Historical Lectures and Addresses/Bishop Grosseteste and his Times, 3rd Lecture

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

I have followed the difficulties in which Grosseteste found himself involved up to the year 1244. In that year he had a quarrel over a certain matter with the King, which is of interest in throwing light on the customs of the times. The see of Winchester had been kept vacant for five years, in order that the King might enjoy its revenues during the vacancy. That of course was an object which the Crown had always more or less close to its heart; it was not to its interest that disputed elections should be settled; in fact the more difficulties were raised, the more the Crown liked it, because so long as a see remained vacant the Crown received its income. In 1238, Ralph de Neville, the Chancellor, had succeeded in getting himself elected Bishop of Winchester, and because he knew that he was a very secular person, and not likely to be acceptable, he wrote to ask Grosseteste to help him to secure papal confirmation. Grosseteste declined to do anything of the kind, and advised Ralph de Neville to take no particular steps to secure his confirmation, but to leave it in the hands of God and accept whatever came of it. The Pope annulled the election at the King's request, as the King wanted to secure the see for the Queen's uncle, William of Valence. But the monks of Winchester, instead of electing William of Valence, now elected the Bishop of Norwich. The King was furious and was determined to vent his displeasure on the man who had dared to take the see contrary to his wishes. He proceeded to give orders that the offending Bishop's revenues should be cut off both at Winchester and Norwich, and when the poor man came to London, the King commanded the merchants and tradesmen of the city to have no dealings with him. The Bishop was practically outlawed, simply because he had ventured to accept the bishopric of Winchester contrary to the King's wishes. Grosseteste when he heard of this was indignant, and gathering round him some of his brother prelates, went to remonstrate with the King, but the King fled incontinently, for he was not prepared to stand one of Grosseteste's lectures. In the meanwhile Henry sent a large sum of money as a bribe to the Pope to get him to deprive the Bishop. But the bribe was so palpable and barefaced that even the Pope had to refuse it, and the money was embezzled by the King's envoy. Grosseteste and his brother bishops ran the King down at last at Westminster, and Grosseteste gave him a piece of his mind and threatened to lay his Royal Chapel at Westminster under an interdict. Henry III. was very devout in his way. Once when going to visit St. Louis of France he went into every church on the line of his route, and had Mass said for him, so that he did not reach the King of France till late in the afternoon. On learning the cause of the delay Louis gave orders that next time the King of England visited him the churches on his way were to be closed, so that Henry might not spend so much time in devotion. It is easily to be imagined, therefore, that the threat to place the Royal Chapel under an interdict was so terrible that the King implored Grosseteste to delay taking that step at least till an answer had been received from Rome. In the meantime, the Bishop of Winchester went over to France where he was welcomed by St. Louis, and a year or two afterwards the unhappy Henry gave way, as he generally did.

At this same time Grosseteste sent a circular letter to his archdeacons which contains some information of value, as it shows the low condition to which the Church was reduced. He complained that the priests did not say their hours, that they held services at times which did not suit their parishioners, that they were slothful, that they almost habitually kept concubines, that they took part in miracle-plays, that they haunted taverns and attended May-day festivities. Another characteristic of the parish priest was that he objected to the friars. Preaching by the parochial clergy had almost died out in England, indeed in mediæval times it was perhaps a rare thing for a parish priest to preach. So it came about that the wandering friars found plenty of hearers when they went about preaching in the open air, like the Wesleyan preachers of later times. The secular clergy objected strongly to the coming of the friars into their parishes, and regarded themselves as suffering severely from their intrusion. A friar used to come into a parish without leave asked or obtained, and hold what was practically a mission. He drew away the regular congregation from the parish church and quite upset the parochial organisation, hearing confessions and granting absolution himself, and thus destroying all the discipline which the parish priest was trying to enforce. At the time I am speaking of the parish priests were really doing very little, so that at the first the work which the friars did was entirely to the good. But for all that the parochial clergy very much objected to them, and Grosseteste had to issue orders that the preaching of the friars should not be interfered with. Grosseteste had also to act as mediator between the friars and the older monastic Orders who were jealous of their growing influence.

