Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Grosseteste, Robert
GROSSETESTE, ROBERT (d. 1253), bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, was born probably in 1175 in Suffolk (Trivet, p. 242). From what Trivet mentions in this place, and the report of his own words given in the Lanercost chronicle (p. 44, 'humili de patre et matre sum natus'), he was of humble origin; indeed he was reproached with this by the canons of Lincoln in the heat of their quarrel with him. The earliest mention of his name is in a letter of Giraldus Cambrensis (Symbolum Electorum, 18, i. 249, ed. Brewer), introducing him to William de Vere, bishop of Hereford, written certainly before December 1199, when the bishop died, which speaks of his knowledge both in law and medicine. He was sent by his friends to Oxford, and afterwards probably studied at Paris, as in his directions to the regents at Oxford he bids them follow the course of study pursued there. He afterwards returned to Oxford, became 'rector scholarum' and chancellor. In 1224 he became the first rector of the Franciscans at Oxford, and it was then that he laid the foundation of his knowledge of Aristotle and his skill in preaching. Eccleston (Monumenta Franciscana, i.37) speaks of the influence he had over the Franciscans, and of how much their powers of speaking and preaching were due to his teaching. His earliest preferments seem to have been the archdeaconry of Wilts (1214 and 1220), the archdeaconry of Northampton (1221), held with the prebend of Empingham in Lincoln Cathedral, which was afterwards exchanged for the archdeaconry of Leicester. He held also at different times the churches of St. Margaret's, Leicester, and Abbotsley in Huntingdonshire. In 1231, after a severe attack of fever, he resigned all his preferments, except the Lincoln prebend.
On the death of Hugh de Wells, bishop of Lincoln, in February 1235, the chapter elected Grosseteste as his successor. There was a difficulty as to the place of his consecration. The monks of Canterbury claimed as their right that he should be consecrated at Canterbury; the archbishop (St. Edmund) wished it elsewhere, and though Grosseteste was willing to give way, the archbishop was firm, and persuaded the monks to consent to his wishes, on the understanding it should not be used as a precedent. He was consecrated at Reading on 3 June (according to Wendover) or 17 June (Annal. Winton and Wikes). On being thus put in charge of the enormous diocese, which then contained the archdeaconries of Lincoln, Leicester, Stowe, Buckingham, Huntingdon, Northampton, Oxford, and Bedford, he at once set himself to reform all the abuses which his predecessors had left, directing his clergy to put down anything that tended to evil, such as games and parish processions leading to strife, drinking bouts, desecration of churchyards by their being used for games, private marriages, carelessness of mothers towards their children, the feast of fools, &c. In the first year of his episcopacy he visited the monasteries of his diocese, and removed no fewer than seven abbots and four priors. We find him at Oxford helping to allay a quarrel between the clergy and towns-people. In 1236 he witnessed the confirmation of Magna Charta. The next year he took part in the great London council under the legate Otho, and in obedience to its resolutions sent his constitutions through his diocese. He still kept up his connection with Oxford, and protected the students who had got into trouble for their attack on the legate Otho. It was in this year (1237) that he escaped with difficulty from an attempt to poison him, through the skill of his friend and physician, John of St. Albans [see John].
