empty promise

Thomas Arundel

Thomas Arundel (1353 - 19 February 1414) was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and from 1399 until his death, an outspoken opponent of the Lollards.

Ecclesiastical career

A younger son of Richard Fitzalan, 10th Earl of Arundel, he was papally provided as Bishop of Ely on 13 August 1373 entirely by reason of his father's status and financial leverage with the Crown during the dotage of Edward III, happily abandoning his student days at Oxford, from which he gained little pleasure. A hugely wealthy near-sinecure, Ely seems to have captured the young bishop's genuine interest until his brother's political opposition to Richard II's policies both at home and towards France grew rancorous and dragged him in. In an extremely grave crisis, teetering towards civil war, 1386-8, the bishop found himself, at least in formal terms, right at the front of the dangerous attempts by five leading temporal lords to purge the king's advisors and control future policy. On 3 April 1388, he was elevated to the position of Archbishop of York at a time when Richard II was, in effect, suspended from rule. Given Ely's wealth and ease, this promotion was clearly as much to do with status and consolidating the conspirators' control in the north as with remuneration.

Arundel served twice as Lord Chancellor, during the reign of King Richard II, first, entirely against the king's wishes, from 1386 to 1389, and again from 1391 to 1396. For whatever reason, the king, working his way astutely back into real authority, contrived to assure Arundel of his confidence right until the 'counter-coup' of 1397, when the archbishop was deceived into bringing his brother out of hiding under a royal safeconduct- to his death. Throughout his life Arundel was more trustful than was good for him. Despite his political preoccupations, which certainly led to him being largely absent from York, he has been credited with sponsoring a lively revival of personal religious piety in the northern province. Besides, as was to prove the case at Canterbury too, he was also a very good spotter of administrative talent.

On 25 September 1396, he was made Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England The king's nomination seemed to wish him nothing but success. Yet, within a year, he was exiled by the king during Richard's fierce counter-attack against his enemies of ten years earlier, and was replaced by Roger Walden.

He spent his exile in Florence, where in 1398, at Richard II's request, the Roman Pope Boniface IX translated him to become Bishop of St. Andrews, a cruel, empty fate because Scotland during the Great Schism recognized the Pope in Avignon, already had a bishop in place and would probably never have accepted him anyway, even in peaceful times. However, shortly afterwards, he joined up with his fellow-exile Henry Bolingbroke. Although not soul-mates, they invaded England together and forced Richard to yield the crown to Henry IV. Arundel played a hugely prominent part in the usurpation and may have been the most hawkishly determined of all that the king should be removed entirely: whether he actually lied on oath to Richard II to lure him out of Conway remains altogether open to debate. The new regime of course secured the reverseal of several of Richard's acts, including the pope's installation of Walden at Canterbury. Arundel returned to his primacy, while Walden - actually with the support of Arundel - was eventually found the important see of London.

Arundel showed every sign of wishing now to be an active archbishop, but the political weakness and collapse into ill-health from 1405 of the king forced him back to the front of government, where he resolutely and loyally took the brunt of criticism of the regime's allegedly expensive and ineffective policies as well as factional backbiting from Prince Hal and the Beaufort clique. At one point, he even took the sick king into Lambeth Palace itself for care. In 1405-6 he had to deal with the crisis with the papacy provoked by the king's stress-related decision to execute Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, Arundel having ridden furiously from London to York in two days to dissuade the king, only to be cruelly deceived with an empty promise that he could rest and sleep before any judgment would be made. Formally, under Henry IV, Arundel served three times as Lord Chancellor, first in 1399, again from 1407 to 1410, and finally 1411-13. When Henry IV's son succeeded as Henry V, Arundel's influence at court decreased sharply: he was relieved of the great seal immediately. Quite likely, he was not at all reluctant.

Arundel disliked academics, whom he found arid, pompous,undisciplined and irresponsible in their speculations, and himself took a tolerant realistic view of the standards to be expected from his commonfolk flock: he is reported verbatim to have found Lollards phariseeic, intolerant and hypocritical, which several leading examples were. The maverick Margery Kempe got a kindly personal reception from him, whereas she scared or bewildered other bishops.

Thomas Arundel died 19 February 1414.

Opposition to the Lollards

This aspect of the archbishop's career has been much exaggerated as well as misinterpreted, usually to his disfavour. Arundel was a vehement opponent of the Lollards, the followers of John Wycliffe, who in his 1379 treatise De Eucharistia had opposed, in fact not very convincingly or confidently, the dogma of Transubstantiation. Wycliffe had not wanted to address the subject at all because he foresaw the danger, but was pressed into it by his academic opponents, who also spotted the trap. Wycliffe's teachings were strongly resisted by both the religious and secular authorities, principally because they seemed likely to undermine the social cohesion underpinned by orthodoxy in England but also because they were in essence ancient ideas with well-known flaws. In fact, they had limited appeal in any case, and certainly very little to the lowest stratas of society.

King Henry IV passed the De Heretico Comburendo statute in 1401, which recited in its preamble that it was directed against a certain new sect "who thought damnably of the sacraments and usurped the office of preaching." (1913 Catholic Encyclopedia}It empowered the bishops to arrest, imprison, and examine offenders and to hand over to the secular authorities such as had relapsed or refused to abjure. The condemned were to be burnt "in an high place" before the people. This act was probably pushed through by the authoritative Arundel, although its constant identification of heresy with sedition reflects the nervousness of the unsteady usurper-king, Richard II having failed to respond to a similar call by the English bishops in 1397. Its passing was immediately followed by the burning of William Sawtrey, a London priest. He had previously abjured but had relapsed, and he now refused to declare his belief in transubstantiation or to recognize the authority of the Church.

In 1407, Arundel presided at a synod at Oxford, which passed a number of constitutions to regulate preaching, the translation and use of the Scriptures, and the theological education at schools and the university. In 1410, a body of Oxford censors condemned 267 propositions collected out of Wyclif's writings. These different measures seem to have been successful at least as far as the clergy were concerned, and Lollardy came to be more and more a lay movement, often connected with political discontent. In fact, its progress had already really ground to a halt anyway, as much through limited attraction as official opposition.

Significantly, the death penalty was seldom carried out. Neither Crown nor members of parliament would ever have given the Church a blank cheque, which suggests the passing of the act in the first place had owed more to the king's needs than Arundel's venom. Until 1410, no further Lollards were executed. The 1414 Oldcastle Revolt saw a minority of the seventy or so who were hanged also burned. Thereafter, executions were again few until the Tudor period. Arundel had a stroke which left him unable to speak shortly afterwards. His uneasy relations with the new king Henry V made his death opportune, the king promptly installing a yes-man Henry Chichele. Arundel led the English Church vigorously and devotedly, and was not cowed by kings. Henry V did not like that.


In 2005/2006, BBC History Magazine chose Thomas Arundel as the 15th century's entry for their Ten Worst Britons poll, in which he tied the 9th place with Hugh le Despenser.



  • Fryde, E. B.; Greenway, D. E.; Porter, S.; Roy, I. (1996). Handbook of British Chronology. Third Edition, revised, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ; ME Aston, Thomas Arundel; R.G. Davies, 'Thomas Arundel as archbishop of Canterbury', Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1972; J. Hughes, Pastors and Visionaries.

External links

  • Constitutions (1408). Umilta Website. . Latin transcription; Arundel's prohibition of Bible translation into vernacular languages.


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