Historical Lectures and Addresses/Bishop Grosseteste and his Times, 1st Lecture
I wish to bring Grosseteste before you as a typical Englishman, an example of that quality for which his countrymen have always been conspicuous—I mean devotion to duty at all costs and in spite of every kind of difficulty. Besides this, Grosseteste was not only a man of learning, but he illustrates a very important period of English history, a period with marked characteristics of its own. Still, to me the great interest of his life lies in the fact that he earnestly tried to do his duty, to speak and to act in defence of truth and righteousness, during a life spent amidst difficulties and quarrels that were not of his own seeking.
The period in which he lived is one of exceptional interest, because it was then that the Papacy exercised its greatest influence in England. I will not enter into the question of the origin of the papal power; it is enough at present to say that it rested upon a noble idea, upon a conception of Europe as one commonwealth, and the Church as a Universal Church under one earthly and visible head. To this conception of a united Europe, national feeling was entirely secondary. Nations existed, it is true, but these nations were to regard themselves, and to be regarded, as part of the European commonwealth. This ideal system rested upon a desire for a higher order of things than men could then hope to realise in their immediate surroundings. Laws were rudimentary, society was but imperfectly developed. Men were conscious that the powers that ruled the State suffered under many limitations. True, they existed for the common good; the laws represented the commonsense of the people, but the officers who had to carry out the laws frequently overruled them, and the princes who represented the community cannot in any way be said to have done so adequately. There is always a desire for some check upon the unauthorised exercise of power. In our age the most potent check is public opinion; and it was just this desire to get public opinion represented as well as possible, that made men welcome the papal authority. People sometimes waste a great deal of time and pains in explaining away the papal power as being the result of all kinds of sacerdotal intrigues and usurpations, when, as a matter of fact, the Papacy came into existence and was generally accepted because it represented what people wanted. There never has been a power which could claim more entirely to rest upon public opinion than could the papal power at its best. This theory of a great spiritual power guarding over truth and righteousness in every part of Christendom was a splendid idea; only the pity of it was that it was so rapidly lost sight of.
At the time when Grosseteste began to take part in public affairs, the great Pope Innocent III. was at the height of his power. He was a man of splendid political genius, who used his authority for righteousness in almost every country in Europe, as we know he had occasion to use it in England. Certainly Innocent III., in the exercise of his authority, was helped by the character of the princes with whom he had to deal. In England, John was one of the worst of kings. When he found things going against him, he made his submission to the papal See, resigning the whole kingdom into the hands of the Pope, and receiving it back again as a papal fief. To us that seems an extraordinary arrangement to have made, but it was not so very extraordinary to the men of those times. It is curious to note that though subsequent historians speak of it as a shameless act, there is no contemporary historian who speaks of it as shameless at all. It was in fact the recognition of a claim which fitted in very well with the political conceptions of the time. The only conceptions of authority which then prevailed were conceptions drawn from the feudal system. It was considered that everybody must have a superior over him. The villain had his lord, the lord had his over-lord, the over-lord had the king over him. Every one was bound together in a graduated hierarchy of rank. But when the king was reached, there arose the question, who was lord over him? The only answer that could be given was that the king depended upon the Pope. So that all that happened in the case of John was that this theory was carried into practice, and the definite act did not at the time call forth very much criticism. On John's submission, the Pope supported him against the barons, who, however, did not give way in their opposition to the King, and it is very doubtful whether the Pope would have been able to save the kingdom for John. Fortunately John died at this time, and the accession of the young Henry paved the way for peace. During the minority that followed, England was practically ruled by the Pope through his legates. The Pope recognised Henry as in a special sense a pupil and orphan left to the charge of the Apostolic See, and Henry himself afterwards accepted this position. The first of these papal legates was Gualo, who practically ruled England with uncontrolled power, going into all kinds of details, even inquiring by direction from Rome into the sanitary condition of the cathedral close at Salisbury. The Pope went so far as to direct the next legate, Pandulph, to override the decision of a court of law, and to proceed as if no order of the King's Court existed, a clear proof that the Pope considered his authority to be superior to the royal authority. All this was of course most galling to such men as Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury; and, as events turned out, it became manifest that it was impossible for any person living at Rome, however exalted and however good his intentions, to interfere with advantage in the affairs of a country like England.