In 1239 began the quarrel between the bishop and the Lincoln chapter which occupied so many years of his life. Grosseteste asserted his right to visit the chapter as well as the rest of the diocese; the dean and canons asserted their independence. Otho thought he had only to appear on the scene to settle the whole matter; an appeal was made to Canterbury, but it soon became evident that the pope was the only authority that would be accepted as final. The chapter issued a mandate to the vicars and chaplains ministering in the prebends and churches belonging to them to disobey the bishop if he attempted to visit them. The bishop required them to recall this, and on their refusal suspended the dean, precentor, and subdean. They and some other canons started for Rome. They waited for the bishop in London, and while there agreed to apply to the pope to commit the decision of the question to three arbitrators, the Bishop of Worcester and the archdeacons of Worcester and Sudbury. But this came to nothing. The canons preached against the bishop in the cathedral. On one occasion in a sermon on the bishop's oppressions, one of them added, 'If we were to be silent the very stones would cry out,' on which a portion of the church behind the dean's seat outside the choir fell down (Matthew Paris, iii. 638; Dunstable Annals, Annal. Monast. iii. 149). The quarrel continued its course; Grosseteste excommunicated the proctor of the chapter; they excommunicated his dean. The dean, William de Tournay, was deprived , and Roger de Weseham put in his place. The chapter produced a forged paper to the effect that the see of Lincoln had come to an end and been restored by William Rufus, and therefore the king might interfere with it as being a royal foundation. At length a direct appeal was made to the pope, and after dragging on for several years more it was settled at Lyons by a bull of Innocent IV, 25 Aug. 1245, entirely in favour of the bishop, who obtained full power over the chapter, though the dean and canons were excused from an oath of obedience to the bishop on their collation. While all this was going on the bishop had serious troubles with others; in 1241 he had a quarrel with the abbot of Westminster, costly and injurious to both, as Matthew Paris tells us, respecting the right to the church of Ashwell in Hertfordshire, and a still more serious one with the king about the prebend of Thame, which Henry III had conferred on John Mansel [q. v.] by a papal provision, though it had been previously conferred on Simon of London. Grosseteste went to London prepared to excommunicate John Mansel and all disturbers of the peace of the church. Mansel gave way, and the king followed his example, in fear lest Grosseteste should leave the country and place the see under an interdict. In 1243 the bishop became embroiled with the chapter of Canterbury, the see being vacant, as Boniface was not yet consecrated, and the chapter claiming metro-political power during the vacancy. A clerk who had a dispute with the abbot of Bardney laid a complaint before the archdeacon of Lincoln. The archdeacon cited the abbot to appear before him, and on his refusal cited him before the bishop. The abbot refused to acknowledge the bishop's authority, and Grosseteste excommunicated him. When the bishop sent lay visitors to Bardney to bring the monks to submission, the door was shut in their faces. He threatened to bring ruin on the convent, and the abbot appealed to the Canterbury chapter. The bishop then deposed the abbot, and the king seized on the temporalities. The Canterbury monks then assembled fifty priests of the diocese, and solemnly excommunicated the bishop. Grosseteste had always a violent temper, and on this occasion he threw the letters of the convent on the ground, though the seal contained the effigy of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Both parties then appealed to the pope (Innocent IV), who issued directions to relax the sentence of excommunication without prejudice to either party, a proceeding which by no means satisfied the bishop.
In 1244, in consequence of troubles at Oxford between the scholars and the Jews, Grosseteste obtained for the scholars the privilege that in future all quarrels as to loans, or taxes, or hiring, or buying provisions should be decided before the chancellor of the university. The same year he made a great stand against the king as to his treatment of William de Raleigh, bishop of Winchester, even threatening to lay the royal chapel at Westminster under an interdict, and with the help of the pope and the archbishop prevailed on the king to give way. He was also one of a committee of twelve, partly clergy and partly laymen, to discuss the king's demand of a subsidy, and prevailed on the other prelates to stand by the common opinion in the matter. 'It is written,' said he, 'if we are divided we shall soon die.' It was this year that by his means the election of Robert Passelew to the bishopric of Chichester was annulled, Grosseteste having examined him and found him incompetent. On 18 Nov. he set out in company with Adam de Marisco [q. v.] for Lyons, where the pope then was. After obtaining the decision of the quarrel with his chapter in his favour he returned by Beaune and Paris, landing on 14 Oct. 1245 in the Isle of Wight, and bringing back several commissions from the pope. In 1247 he was at Westminster when Henry III presented the vase containing the supposed blood of our Lord, sent by the masters of the templars and hospitallers. His address, vindicating the possibility of its genuineness, is preserved by Matthew Paris (Additamenta, 72, vi. 138). In 1248 he was at the parliament in London, summoned by the king to obtain a fresh subsidy. He continued the visitations of his diocese, in 1249 visiting Dunstable and Caldwell, then going to Oxford, where he met the chancellor, proctors, and masters at Osney, and gave them many instructions for their course of study. He was again this year embroiled with the king, through his excommunicating the sheriff of Rutland, in consequence of his refusing to imprison a criminous clerk whom Grosseteste had deprived and excommunicated. Though he set such store on his own right of visitation, he was very decided in opposing Archbishop Boniface's somewhat similar claim, and in 1250, when the archbishop held a visitation at Dunstable, he took a prominent part with the other bishops in resisting it. Finding that many parishes had been impoverished and left without resident priests, in consequence of the monasteries converting to their own use much of the tithes and possessions of the churches, he obtained a papal letter authorising him to revoke these seizures, and to proceed against all that opposed. He cited the beneficed monks of his diocese to appear before him to hear this, his object being to take the benefices into his own hands, so that he might institute vicars in them. Those who had exemptions, the templars, hospitallers, and others, appealed to the pope, and Grosseteste at once started for Lyons, where the pope still was. If we may trust Matthew Parish’s account, the pope had been influenced by the gold of the religious orders, and the bishop could get no redress, and left the pope's presence after an exclamation against the influence of money at the Roman court. He remained some time longer at Lyons, and on 13 May delivered his celebrated sermon against the abuses of the papal court and the scandals prevalent among the clergy (Brown, Fasciculus, ii. 250). In September he returned, 'tristis et vacuus,' to England, and even contemplated resigning his see, influenced by the example of his old friend Nicholas of Farnham, bishop of Durham. However, he soon recovered himself, and set about his duties with more than usual vigour, displaying especial severity in his visitation of the monasteries.
