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Busy men of affairs

19 July 2013

Gillian Evans on three neglected archbishops

Archbishops Ralph D'Escures, William of Corbeil and Theobald of Bec: Heirs of Anselm and ancestors of Becket
Jean Truax
Ashgate £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT469 )

THIS book fills a gap. The Archbishops of Canterbury who came after Anselm (d.1109) have been comparatively neglected by historians. Their times were no less challenging, but these three are more two-dimensional, lacking Anselm's standing as thinker and writer. They were men of affairs, not of ideas. 

There were plenty of affairs to engage their talents. After Anselm's death there was a gap of five years before Ralph D'Escures was chosen as a compromise candidate accept-able to the King. He was in poor health, and lacked the energy during the eight years before he died to prevent Thurstan, the new Archbishop of York (1114-40), reviving the controversy between the English provinces. 

The primacy of Canterbury over York was the dispute of the day for his successors, too. After two chapters on Ralph and his grapplings with his colleague, the book moves on to William of Corbeil, another Archbishop chosen - against op­-posi­­tion from the bishops who wanted a secular choice ­­- from the religious orders, but an Augustinian canon, not a Benedictine monk. Arriving in Rome to receive the pallium, he found Thurstan already there, arguing for York's primacy, and objecting that William could not lawfully be Arch­bishop of Canter­bury because he had not been consecrated by Thurstan himself as Archbishop of York. Canterbury offered the Pope a set of documents now known as the Canterbury Forgeries, purporting to provide historical warrant for Canterbury's claims. There is a lively discussion of these forgeries and their origins. 

The Canterbury-York power struggle continued into Theobald's archiepiscopate, which began in 1138 after a two-year gap, but it moved into the background for a time. Now there was a succession crisis for the kingdom, because Henry I's only legitimate son had died in 1120. The politics of Church and State became multi-dimensional. Theobald's au­thor­ity was undermined by that of the papal legate Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and  Theo­bald's disappointed rival.

These excitements form the back­bone of the chapters on Theobald, and the preliminaries to Thomas Becket's appointment. Becket had to deal with the Canterbury-York primacy question,  too, with the additional complication that Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, was agitating to have his bishopric made a third archbishopric.  

The story is told with care and clarity, with considerable sensitivity to the priorities of the day, and keeps close to the sources. It does some­thing new in telling the story of these complex events from the viewpoint of a succession of Archbishops of Canterbury. A series of convenient appendices in Latin and English gives the text of the Canterbury Forgeries, and key chronicle and correspondence evidence. 

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

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