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