Henry III. was always in debt and was, in consequence, always making demands for money. In 1244 he made a pressing request for a subsidy, and the Council appointed a committee of twelve to consider the matter, of whom Grosseteste was one, and Simon de Montfort, the great Earl of Leicester, another. De Montfort and Grosseteste were great friends, and acted together in politics. They demanded that before the subsidy was granted, substantial changes should be made in the administration of the Government. The King tried to weary them out, but the committee was firm. At last the King produced letters from the Pope ordering the bishops to contribute to the King's necessities. Henry made this move in the hope of separating the laity and the clergy, but Grosseteste admonished the other prelates to stand by the lay lords in refusing the King, and the upshot of it all was that the committee was disbanded without making any grant at all. In the same year there was another difficulty about a bishopric Robert Passelewe, one of the King's favourites, contrived to get himself elected Bishop of Chichester. The object of the monks in electing him was to curry favour with the King, but it was generally felt that it was a disreputable appointment, and the bishops of the province got Boniface, the Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, to ask Grosseteste to examine Passelewe. Grosseteste subjected him to a very severe examination, and reported that he was an unfit person to be a bishop, and accordingly the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the election void. At this time it seemed almost a matter of chance who appointed a bishop. Sometimes it was the King, sometimes the Chapter or the monks, sometimes the bishops of the province and sometimes the Pope. In this case the bishops, after Passelewe's election had been declared void, proceeded to elect Richard de Wyche.

When this matter was settled, Grosseteste set off for Lyons to see the Pope about his old quarrel with his Chapter. It is interesting to note that the journey took him no less than seven weeks. He was honourably received by the Pope and was present at the consecration of Boniface as Archbishop of Canterbury. Grosseteste stated his case, and the Dean of Lincoln was present to state the case for the Chapter. Then a curious thing occurred. There was a dispute going on about the election to the See of Lichfield, and the Pope, at Grosseteste's request, appointed the Dean of Lincoln to the bishopric. We only know these facts, but they seem significant It looks as if the Dean of Lincoln had been induced to abandon the cause of the Chapter on condition that he received a nomination to the See of Lichfield, and that Grosseteste was at the bottom of this not very creditable transaction. Grosseteste stayed at Lyons until he received the papal decision supporting him in all the points of his contention, save one, that concerning the oath of obedience to be taken by the prebends at their collation. To the chronicler, Matthew Paris, all this was exceedingly unpleasant. As a monk he was in favour of monastic privileges, and on this occasion he describes Grosseteste as one who was opposed to God and man, a very Ishmaelite, whose hand was against every man, and every man's hand against him, and he does not hesitate to affirm that Grosseteste had procured the Pope's decision only after the outpouring of vast sums of money. That Grosseteste obtained the decision by bribery is not to be thought of, but he certainly strained every nerve to obtain it, and having obtained it, he returned to England. I am afraid that this visit to Lyons was a discreditable incident in Grosseteste's life. The election of his dean to the bishopric of Lichfield has traces of a not very upright transaction; and, moreover, it soon became obvious that Grosseteste felt that he had to pay something to the Pope for his complaisance. So he circulated among the English bishops a document asking that provision should be made for the expenses of Archbishop Boniface at his consecration, a document of which he himself had disapproved when asked by Boniface at Lyons to sign it. In the same year also there came a demand from the Pope for a subsidy and Grosseteste supported the demand. But that was his last act of complaisance. He seems to have thought that now he had done enough in return for the decision he had gained against his Chapter. We next find him refusing the King, who wished to compensate Robert Passelewe for the loss of the bishopric of Chichester by giving him a certain cure of souls. The King was indignant and applied to Archbishop Boniface to take the matter out of Grosseteste's hands and appoint over him; so that Grosseteste had to write vehemently to the Archbishop and protest against any interference with his rights.