In 1251 he suffered a temporary suspension from the pope in consequence of his refusal to admit an Italian ignorant of English to a rich benefice in his diocese; but the next year, though he was thwarted in his endeavour to compel all beneficed persons to become priests, he obtained a papal letter authorising the appointment of vicars and their payment out of the revenues of the livings. In 1252 he excommunicated Hurtold, a Burgundian, who had been collated by the king to Flamstead in spite of the queen's having already appointed one of her chaplains, and laid the church under an interdict. In October, at the parliament, he took the lead in withstanding the king's demand for a tenth of church revenues for the necessities of his crusade, this to be estimated, not according to the old computation of the values of the churches, but by a new one to be made after the will of the king's creatures. It was alleged that to oppose both pope and king would be impossible, and that the French had been obliged to give way in a similar case. Grosseteste pointed out that this was an additional reason for resistance, seeing that 'twice makes a custom.' He had a calculation made this year of the revenues of the foreign clerks beneficed in England, and found that the incomes of those appointed by Innocent IV amounted to seventy thousand marks, more than three times the clear revenue of the king. In 1253 the pope wished to provide for his nephew, Frederick di Lavagna, and Grosseteste was ordered by the papal commissioners to induct him into a canonry at Lincoln. His answer refusing obedience (Letter 128), though perfectly respectful in tone, is very decided, the bishop pointing out how unfit the individual was for the post. This letter has done more to perpetuate Grosseteste's fame in modern times than all his other works. He was able to be at the parliament in May of this year, and to take part in the solemn excommunication of the violators of Magna Charta; but his health gave way soon afterwards, and in October he fell ill at Buckden, and sent for his friend and physician, John of St. Albans. He died on 9 Oct. 1253, and was buried in the upper south transept of his cathedral. Legends and miracles followed: bells were heard in the sky on the night of his death; the pope is said to have dreamed of his coming to him and wounding him in the side, from which he never recovered. There were several attempts to procure his canonisation (see the letter of Archbishop Romanus to Pope Honorius IV in 1287, and of Archbishop Greenfield to Pope Clement V in 1307, Raine, Letters from Northern Registers, pp. 87, 182, and that of the dean and chapter of St. Paul's to Pope Clement V in 1307, Wharton, Anglia Sacra, ii. 343), and the university of Oxford expressed in strong terms its sense of what it owed him. His affection for the Franciscans remained to the last, as he left his books to the Franciscan convent at Oxford; they remained there till the sixteenth century, when Leland saw them reduced to little more than dust and cobwebs.
Probably no one had a greater influence upon English thought and English literature for the two centuries following his time than Bishop Grosseteste: few books written then will be found that do not contain quotations from 'Lincolniensis.' Roger Bacon says of him: 'Solus unus scivit scientias ut Lincolniensis episcopus;' 'solus dominus Robertus … præaliis hominibus scivit scientias.' Tyssyngton (Shirley, Fasciculi Zizaniorum, p. 135) speaks of 'Lincolniensis, cujus comparatio ad omnes doctores modernos est velut comparatio solis ad lunam quando eclipsatur.' It is not only works on theology, such as his ponderous 'Dicta' or his 'De cessatione legalium,' that he wrote, but essays on physical and mental philosophy, commentaries on Aristotle and Boethius, French, poems, works on husbandry, translations from Greek authors. He was fairly familiar with both Hebrew and Greek, and, with the assistance of John of Basingstoke, who followed him, with one interval, as archdeacon of Leicester, translated the 'Testamenta XII Patriarcharum,' which Basingstoke had brought from Constantinople. He also translated the treatise ascribed to Dionysius Areopagita, and is said to have done the same for Suidas. It is hardly conceivable that all the treatises ascribed to him are really his, and he has been, probably, credited with a good deal that is not his own, such as treatises on 'Magick,' &c. Musick (especially playing on the harp) is reckoned among his accomplishments. It is said that Bishop Williams of Lincoln (afterwards archbishop of York) contemplated an edition of the entire works in three folio volumes.
