Ralph of Shrewsbury (DNB00)

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RALPH of Shrewsbury (d. 1363), bishop of Bath and Wells, a doctor of theology and canon law (Geoffrey le Baker, p. 45), and keeper of the king's wardrobe, received, it is doubtfully said, a prebend of Salisbury in 1297 (Wharton), and was also a canon of Wells (Bath Chartularies, pt. ii. p. 72). In 1328 he was chancellor of the university of Oxford (Annales Paulini, p. 332, n. 2). On 2 June 1329 he was elected bishop of Bath and Wells by both chapters, being himself one of the delegates chosen by the Wells chapter for the election. On the 12th, however, Edward III wrote to John XXII requesting that Robert de Wyville, canon of Lichfield (afterwards bishop of Salisbury), might have the see (Fœdera, II. ii. 765), but Ralph received the temporalities and was consecrated on 3 Sept. The pope was very angry, for he had reserved the see for his own appointment, and Ralph had much difficulty in appeasing him. Letters on his behalf were written by his two chapters, the university of Oxford, Roger Mortimer (IV), earl of March [q. v.], and others. On 8 Feb. 1330 he offered the pope two thousand florins, and at the same time sent letters to eleven of the cardinals, asking their help and declaring that the reservation was not known in England. In other letters to the pope he complained of the misrepresentations of his enemies (Manuscript Register, ff. 30, 36, 38, 39, 43, 47). He at last succeeded in making his peace, after having spent a large sum of money (Murimuth, p. 61), which seems to have kept him poor for some years. His expenses must have been heavy when the king held his court at Wells at Christmas 1331–2, and was sumptuously received there (Annales Paulini, p. 356).

In September 1333 he began a general visitation of his diocese, and in 1337 held a visitation of the cathedral of Wells, and this led the following year to a dispute with the chapter as to his right personally to correct irregularities, which ended peaceably (Reynolds, Wells Cathedral, App. p. 157; Wells Cathedral MSS. p. 138). He was active in reforming abuses, specially in the religious houses of his diocese—at Muchelney and Ilchester in 1335, Keynesham in 1350, and Cannington in 1351. His officers having been assaulted in Wells in a disturbance caused by their attempts to enforce his jurisdiction over the fairs and market, commissioners, with the Earl of Devon at their head, were appointed by the crown in 1343 to inquire into the bishop's right to his courts leet and baron; they found for the bishop, and awarded him 3,000l. damages, and the charter of the city was annulled (ib. p. 112). In 1346 the king demanded of him a loan of one thousand marks for the war (Fœdera, iii. i. 68). On the approach of the great pestilence Ralph on 17 Aug. 1348 sent letters throughout his diocese ordering processions and stations in all churches on every Friday, and offering indulgences to those who should by prayers and almsgiving seek to avert the divine wrath (Harl. MS. 6965, f. 132). On 17 Jan. 1349 he sent out another letter saying that as many parishes were left destitute of priests, and in some the priests were unwilling through fear of infection to minister to the sick, confession was in case of necessity to be made by the sick to laymen, or even to women, and that where no priest was to be had the eucharist might be administered by a deacon (Wilkins, Concilia, ii. 745). During the worst of the pestilence he remained at his manor of Wiveliscombe, and there between 1 Nov. 1348 and 31 May 1349 instituted to 228 benefices in his diocese (Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. 84). In 1362, being then old and infirm, he employed a suffragan bishop, John Langebrugge (Buduensis). He died at Wiveliscombe on 14 Aug. 1363, and was buried before the high altar of Wells Cathedral, in an alabaster tomb with an effigy, fenced in by an iron railing. This tomb was in the sixteenth century despoiled of its railing, and moved to the north aisle outside the choir. By his will he left a third part of his estate to the poor, a third part to the mendicant friars, and a third to his poor relatives and servants.

Ralph was a wise and industrious bishop, learned and extremely liberal. He took an active interest in the completion of Wells Cathedral, which, on the death of Dean Godley in 1333, was left unfinished towards the east. At his request a meeting of the chapter was held in 1338 to press on the building, and it is probable that during his episcopate, and largely owing to him, the eastern limb of the church was completed, the old presbytery being turned into the choir, and a new presbytery being built (Freeman, Wells Cathedral, pp. 113–14; Church, Chapters in Wells History, pp. 319–21). He founded the college of vicars, procuring license of incorporation for them, building them dwellings, a chapel, and hall, in ‘the vicars' close,’ that they might live together; providing them with an endowment separate from the capitular estates, and drawing up rules for their conduct. Loving learning, he, with the consent of the chapter, ordained in 1335 that the chancellor of the church of Wells, whose office was educational, should read or cause to be read at Wells a lecture on theology or the decretals at such times as such lectures were read at Oxford. He surrounded the palace at Wells with a moat and wall, and built the gatehouse, and also raised buildings on other estates of the see. The remains of the old palace at Bath, called Bysshopesboure, he leased to the prior and convent (Bath Chartularies, pt. ii. p. 139). Both to the convent of Bath and the church of Wells he left many rich vestments. With much trouble and expense he disafforested the episcopal manors of Cheddar and Axbridge, within the forest of Mendip, and the destruction of all beasts feræ naturæ in the forest, which was a great boon to the lower class, as it freed them from the oppressions of the foresters.

[Canon. Wellen. ap. Anglia Sacra, i. 568; Godwin, De Præsulibus; Cassan's Bishops of Bath and Wells; Reynolds's Wells Cath.; Freeman's Cath. Ch. of Wells; Church's Chapters in the Hist. of Wells; Wells Cath. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Comm.); Two Chartularies of Bath Priory (Somerset Record Soc.); Somerset Archæol. Soc. Proc. XI. (1862) ii. 22, 30, 156, XII. (1863) ii. 32, 64, 187, XIII. (1866) ii. 48; Geoffrey le Baker, ed. Thompson, Ann. Paul. ap. Chron. of Edw. I, i. 356; Murimuth (both Rolls Ser.); Cont. Higden. viii. 364; Wilkins's Concilia, vol. ii.; Rymer's Fœdera, Record ed.; Gasquet's Great Pestilence; Hutton's Extracts, Harl. MS. 6965; information from Rev. T. S. Holmes, now editing Bishop Ralph's Register for Somerset Record Soc.]

W. H.