Grosseteste next proceeded with his visitation and made it still more strict, even summoning before him notorious offenders amongst the laity. The laity remonstrated, and complained to the King, who ordered the sheriff of the county not to allow the laity to appear before the Bishop except in matrimonial and testamentary suits. The attempt to visit the laity was therefore checked. It was perhaps an excess of zeal on Grosseteste's part. Another case in which Grosseteste attempted to press his ecclesiastical power beyond due limits arose through a clerk whom he deprived of his benefice for evil living. The clerk took no notice of the deprivation, and thereupon Grosseteste excommunicated him. The clerk still went on as if nothing had happened. Grosseteste complained to the sheriff. The sheriff did nothing, and so Grosseteste excommunicated the sheriff. The sheriff complained to the King, and the King appealed to the Pope, who sent a rescript forbidding the royal officers to carry out the sentences of the spiritual courts.

In the course of his visitation Grosseteste found out that many of the monasteries had laid hold of lands belonging to parish churches, and used them for their own benefit, leaving the despoiled parishes very improperly provided with spiritual ministrations. Grosseteste was anxious to put down this abuse, and with that end in view he summoned the monks in his diocese to bring with them to his visitation all the title deeds they possessed, so that he might examine them, and satisfy himself that they held no lands in an illicit manner. The monastic Orders were naturally thrown into a great state of alarm by these proceedings, and, being rich bodies, they easily raised among themselves a large sum of money and at once sent off to Rome to obtain from the Pope orders to stop Grosseteste going on with his inquiry. Grosseteste felt that he had received a check, and knew that he could make no way against the evil unless he too went and interviewed the Pope. Accordingly he went to Lyons where the papal Court was, but this time he did not find the Pope so amenable to his wishes as he had been before. The fact was that the longer Innocent IV. lived, the more political his aims became, and therefore he always grew more grasping in his desire for money. He had accepted bribes from the Hospitallers and the Templars, and Grosseteste soon discovered that he had no chance of obtaining a decision in his favour. On being dismissed by the Pope he sighed and said in a half-audible voice, "Ah! money, money, how infinite is thy power, most of all in the Court of Rome!" The Pope happened to catch the words, and broke out into a violent passion against Grosseteste, asking him, "How many of your own household have you sought to ruin?" It was an entirely unwarranted question, but Grosseteste could not answer it, and he retired from the Pope's presence exceedingly downcast. He stayed on at Lyons for a few weeks and employed himself in writing a sermon, which he gave to four of the cardinals to read, and one of them read it to the Pope. It was extremely outspoken, and gave a description of his own troubles, of what he was trying to do and of the difficulties placed in his way. He gave an account of the evil condition of the Church, and proceeded to inquire what was the cause of it all. His answer to this question was that the cause of the evils was the Court of Rome, not only because it did not put these evils to flight, but still more because it appointed to the cure of souls before the eyes of angels and of men those who were not true pastors but slayers of men, and the doings of the papal Court became an example to all others who had the patronage to bestow. He went on to enumerate how the existing evils were encouraged by the Papacy; first because persons were exempted from the jurisdiction of bishops; secondly, because the secular powers, taking courage from the behaviour of the Pope, would not permit inquiry into the conduct of lay folk; thirdly, because of the constant appeals to Rome, and the subtleties of the lawyers. An outspoken document like this did not help Grosseteste's cause at the papal Court. He returned to England, as the chronicler says, "sad and empty," even thinking seriously of resigning his see.

In 1252 Henry III. again demanded a subsidy, which Grosseteste resisted until the King should give promise of amendment. This suggested promise now took a definite shape. Those who wished for better government demanded that the King should take an oath to observe the provisions of the Great Charter. A solemn service was held in which the King swore to keep the Great Charter, and then all the bishops present, each holding a lighted candle in his hand, solemnly excommunicated all who should violate the Charter. The King was asked to take a candle himself, but he tremblingly refused. Grosseteste was persuaded that he did not mean to keep his vow, and ordered the excommunication to be repeated at Lincoln. He was determined to throw the weight of the Church on the side of good government. In that same year he made an inquiry into the incomes drawn by foreign ecclesiastics from English benefices. He discovered that there was sent out from England every year no less a sum than 70,000 marks, equal to about £1,150,000 of our money; while the royal revenue for secular purposes did not amount to a third of that sum. This gives some notion of the way in which the papal Court pillaged England and drained it of its wealth for its own political purposes.

