Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fitzstephen, William

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1150599Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 19 — Fitzstephen, William1889Thomas Andrew Archer

FITZSTEPHEN, WILLIAM (d. 1190?), the biographer of Becket, styles himself the archbishop's ‘concivis.’ He was in the closest connection with Becket for ten years or more, as his ‘clericus et convictor.’ When Becket became chancellor, he appointed Fitzstephen to be ‘dictator in cancelleria ejus.’ Later William became subdeacon in his chapel, and was entrusted with the duty of perusing letters and petitions. Sometimes at Becket's bidding, he either decided these cases on his own authority, or was appointed advocate to one of the parties—‘patronus causarum.’ He was present at the great council of Northampton (13 Oct. 1164), and was sitting at the archbishop's feet, when Herbert of Bosham gave his master the rash advice to excommunicate his enemies if they laid hands upon him. William induced the archbishop to refuse this counsel, as the archbishop afterwards confessed when during his exile he met William at St. Benedict's on the Loire (Vit. S. Thomæ, pp. 1, 2, 59). Fitzstephen appears to have escaped most of the disadvantages of intimacy with Becket. He has himself preserved a rhyming Latin poem, some ninety lines long, which he composed and presented to Henry II in the chapel of ‘Bruhull.’ In return for this petition the king pardoned him. It would appear, however, that when Becket was reconciled to the king, his old clerk once more entered his service, for he was an eye-witness of his murder: ‘passionem ejus Cantuariæ inspexi.’ Of the rest of his life we have no certain knowledge; but Mr. Foss is inclined to identify this author with William Fitzstephen, who along with his brother, Ralph Fitzstephen, was sheriff of Gloucester from 18 Henry II to 1 Richard I, i.e. 1171–90 (Foss, i. 370; Fuller, i. 569). This William Fitzstephen is probably the same William Fitzstephen whom Henry II in 1176 placed at the head of one of the six circuits into which he divided the country. The circuit in question included the county of Gloucester, and his pleas are recorded in that and the four following years, not only in fourteen counties, but ‘ad scaccarium’ also. His name appears as a justice itinerant in 1 Richard I (Foss, ib.; cf. Madox, i. 83, 127, &c.; Hoveden, ii. 88), about which time he perhaps died.

William Fitzstephen's most important work is the ‘Vita Sancti Thomæ.’ This is the main authority for the archbishop's early life. The curious preface, entitled ‘ Descriptio nobilissimæ civitatis Londoniæ,’ is by far the most graphic and elaborate account of London during the twelfth century yet remaining. It has been printed separately in Stow's ‘Survey of London,’ and Hearne's ed. of Leland's ‘Itinerary.’ The ‘Vita Thomæ’ was first printed in Sparke's ‘Historiæ Anglicanæ Scriptores’ (1723). The chief later editions are those of Dr. Giles (1845), and that by the Rev. J. C. Robertson (Rolls Ser. 1877). To the same author are also attributed, though, as it seems, on doubtful grounds, ‘Libri quinque de Miraculis B. Thomæ’ (cf. also Hardy, ii. 382).

[Materials for the Hist. of Thomas Becket, ed. Robertson (Rolls Ser.), vol. iii. contains Fitzstephen's Vita Sti Thomæ; Roger of Hoveden, ed. Stubbs (Rolls Ser.), vol. ii.; Madox's Hist. of the Exchequer (ed. 1769), vols. i. and ii.; Foss's Judges, vol. i; Wright's Biographia Literaria, vol. ii.; Hardy's Cat. of Manuscript Materials for Hist. of Great Britain and Ireland, ii.]

T. A. A.