Bourchier, Thomas (1404?-1486) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 06
Bourchier, Thomas (1404?-1486)

by James Gairdner
1904 Errata appended.

BOURCHIER, THOMAS (1404?–1486), cardinal, was the third son of William Bourchier, earl of Ewe, by the Lady Anne Plantagenet, second daughter of Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Edward III. His father had won the title he bore by his achievements under Henry V in France, and transmitted it to his eldest son, Henry [q. v.], who afterwards was created earl of Essex. A second son, by right of his wife, was summoned to parliament as Lord Fitzwarren. The third, Thomas, the subject of this article, was born about 1404 or 1405, and was but a child at the death of his father. A fourth, John Bourchier, was ennobled as Lord Berners [see Bourchier, John]. A daughter Eleanor married John Mowbray, third duke of Norfolk of that surname, and the fourth duke, his son, consequently speaks of the cardinal as his uncle (Paston Letters, ii. 382).

Thomas Bourchier was sent at an early age to Oxford, and took up his abode at Nevill's Inn, one of five halls or inns which occupied the site of what is now Corpus Christi College. In 1424 he obtained the prebend of Colwick, in Lichfield Cathedral, and before 1427 he was made dean of St. Martin's-le-Grand, London. He also received the prebend of West Thurrock, in the free chapel of Hastings. In 1433, though not yet of full canonical age, he was recommended for the see of Worcester, then vacant by the death of Thomas Polton. But Polton had died at Basle while attending the general council, and the pope had already nominated as his successor Thomas Brouns, dean of Salisbury. On the other hand the commons in parliament addressed the king in favour of Bourchier, putting forward, according to the royal letters, the 'nighness of blood that our well-beloved master Thomas attaineth unto us and the cunning and virtues that rest in his person.' Accordingly Brouns was translated to Rochester, and the pope cancelled his previous nomination to Worcester by an ante-dated bull in favour of Bourchier, whose nomination therefore bears date 9 March 1434. The temporalities of the see were restored to him on 15 April 1435.

Meanwhile, in 1434, Bourchier was made chancellor of the university of Oxford, a position which he held for three years, and which implies at least that he took some interest in scholarship, though we have no evidence that he himself was a distinguished scholar. Wood says that he took part in a convocation of the university as early as 1428. But we may reasonably surmise that his subsequent promotions were as much owing to high birth as to great abilities. He had not remained long in the see of Worcester when, in 1435, the bishopric of Ely fell vacant. The chapter, at the instigation of John Tiptoft, the prior, agreed to postulate Bourchier, who sent messengers to Rome to procure bulls for his translation. The bulls came, but as the government refused to ratify his election, Bourchier feared to receive them. The king's ministers wished to reward Cardinal Louis de Luxembourg, archbishop of Rouen (chancellor of France under the English king) with the revenues of the bishopric of Ely. So by an arrangement with the pope, notwithstanding the opposition of Archbishop Chichele, the bishopric was not filled up, but the archbishop of Rouen was appointed administrator of the see. But when he died in 1443, there was no further difficulty in the way of Bourchier's promotion. He was nominated by the king, elected by the chapter, and having received a bull for his translation, dated 20 Dec. 1443, he was confirmed and had the temporalities restored to him on 27 Feb. 1444.

There is little known of his life at this time beyond the story of his promotions, and what we hear of his conduct as bishop is from a very adverse critic, the historian of the monastery of Ely, who says that he was severe and exacting towards the tenants, and that he would never celebrate mass in his own cathedral except on the day of his installation, which he put off till two years after his appointment. It appears that in 1438 there was an intention of sending Bourchier, then bishop of Worcester, with others to the council of Basle; but it does not appear that he actually went (Nicolas, Privy Council Proceedings, v. 92, 99). That he was often called to the king's councils at Westminster there is ample evidence to show.

In March 1454 Kemp, the archbishop of Canterbury, died. A deputation of the lords rode to Windsor to convey the intelligence to the king, and to signify to him, if possible, that a new chancellor, a new primate, and a new council required to be appointed. But Henry's intellectual prostration was complete, and he gave no sign that he understood the simplest inquiry. The lords accordingly appointed the Duke of York protector, and on 30 March the council, in compliance with a petition from the commons, recommended the Bishop of Ely's promotion to the see of Canterbury 'for his great merits, virtues, and great blood that he is of' (Rolls of Parl. v. 450). Bourchier was translated on 22 April following; and we may presume that he owed his promotion to the Duke of York's influence. On 6 Sept. in the same year William Paston writes from London to his brother: 'My lord of Canterbury hath received his cross, and I was with him in the king's chamber when he made his homage' (Paston Letters, i. 303) . Apparently he paid a conventional reverence to the poor unconscious king; he was enthroned in February following.

