Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coutances, Walter de
COUTANCES (DE CONSTANTIIS), WALTER de (d. 1207), bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of Rouen, is said to have been of English birth, the son of Rainfred and Gonilla; John de Schalby, in his compilation from the Lincoln records, states that he was a native of Cornwall, and to this Giraldus Cambrensis (Vita S. Remigii, cap. xxv.) adds that though called of Coutances he was sprung from the house of Corineus, the fabulous Trojan immigrant into Cornwall. Both speak of him as a liberal and accomplished man, devoted to literature, and well skilled in secular and courtly affairs. He was clerk to Henry II and his eldest son, and is styled chaplain of Blythe. His first piece of preferment was the church of Woolpit in Suffolk (Jocel. of Brakelonde, p. 35). In 1173, when Ralph of Warneville was chancellor of England, he was made vice-chancellor (Diceto, i. 367), and he was also canon and treasurer of the church of Rouen. In 1175 he was made archdeacon of Oxford, and, according to Diceto (ii. 14), held a canonry at Lincoln. While archdeacon we find him writing to Bartholomew, bishop of Exeter, on the question of dissolving illegitimate marriages (Peter of Blois, Epist. 83), and attesting the peace of Falaise between Henry II and William king of Scotland (Benedict of Abb. i. 99). In 1176 he had an allowance of fifty marks for providing for the ambassadors of the king of Sicily on the occasion of their demanding Henry's daughter Joanna in marriage. In 1177 he went as envoy to Flanders to obtain the answer of Philip Count of Flanders as to the marriage of the daughters of his brother Matthew; and in the same year he went as ambassador to France from Normandy (ib. i. 168, 175). In 1180 he was seal-bearer to Henry II, and accounted for the proceeds of the abbeys of Wilton and Ramsay, and of the honour of Arundel, then in the king's hands, of which he had been appointed guardian. He seems to have aimed at the see of Lisieux, and according to the letters of Bishop Arnulph to have been somewhat unscrupulous in his endeavours to induce him to resign in his favour (Arnulph Lexov. Epist. 107, 117). In 1182 he is mentioned in the king's will as one of those present at Waltham at the division of his property (Gervase Cant. i. 298). On the resignation of Geoffrey Plantagenet he was elected to the see of Lincoln, and though at first objected to by Henry II because elected without his will and consent, ultimately met with no opposition, and after being ordained priest on 11 June 1183, by John bishop of Evreux, was consecrated bishop of Lincoln on 3 July 1183 at Angers by Archbishop Richard in the church of S. Laud, in the king's presence, and was enthroned on 11 Dec. He remained too short a time at Lincoln to leave any especial mark of his episcopate. He was present at the council of Westminster in 1184 when Baldwin was elected archbishop (Ben. of Abb. i. 319); and he is described as injuring the see of Lincoln by confirming to the Sempringham house of St. Katharine-without-Lincoln the churches which his predecessor Robert de Chesney had alienated from the see (Girald. Vita S. Remigii, cap. xxv.), and leaving the see in debt to the king because he had not paid the tribute of a mantle (Vita S. Hugonis, p. 184, ed. Dimock).