His personal influence during his lifetime was scarcely inferior. His letters give ample proof of this. We find him comforting a nobleman about his spiritual state, advising the king about the value of the royal anointing, and the archbishop as to his conduct at a critical time, warning and consoling Simon de Montfort, whose sons he had educated, giving directions as to the proper treatment of the Jews, intimate with the queen, and using his influence to restrain the king from oppressive acts. Matthew Paris (v. 407), by no means generally favourable to him, as he considered him a persecutor of monks, thus sums up his character: 'He was a manifest confuter of the pope and the king, the blamer of prelates, the corrector of monks, the director of priests, the instructor of clerks, the support of scholars, the preacher to the people, the persecutor of the incontinent, the sedulous student of all scripture, the hammer and the despiser of the Romans. At the table of bodily refreshment he was hospitable, eloquent, courteous, pleasant, and affable. At the spiritual table, devout, tearful, and contrite. In his episcopal office he was sedulous, venerable, and indefatigable.' Adam de Marisco speaks of his courage, Tyssyngton of his subtilty in interpreting scripture.
To give a complete list of his works and of the various manuscripts which contain them would be impossible within the present limits. The list in Pegge's life occupies twenty-five closely printed quarto pages. Brown, in the appendix to his 'Fasciculus rerum expetendarum et fugiendarum' (London, 1690), pp. 250-414), has printed a selection of his letters, a few of the 'Dicta,' some sermons, and the 'Constitutiones rectoribus ecclesiarum … directæ.' A complete collection of the letters was edited by H. R. Luard in the Rolls Series in 1861. The translation of the 'Commentary of Dionysius Areopagita de Mystica Theologia' was printed, Strasburg, 1502. Some of his 'Opuscula' were printed at Venice, 1514; the commentary on the 'Posterior Analytics' of Aristotle, Venice, 1494,1497, 1499, and since; the 'Compendium Sphæræ Mundi,' and other tracts on 'Physical Science,' at Venice, 1508' and 1514 (there were other editions in 1518 and 1531); 'Libellus de Phisicis unus,' Nuremberg, 1503; the commentary on the Libri Physici of Aristotle, Venice, 1506; 'De Doctrina Cordis,' and 'Speculum Concionatorum,' at Naples, 1607. The translation of the 'Testamenta XII Patriarcharum' was first printed, probably in 1520 without date or place, at Haguenau, 1532, and frequently since (see Sinker's edition, p. xvi); an English translation by Anthony Gilby [q. v.] appeared in 1581, a Welsh one in 1522, and a French one (part only) in 1555; a fragment of the 'De Cessatione Legalium' at London, 1658. Of his English translations from the French 'The Boke of Husbondry and of Plantynge of Trees and Vynes,' by Walter de Henley [q. v.], was printed by W. de Worde, and the poem 'Le Chasteau d'Amour,' first printed in a private issue by Mr. J. O. Halliwell in 1849, was edited bv Mr. R. F. Weymouth for the Philological Society in 1864. His 'Carmina Anglo-Normannica' were published by the Caxton Society in 1844.
[Brown's Fasciculus, &c, London, 1690; Wharton's Anglia Sacra, ii. 325-48 (he prints a metrical Life by Richard, a monk of Bardney, but this is mere romance, though the author may have had some authority for putting a portion of the bishop's early life at Lincoln); Matthew Paris, Chronica majora; Annales Monastici; Epistolæ Adami de Marisco in Mon. Franc, vol. i.—these all in the Rolls Ser.; Chronicon de Lanercost(Stevenson), pp. 43-6; Tanner's Bibliotheca; Pegge's Life of Grosseteste, London, 1793; Luard's Preface to Roberti Grosseteste Epistolæ in the Rolls Ser.; Perry's Life and Times of Bishop Grosseteste, London, S.P.C.K., 1871.]