Basset, Fulk (DNB00)

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BASSET, FULK (d. 1259), bishop of London, was the second son of Alan Basset [q. v.], baron of Wycombe, and the elder brother of Philip Basset, whom Henry III appointed justiciar in 1261. Of the details of Fulk Basset's early life little seems to be known. His father died in 1232, and some seven years later (October 1239) the son was appointed dean of York. He also appears to have been provost of Beverley, but the date of this appointment is uncertain (Poulson's Beverley, 647), though from a document preserved in Rymer he held this office as early as 1235, in which year he was sent on a mission to France. Towards the middle of 1241 Fulk's elder brother Gilbert was killed by a fall from his horse, and, his death being speedily followed by that of his only son, the Basset estates devolved upon the dean of York by right of hereditary succession. In September of the same year Roger, bishop of London, died. As the archbishopric of Canterbury and the papacy were vacant at the same time, it was long before the empty see could be fully supplied. Towards Christmas, however, the canons of St. Paul's met and elected Fulk Basset their bishop somewhat to the chagrin of Henry III, who had begged the appointment for the bishop of Hereford. It seems probable from the words of Matthew Paris in describing this election that the high rank of the new bishop had as much to do with his election as his gravity of demeanour and the correctness of his morals. As the see of Canterbury remained vacant from the time of Edmund Rich's death (November 1240) till the consecration of Boniface (1245), it became necessary to ordain the new bishop of London in his own cathedral city. Boniface VIII issued a bull to this effect, but the chapter at Canterbury refused to recognise it, asserting that it was an infringement of their liberties. Finally, however, the ceremony was performed by William de Raleigh, bishop of Winchester, in the church of Holy Trinity at London, though not without Fulk's making a solemn protestation that this innovation should not be turned into a precedent (9 Oct. 1244). Within two years from this consecration Fulk became embroiled in a controversy with Pope Innocent IV, who in 1246 made a demand on all the beneficed clergy of England of one-third or one-half of their incomes for three years, and entrusted the bishop of London with the prosecution of the whole affair. Fulk Basset accordingly called a meeting in St. Paul's to treat concerning this contribution; and the king sent his messengers to be present with special instructions to forbid the payment of the whole charge. Apparently under Fulk's advice, the assembly of the clergy drew up a bold answer to the pope, enumerating the many evil results that would ensue from the payment of this imposition, and winding up with an appeal to a general council. Next year Fulk was probably suspended, in company with the other bishops belonging to the province of Canterbury, for his refusal to pay the first year's income of all vacant livings to the new archbishopric. In 1250 we read that the bishop of London crossed over to the continent about the same time that Grosseteste also left England on his famous journey to the pope at Lyons. Matthew Paris professes to be ignorant of the cause of the journey, but, according to the Tewkesbury annals (Annales Monastici, i. 141), which, however, may in this statement be slightly incorrect, it was in connection with the following incident. In the early part of this year Boniface, the archbishop of Canterbury, had determined to copy the example of Grosseteste, but to make a visitation not only of the abbots and clergy, but even of the bishops in his province. The intolerable exactions levied by the archbishop and his followers in these visitations seem to have been one of the chief causes of their unpopularity, and on this occasion Boniface's conduct may well have been more egregiously flagrant than usual. On 13 May he proceeded to visit the bishop of London. The canons of St. Paul's refused to receive him, and were simply excommunicated; but at St. Bartholomew's, where he was received with courtesy, he smote the sub-prior thrice with his fist, and in the scuffle exposed beneath his peaceful exterior garb the glitter of a mail-coat. In their powerlessness the aggrieved canons appealed to their own bishop Fulk, and he advised them to go up to Westminster at once, and lay their complaint before the king. Henry, however, refused to receive them, and supported the archbishop, who thereupon proceeded solemnly at Lambeth to renew his sentence against the recalcitrant canons, and even went so far as to involve the bishop of London for being the supporter of his own clergy. Both parties now prepared to make a final appeal to Rome; but as Basset well recognised the strength of the opposition against him, he seems to have lost no time in securing the most powerful friends he could, and Matthew Paris has preserved the letter which he wrote on this occasion to the abbot of St. Albans. In the course of the same year the bishop of London held a conference at Dunstable with Grosseteste and several other bishops, at which they signed a paper binding themselves to resist Boniface's claims to visit their dioceses. The Burton annals contain a decree of Innocent IV's with regard to this matter, in which he writes to Grosseteste, Fulk Basset, and the bishop of Wells, limiting the expenses of all church dignitaries in their visitations, and empowering these three prelates to see that this edict does not become a dead letter (July 1252). Before the end of the next year Boniface had succeeded in suppressing the claims of the canons of St. Bartholomew's, and was apparently prospering in his cause at Rome. Seeing this, Fulk, who began to fear lest the king's wrath should at the first opportunity descend not only upon him but upon his race, and result in the forfeiture of all their possessions, determined to make his submission to the archbishop, and, having so done, was absolved from the sentence of excommunication (1251). But it is only fair to remark that in the preceding year the pope had