Next came the event which made Grosseteste most famous. In the last year of his life he received a papal mandate to institute to a benefice one of the Pope's nephews, Frederick de Lavagna. Grosseteste refused to accept the nomination, and wrote a letter to the Pope on the subject in language to which the Pope was very little accustomed. There could not, he argued, be any kind of sin so hateful, detestable and abominable to our Lord Jesus Christ as to destroy souls by depriving them of the ministry of their pastors. To appoint foreigners who could not speak the language of the people, or those who could not or would not minister properly among them, was to deprive the people of shepherds. The power of the Apostolic See was given for edification and not for destruction, and the Pope could not lawfully order such men to be instituted to benefices. It was the duty of all faithful subjects of the Apostolic See to oppose such unlawful acts; and therefore, by virtue of the obedience and fidelity due from him to the Holy Father, he must refuse to obey, and must resist and oppose the orders contained in his Holiness's letters, because they evidently tended to that which was a most abominable sin against our Lord Jesus Christ, to that which was pernicious to the human race, altogether opposed to the sanctity of the Apostolic See, and contrary to the Catholic faith. The Pope's indignation at such a letter exceeded all bounds, but the cardinals about him pointed out that it would not be expedient to take any extreme steps against Grosseteste, who was held in great esteem in England and France as a learned philosopher, a professor of theology, a preacher to the people and a lover of chastity and godliness; popular sympathy was sure to be with him and against the Pope.

Grosseteste's end was fast approaching. On his deathbed he was very much troubled at the thought of the difficulties of the times, and could not disguise from himself that he was rapidly drifting into opposition to the Pope's commands on conscientious grounds. His last words were a recapitulation of the evils that the Pope had brought upon England, and an exhortation to those about him to fight against them; to him the future seemed fraught with perils. He said, "Nor shall the Church be freed from its Egyptian bondage save by the bloody sword"; a saying that was afterwards regarded as a prophecy, because in three years' time the Barons' War broke out, and England was plunged in civil strife. Some years later application was made for Grosseteste's canonisation, but this was not granted; he had spoken too strongly against the abuses of the Roman See.

I have spoken about Grosseteste mainly in his capacity as a reformer. But he was also the most learned man of his time and exerted a great influence on English literature. For the next two centuries there was scarcely a single writer of note who was not affected by him. The number of Grosseteste's writings is very large. He wrote on subjects connected with canon law, theology, agriculture and education. He occupied a really great place in the history of English science and knowledge. By his personal character, even though he was sometimes impetuous and harsh, he yet exercised great influence over men. In spite of his many quarrels with him Henry III. loved him, and no one seems to have cherished any personal dislike of him. He was the great friend and advocate of Simon de Montfort, and so long as he lived, his influence restrained Simon's impetuous temper, which became only too apparent after Grosseteste's death.

Grosseteste's life is an illustration of the difficulties which the circumstances of the time threw in the way of any honest attempt really to govern the Church. Grosseteste, devoted to the existing ecclesiastical system as he was, an absolutely devout son of the Pope, yet was driven in spite of himself into antagonism to that system. My object in these lectures has been to show the Papal system at its best and to point out how rapidly it deteriorated. Grosseteste was a strong man, who tried to express the English spirit of resistance to what was wrong, and we have seen how he was thwarted at every step he took towards reform, and that by the very power whose work it was to govern the Church. It is in vain to draw, as some nowadays try to draw, a line of distinction between the spiritual supremacy of the Pope and his actual jurisdiction. Jurisdiction naturally follows from supremacy. If we grant spiritual supremacy and unlimited power, is it possible to define either the contents or the limits and restrictions of that power? This was the difficulty that confronted Grosseteste. But he could only feel justified in revolting when the demands made upon his conscience became intolerable. He was really the last of the great English churchmen; those who came after him had the picture of his life before them as a warning. The spirits of the bishops who followed him were broken; they simply tried to make the best of a servitude which appeared to be inevitable.