The foundation of the archbishopric

Pages 252-264

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 12. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1801.

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AUGUSTINE the monk, who arrived in England with his companions, about forty in number, in the year 596, (fn. 1) during the reign of king Ethelbert, as has been already mentioned before, having converted the king to Christianity, and obtained through his favour, a settlement in Canterbury, by the gift of the royal palace, soon afterwards went over to France, and was consecrated a bishop at Arles, in that kingdom. (fn. 2) But as it seems without title to any particular church, being, as it were, appointed to be the apostle or universal bishop of this nation at large; after which, when it was determined by pope Gregory, that he should be vested with archiepiscopal authority, the pall, (fn. 3) the badge and confirmation of it, was sent directly to London, which at that time was reputed at Rome to be the chief city of this nation, wherein the patriarchal chair had antiently been fixed; for Giraldus Cambrensis tells us, that Augustine himself proposed at first, to six his metropolitical chair in the imperial city of London, but afterwards changed his mind; upon which he so managed this affair with pope Gregory, that according to his defire, the archiepiscopal see, which had been at London from the time of king Lucius, was then translated to Canterbury, (fn. 4) and not long after, in 604, he provided for the episcopal chair at London, by consecrating Mellitus, one of those companions who arrived in England with him, bishop of that see. (fn. 5)

Augustine had, no doubt, many reasons for fixing on Canterbury for this purpose; it was then the metropolis of the kingdom of Kent, as Bede names it, and in some respects the chief city of the whole nation, on which account it was agreeable to the antient rule of the universal church. (fn. 6) King Ethelbert had received him hospitably, had afforded him protection, and was still able to continue it; had given him his palace, and as some say, a church near it; on these accounts, as well as through gratitude to his royal benefactor, he might well be inclined to this choice; (fn. 7) but there were other inducements to it besides these, Ethelbert was a victorious prince, and by a continued success in war, had subdued all the kingdoms of the Saxons round about, except the Northumbrians.—The city of London belonged to the East Saxons, whose king was Sebert, nephew to king Ethelbert, and reigned under him in that tract; (fn. 8) all which were strong reasons for his fixing his archiepiscopal see here.

It must be confessed, however, that no claim to this honour could have been made by London at that time, when it ought to have been made, and the plea might have been most effectual, for in 604, as has been mentioned before, Augustine himself consecrated Mellitus, one of the companions who came with him, and was firmly attached to him, bishop of London, and after the death of king Sebert, which happened in 612, paganism prevailed so much among the East Saxons, that the bishop was banished, and there was no bishop of London, till the year 654, and consequently there could be no dispute about the primacy, which by that time became settled beyond dispute, nor afterwards did any bishop of London, till the time of Gilbert Foliot, which was about 550 years, lay any claim to it. Archbishop Laurence succeeded Augustine in the see of Canterbury, being appointed to it by him before him death, whose next successor was Mellitus, late bishop of London, as above mentioned. I do not find any mention, that either of these two received the pall from Rome, to empower them to exercise the archiepiscopal function, or any letters from the pope to settle their chair at Canterbury; notwithstanding which, they sat all their days quiet and undisturbed by any opposition or claim, in respect of the primacy of this church.

Archbishops Justus and Honorius, their successors, had the pall sent to them, and with it each of them a letter from the pope, which are to be seen in Bede; but there is not one word in those letters of the confirmation of the archiepiscopal dignity to this church. (fn. 9) The sending of the pall to them and their successors, was esteemed a sufficient confirmation of the metropolitical dignity and authority to the church, and the person likewise to whom it was directed; (fn. 10) but for the more direct confirmation of the primacy to this church, care was taken to strengthen it by several letters, rescripts and decrees from the papal authority; for which purpose, archbishop Justus having applied by letters to pope Boniface V. in which he afferted his right to the primacy, received an answer, in which the pope adds these words, we will and command you, that the metropolitical see of all Britain be ever hereafter in the city of Canterbury; and we make a perpetual and unchangeable decree, that all provinces of this kingdom of England, be for ever subject to the metropolitical church of that place. (fn. 11)

To this, Malmsbury annexes a rescript of pope Honorius, anno 634, to archbishop Honorius, in which are these words: We therefore command all the churches and provinces of England, to be subject to your jurisdiction; and that the metropolitical see and archiepiscopal dignity, and the primacy of all the churches of England be fixed and remain in Canterbury, and never be transferred, through any kind of evil persuasion by any one, to any other place. (fn. 12)

If these rescripts had not been omitted by Bede, it would have added much to their authenticity; but besides these two, there are several other letters and decrees, all relating to the same purpose, collected together, which may be seen in Malmesbury, the Decem . Scriptores, and in Wilkins's Councils; (fn. 13) all which are put together and inserted by archbishop Lanfranc, in a letter which he wrote to pope Alexander, concerning the privileges of the primacy of his see, on account of the contest between him and the bishop of York.

