1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Grosseteste

Robert Grosseteste
English prelate
(c. 1175 - 1253)




ROBERT GROSSETESTE, (c. 1175-1253), in some respects the most distinguished of all the English mediaeval prelates as regards his personal influence both over the men of his time and on its literature, was born of humble parents at Stradbrook in Suffolk about the year 1175. All that is known of his early years is (from his own account) that he studied the characters of the best men in the Scrip-tures, and endeavoured to conform his actions to theirs. He was sent by his friends to Oxford, where he studied law and medicine, and seems to have finished his education at Paris, where he probably laid the foundation of his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. His first patron was William de Vere, bishop of Hereford, to whom he was introduced by Giraldus Cambrensis, but who died in 1199, and thus had little opportunity of assisting the young scholar. From Paris he returned to Oxford, graduated in divinity, and became master of the schools (rector scolarum) or chancellor. He also became the first rector of the Franciscans at Oxford. Here he probably wrote his commentaries on Aristotle, and laid the foundations of his fame as a preacher. His earliest preferment of which we can speak with certainty was the archdeaconry of Wilts, which he held in 1214 and 1220; he was archdeacon of Northampton in 1221, holding at the same time the prebend of Empingham, which belonged to the archdeaconry. This he exchanged for the archdeaconry of Leicester, which he probably held till 1232. In May 1225 he was collated by Hugh de Wells, bishop of Lincoln, to the church of Abbotsley, Hunts, and at one time he held the rectory of St Margaret's, Leicester. Inl231he probably wrote his treatise De Cessatione Legalium with the view of converting the Jews, for whose benefit the Domus conver-sorum was established in London this year. A fever in November 1232 induced him to resign all his preferments excepting his Lincoln prebend, and the leisure he thus obtained was spent at Oxford, and probably employed in writing his mathematical treatises and his theological Dicta. On the death of Bishop Hugh de Wells in February 1235, the chapter of Lincoln elected Grosseteste to the see; the election took place on March 27, and he was consecrated at Reading on June 17. His administration of his diocese, then the most extensive in the country, was characterized by great vigour. Within a year of his consecration he visited the monasteries, removing seven abbots and four priors ; and in 1238 he issued his constitutions, embodying the points discussed at the great council of the Church of England held in London in 1237, concerning which he had already written to his archdeacons; at the same time, as diocesan of Oxford, he exercised a watchful supervision over the university, protecting the scholars who were in trouble for their attack on the legate Otho in 1238, and even entering into such matters of detail as the place where the university chest should be kept. His energy in his visitations did not pass without opposition ; an attempt on his life by poison was made in 1237, from which he recovered with difficulty through the help of John de S. Giles; and in 1239 began the quarrel with the chapter of Lincoln, which lasted six years, and was only quieted by the decision of the pope himself. They claimed exemption from episcopal visitation, and spoke of the bishop's demanding what had never from the earliest times been the custom. He would not tolerate an imperium in imperio, a body of men joined by common interests, who declined to submit to his jurisdiction, and who might be in need of visitation and correction as much as any others. Full details are given in the bishop's letters of the progress of the quarrel; appeals to Canterbury and the Roman court were followed by excommunications on both sides, the chapter even condescending to exhibit a forged paper as to the history of the church and see of Lincoln. The question was at length settled by a personal appeal to Pope Innocent IV. at Lyons. In a bull of August 25, 1245, he decided almost all the points at issue in favour of the bishop, who lost no time in putting his powers into execution. Of his own view of the matter a very curious exemplification is given in the letter or pamphlet sent to the chapter (epist. 127), where his right to visit them is proved by all kinds of mystical arguments and scriptural examples. In 1242, with the help of one Nicholas, a Greek, clerk of the abbey of St Alban's, he translated the Testamenta XII Patriarcharum, which had been brought from Athens by John of Basingstoke. In 1243 occurred the serious quarrel with the chapter of Canterbury (the see being practically vacant, as Boniface was not yet consecrated) respecting the abbey of Bardney, —the bishop deposing the abbot in spite of his appeal to Canterbury, and the monks in an especially solemn manner excommunicating the bishop. On receiving the letters from the convent, he threw them on the ground, in spite of the seal containing the effigy of St Thomas, and paid no attention whatever to the sentence. Both parties appealed to the pope, and an arrangement was made between them. In 1244, being one of a committee of twelve chosen to determine what answer should be given to the king's demand of a subsidy, his influence kept the members from being separately won over by the king's endeavours to make parties among them; and the council broke up without giving way to the royal demands. The same year his examination of Eobert Passelew, who through the king's influence had been elected bishop of Chichester, though utterly unfit, caused the election to be annulled. On returning from Lyons we find Grosseteste executing various commissions with which he was entrusted by the pope; urging on the archbishop of York the claims of the bishop of Cervia; endorsing and sending round the papal letter allowing Arch-bishop Boniface the revenues of all benefices in his province that should fall vacant within the next seven years till 10;000 marks should be collected, in order to free the see from its debts; and insisting on the bishops paying the sub-sidy demanded by the pope, in spite of the king's opposi-tion. In this year (1245) he obtained a bull to prevent any of the Oxford scholars graduating in arts without passing through the usual examinations secundum morem Parisiensem, and without having been approved by the bishop himself or one appointed by him. In 1247 he delivered an address vindicating the genuiueness of the relic (a portion of our Lord's blood) presented by the king to Westminster. His visitation of his diocese, especially of the monasteries in it, and his superintendence of the studies of Oxford, which went on without interruption during these years, while inducing others of the bishops to follow his example, were not accomplished without serious troubles, embroiling him even with the king. Thus, in 1250, his visitation having proved that many of the re-ligious houses had converted to their own uses certain possessions which belonged to the parishes, which were thus impoverished and left without resident priests, he procured a papal letter authorizing him to revoke what they had thus obtained, citing all the beneficed monks in his diocese to hear the letter. Those who had exemptions appealed to the pope, and Grosseteste again crossed the sea to lay the case before him. But the gold of the religious orders had been at Lyons before him, and the pope sent him away from his presence in confusion, hopelessly exclaiming against the power of money at the Roman court. He was not, however, downhearted, but busied himself in other affairs, and delivered before the pope and certain cardinals his celebrated sermon on the abuses of the papal court. Here he stayed till the end of September, and then returned in sad plight to England, almost thinking of resigning his see in despair. But he soon recovered from this, and pursued his visitation of the monasteries with still greater vigour, so as to be accused by Matthew Paris of tyranny such as to make him be thought, " not severe, but rather austere and inhuman." In 1251 he was suspended by the pope in consequence of his refusing to admit an Italian ignorant of English to a rich benefice in his diocese. The suspension was short, as he officiated at Hales this year, on the dedication of the church founded by Richard of Cornwall, his position among the bishops being shown by his celebrating mass at the high altar. In 1252 he obtained a papal letter authorizing the appointment of vicars, and their payment out of the revenues of their livings; and in the same year his influ-ence kept the bishops together in their resistance to the royal demands of a tenth of church revenues for three years granted by the pope, nominally for the king's necessities on his intended crusade. He had also this year a calculation made of the revenues of the foreigners in England, which amounted to more than 70,000 marks. In 1253 the pope ordered him to induct by provision his nephew Frederick di Lavagna into a canonry at Lincoln; the bishop's answer to the requisition sent to the papal commissioners (the arch-deacon of Canterbury, and Innocent, the pope's notary), though of less importance than many of his other letters, has done more to make his fame popular and permanent than any of his works. He is very decided in refusing to institute the candidate from his unfitness, at the same time that he expresses the utmost reverence for the pope and the Roman see. The letter made the pope very angry, and he was only quieted by the advice of the cardinals, who spoke in the highest terms of the bishop's character and position. Grosseteste was present at the parliament in May; when the violators of Magna Charta were again excommunicated; not content with this, he had the sentence read in every parish in the diocese of Lincoln. In October he fell ill at his manor of Buckden, where he died on October 9th. He was buried on October 13th in Lincoln Cathedral, the arch-bishop performing the service and many other bishops assisting. Bells were said to have been heard in the air on the night of his death, and miracles to have taken place at his tomb. The pope is said to have expressed joy at his death, and to have desired to have his bones cast out of the church. The story of the pope's dream, that the bishop appeared to him and struck him in such a manner as to cause his death, shows what the popular estimation of the two was. It is perhaps not to be wondered at that the attempt to procure the canonization of the bishop in 1307 failed.





