Samson (1135-1211) (DNB00)

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SAMSON (1135–1211), abbot of St. Edmund's, was born in 1135 (Jocelin, p. 243) at Tottington (Chron. Bur. p. 7), near Thetford in Norfolk. When nine years old he was taken by his mother on a pilgrimage to St. Edmund's. ‘As a poor clerk,’ he received gratuitous instruction from a schoolmaster named William of Diss. Having attained the degree of master of arts in Paris (ib.), he became a schoolmaster in Norfolk. By 1160 he was at St. Edmund's, employed by the monks to carry to Rome their appeal against an arrangement made between the abbot and the king respecting the living of Woolpit (Suffolk). For this the abbot sent him to prison at Castle Acre. Samson made his monastic profession early in 1166 (Ann. S. Edm. p. 5; cf. Jocelin, pp. 243–4). During the next fourteen years he was successively subsacrist, guest-master, pittancer, third prior, prisoner at Acre again, and master of the novices. He was a second time subsacrist, and also master of the workmen, in 1180, when he was sent to convey to the king the news of Abbot Hugh's death (15 Nov.). Samson was elected abbot on 21 Feb. 1182, and blessed at Marwell (Isle of Wight) on 28 Feb. (Ann. S. Edm. p. 5; Chron. Bur. p. 7) by the bishop of Winchester, who gave him a mitre, saying he knew the abbots of St. Edmund's were entitled to this dignity. Samson is accordingly represented on his seal with a mitre. On 29 March Samson regained for abbey and town the right of jointly electing the town-bailiffs, which the king's officers had usurped. He demanded the homage of all his free tenants on 1 April, and after this an aid from his knights. Within a year he visited all his manors, put them under new management, ascertained the amount of his predecessor's debts, and made terms with his creditors. Two years later he had cleared off all arrears of debt; and a book, which he called his kalendar, containing a list of the services and revenues due from every estate belonging to the abbey, was completed in 1186.

Before the end of 1182 Pope Lucius III made Samson a judge delegate in ecclesiastical causes. On 17 Jan. 1186 or 1187 (Registr. Nigr. ff. 73b, 74) Urban III authorised him and his successors to give the benediction as bishops in all churches on their own estates. In 1187 he was successful in a contest with Baldwin (d. 1190) [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury, for jurisdiction in a case of homicide at Eleigh (Suffolk), a manor belonging to the see of Canterbury, but within the liberties of St. Edmund's; and also in establishing against the justices in eyre the exemption of his abbey from all ‘gelds’ and ‘scots’ due to the king. On 20 Jan. 1188 the pope extended to Samson and his successors the grant of exemption from metropolitical jurisdiction, which Abbot Hugh had received for his own lifetime (Reg. Nigr. f. 74). In February he vainly begged the king's leave to join the projected crusade. Samson was present at the coronation of Richard I on 3 Sept. 1189 (Gesta Ric. ii. 79). He was one of the arbitrators chosen by the king to settle the dispute between Archbishop Baldwin and the Christ Church monks in November 1189 (Epp. Cantt. p. 317; Gerv. Cant. i. 469, 478). After a massacre of Jews, which occurred at St. Edmund's on Palm Sunday 1190, he obtained the king's leave to expel all the remaining Jews from the town. In October he attended a council held in London by William of Longchamp [q. v.] as legate, and defied William's attempts to curtail the independence of the Benedictine order.

In 1193 Samson offered to search out the captive king. He was called the ‘high-souled abbot’ for his bold excommunication of the rebels, of whom John was the head; and he led his knights in person to the siege of Windsor, which John had seized. He afterwards went to visit the king in his German prison. He was once appointed a justice-errant; Battely (Antiq. S. Edm. p. 84) dates this 1195–6, but his authority has not been traced. A long-standing dispute with his knights as to the amount of service which they owed him was settled in the abbot's favour in 1196–7; he established his right to the full service of fifty fees, while he was only answerable to the crown for that of forty (Jocelin, pp. 269, 270; cf. Feet of Fines, 8 Ric. I, Nos. 29–41, and 9 Ric. I, No. 50). In 1197 Samson was joined with Archbishop Hubert and the bishop of Lincoln in a papal commission for restoring the monks of Coventry, whom their bishop [see Nonant, Hugh de] had expelled. Soon afterwards he foiled Hubert in a project for asserting over St. Edmund's his authority both as legate and justiciar; and he was equally successful in a strife with the king for the wardship of an infant tenant of the abbey. He was absent from St. Edmund's when the shrine was burnt on 17 Oct. 1198. After its restoration he, in the night of 26 Nov., opened the coffin and examined the body of the saint.