In the registers of this church there are remaining two bulls concerning the primacy, one of them from pope Eugenius III. to archbishop Theobald, the other from pope Alexander III. to archbishop Becket, dated anno 1167; in both which bulls are the same words to this effect: That he granted to him and his successors, the primacy of the church of Canterbury, in as full and ample manner as the same then appeared to have been enjoyed by the archbishops Lanfranc and Anselm, and the rest of his predecessors; and he confirmed by that his writing, all dignity and power, which was known to belong to the holy church of Canterbury, which it appeared his predecessors, from the time of St. Augustine, had and exercised by the authority of the apostolical see. The diploma of king Cnute, anno 1018, by which he confirmed the primacy of this see, is also extant in the first tome of the British Councils, p. 533, but the learned publisher of it gives a caution, (fn. 14) to inspect such charters warily, and not without a distrust of their being counterfeits. The like charter of king Edgar is to be met with in the same tome, (fn. 15) but with the like caution and suspicion of forgery; for it was the custom of the monks, as has been already more than once mentioned before, frequently to forge the confirmation of their rights and privileges by royal charters; and they were not wanting on all occasions to furnish their archives and registers with plenty of such pretended letters of royal confirmation; but it ought to be observed, if the truth of these charters are suspected, the papal bulls seem by no means liable to any such suspicions.

Although the primacy and metropolitical dignity was, by the papal authority, from time to time confirmed, established and immoveably fixed to the church of Canterbury, yet it was not without meeting with strong opposition, by which, however, it was never shaken, and it overcame them all. The first attempt against the dignity of this see was made by Offa, king of the Mercians, who was at first a good benefactor to this church, but afterwards conceiving great displeasure against the citizens of Canterbury, though he was not able to deprive the city of the metropolitical chair, yet he found means to lessen the honour and dignity of it, by contracting the bounds and limits of the archbishop's province, by procuring a pall (which was no difficult matter to obtain by money) for Adulph, bishop of Lichfield, and with it also the title of archbishop. He obtained a decree likewise, that all the bishops, which were four, of the kingdom of Mercia, and two bishops of East Anglia, should become suffragans, and consequently subject to this new metropolitan. This encroachment, Lambert, then archbishop of Canterbury, was not able to oppose, though his successor archbishop Athelard, after the death of king Offa, soon regained his whole right and jurisdiction, by the general suffrage of the whole kingdom, and the consent of king Ceonulph, who succeeded Offa, (fn. 16) who in one of his letters to pope Leo for that purpose, says, Because Augustine of blessed memory, who in the time of pope Gregory, preached the word of God to the English nation, and presided over the Saxon churches, died in the same city, and his body was buried in the church which his successor Laurence dedicated to St. Peter, the prince of the apostles, it seemed good to the wise men of the nation, that the metropolitical dignity should be fixed in that city, where rested the body of him who planted the truth of the Christian faith in those parts; (fn. 17) and afterwards the same pope pronounced all that king Offa had done null and void. (fn. 18)

The next contests which the archbishops of Canterbury met with, came from the north, in respect both of the extent of the provinces, as of the primacy of this see; for the boundaries of the province were often invaded by the archbishop of York, on the pretence, that when the whole British island was divided into two provinces, Canterbury and York; to the province of the former, were assigned those bounds, which it enjoyed till king Henry VIII.'s reign; (fn. 19) to the province of the latter, besides what now remains to it, was allotted almost all Scotland or Albania, as it was then called; (fn. 20) but the bishops of Scotland having a primate of their own, desisted from acknowledging any obedience to the archbishop of York, by which that province was contracted into a narrow compass, in comparison of the province of Canterbury; therefore, under an idea of bringing the two provinces to a nerer equality, the archbishop of York contested, though without success, that the dioceses of Lincoln, Worcester and Hereford, should be taken from the province of Canterbury, and added to that of York. (fn. 21)

