Foliot, Gilbert (DNB00)

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FOLIOT, GILBERT (d. 1188), bishop successively of Hereford and London, was born early in the twelfth century, as in 1170 he is described by a chronicler as grandævus. He was of a Norman family which had been settled in England from the Conquest, and was related to the Earls of Hereford. It appears that some of his connections were among the Normans who had acquired estates in Scotland. Hence Dean Milman conjectures he may have been a Scotchman, but incorrectly (Latin Christ. vol. iii.). The earliest fact known about him is his profession as a monk in the famous monastery of Clugny, where he must have been under Peter the Venerable, the great antagonist of St. Bernard. Foliot rose to the rank of prior of this house of three hundred monks, from which post he was promoted to the headship of the affiliated house of Abbeville, and from this to the abbacy of Gloucester. A letter from Hugh of Clugny to him lauds his religion, wisdom, and eloquence as the honour of the church of God, and felicitates the church of Clugny, which was thought worthy to have such a son (Materials for Life of Becket, v. 30). In 1148 Foliot was promoted to the bishopric of Hereford, which he held for about sixteen years. In the vast mass of materials now collected for the illustration of the life of Becket there are abundant notices of the character of Foliot, his great antagonist. The testimony of all these is that he was the most remarkable among all the bishops of England for his learning, eloquence, and great austerities, and that he was very high in favour with Henry II, who used him as his most trusted counsellor. They are also unanimous in declaring that he aspired to the primacy, which is probably true, in spite of the disclaimer which Foliot afterwards made of this ambition. There is a letter to him from Pope Alexander III, written in a very laudatory strain, and earnestly cautioning him against too great austerities, lest by the failure of his health the church of God should suffer grievous loss (ib. v. 44). When in 1161 the Bishop of London became imbecile, the king proposed to Foliot to administer the diocese, finding what was necessary for the support of the bishop, and paying over the balance to him. This Foliot declined, as being ‘perilous to his soul,’ and begged the king to excuse him from the charge (ib. v. 15). The turning-point in Foliot's career was his opposition to the election of Becket at Westminster, May 1162. This is recorded by all Becket's biographers, but with varying circumstances. There is no doubt that Becket was held, at the time of his election, by the English churchmen generally as altogether a king's man, and as one likely to oppress the church. Foliot, it appears, was the only one who had the courage of his opinions. There may have been jealousy at the bottom, but this ascetic and high-born churchman would naturally object to Becket, both as having lived a very secular life, and as being of low extraction. He afterwards withdrew his objection, but he himself declares that he merely did this on the threat of banishment of himself and his kindred. The saying attributed to him by William Fitzstephen, that the king had wrought a miracle by turning a secular man and a soldier into an archbishop, is probably true (ib. iii. 36). Soon after this the Bishop of London died, and Henry, with the consent of the pope, translated Foliot to the see (28 April 1163). Upon this occasion Becket wrote him a very kind letter. Canon Robertson (Life of Becket) thinks that he was insincere in doing this; but though the archbishop afterwards had the bitterest feelings against Foliot, it is not clear that they existed at this time. Becket speaks as though the promotion were due to his influence. ‘We have called you to the care of this greater church, being confident that, by God's mercy, we have done well. Your character, your well-known religion, the wisdom given to you from above, the good work done by you in the diocese of Hereford, have merited that it should be said to you, “Friend, go up higher”’ (Materials, v. 29). Becket mentions in this letter that the pope had specially appointed Foliot to be the director of the king's conscience, and there is a letter from the pope to Foliot suggesting certain matters which were to be urged upon the king. But very soon after the translation the feelings of the archbishop towards Foliot underwent a change. The new bishop of London refused to make the usual profession of obedience to the metropolitan see of Canterbury. A vast deal has been written on this subject. Among the materials published by the Rolls Commission there is a long treatise upon it. The contention of the Bishop of London was that he had already promised canonical obedience as bishop of Hereford, and that the promise ought not to be renewed. For the archbishop it was contended that Foliot had entered on a new office, which required a new oath of obedience. The most remarkable thing about the matter was that the pope refused to interfere. He had already begun to look coldly on Becket, fearing to offend the king. Foliot's refusal was the commencement of the open hostility between the two bishops, which continued ever increasingly till Becket's death. With regard to the question of the clerical immunities it is probable that Foliot's views coincided with those of Becket, as all the bishops appear to have been of one mind on this point at the council of Westminster (1163). But Foliot saw that it was necessary or politic to yield to the king, and he secretly agreed with him to concede the point. Now also, by way of opposing Becket, he began to claim metropolitical dignity for the see of London, and to assert that it owed no subjection to Canterbury (ib. vi. 590). At Clarendon (1164) Foliot witnessed with satisfaction the humiliation of Becket, and at Northampton, in the same year, when the archbishop was so hardly dealt with in money matters, he counselled him to resign his see, and otherwise acted an unfriendly part towards him. At the famous scene, when the archbishop went to the king, carrying his cross in his own hand, Foliot actually tried to wrest it from him by force, declaring that it was his right to carry it as dean of the province. Being unable to obtain it, he exclaimed, ‘You have always been a fool, and always will be one’ (Will. Cant. Gervase). On Becket's escape, Foliot was one of the envoys sent by Henry to the French king, to ask him not to receive the fugitive—an embassy which was altogether unsuccessful. Nor was he more successful with Pope Alexander at Sens, though, as has been seen, he was highly esteemed by that pope. In declaiming against Becket, he said, ‘The wicked flee when no man pursueth.’ ‘Spare, brother,’ said the pope. ‘I will spare him,’ returned the bishop. ‘I said not spare him,’ said Alexander, ‘but rather spare yourself’ (Alanus). Throughout Becket's exile Foliot was the chief ecclesiastical adviser of the king, and the leader of the opposition against Becket. He administered the affairs of the see of Canterbury, and when all Becket's friends and adherents were banished, he is charged by the archbishop with having denied them any help, and carefully cut off their means of support. On these grounds Becket was specially infuriated against Foliot. He brings some serious charges against his episcopal acts, asserting that he had taken bribes to allow clerical matrimony, and had ordained the sons of priests to their father's benefices. These charges the bishop denied. At Argentan (1167) Foliot appeared before the pope's legates and the king of England and inveighed against Becket, deriding him as thinking that his debts were quashed by his consecration, as sins are done away in baptism. He declared that if the pope would not help the church of England against him the king and nobles would recede from the Roman church. Upon this, Becket excommunicated him, but the pope, being appealed to, restrained the archbishop from issuing such sentence till a reconciliation could be effected. This prohibition, he afterwards informed Becket, only held good to the beginning of Lent 1169. Foliot therefore knew what he had to expect when that time came, and, in anticipation of the sentence, he appealed to Rome against it when it should be issued. This precaution was soon shown to be needed, for on Palm Sunday, 1169, at Clairvaux, the sentence of excommunication was again pronounced against him by Becket. This sentence was brought to England and published with great adroitness and courage by a young Frenchman named Berengar, who, in St. Paul's Cathedral, on Ascension day, 1169, when the priest, Vitalis, was saying mass, presented himself at the altar during the offertory and handed the priest a paper, which was accepted on the supposition that it was intended for an offering. Then, holding the paper in the priest's hand, he demanded that it should be read before mass was proceeded with. The priest opened the paper and found the sentence of excommunication against the bishop, and as he did so Berengar proclaimed loudly to the people that the Bishop of London was excommunicated. Then, by the aid of one of the archbishop's friends, he succeeded in making his escape through the people, who were inclined to use him roughly. The bishop, being informed of what had been done, came from his manor of Stepney, and, calling all the clergy of his church together, explained to them that he had previously appealed against this sentence, which was therefore null and void. He, however, submitted to it for the time, but immediately despatched a messenger to the king abroad, requesting his intervention with the pope, and his license for himself to go abroad. Henry wrote strongly to the pope, and sent his license to Foliot, who at Michaelmas crossed the sea on his way to the papal court. Foliot found or suspected all sorts of dangers blocking his way; but he succeeded in reaching Milan in safety, where he found letters from the pope informing him that he had empowered the bishops of Rouen and Exeter to absolve him. He returned to Rouen, where he was formally absolved on Easter day, 1170 (Radulph de Diceto). But he was not to remain long free from Becket's curse. On 14 June he joined with the Archbishop of York in crowning the king's son. This was a matter of the direst offence to Becket, and when, by a nominal reconciliation between the archbishop and the king, the former was able to return to England (December 1170), he had secretly sent letters before him excommunicating all the bishops who had taken part in the ceremony. These prelates hastened to the king with their complaints, and the anger felt by Henry on hearing them led to the murder of Becket by the four knights. There is no reason to suppose that Foliot in any way suggested this crime, but so great was the horror caused by it that the Bishop of London did not obtain absolution from the sentence of excommunication till May 1172, after taking an oath that he had not received any letter from the pope prohibiting the coronation, and that he had not contributed to Becket's death. Foliot remained at the height of favour with King Henry. In 1173 he was summoned to Normandy, and carried back to England letters from the pope's legates, written at the request of the king, promising that the vacancies in the various sees should be filled up by free election. In 1174, on the occasion of Henry's famous pilgrimage to Canterbury, the Bishop of London preached the sermon, and maintained with earnestness that the king had no complicity whatever in causing the death of St. Thomas. Foliot took a leading part in the elections of Archbishop Richard and Archbishop Baldwin (Roger de Hoveden), and continued to hold a prominent position among the English bishops until his death in the spring of 1187. His character has been judged harshly, or favourably, by the numerous writers who have employed themselves on the career of Becket, according as they favoured the archbishop or the contrary. All, however, including the monkish chroniclers, allow Foliot the praise of great ability and of a strict ascetic life. As to the former, his numerous letters, printed in the Becket collection, abundantly testify; especially the famous letter or pamphlet (printed in ‘Materials for Becket's Life,’ vol. v.) which reviews and denounces with great force the career of Becket. The authorship of this letter has been questioned, but the balance of authorities is in favour of its being Foliot's (Robertson, Life of Becket, appendix v.) The only work attributed to Foliot by the bibliographers is ‘A Treatise on Solomon's Song.’

[Materials for the Life of Becket, ed. Robertson, published in Rolls Series, 1877, 6 vols., superseding Dr. Giles's publications; Historia Radulphi de Diceto, ed. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 1876, 2 vols.; Chronica Rogeri de Hoveden, ed. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 1869, 4 vols.; Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora, ed. Luard, Rolls Series, 1876, 7 vols.; Robertson's Life of Becket, 1859; Milman's Latin Christianity, vol. iii. 1854.]

G. G. P.