On 7 March 1455 Bourchier was appointed lord chancellor, and received the seals at Greenwich from the king himself, who had recovered from his illness at the new year. His appointment, in fact, was one consequence of the king's recovery, as the Earl of Salisbury (the chancellor, and brother-in-law of the Duke of York) could not have been acceptable to the queen. Bourchier apparently had to some extent the good-will of both parties, and was expected to preserve the balance between them in peculiarly trying times. Little more than two months after his appointment, when the Duke of York and his friends took up arms and marched southwards, they addressed a letter to Bourchier as chancellor declaring that their intentions were peaceable and that they came to do the king service and to vindicate their loyalty. Bourchier sent a special messenger to the king at Kilburn, but the man was not allowed to come into the royal presence, and neither the letter to the archbishop nor an address sent by the lords actually reached the king (Rolls of Parl. v. 280-1). The result was the first battle of St. Albans, which was the commencement of the wars of the Roses.

A parliament was summoned for 9 July following, which Bourchier opened by a speech as chancellor. His brother Henry, viscount Bourchier, was at the same time appointed lord treasurer. The parliament was soon prorogued to November. Before it met again the king had fallen a second time into the same melancholy state of imbecility, and for a second time it was necessary to make York protector. The archbishop resigned the great seal in October 1456, when the queen had obtained a clear advantage over the Duke of York, and got the king, who had been long separated from her, down to Coventry, where a great council was held. These changes raised misgivings, even in some who were not of Yorkist leanings. The Duke of Buckingham, who was a son of the same mother as the two Bourchiers, was ill-pleased at seeing his brothers discharged from high offices of state, and it was^said that he had interposed to protect the Duke of York himself from unfair treatment at the council (Paston Letters, i. 408). But the archbishop was a peacemaker; and the temporary reconciliation of parties in the spring of 1458 appears to have been greatly owing to him. He and Waynflete drew up the terms of the agreement between the lords on both sides, which was sealed on 24 March, the day before the general procession at St. Paul's.

Shortly before this, in the latter part of the year 1457, the archbishop had been called upon to deprive Pecock, bishop of Chichester, as a heretic. The case was a remarkable one, for Pecock was anything but a Lollard. He was first turned out of the king's council, the archbishop as the chief person there ordering his expulsion, and then required to appear before the archbishop at Lambeth. His writings were examined by three other bishops and condemned as unsound. Then the archbishop, as his judge, briefly pointed out to him that high authorities were against him in several points, and told him to choose between recantation and burning. The poor man's spirit was quite broken, and he preferred recantation. Nevertheless he was imprisoned by the archbishop for some time at Canterbury and Maidstone, and afterwards committed by him to the custody of the abbot of Thorney.

In April 1459 Bourchier brought before the council a request from Pius II that the king would send an ambassador to a council at Mantua, where measures were to be concerted for the union of Christendom against the Turks (Nicolas, Privy Council Proceedings, vi. 298). Coppini, the pope's nuncio, after remaining nearly a year and a half in England, gave up his mission as hopeless and recrossed the Channel. But at Calais the Earl of Warwick, who was governor there, won him over to the cause of the Duke of York. He recrossed the Channel with the Earls of Warwick, March, and Salisbury, giving their enterprise the sanction of the church. Bourchier met them at Sandwich with his cross borne before them. A statement of the Yorkist grievances had been forwarded to him by the earls before their coming, and apparently he had done his best to publish it. Accompanied by a great multitude, the earls, the legate, and the archbishop passed on to London, which opened its gates to them on 2 July 1460. Next day there was a convocation of the clergy at St. Paul's, at which the earls presented themselves before the archbishop, declared their grievances, and swore upon the cross of St. Thomas of Canterbury that they had no designs against the king. The political situation was discussed by the bishops and clergy, and it was resolved that the archbishop and five of his suffragans should go with the earls to the king at Northampton and use their efforts for a peaceful settlement. Eight days later was fought the battle of Northampton, at which Henry was taken prisoner. The archbishop, as agreed upon in convocation, accompanied the earls upon their march from London, and sent a bishop to the king to explain their attitude; but the bishop (of whose name we are not informed) acted in a totally different spirit and encouraged the king's party to fight.

When the Duke of York came over from Ireland later in the year and challenged the crown in parliament, the archbishop came up to him and asked if he would not first come and pay his respects to the king. 'I do not remember,' he replied, 'that there is any one in this kingdom who ought not rather to come and pay his respects to me.' Bourchier immediately withdrew to report this answer to Henry. When, after the second battle of St. Albans, the queen was threatening London, the archbishop had betaken himself to Canterbury, awaiting better news with the young Bishop of Exeter, George Nevill, whom the Yorkists had appointed lord chancellor. Bourchier, though he had shown in the house of peers that he did not favour York's repudiation of allegiance, could not possibly sympathise with the disturbance of a parliamentary settlement and the renewal of strife and tumult. From this time, at all events, he was a decided Yorkist; and when the Duke of York's eldest son came up to London and called a council at his residence of Baynard's Castle on 3 March, he was among the lords who attended and agreed that Edward was now rightful king. On 28 June he set the crown upon Edward's head. Four years later, on Sunday after Ascension day (26 May) 1465, he also crowned his queen, Elizabeth Woodville.

