Belmeis, Richard de (d.1128) (DNB00)

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BELMEIS or BEAUMEIS, RICHARD de (fl. 1128), surnamed Rufus, bishop of London, was in early life a follower of Roger of Montgomery, palatine earl of Shropshire. He is with much probability identified with the Richard who at the time of the compilation of the ‘Doomsday Book’ held the manor of Meadowley in that county under a sub-tenant of the earl. His name appears on several occasions as attesting charters, both of Earl Roger and of his successor, Earl Hugh, from whom he doubtless received ecclesiastical preferment. But on the fall of the next earl, the famous Robert of Bellême (1102), after his attempt to rouse the feudal party against Henry I, Richard must have separated himself from his old masters, and attached himself closely to the king. After assisting in the settlement of the escheated estates of Robert in Sussex, he was sent to Shropshire as the royal agent in the forfeited palatinate. Henry I might now have annexed Shropshire to the crown, and extinguished its independent position, but the disturbed state of the Welsh frontier, which had been the cause of its acquiring exceptional prerogatives, must have rendered it expedient to retain its separate jurisdiction, but under a royal nominee, who owed everything to the king's favour, and whose clerical profession rendered it difficult for him to found a great family. Henry accordingly appointed Richard of Belmeis to an office variously described as the sheriffdom, stewardship, or even the viceroyalty of Shropshire. But Belmeis was no ordinary sheriff. Though often called sheriff himself, he had a sheriff under him to discharge the routine business of the shire. He stood to Shropshire in the same relation in which the justiciar stood to the whole of England in the king's absence. His judicial decisions were regarded as possessing equal authority with those of the king himself, and were recorded in regal style in letters patent. His jurisdiction even extended into Staffordshire, and perhaps Herefordshire. As a large owner in the county of landed property, including the manors of Tong and Donington, he was connected with his subjects by other ties than the mere royal delegation. His family, afterwards united with the more famous Zouches, was for several centuries after his time a prominent Shropshire house. He exercised over the wild tribes of central Wales the same authority that Bellême himself had wielded over them. Not without reason has his position been connected with the later wardenship of the western marches. In his dealings with the Welsh, Belmeis followed the precedent of Robert of Belesme in securing the supremacy of the English by stirring up the feuds among the rival Welsh princelings. Owain, son of Cadwgan, prince of Ceredigion, stole Nest, wife of Gerald of Windsor, from her husband's stronghold of Cenarch Bychan. Richard suborned two rival chiefs, Ithel and Madog, to revenge the deed. Only on his disowning the unruly son and paying a substantial fine did Cadwgan secure a new grant of Ceredigion. But Belmeis was a true successor to Bellême in the treachery of his dealings with his turbulent vassals. The Welshmen who took his side soon learnt that no reliance was to be placed on the word of the new lord of Shrewsbury. Iorwerth, whose timely desertion of Robert of Bellême had materially favoured the king's cause, was enticed to Shrewsbury and imprisoned there. At last Madog and Owain joined together against their common enemy, though Madog soon won Belmeis' favour again by the murder of Cadwgan; yet some sort of general attack seems to have been made on the English, which was only repelled by an invasion by Henry I in person in 1114, and by a new wave of Norman conquest in Wales.

Henry I rewarded Belmeis' faithful services in the west with the bishopric of London. He was elected on 24 May 1108, ordained priest by Anselm at Mortlake a few days later, and consecrated bishop on 26 July at Pagham in Sussex. Anselm was already broken in health, and seems only with some difficulty to have yielded to Henry's extreme anxiety for the speedy consecration of his minister. A handsome donation to the mother church of Canterbury testified Richard's gratitude for the archbishop's readiness to meet his wishes. He proved a true subject of the see of Canterbury in the zeal with which he endeavoured to force Thomas, archbishop-elect of York, to acknowledge the supremacy of the primate of all England; but Anselm seems to have suspected that the ambitious bishop of London himself aspired to the pallium. On Anselm's death Richard himself consecrated Thomas after due profession of canonical obedience, but a fierce struggle for precedence broke out at the king's Christmas court in 1109 between the rival prelates. Richard claimed, as dean of the province of Canterbury and as senior bishop, to say mass before the king in preference to Thomas, to whom he would allow no archiepiscopal dignity. Meeting at dinner at the king's table, the dispute was renewed, and became so intense that Henry, in disgust, sent them both home to dine by themselves. But the consecration of a new archbishop of Canterbury put an end to Richard's aspirations in this direction.

Richard retained his viceroyalty in the marches many years after his appointment to London. He certainly held office until 1123, and nothing but ill-health drove him ultimately from power. His great position in the west enabled him for some years to devote the whole revenue of his bishopric to carrying out the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral, which the preceding bishop, Maurice, had begun on so lavish a scale as to prove a serious burden to his successor. He almost finished the great work, but after a few years he apparently grew tired of the excessive outlay, and perhaps completed it in a less magnificent way. Towards the end of his life he employed his wealth mainly in the foundation of the priory of St. Osyth, for Augustinian regular canons, on the manor of Chich (Osyth St. Chick), in Essex, belonging to the see of London. He had already advised Queen Matilda to establish the Augustinians at Holy Trinity in Aldgate, the first settlement of this popular order in England. In 1123 William of Corbeuil, first prior of St. Osyth's, was made archbishop of Canterbury, an election not improbably due to the founder's influence. But an attack of paralysis in the same year compelled Belmeis, very unwillingly—for he loved power to the last—to resign his position in Shropshire. At last he sought at St. Osyth's a refuge from the cares of active life. He died in that monastery on 16 Jan. 1127, though it is doubtful whether he had formally retired from his see. His last act was to make some restitution of lands and churches he had wrongfully taken from the abbey of Shrewsbury. He was buried where he died, and the canons celebrated their founder in his epitaph as ‘vir probus et grandævus, per totam vitam laboriosus.’

Richard of Belmeis was a type of the ministerial prelate of the twelfth century, and may be placed after Roger of Salisbury, among the ecclesiastical advisers of Henry I. Active, energetic, a good administrator and subtle intriguer, not above treachery when it served him or his master's cause, he remained faithful to Henry in a position of great difficulty and delicacy, and was proportionately trusted by that monarch. He had little of the saint about him, and took good care of his nephews' interests both in Shropshire and London. One he made dean of St. Paul's, another archdeacon of Middlesex, and both to ecclesiastical and secular nephews he secured rich lands in Shropshire. Yet the continuer of the work of Maurice, the founder of St. Osyth's, the magnificent prelate who lavished the whole revenues of his see on his great buildings, can at least escape the charge of mere self-seeking. He was only greedy of power and influence. In his contest with Thomas of York he showed his zeal for his order and province. As administrator and jurist, as ecclesiastic, church-builder, and statesman, he ranks high among the bishops of his age.

[William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Pontificum; Eadmer's Historia Novorum; Diceto; Brut y Tywysogion; Eyton's Antiquities of Shropshire (especially vol. ii. 193–201) collects in a convenient form all that is known about Bishop Richard; Dugdale's Monasticon, vi. 1, 309, gives some account of St. Osyth's; Milman's Annals of St. Paul's, a summary of Richard's building operations.]

T. F. T.