throughout the Middle Ages, from a desire to prove that their communities had possessed privileges from an earlier age than was actually the case. The dispute dragged on for several years, until Grosseteste's patience was exhausted.

In 1239 a great change came over the papal policy towards England. The Pope was at war with the Emperor Frederick, and though Frederick was Henry's brother-in-law, the Pope succeeded in dragging Henry after him into the struggle. Hitherto the Pope's authority had been used in England for the good of the country, but, from this time forwards, England was regarded by the Pope as a mere appanage of the papal See, which might be taxed and pillaged for papal purposes to any possible extent. Accordingly, at the beginning of 1240, the Pope issued an order to the Archbishop and the Bishops to provide for 300 Romans. It would seem that at that time the Pope's position was not very secure in Rome, and he wished to strengthen himself by providing 300 Romans with salaries at the expense of the English Church. Whether Grosseteste carried out the order as far as his diocese was concerned or not is not known. He probably did nothing at all. It was a monstrous order of course, and the English justly resented it. The Archbishop was quite worn out with anxiety at seeing the Church robbed of its goods and deprived of its liberties. Grosseteste frequently wrote to him entreating him to take a stronger line. But the Archbishop's only desire was for peace. At last, realising how badly he was treated, deprived of his own due authority by the legate, and quite worn out with the troubles of the time, he went into exile at Pontigny, and there died, his last words being: "I have lived too long, for I see all things going to ruin. Lord God receive my soul." We can best appreciate Grosseteste by contrasting him with this Archbishop, St. Edmund of Abingdon, who, though a pious and learned man, was quite unequal to the difficulties of the time; whereas Grosseteste was the strong man who stuck to his post, battling against wrongs and abuses, and in spite of apparent failure, always upholding what he believed to be right and true.

About this time Grosseteste was involved in a quarrel with the King over an appointment to the prebend of Thame. He refused to institute the King's nominee on the ground that he was exempted from obeying the papal provisions. The proceedings of the papal Court were far too elaborate and complicated for me to be able to describe them here, but it would seem that the Pope was in the habit of issuing "provisions" for the appointment of foreigners in Italy and elsewhere to English benefices, but at the same time the Pope issued to English bishops "exemptions allowing them to disobey the 'provisions,' " if these documents contained no clause forbidding them to do so. It was a curious and complicated arrangement. Grosseteste refused to institute the nominee in question on the ground that he was exempted from obeying the Papal provision, and that the document presented to him contained nothing that did away with the exemption. The King was very wroth, and insisted on the appointment being made. But Grosseteste threatened sooner to leave the country and to put his see under an interdict. This prospect was so terrifying that the King was induced to give way, and to make peace with the Bishop.

Grosseteste was next engaged in a quarrel with the Abbot of Bardney, who was the head of a great monastery in the diocese of Lincoln. The Archdeacon, seeing an opportunity of weakening the almost pontifical dignity of this Abbot, cited him before his court. Taking advantage of a technical blunder of the Archdeacon's, the Abbot refused to appear. The Archdeacon corrected his mistake, but the Abbot still refused to appear. Then the Archdeacon complained to the Bishop, Grosseteste summoned the Abbot to appear before him, and when the Abbot declined to do so, excommunicated him as contumacious. The Abbot took this very quietly, which made Grosseteste still more indignant, and he threatened to take severer steps. He sent lay visitors to bring the Abbot to submission, but the monks shut the doors in their faces and the porters drove them away. The visitors returned to Grosseteste and complained of the treatment they had received. Finding that matters were getting serious, the Abbot lodged an appeal which in the ordinary course of affairs would have gone to the archbishop of the province. But, at this time, the archbishopric was vacant, and the Abbot actually carried his appeal to the monks of Canterbury as being custodians of the temporalities of the see during the vacancy. It was an absurd thing to do, of course, but it answered the Abbot's purpose. Grosseteste was in great wrath, and solemnly deposed the Abbot of Bardney. Thereupon the monks of Canterbury, summoning fifty priests of the province, excommunicated Grosseteste and sent him a solemn letter signed with the archiepiscopal seal. When the Bishop received these documents he tore them in pieces, threw them upon the ground, and stamped on them, to the amazement of the onlookers, who noticed the figure of St. Thomas upon the seal. Of course Grosseteste at once communicated with Rome, and Innocent IV. ordered the monks to withdraw their excommunication, an order which filled Grosseteste with indignation, as it looked like a recognition of the monks' jurisdiction over him. It is a curious and interesting case, showing the perpetual hindrances and difficulties cast in the way of the exercise of episcopal authority by the innumerable subterfuges which could be raised at every turn.