With his monks Samson had no easy life. They liked neither his masterful ways, nor his economic reforms, nor, above all, that encouragement of the town in its struggle for liberty which is the most remarkable feature of his career. Early in his rule he commuted for a fixed sum, paid yearly through the town-bailiff, the dues of ‘reap-silver’ and ‘sorpenny’ which the cellarer had been wont to collect from the townsfolk on an arbitrary and unfair assessment. In 1185 he allowed the cellarer's court to be merged in that of the town, in order that tenants dwelling ‘without the gate’ might thenceforth ‘enjoy equal liberty’ with the townsmen (Jocelin, pp. 301–2; for date cf. p. 333). He turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of the monks in 1192 for the ejection of new settlers from the town and new stall-holders from the market, and next year he confirmed by a charter (printed in Monast. Angl. iii. 153–4) all the old liberties of the borough. In 1199 the dissensions within the convent rose to such a pitch that Samson withdrew from St. Edmund's for a week, believing that the younger monks were plotting his death. The severe measures which he took on his return soon brought them to a better mind; ‘and when he saw they were willing to submit, he was conquered at once.’

In 1200 Samson drew up an account of the knight's fees belonging to the abbey, and of their tenants. He was one of the papal commissioners for the settlement (6 Nov.) of the quarrel between Archbishop Hubert and the Canterbury monks (Epp. Cantt. p. 512). In September 1201 he was one of three commissioners sent by the pope to Worcester to investigate the miracles of St. Wulfstan (Ann. Monast. iv. 391). In December he was summoned over sea by the king (R. Diceto, ii. 173). In the autumn of 1202 he obtained a royal order for the abolition of a market which the monks of Ely had set up at Lakenheath, in infringement of the rights of St. Edmund's (cf. Jocelin, p. 329; Rot. Chart. p. 91; Rot. de Oblat. et Fin. p. 186; Abbrev. Placit. p. 36). The order was unheeded, and Samson bade his bailiffs overthrow the market by force. For this he was summoned to answer at the exchequer. On 21 Jan. 1203 he and the bishop of Ely alike were called over sea as papal commissioners to release some of John's ministers from their vow of crusade. On the eve of Samson's hurried departure his monks asked him to indemnify them for what they had lost since 1185 by his concessions to the town. He promised that on his return he would ‘render to every man his dues, and act in all things by the convent's advice.’ His biographer hints that the promise was not fulfilled.

While still only a cloister monk, Samson had written a treatise on the miracles of St. Edmund (printed in Arnold, i. 107–208). Except the prologue and four other passages in the first book, it is merely a recasting of earlier work. While he was master of the workmen (1180–2), the choir of the abbey church was rebuilt, and the subjects of the paintings on its walls were arranged by him. At the same time he built one story of the great bell-tower at the west end of the church. He completed this when abbot, and added two flanking towers. He also had the chapels of St. Katharine and St. Faith new roofed with lead, and greatly embellished the whole church within and without. On 1 Dec. 1198 Innocent III gave him leave to make arrangements for its re-dedication (Innocent III, Ep. 1. i. No. 458); but the ceremony did not take place in Samson's lifetime. He improved the monastic buildings, and Matthew Paris (Chron. Maj. ii. 533) says he made an aqueduct for the monastery. In 1184 or 1185 he founded a hospital or almshouse at Babwell, outside the north gate of the town (Tanner, Notit. Monast. Suffolk, x. 6). He also provided the school with an endowment which freed ‘poor scholars’ from the payment of rent and fees (Jocelin, p. 296; (Regist. Nigr. f. 222 b). He ‘had ruled his abbey successfully for thirty years, freed it from manifold debts, enriched it with most ample privileges, liberties, possessions, and buildings, and set its church services on a new and most seemly footing,’ when he died there on 30 Dec. 1211 (Ann. S. Edm. pp. 19, 20). He was buried in the chapter-house (James, p. 181).

[Except where otherwise stated, all the material for this article is in the Chronicle of Jocelin de Brakelond, edited by Mr. J. Gage Rokewode for the Camden Society, and by Mr. T. Arnold for the master of the rolls (Memorials of St. Edmund's, vol. i.). The Annales S. Edmundi are printed in the second volume, the Chronica Buriensis in the third volume, of Mr. Arnold's Memorials, and the Annales are also in Dr. Liebermann's Ungedruckte Anglo-norman-nische Geschichtsquellen. The references given above to Jocelin and the Annales are to the Rolls edition. Part of Samson's Kalendar is printed in Gage's History of Thingoe Hundred, Introd. pp. xii–xvii. Dr. Montague James's work on the Abbey of St. Edmund at Bury is No. xxviii. of the octavo publications of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (1895). To English readers Samson's name has become familiar chiefly through Carlyle's Past and Present, which, however, is rhetoric, not history. A careful monograph on Samson von Tottington, by Hofrath Phillips, is in the Sitzungsberichte (philosophisch-historische Classe) of the Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften at Vienna, vol. xlviii. (1865). See also Rokewode's notes to his edition of Jocelin, Mr. Arnold's preface to his Memorials, vol. i., and ‘Abbot and Town’ in J. R. Green's Stray Studies; Rokewode's references to the Registrum Nigrum Vestiarii (MS. Mm. iv. 19, Cambridge University Library) have been kindly verified and corrected for this article by Miss Bateson.]

K. N.