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Princeliness and printing

27 February 2015

Nicholas Orme looks at an era of abbatial and episcopal power

The Prelate in England and Europe 1300-1560
Martin Heale, editor
York Medieval Press £60
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT757 )

WE HAVE no prelates now. Most bishops have lost their palaces, and even the Pope lives in a Vatican hostel. Yet, only just past living memory, Archbishop Davidson held luncheon parties for duchesses, and Archbishop Lang helped to dethrone a king. Both sit like princes of the Church in their magnificent portraits by Sargent, Laszlo, and Orpen. "My picture makes me look proud, pompous, and prelatical," Lang said to a group of bishops. "And to which of these epithets", interposed Hensley Henson, "does Your Grace take exception?"

Prelates began in Anglo-Saxon England, when bishops soon acquired property and influence. They grew in stature under the Normans with such men as Odo of Bayeux and Henry of Blois, and reached their apogee, perhaps, in the period covered by this book, from about 1300 to the Reformation. By that time, bishops were joined in splendour by the abbots of the greater monasteries, who also acquired mitres, pastoral staffs, and parliamentary seats.

The Prelate in England and Europe is a volume of 12 studies, all but two on England, the others covering France and central Europe. Eight chapters are about bishops, four feature abbots, and an introduction by the editor welds the topics together. The chapters on bishops examine their wealth, treasures, seals, tombs, and the part they played as great officers of state. Most Chancellors of England were bishops up to the Reformation.

Other contributors explore how abbots grew into dignitaries living in spacious dwellings with their own households away from their monks. Some were great builders, notably Marmaduke Huby, Abbot of Fountains, who not only raised the tower that still stands there and bears his insignia, but also built what have since become the chapel and hall of St John's College, Oxford.

Prelates were patrons of learning, too, collecting books and founding colleges. When printing came, they saw its potential at once. Dr Felicity Heal identifies Bishop Alcock of Ely as the pioneer publishing bishop in 1497. In fact, he was not. Waynflete of Winchester forestalled him both by founding Magdalen College School, Oxford, in 1480, the earliest school to teach the newly rediscovered classical Latin, and by printing schoolbooks for it in 1483, the first of their kind in England.

Magnificence did not come without criticism. Dr Martin Heale shows how some monks felt disquiet at their leaders' deviations from the great monastic founders, St Benedict and St Bernard. The Lollard followers of John Wycliffe observed that the word "prelate" was not to be found in the Bible. They dismissed abbots as part of a corrupted "private" religion, and saw no need for bishops, except perhaps as itinerant preachers.

The Reformation cleared out the abbots and cut down the wealth of the bishops. But it suited the Crown to have strong church leaders, and, as time passed, rising property values and the holding of plural benefices turned bishops back into the smug and prosper- ous figures in lawn sleeves who stare at us from gilded Georgian frames. It took the 20th century to extinguish the prelate, happily just after those last arresting portrayals in the brush-strokes of Laszlo and Orpen.

Professor Orme's recent books include histories of the Church in Devon, and a study of Latin-teaching in schools in the Renaissance period.

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