As to the primacy, the disputes between the archbishops of the two provinces were more eager and of longer continuance. (fn. 22) The privileges for which they contended, were chiefly those of the consecration and benediction of the archbishops of York, by the archbishops of Canterbury, at the metropolitical church of Canterbury; the profession of obedience and subjection to the see of Canterbury, to be made by the archbishops of York, at their benediction, and the bearing of the cross before the latter; the former of these privileges was aimed at directly, at the same time that they contended to have the sees of Lincoln,Worcester and Hereford added to the province of York, alledging further, as authors tell us, that the archbishop of York might hence be, from time to time, as the archbishops of Canterbury were, consecrated in his own church at York, in a provincial synod, or by his own suffragan bishops, and consequently there would remain no obligations on the archbishop of York, to promise, swear, or acknowledge any kind of subjection or obedience to the metropolitan of Canterbury. All these attempts proved unsuccessful, but the contention concerning the profession of obedience was the greatest of all; kings and popes, and bishops were engaged in it; the case was pleaded at Rome, and debated in England. Our historians in general abound with narratives and instruments relating to this controversy.—Archbishop Lanfranc carried it on with a high and powerful hand; he procured a bull from pope Alexander, and the consent of king William the Conqueror, to have it argued in the presence of the latter, the bishops, and the nobility at Windsor castle. The whole proceedings and the decree thereupon, in favour of the archbishop of Canterbury, are related at large by different authors, particularly by William Malmsbury, (fn. 23) the author of the Antiquates Britannicæ (fn. 24) and the Anglia Sacra. (fn. 25) The registers of the church of Canterbury abound with the reports of this controversy, and there are in the archives of this church, some originals of the professions of obedience, made by the archbishops of York; (fn. 26) but to relate more of this matter, would only be tedious, and would answer no purpose of further information to the reader.

The last matter which occasioned disputes between the two archbishops, was, the carrying of the cross erect before the archbishop of York, within the province of Canterbury. (fn. 27) This encroachment, as it was deemed, was chiefly made by the archbishop of York, at that time, when Robert Winchelsea, archbishop of Canterbury, was in banishment, and lived at Rome; when Henry, prior of this church, the archbishop's vicar-general, sent his letters to the bishop of London, requiring him, that as the archbishop of York was about to pass through his diocese with his cross borne erect before him, he should watch his coming, and inhibit his passing forward in that manner; and that he should put under an interdict all places which he should pass through, for such time as he remained there; (fn. 28) which letters were more strictly and severely enjoined by archbishop Winchelsea, on his return, by his own special mandate, (fn. 29) which appears by the tenor of it, to have been issued out a little before the meeting of the parliament, that is, soon after Easter in 1309, being the 2d year of king Edward II notwithstanding which, the archbishop of York came to his house near Westminster, with his cross borne erect before him all the way, which the archbishop of Canterbury being informed of, immediately put an ecclesiastical interdict upon all those places through which he had passed, or in which he had rested. The king hearing of this, sent the earls of Glocester and Lincoln, with some others, to come to parliament, proposing, by way of accommodation, that the two archbishops should each day come to parliament alternately, in each others absence; but the archbishop of Canterbury, after consultation with his suffragans, sent in answer to the king by the bishops of London, Sarum and Exeter, and the prior of Canterbury, that neither himself nor any of his suffragan bishops would come to parliament, so long as the archbishop of York was there, or in the city or suburbs of London, with his cross borne before him; and that he never would upon any terms consent, that the archbishop of York should bear up his cross in any place within the province of Canterbury. Upon which the king, with advice of his nobility, commanded the archbishop of York to depart from London and its surburbs, as the king's progenitors were wont in like case to do to the archbishop's predecessors. The archbishop of York, in consequence of this, returned home, and the archbishop of Canterbury with his comprovincial bishops, came to parliament. (fn. 30)

