King Henry I and the turbulent Church: The Council of Gloucester 2nd-4th February 1123

The Feast of Candlemas (2nd February) is an important church festival, signifying the end of the Christmas period, as it falls exactly 40 days (inclusive) after Christmas Day. Perhaps that is why King Henry I summoned a great council to meet at Gloucester exactly 889 years ago, on 2nd February 1123. An alternative name for Candlemas is the Festival of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which was especially appropriate for the summoning of the Great Council at Gloucester, as there was a need to present a new Archbishop of Canterbury to the English nation.

In October 1122, Ralph d’Escures, Archbishop of Canterbury, had died. The position of Archbishop of Canterbury was obviously a very important one, and so Henry I acted with his customary vigour, and immediately ordered writs to be sent out to all the important lay and spiritual magnates, summoning them to attend a council at Gloucester in early February 1123.

The Assembly that met on 2nd February 1123 was an impressive one, consisting of all the important magnates in England, both lay and spiritual. It even included Thurstan, Archbishop of York, who was as determined as ever to resist the claims of Canterbury to ecclesiastical primacy in England; but here lay the problem for King Henry I: rivalry and dispute within the Church.

When the Council met, the spiritual delegates immediately divided into two warring factions. The first faction was the ‘Monastic Party’, headed by the Canterbury monks, who wanted a monk for archbishop. The rival church faction was the ‘Episcopal Party’, consisting of the leading bishops, who refused to accept a monk as archbishop. The ‘Monastic Party’ attracted some support from the lay magnates, and so this intra-church dispute presented Henry I with a serious problem. Two days of tortuous negotiations followed, between 2nd and 4th February; but in the end, Henry sensibly supported the ‘Episcopal Party’. The fact that Bishop Roger of Salisbury was a leading member of the ‘Episcopals’ undoubtedly influenced Henry I’s choice, as Bishop Roger was effectively Henry’s Justicar; but even so, one feels that Henry I made the correct choice.

To spare the ‘Monastic Party’ from humiliation, Henry I came up with an ingenious face-saving solution, whereby the monks could select the archbishop – but from a list of four royal sponsored candidates. The monks selected William of Corbeil as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. King Henry I displayed all his administrative skills at the Gloucester Council. He had got his way, and his decision won him the approval of Archbishop Thurstan of York, Bishop Roger of Salisbury, and the other bishops. At the same time, the ‘Monastic Party’ could hardly complain, as William of Corbeil was a regular canon, and thus a monk in all but name.

However, Henry I still had to contend with the chronic rivalry within the church that was to constantly bedevil church/state relations in the 12th century, and was to perhaps reach its apogee with Archbishop Becket’s quarrel with his fellow-bishops and the monarchy nearly fifty years later. After William’s consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury, the simmering rivalry between the ecclesiastical provinces of Canterbury and York for episcopal primacy in England once more flared up. The Canterbury/York dispute dragged on for the remainder of Henry I’s reign, involving such vital issues as whether Thurstan of York could have his cross-bearer in the royal chapel. The two archbishoprics co-existed uneasily over the next fifty years: it was effectively a 12th century ‘Cold War’ – except of an ecclesiastical kind.

As it happened both Archbishop William of Canterbury and Archbishop Thurstan of York survived Henry I. Archbishop William died on 11th November 1136 (aged about 66), nearly a year after Henry’s death. In terms of personal longevity, Archbishop Thurstan had the final victory. Archbishop Thurstan died aged of 70. He died, ironically, on 6th February 1140, almost exactly seventeen years after the famous Council of Gloucester.

Final Thoughts

  • Before his death in 1140, Archbishop Thurstan of York rendered his last great assistance to the English monarchy when he personally led the English resistance to the Scottish invasion of Northern England in 1138. Under the prompting of Archbishop Thurstan, an English army was mustered at Northallerton in North Yorkshire. This English Army decisively defeated the invading Scots at the Battle of the Standard, on 22nd August 1138. The Battle of the Standard gets its name from a special banner that Thurstan had created before the battle. Thurstan’s Standard had as its motif a ship’s mast in a cart. The banners of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverley, and St. Wilfrid of Ripon hung on the ship’s mast.
  • Ironically, it was the present day Bishop of Ripon & Leeds who just over a week ago put forward an ill-considered amendment in the House of Lords, to exempt child benefit payments from the government-proposed £26,000 annual cap on household benefits. In 1138, when the English government faced a severe military crisis, the clerics of Ripon Cathedral came to its aid. In contrast, when the present government grapples with a severe financial crisis, the authorities of Ripon Cathedral perhaps seem a little insensitive to the Government’s problem!

And one final comment . . .

This morning, Thursday 2nd February, 2012, I attended the Consecration of the Venerable Peter Burrows to be Bishop of Doncaster, in York Minster. The Consecration was conducted by the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr John Sentamu, the Lord Archbishop of York, Primate of England and Metropolitan. It is pleasing to note the continuity in the consecration of Bishops between 1123 and 2012.


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Filed under Angevins, Archbishops of York, Battles in Britain, Bishop of Doncaster, Bishop of Salisbury, Bishops in the Church of England, British Kings and Queens, Candlemas, Church of England, Henry I, History, Medieval History, Norman Kings, Politics, Ripon Cathedral, York Minster, Yorkshire

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