annulled Boniface's sentence against the dean and chapter of St. Paul's; and the words of Matthew Paris seem to imply that Boniface's attack upon the bishop of London had by this time assumed very much of a personal character (‘quem—scilicet Fulconem— … nuper enormiter injuriando archiepiscopus excommunicaverat et excommunicatum longe lateque fecit denuntiari’). About the same time (1251) Henry de Bathe [q. v.], the justiciary, was accused of treachery to the king, who was so enraged that we read he refused to accept any clerkly surety in so important a case, and was only induced by the personal application of the bishop of London to entrust the offender to the care of twenty-four knights, who bound themselves to be answerable for his appearance at the stated time. It was probably some rumours of this approaching mishap that had determined Fulk to make his peace with the archbishop, and so, in some degree at least, to pacify the king also; for Henry de Bathe had married a Basset, and on his fall sent his wife round to all her relatives, begging them one and all to stand by him in his time of peril. Gifts were lavished profusely, and at last Henry de Bathe, seeing the dangerous position in which he stood, took Fulk and Philip Basset as his companions in an interview with the king's brother Richard, earl of Cornwall. In the course of conversation the justiciary threatened to raise an insurrection throughout the kingdom if the king aimed at his life, or even at the forfeiture of his estates. Fulk seems to have stood by his relative in all his trouble, so far that when Henry, at the parliament of London, uttered his hasty wish that some one would kill his enemy, John Mansel warned him that the bishop of London was prepared to exercise his spiritual powers against any such offenders. In 1252 we find Fulk amongst the bishops who supported Grosseteste's opposition to the tenth of the church revenues granted to Henry III by the pope. Next year his name again appears when the king's request was granted in return for the confirmation of Magna Charta (April 1253). Matthew Paris tells a curious story that in this year, on the night of Bishop Grossseteste's death, Fulk heard bells ringing in the air in token of what had just occurred (9 Oct. 1253). The death of Grosseteste left the English church without a leader to head them against the papal demands, and on one occasion at least (October 1255) Fulk seems to have assumed this position, when his bold declaration that he would rather lose his head than submit to such intolerable oppression nerved his fellow-prelates to resist the new demands just brought in by Rustand, who complained to the king that the whole resistance on this occasion was due to the influence of the bishop of London. It was on Henry's threatening him with the pope's displeasure that Fulk made his famous answer: ‘The pope and the king may indeed take away my bishopric, for they are stronger than I; let them take away my mitre, and my helmet will remain.’ Two years later (Lent 1257), when Richard of Cornwall left England to contest the imperial crown, he appointed Fulk the head overseer of all his possessions in England. This fact may point to some degree of reconciliation with the royal house, especially when coupled with the fact that during the course of the same year the bishop became one of the sworn advisers of the king, in which capacity he took a special oath not to betray the king's counsels. When the barons met at Oxford (June 1258) and forced the king and his son Edward to swear to grant their requests, Fulk seems to have held more or less aloof from the struggle, and Matthew Paris remarks that in this he blackened his fair fame, inasmuch as he was of nobler race than the other bishops. The exact ground for this charge seems to be that Fulk was the most prominent Englishman who absolutely refused his assent to the Oxford provisions; in fact the Tewkesbury annals draw no distinction between his conduct and that of the foreign favourites, who withdrew from Oxford to Winchester. Indeed, whatever may have been the exact course pursued by him on this occasion, he at least succeeded in breaking with the baronial and popular party, of which he had hitherto been one of the most prominent members. His name henceforward appears consistently on the king's side; it stands first on the list of the king's half of the commission of twenty-four appointed by the provisions of Oxford to draw up a constitution, first among the twelve commissioners of parliament, and second among the twenty-four appointed to treat of the king's aid. His brother, Philip Basset, is associated with him in the latter two lists, but it is worth noting that neither of the two was appointed a member of the king's perpetual council of fifteen (Annales Monastici (R.S.), i. 447, 449, 450, and Stubbs's Const. Hist. ii. 89). Fulk Basset did not live to see the utter breakdown of the new plans of reform. At Michaelmas he was present with the king and queen of England, Prince Edward, and many other bishops, when Boniface of Savoy dedicated the cathedral of New Sarum. Within seven months of this date Fulk was carried off by a severe pestilence which visited Paris, London, and other places, and was buried on 25 May 1259 in his own cathedral. Though he never seems to have taken so firm a position with regard to the papal exactions as Grosseteste had done, and though once in his life at least he allowed his baronial feelings to influence his conduct as servant of the king, yet on the whole he deserves the praise with which Matthew Paris dismisses him: ‘A man noble and of high birth, who, had he not lately wavered, were the anchor of the whole kingdom and the shield of its stability and defence.’ His name and that of his nearest relatives were long preserved in the records of his own cathedral by the many chantries which they endowed in connection with St. Paul's.

[Rymer, i. 342; Matt. Paris (R.S.), iv. 89, 171, 393, &c., v. 120–7, 190, 705, &c; Burton, Tewkesbury, and Dunstable Annals in Luard's Annales Monastici (R.S.), i., ii., iii.; Simpson's Registrum Ecclesiæ S. Pauli; Milman's Annals of St. Paul's; Le Neve's Fasti, ii. 284, iii. 121.]

T. A. A.