For some years nothing more is known of the archbishop's life except that Edward IV petitioned Pope Paul II to make him a cardinal in 1465, and it appears that he was actually named by that pope accordingly on Friday, 18 Sept. 1467. But some years elapsed before the red hat was sent and his title of cardinal was acknowledged in England. In 1469 the pope wrote to the king promising that it should be sent very shortly; but the unsettled state of the country, and the new revolution which for half a year restored Henry VI as king in 1470, no doubt delayed its transmission still further, and it was only sent by the succeeding pope, Sixtus IV, in 1473. It arrived at Lambeth on 31 May.

By this time the archbishop had given further proofs of his devotion to Edward. He and his brother, whom the king had created earl of Essex after his coronation, not only raised troops for his restoration in 1471, but were mediators with the Duke of Clarence before his arrival in England, and succeeded in winning him over again to his brother's cause. After the king was again peacefully settled on his throne he went on pilgrimage to Canterbury at Michaelmas, aprrently to attend the jubilee of St. Thomas à Becket, which, but for the state of the country, would have been held in the preceding year. Edward had visited Canterbury before, soon after the coronation of his queen, and bestowed on the cathedral a window representing Becket's martyrdom, of which, notwithstanding its destruction in the days of Henry VIII, some fragments are still visible.

Bourchier was hospitable after the fashion of his time. In 1468 he entertained at Canterbury an eastern patriarch, who is believed to have been Peter II of Antioch. In 1455—the year after he became archbishop—he had purchased of Lord Saye and Sele the manor of Knowle, in Sevenoaks, which he converted into a castellated mansion and bequeathed to the see of Canterbury. It remained as a residence for future archbishops till Cranmer gave it up to Henry VIII. Here Bourchier entertained much company, among whom men of letters like Botoner and patrons of learning like Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, were not unfrequent; also musicians like Hambois, Taverner, and others. That he was a promoter of the introduction of printing into England, even before the date of Caxton's first work, rests only on the evidence of a literary forgery published in the seventeenth century.

In 1475 Bourchier was one of the four arbitrators to whom the differences between England and France were referred by the peace of Amiens (Rymer, xii. 16). In 1480, feeling the effects of age, he appointed as his suffragan William Westkarre, titular bishop of Sidon. In 1483, after the death of Edward IV, he was again called on to take part in public affairs in a way that must have been much to his own discomfort. He went at the head of a deputation from the council to the queen-dowager in sanctuary at Westminster, and persuaded her to deliver up her second son Richard, duke of York, to the keeping of his uncle, the protector, to keep company with his brother, Edward V, then holding state as sovereign in the Tower. The cardinal pledged his own honour so strongly for the young duke's security that the queen at last consented. Within three weeks of the time that he thus pledged himself for the good faith of the protector he was called on to officiate at the coronation of Richard III!

That he should have thus lent himself as an instrument to the usurper must appear all the more melancholy when we consider that in 1471 he had taken the lead among the peers of England (as being the first subject in the realm) in swearing allegiance to Edward, prince of Wales, as heir to the throne (Parl. Rolls, vi. 234). But perhaps we may overestimate the weakness involved in such conduct, not considering the specious plea on which young Edward's title was set aside, and the winning acts and plausible manners which for the moment had made Richard highly popular. The murder of the princes had not yet taken place, and the attendance of noblemen at Richard's coronation was as full as it ever had been on any similar occasion. After the murder a very different state of feeling arose in the nation, and the cardinal, who had pledged his word for the safety of the princes, could not but have shared that feeling strongly. How far he entered into the conspiracies against Richard III we do not know, but doubtless he was one of those who rejoiced most sincerely in the triumph of Henry VII at Bosworth. Within little more than two months of that victory he crowned the new king at Westminster.

One further act of great solemnity it was left for him to accomplish, and it formed the fitting close to the career of a great peacemaker. On 18 Jan. 1486 he married Henry VII to Elizabeth of York, thus joining the red rose and the white and taking away all occasion for a renewal of civil war. He died at Knowle on 6 April following, and was buried in his own cathedral.

[W. Wyrcester; Contin. Hist. de Epp. Wygorn., and Hist. Eliensis in Wharton's Anglia Sacra; Nicolas's Privy Council Proceedings, vol. vi.; An English Chronicle, ed. Davies (Camden Society); Registrum Johannis Whethamstede (Rolls ed.); Hearne's Fragment, Fleetwood, and Warkworth (three authorities which may be conveniently consulted together in one volume, though very ill edited, entitled 'Chronicles of the White Rose'); Paston Letters; Polydore Vergil; Hall; Pii Secundi Commentarii a Gobellino compositi, 161 (ed. 1584); Rolls of Parliament; More's Hist. of Richard III; Loci e Libro Veritatum (Grascoigne), ed. Rogers; Babington's Introduction to Pecock's Repressor; Brown's Venetian Calendar, i. 90, 91. A valuable modern life of Bourchier will be found in Hook's Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. v.]

J. G.

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Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.33
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
15 i 4f.e. Bourchier, Thomas: after Hastings insert and in 1433 a prebend at Lincoln
16 i 31-32  for enthroned in February following read enthroned on 24 Jan. following (Sloane MS. 1201, f. 4 b)
18 i 5f.e.  for 6 April read 30 March