Objections to Episcopal Elections in England, 1216-1272

Objections to Episcopal Elections in England, 1216-1272

Objections to Episcopal Elections in England, 1216-1272

Katherine Harvey

Nottingham Medieval Studies: 55 (2011), pp. 125-48


In August 1228, following the death of Stephen Langton, the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury assembled to elect his successor. Their choice was quickly made: within a month of Langton’s death Walter of Eynsham, a member of the cathedral chapter, was archbishop-elect of Canterbury. But unfortunately for Brother Walter, he was not destined to secure England’s highest ecclesiastical office. At the very beginning of the following year, Pope Innocent IV quashed Eynsham’s election and provided Richard le Grant, chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, to the archbishopric of Canterbury.

Why did Walter de Eynsham fail to obtain the position to which he had been elected? Whilst the right of cathedral chapters to hold free elections was well- established by the early thirteenth century, being chosen by one’s fellow monks or canons was only the first hurdle on the road to the episcopate. Every ecclesiastical election had to receive royal assent, prior to examination and confirmation by the elect’s immediate superior; for the English bishops, this was the archbishop of their province, and for the archbishops, the pope. The examination looked at two factors, the electoral procedure and the suitability of the candidate, and the election would be quashed if either was found wanting.

If any objections were made to the election — usually by the king, a member of the electoral body, or a member of the episcopate, but potentially by any third party — these would also be considered. In addition, there was the constant threat of papal involvement, for if an election was contested, it was to be expected that one or more of the parties involved would make an appeal to Rome. It would then be examined by the pope (or by his representatives, either in Rome or in England), in place of the metropolitan. In 1257, Alexander IV ruled that any disputed episcopal election was a causa major, and was thus automatically subject to papal jurisdiction. Only once both royal and ecclesiastical assent had been secured would the elect receive custody of the spiritualities and temporalities of his see and be consecrated.

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