Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skirlaw, Walter
SKIRLAW, WALTER (d. 1406), bishop successively of Lichfield, Bath, and Durham, and privy seal, was born at South Skirlaugh in the parish of Swine, eight miles northeast of Hull. Dodsworth preserved a story that he was the son of a sieve-maker, and, being ‘very untoward,’ ran away to Oxford, only resuming relations with his family after he became bishop of Durham in 1388 (Wood, Colleges of Oxford, p. 46). But his father's alleged trade may be no more than inference from the riddle-like bearings of his coat-of-arms, and he obtained crown benefices for kinsmen in 1379 (Patent Roll, pp. 329, 330). His sister was prioress of Swine (Testamenta Eboracensia, ii. 314).
After taking his master's degree at Oxford, Skirlaw was elected to one of the fellowships (then called scholarships) on the foundation of William of Durham [q. v.], in the society which at that time bore the name of its founder, now University College. A preference was given to those who came from the neighbourhood of Durham (Wood, p. 54). He graduated LL.D., and on 30 Nov. 1370 became prebendary of Fenton in York Cathedral; about the same time, if not earlier, he was appointed archdeacon of the East Riding (Le Neve, iii. 142, 184). Entering the royal service as king's clerk ‘abiding in chancery,’ Skirlaw was employed in important business and received further preferment. In 1377 he is mentioned as a canon of Beverley Minster, and by January 1378 had been made dean of St. Martin's-le-Grand, London (Patent Roll, pp. 32, 44; Fœdera, vii. 183). During the minority of Richard II he was constantly employed on diplomatic missions abroad. In 1381 he was sent with Sir Nicholas Dagworth to Italy to negotiate with Pope Urban and the Italian princes, and did not return until April 1383 (ib. vii. 298, 307, 353–4). His services marked him out for promotion. In 1380 he was archdeacon of Northampton, and in 1381 he appears as treasurer of Lincoln, but soon effected an exchange. By June 1384 he had become keeper of the privy seal, and about the same time he resigned the deanery of St. Martin's (ib. vii. 455; Rot. Parl. iii. 169).
The see of Coventry and Lichfield falling vacant early in the next year, the pope provided Skirlaw to it by bull dated 28 June 1385 (Le Neve, i. 551). His consecration at Westminster on 14 Jan. 1386 was a striking ceremony; seven prelates officiated, and the kings of England and Armenia, with many of the nobles, were present (Stubbs, Registrum; cf. Evesham, p. 60). But before he had been enthroned the pope translated him to the richer see of Bath and Wells, which fell vacant in July 1386. The chapter elected a favourite clerk of the king, Richard Medford; but Urban, before hearing of this, had translated Skirlaw thither by a bull dated 18 Aug., and Richard gave way (Le Neve, i. 139). Skirlaw clearly stood well with the pope, who nineteen months later, on removing Richard's supporter, John Fordham, from Durham to Ely, in deference to the lords appellant, translated (3 April 1388) Skirlaw to the former see (ib. iii. 291). In the following winter he was employed in negotiations with France and Flanders (Fœdera, vii. 610, 648). In April 1391, and again in February 1393, he took part in similar missions (ib. vii. 667–9, 738). He assisted in the negotiations for a truce and marriage alliance with Scotland in August 1394 (ib. vii. 786–7). After the ill-omened September parliament of 1397, Skirlaw obtained a license to absent himself from all parliaments which should follow the ensuing session at Shrewsbury (ib. viii. 19). He accepted the revolution which placed Henry IV on the throne, assented to Richard's imprisonment, and for nearly two years acted as chief plenipotentiary in the delicate negotiations with France over the renewal of the truce concluded by Richard and the restoration of Queen Isabella (ib. viii. 108, &c.). On 11 May 1404 he was present with Archbishop Richard Scrope [q. v.] at the translation (Annales, p. 388) of the ashes of John of Bridlington [see John, (d. 1379)].
He died at his Yorkshire manor of Howden on 24 March 1406; his body was carried to Durham and interred in the cathedral between two pillars in the north aisle of the choir, before the altar of St. Blaise and St. John of Beverley (which he had dedicated), in a marble tomb inlaid with his effigy in brass. This has been removed or covered over (Testamenta Eboracensia, i. 306). The inscription is given by Chamber (Scriptores Tres, p. 145). Skirlaw made a generous use of the princely income of his see. He was a great builder. The graceful chapel still standing at his birthplace was built by him in the last years of his life, and provided with a chantry and two chaplains (Poulson, ii. 262). At Howden he added to the church the beautiful chapter-house, now in ruins, and the great central stage (completed after his death) of the present tower, possibly as a guide to the inhabitants of the surrounding flats during the frequent inundations. The manor-house was partly rebuilt by him. At York he contributed largely to the cost of the central tower and founded a chantry in the south transept. At Durham he gave largely towards the reconstruction of the cloisters and dormitory as they now exist. He built bridges over the Tees at Yarm and the Wear at Shincliffe, and appropriated landed revenues to their maintenance. At Bishop Auckland he added a stone gateway to the palace (Scriptores Tres, p. 145). His interesting will, made 7 March 1404, with later codicils (Testamenta Eboracensia, i. 306), contains, besides supplementary gifts to some of the objects above mentioned, evidence of his interest in education. He left books to his own college of the ‘Great University Hall’ in Oxford, where in 1403 he had endowed three new fellowships open to undergraduates and to students either of Oxford or Cambridge, if possible, born in the dioceses of York and Durham (Clark, p. 15). A solemn mass was annually celebrated in the college down to the Reformation for the repose of his soul (Wood, p. 46). To Durham College, Oxford (now Trinity College), he left twenty pounds. His executors were empowered to defray the cost of the education of William Lincoln, one of his clerks, and Robert Custeby, a kinsman.
[A brief account of Skirlaw's munificence is given by the Durham writer, William Chamber, whose work is printed in Anglia Sacra and in Scriptores Tres Dunelmenses, published by the Surtees Soc.; Rotuli Parliamentorum; Patent Rolls of Richard II, 1377–81; Rymer's Fœdera, original ed.; Ordinances of the Privy Council, ed. Nicolas; Durham Rites and Testamenta Eboracensia, published by the Surtees Soc.; Monk of Evesham, ed. Hearne; Annales, Henry IV (Rolls Ser.); Wood's Hist. of the Colleges of Oxford, ed. Gutch; Clark's Colleges of Oxford; Godwin, De Præsulibus Angliæ, ed. 1743; Le Neve's Fasti Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ, ed. Hardy; Surtees's Hist. of Durham; Poulson's Hist. of Holderness; Hutchinson's Guide to Howden Church.]