Grosseteste was born in 1175 at Stradbroke, in Suffolk, of humble parentage. In after years a nobleman once asked him how he had managed to gain his courtly manner, and Grosseteste's reply was to the effect that he had from his early years studied in the Holy Scriptures the manners of the best men. He seems as a lad to have been distinguished by his thirst for knowledge. He was first a student at Oxford, and afterwards, as was customary in those days, he went to study in Paris. He then returned to Oxford, and some years later was appointed rector of the schools, an office equivalent to that of vice-chancellor at present. From that time he was marked out for ecclesiastical preferment, and soon held in turn various archdeaconries. But it was the coming of the Franciscans to Oxford that gave the great impulse to Grosseteste's life. The rise of the Franciscan friars was one of the greatest reforming movements in the Church. It was the first definite movement that had been made for centuries to carry the truths of the Gospel directly home in a practical shape to the hearts and minds of simple folk. The Franciscans began by living and teaching among simple people; but they soon found that they could not teach even simple folk unless they studied themselves. Hence their settlements in such universities as Oxford, where Grosseteste was their first lecturer. Between Grosseteste and the leader of the friars there was the closest friendship, and his connexion with the Order had a marked effect on his later years.
The next thing we hear of Grosseteste is that he was making arrangements for a pilgrimage to Rome in 1232, but he had to put it off for fear of the ill-feeling which existed in Rome against the English, in consequence of their ill-treatment of Roman priests resident in England. The fact was that the encroachments and extortions of the Papacy had reached such a pitch that at length an association was formed of "those who would rather die than be confounded by the Romans". That was the real title of the society. It was a secret body, composed mostly of landowners who had resolved no longer to endure the exactions of the Pope. They wrote a circular letter to all the bishops and chapters in the country recounting the evils that arose from the preferment of so many foreign ecclesiastics in England, and ended by saying, "A man who kindly wipes our noses draws blood," a remark which they applied to the situation. They stated that they would stand it no longer, and warned the bishops and other authorities not to interfere with what they were about to do. In consequence great terror prevailed among the foreign ecclesiastics in England. A few of them were seized and imprisoned, and in 1232 a general attack was made on the barns of the Roman priests throughout the country, and the corn found in them was either destroyed or given to the poor. The leader of this movement was a Yorkshire knight, the patron of a living which had been taken possession of by a foreign priest. It was these circumstances which deterred Grosseteste from making his pilgrimage to Rome. Moreover, a violent fever seized him at this time. When he recovered he resigned all his offices except his prebendal stall at Lincoln. In acting thus, he was regarded by his friends as having committed an act of incredible folly; but he said that he did not think it right to hold more offices than one.
Grosseteste continued to teach quietly at Oxford till 1235, when he was elected by the Chapter of Lincoln to be their bishop instead of Hugh of Wells. Just about this time a new archbishop of Canterbury had been elected. The intrigues and delays over his appointment show that this was no more than any other a halcyon time when the Church enjoyed perfect liberty of action, and was free from State interference in the election of her chief bishops. Edmund of Abingdon, the new archbishop, was a man exceedingly fit in many ways for his high post, but he was not strong enough in character to face all the difficulties by which he was beset. No sooner was he elected, than the monks of Canterbury began to quarrel with him, and things were so disturbed that Grosseteste was not consecrated at Canterbury, but at Reading. He was nearly sixty years old when he became Bishop of Lincoln. The pathetic interest of his episcopate lies in seeing how impossible it was in those days for an honest man to do his plain duty without being involved in constant difficulties. Grosseteste had a vast diocese to administer, consisting as it then did of the present sees of Lincoln, Peterborough, Oxford and part of Ely. Its enormous size arose from the fact that it represented the old kingdom of Mercia. Disorders and abuses were everywhere prevalent. They were mainly connected with questions concerning the right of presentation to livings, and the treatment of ecclesiastical benefices as simply of so much money value. Grosseteste steadfastly refused to institute improper or illiterate persons, and wrote indignantly to the patrons who nominated such men. He directed his archdeacons to put down all games that led to drinking bouts and bloodshed, and particularly to put an end to feasting at funerals. The use of churches and churchyards for fairs was also forbidden; it had been the custom often to hold fairs in the churchyards and to erect booths in the churches themselves. Further, the archdeacons were ordered to forbid and prevent private marriages, and to warn women against the careless way in which mothers overlaid their children at night. They were also to reprove priests who demanded fees for the administration of the sacraments, sometimes even for the administration of the Holy Communion. That Grosseteste should have found it necessary to lay down rules about such very elementary matters as these is certainly remarkable, and shows on how many sides abuses had crept into the English Church, and what need there was for a rigorous authority to put them down.