In 1184, at the request of Henry II and through the intervention of Pope Lucius III, he was elected archbishop of Rouen (Jaffé, p. 847), though the canons had at first elected Robert de Novo Burgo; he was enthroned on 24 Feb. 1185, little more than a year, as remarked by Diceto, since his enthronement at Lincoln. The pall was sent to him at once, by the hand of the sub-deacon Humbald. Newburgh says (iii. 8) that he hesitated for some time whether to prefer the more eminent to the richer see, but that at length ambition triumphed over the love of wealth. One of his first acts was to obtain from Henry II the union of the abbeys of St. Helier, Jersey, and that of du Vœu, Cherbourg (R. de Monte, ii. 133, ed. Delisle). In 1186 he went as ambassador into France; he had an interview with Philip, and after passing through Flanders landed at Dover (Diceto, ii. 43). In 1187 he was appealed to by the convent of Canterbury against the violation of their privileges by the archbishop of Canterbury, and we find him afterwards appointed one of the arbitrators in that prolonged and wearisome strife (Epist. Cantuar. pp. 84, 317, 322). In 1188 he took the cross, and was at the council of Le Mans, where the Saladin tithe was levied (Ben. Abb. ii. 30). This year he was again sent to Philip to demand reparation for the outrages committed by him in Normandy, and he was one of those to whose judgment as regarded the peace, under the direction of John of Anagni, the legate, the two kings promised to submit. In 1189, at the conference of La Ferté Bernard between Henry II, Philip, and Richard, he was present on the part of Henry II. On the death of Henry II, he absolved Richard at Seez for his conduct to his father, and invested him with the sword of the duchy of Normandy at Rouen; then preceding the new king to England, he took part in the coronation at Westminster. In the same year we find him attesting the king's grant of Sadberge to the see of Durham; at the council of Pipewell; pronouncing the decision of the arbitrators in the great question between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the monks, for which they called him a traitor (Gervase Cant. i. 474–9); and witnessing the charter of release given by Richard to the king of Scots. In December 1189 he was sent by Richard to the legate to stay Geoffrey's election to York, and soon afterwards accompanied the king to Normandy, and held a council at Rouen in February 1190. After this, in pursuance of his crusading vow, he joined Richard at Pisa. At Messina he acted with those who endeavoured to make peace between the people of Messina and the crusaders (R. Devizes, p. 22), and by his advice the spoils of Messina were restored to the citizens (Itin. Regis Ricardi, p. 170). He took part in the arrangements for agreement between Richard and Philip, and acted as one of the treasurers for the crusading money. He was also one of Richard's sureties for the peace with Tancred, and his name appears as witnessing Richard's charter of wreck. Hoveden also mentions his opposition to the wild views respecting Antichrist of Abbat Joachim.
His crusade came to an end here, for the troubles in England through the disloyalty of John and the unpopularity of Bishop Longchamp, the chancellor, came to a head, and Richard sent the archbishop of Rouen back to England to arbitrate, giving him full, though secret, powers. Richard of Devizes (p. 27) mocks at his readiness to return. Though employing him for his own purposes, Richard seized all the money he had brought with him for his expenses on the crusade. He returned to England in company with Queen Eleanor (Devizes, p. 28). In England he found all things in confusion, the chancellor the actual ruler of the country, unpopular with all, as he had managed to offend all; John aiming at supreme power, and others, such as Geoffrey of York and the justiciars, taking an independent line of their own. Besides the general pacification of the country, he was also to effect an election to the see of Canterbury, which had been vacant since Baldwin's death at Acre. The archbishop was named justiciar, but had fuller powers than any of the others (Girald. iv. 396). He had a very difficult part to play. ‘Richard's conduct,’ says Bishop Stubbs (Pref. to Hoveden, iii. p. lx), ‘was puzzling to all parties; at the very moment he was entrusting the widest powers to the archbishop, he was writing to urge John and others to act in unison with the chancellor.’ Devizes (pp. 29, 31) accuses the archbishop of playing a double part, and a letter from the convent of Canterbury, written after the election to the see, does the same (Epist. Cant. p. 360); but it would have been difficult for him to escape such an accusation, as he was of necessity opposed to John, while at the same time he had to act against the chancellor. The latter at first received him with honour (Devizes, p. 28). One of his first acts was to take part in the arrangement between John and the chancellor, and to receive the surrender from John of the castles of Nottingham and Tickhill. On Geoffrey's complaint of the treatment he had received from the chancellor on landing at Dover, the archbishop, with John and others, summoned the chancellor to Reading. He did not come; they all hastened to London, the chancellor doing the same, and their followers actually skirmishing by the way. They met in St. Paul's, and here the archbishop produced his commission. The chancellor was deposed, and the archbishop made chief justiciar in his place, promising to do nothing without the consent of those associated with him and the advice of the barons of the exchequer. He then summoned the clergy to the election to Canterbury. Probably both himself and the chancellor had had their eyes on the see, and each regarded the other as a rival. There is a letter of John to the convent of Canterbury mentioning a report that they intended to elect the chancellor, warning them that they were bound to consult the Archbishop of Rouen, who was sent for this purpose by the king, and one from himself to the same effect (Epist. Cant. pp. 346, 347); the Bishop of Ely, on the other hand, forbade him to go to Canterbury till they had met (Diceto, ii. 92). At the election he displayed the royal letter, and the Bishop of Bath was elected. Gervase says that by this he was ‘spe fraudatus,’ and that he appealed against the election; but that he acquiesced after the elect had accepted the see (Gervase Cant. i. 511, 512). The Bishop of Bath, however, died within a month of his election, and the Archbishop of Rouen took part in the second election, when Hubert Fitzwalter was elected. The archbishop confirmed the privileges of the city of London, and the Londoners took the oaths to Richard and John. Bishop Longchamp resigned his castles, and after leaving the country was treated as excommunicate by the archbishop's order in Normandy. He complained to the king, and had interest enough with the pope (Celestine III) to obtain a letter in his favour to the English prelates, by which John was threatened and his advisers excommunicated. On the strength of this he excommunicated the archbishop, whom he styles the ‘Pilate of Rouen’ in a letter to S. Hugh of Lincoln. His mandate was, however, neglected by the bishops, and the archbishop and the other justiciars seized the property of the see of Ely, and wrote to the king to point out the harm the chancellor had done to the country, and how he had been deposed by the common council of the realm. The consequent distress in the diocese of Ely was so great that Queen Eleanor went to London and demanded that the archbishop should relax the sentence of excommunication, and restore to the bishop his estates (Devizes, pp. 43, 56). A letter from the archbishop's agents at Rome in 1192 tells us that the pope took up Longchamp's cause, annulled both the excommunications, and sent messengers to mediate between them. On their arrival at Gisors they were prevented by William FitzRalph, the steward of Normandy, from entering the country, as not having the king's leave; they laid Normandy under an interdict in consequence; Queen Eleanor and the archbishop sent Hugh, bishop of Durham, to them, but could not induce them to give way. At length the pope relaxed the sentence and compelled their obedience, in spite of their still being prevented from entering the country.
In the meantime the news of Richard's imprisonment arrived. The archbishop did all in his power on the occasion; writing to the Bishop of Durham respecting the ransom, sending the abbots of Boxley and Robertsbridge to find out where the king was, refusing to listen to John's treasonable proposals, and arming the country against him, so as to defend the west and make invasion impossible. Through the queen's influence a truce was made with John till November 1193, while Windsor and other castles were entrusted to her. The archbishop met the chancellor in 1193 at St. Albans, and arranged for the collection and payment of the ransom, being himself appointed one of the guardians of the treasure, he and the other justiciars putting in force the exactions necessary for its collection. Richard sent for him to come with Queen Eleanor to him in Germany, and thus his justiciarship and leadership of English affairs came to an end. In 1194 he was present at the meeting at Mentz between Richard and the emperor, and was left on Richard's release as a hostage for the payment of the ten thousand