How great the personal influence of Bishop Grosseteste was may be chiefly learnt from his letters: he was the instructor of the king (e.g., in one of his letters on the value of the royal anointing), the friend of the queen, the tutor of Simon de Montfort's sons, his warner and consoler at different times, the correspondent of Adam de Marisco, the referee of many as to'spiritual difficulties. Of those who speak of him, one is especially struck by his courage, another by his universal knowledge, a third by his subtlety in interpreting scripture, a fourth by his frequent preach-ing. Even Matthew Paris, no favourable judge, warms into admiration in speaking of his character (Chron. Maj. v. p. 408). The popularity of Grosseteste as an author is proved by the number of manuscripts remaining of his works, and from the fact that very few writers for the two centuries following his death do not contain quotations from Lincolniensis. His determination to root out all abuses is seen in his opposition to unjust de-mands of the king or the archbishop, to unfit nominees of the pope, indeed to the whole system of papal pro-visions. That he was of a hasty temper, and harsh and severe at times, is true; but no one ever more thoroughly tried to do his duty, probably few have effected more.

The chief sources for the facts of his life are his own letters, those of Adam de Marisco, the History of Matthew Paris, and the Annals of Dunstable. Of his works, a fragment of the De Cessatione Legalium was printed in London, 1658 ; a selection of his letters was printed by E. Brown in the Appendix to his Fasciculus Rerum Expetendarum et Fugiendarum, 1690, and a complete edition in the Bolls series of chronicles and memorials, 1861, by H. R. Luard. Brown printed also some of his sermons. The tract De moribus pueri ad mensam was printed by "W. de Worde, and that |"De phisicis, lineis, angulis, et figuris per quas omnes actiones naturales complentur" at Nuremberg, 1503; and others of his mathematical treatises are in print. His French poem Le Chastel d'Amour, and an English version called The Oastel of Dove, have been printed for the Caxton and Philological Societies. Separate lives of him have been written by Samuel Pegge, 1793, and G. G. Perry, 1871. Complete lists of his works are given by Oudin, Tanner, Eabricius, &c. In Pegge's life, the list fills 23 quarto pages. (H. R. L.)







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