The bishops of King Stephen’s reign
By Stephen Marritt
PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 1999
Abstract: Traditionally, the bishops who held office during the civil war which dominated King Stephen’s reign (1135-1154) have been considered weak and ineffective, able neither to bring peace between the two sides or among warring local barons nor to protect their flocks or even themselves from the so-called ‘Anarchy’. The explanation for this has been found in the bishops’ lack of spiritual calibre. Bishops have also been seen as withdrawing their support from the king and ending their involvement in royal government, partly because of increasing general ecclesiastical desire for separation between Church and State and partly because of specific disputes with Stephen. As a consequence of all this, bishops are allowed little importance in modern histories of Stephen’s reign.
This thesis shows that modern historiographical consensus is based in flawed interpretive frameworks which have led to misinterpretation of the nature of the episcopate and its importance in Stephen’s reign. It offers more valid alternatives and then re-examines, the royal, ecclesiastical and, especially, the local evidence in light of them to show that, in fact, the bishops were crucially important figures in regional politics, religion and society during the civil war. It proves as well, that they could possess considerable spiritual authority and continued to be committed to the king and active in the government of the kingdom throughout the period. Additionally, each of these also has consequences for how the episcopacy and Anglo-Norman history in general are understood. This is, therefore, a reassessment of the bishops of King Stephen’s reign.
Contemporary writers were critical of episcopal conduct during the civil war which dominated King Stephen’s reign:
But they cowering in most dastardly fear, bent like a reed shaken by the wind, and since their salt had no savour they did not rise up or resist or set themselves as a wall before the house of Israel… some bishops, made sluggish and abject by fear of them, either gave way or lukewarmly and feebly passed a sentence of excommunication that was soon to be revoked; others (but it was no task for bishops) filled their castles full of provisions and stocks of arms, knights and archers, and though they were supposed to be warding off the evil doers who were plundering the goods of the Church showed themselves more cruel and more merciless than those very evildoers in oppressing their neighbours and plundering their goods.
There was general agreement too that the king committed a great crime when he arrested three bishops at court in 1139 and that thereafter ecclesiastical moral and political support for him fell away. Modern history, more moderate, more nuanced and more objective, is nevertheless still substantially in agreement. Bishops are rarely allowed the capacity, the character or the will to play a significant role in central or local political or religious life. If not in 1139 then after 1141, their loyalty to Stephen was passive at best, their involvement in his continuing attempts to govern the country minimal and their ideological relationship with him problematic.