marks that still remained of the ransom (Diceto, ii. 113). He mentions the king's release in a letter to Diceto (ii. 112). As soon as the ransom was paid he was released, and went to London, where he was received with a solemn procession in St. Paul's and preached to the people (Diceto, ii. 115). He then returned to Normandy, and was the same year at Pont de l'Arche, where the conference between the king of France and the Norman barons was to have been held, the occasion when Philip played false and did not come. Later he was at Vaudreuil for the settlement of peace between France and England. In the following December he ransomed from Philip the lands belonging to his see which Philip had seized. A serious quarrel took place in 1195 between the canons of Rouen and the citizens, respecting which there is a letter of Pope Celestine III (11 Oct.), exhorting the latter to give compensation for the injuries done (Jaffé, p. 902). The archbishop speaks of these and his other troubles in a letter to Diceto (ii. 144). But he had further troubles before him. In 1196 Philip demanded his manor of Andely, and also required him to do fealty for the Vexin. Not trusting in Richard's support, he appealed to the pope. Soon afterwards, on Richard's fortifying Andely (by building his château Gaillard) in spite of his prohibition, he laid the whole of Normandy under an interdict, urged on (according to Matthew Paris, ii. 420) by Philip, and went to the pope. He gives a full account of this matter in his letter to Diceto (ii. 148). The interdict was continued in all its severity (Hoveden, iv. 16). The cause was tried at Rome, and the pope and cardinals gave their advice that he should allow the fortifications to proceed as necessary for the safety of Normandy, and accept the compensation which Richard offered. Celestine III then relaxed the interdict, and Dieppe and other places were given to the archbishop in exchange. His and Richard's letters, and the confirmation afterwards of the exchange by Innocent III, may be seen in Diceto (ii. 154, 157, 160). It is to this exchange that the verses relate—
Vicisti, Galtere, tui sunt signa triumphi
Deppa, Locoveris, Alacris mons, Butila, Molta, &c.
He had some trouble with Pope Innocent III in 1198 for allowing William de Chemillé to exchange the see of Avranches for that of Angers.
On Richard's death he invested John with the sword of Normandy, and received his oath to preserve the church and its dignities. John soon afterwards confirmed the exchange of Dieppe, Louviers, &c., for Andely. He took part in the meeting between Vernon and Andely for bringing about peace between England and France; he was appointed by the pope to settle the quarrel between the Archbishop of Tours and the Bishop of Dol, and he quieted the strife between the chamberlain of Tancarville and the abbey of Le Valasse. On the loss of Normandy by John he had no difficulty in transferring his allegiance to Philip, and he invested Philip with the sword of the duchy as he had Richard and John. He died 16 Nov. 1207, soon after dedicating Isle Dieu, and was buried in Rouen Cathedral.
Excepting Devizes, as mentioned above, all the chroniclers speak well of him; Giraldus (iii. 303) speaks of his handsome behaviour to him. He gives two curious anecdotes of his influence over animals (iv. 409). Richard had evidently the greatest confidence in him, as may be seen in the letters he wrote to him on the capture of Acre (Epist. Cant. ccclxxv. p. 347) and on the battle of Arsouf (a letter preserved by Wendover; Matt. Paris, ii. 376, 377). He obtained the title of ‘Magnificus’ in his own diocese.
There are many letters to him in the regesta of the various popes from Alexander III to Innocent III; in the letters of Peter of Blois, the ‘Acta Roberti de Monte’ (ii. 333, Delisle); besides those preserved by and to him in Diceto and the other chroniclers. He is said to have written a treatise ‘De Peregrinatione regis Ricardi,’ and one ‘De Negotiis Juris.’
[The authorities for the life of Walter de Coutances have been chiefly indicated above, viz. Richard of Devizes, Gervase of Canterbury, Benedictus Abbas, Hoveden, William of Newburgh, the Epistolæ Cantuarienses, all of which, excepting the first, have been published in the Rolls Series of Chronicles and Memorials. There is a slight sketch of him by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Vita S. Remigii, cap. xxv., and in his Vita Galfridi Arch. Ebor. ii. cap. x. (ed. Brewer, iv. 407). For modern sources see Gallia Christiana, xi. 51–9; Foss's Biographical Dictionary of the Judges of England, p. 184; and especially Bishop Stubbs's Preface to the third volume of his edition of Hoveden, pp. lix–xcviii, ciii; see also the note, iii. 96.]