This controversy continued for a long time; Lambarde, whose zeal frequently outruns his judgement, insinuates that this cross was an ensign of their own pride, where by they sought to insult and triumph one over the other. (fn. 31) But it was far otherwise; for as the sword and mace borne before the civil magistrate are the ensigns of authority, not of pride; so the cross carried before the archbishops was an ensign, not of pride, but of power and jurisdiction; and as the magistrate causing his sword and mace to be borne up before him, beyond the limits of his jurisdiction, might justly be looked on as an assuming of a jurisdiction where he had none, and an encroachement upon the rights of another; so when the archbishop of York caused his cross, the ensign of his authority and jurisdiction, to be borne up before him within the province of Canterbury, (fn. 32) it was interpreted, as meant to incroach upon the jurisdiction and rights of the archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed the very beginning of this contest plainly appears to have been grounded upon a pretence of jurisdiction, which the archbishops of York claimed within the province of Canterbury; for in the 27th year of king Henry I. the king being at the chapel of Windsor castle, the archbishop of York appeared there with his cross erect, and claiming it as his right, would have set the crown on the king's head, the custom being then for our kings to wear their crowns upon solemn occasions, equally with the archbishop of Canterbury; but he was repulsed, the bearer of his cross, together with the cross itself, was thrown out of the chapel; and it was affirmed, that no metropolitan, out of his own province, might have any cross borne before him. (fn. 33) At length, in the year 1353, as it is in the registers of the church of Canterbury, this contention, which had continued near three hundred years, was finally concluded. The instrument of the composition, confirmed by pope Innocent, is in the registers of this church, and agrees with that which is printed by Mr. Wharton in his Anglia Sacra, (fn. 34) by which it was compounded between them— That each archbishop in the other's province should freely and without molestation have the cross borne up before him; and that the archbishop of York should solemnly send a messenger with an image in gold, of an archbishop carrying a cross in his hand, or some like sort of jewel in gold, of the value of forty pounds sterling, to be offered at the shrine of St. Thomas, in Canterbury, &c. William Bothe, archbishop of York, in compliance with this composition, sent by Sir Thomas Tirel, on Nov. 30, 1452, a jewel to the church of Canterbury. (fn. 35)

Mention has been made before, of an attempt made by Gilbert Foliot, bishop of London, in Henry II.'s time, to transfer again the patriarchal chair from Canterbury to London, and to re-establish it there. This attempt was bold and vigorous, and made at a time when all things conspired to favour the design, for it was brought forward at the time when archbishop Becket lay under the king's severest displeasure.

Bishop Foliot was a man of singular parts, of unwearied industry and of great courage, openly and avowedly claiming, that the metropolitical dignity did of most antient right belong to the see of London. The bishop wanted neither skill nor resolution to manage this cause, and he openly and prosessedly opsesed the archbishop, for the space of seven years together, and sided with the king against him. He was one of the ambassadors sent by the king to the earl of Flanders, the king of France, and the pope, to complain of the archbishop, as rebellious, and no less than a traitor to his royal crown and dignity; at which time he asserted, that the metropolitical dignity did of right belong to him, as bishop of London, and that he owned no obedience to the church of Canterbury. (fn. 36) Gilbert had indeed been translated from the see of Hereford to that of London, and at his translation had not renewed the prosession of obedience, and upon this pretence made an appeal from the sentence of the archbishop, alledging that he was not subject to it, which he would undertake to prove, which archbishop Becket heavily complained of, and in his charter concerning the liberties of his church, he forbids, under an anathema, any one to attempt a claim of this kind again. (fn. 37)


  • 1. See Thorn, in Decem. Script. col. 1758.
  • 2. See Bromton, col.730. Gervas, col. 1629.
  • 3. See below, concerning pope Gregory's sending the pall to Augustine.
  • 4. Anno 603. Spelman's Councils, tom. i. p. 116.—Pope Gregory certainly intended to establish three archiepiscopal sees, viz. Canterbury, London, and York, probably of equal rank; for which purpose he sent three palls to Augustine, to be bestowed when those cities and the neighbouring parts had embraced Christianity; but the pope dying in the interim, Augustine kept the three palls, one of which he used himself, and the other two were used by his two next successors in the archbishopric. See Gervas, col. 1632. Polidore Virgil Hist. lib. 3. Hereby the prophecy of Merlin was fulfilled, viz. that the dignity of London should grace Canterbury, and such was the antient interpretation of it by Alanus de Insulis. who lived in 1250. Battely, pt. ii. p.37.
  • 5. Matthew Westminster. Gervas, col. 1631.
  • 6. Viz. that the metropolitical chair should be placed in the metropolis of a kingdom, as Canterbury was at that time.—Battely, pt. ii. p. 38.
  • 7. See Malmsbury; Bede Hist. 1. i. c. 33; Lambarde's Peramb. p. 78.
  • 8. Dugdale's History of St.Paul's, p. 4. See Higden Polychron, p. 204.
  • 9. Gervas, col. 1634.
  • 10. Battely, pt. ii. p. 38.
  • 11. gestis Pontif. L. i. P. 208.
  • 12. Malmesb. de gestis Pontif. l. i. P. 209. Wilkins's Councils, tom. i p. 35. Ralph de Diceto, col. 438. See the decree of pope Boniface, concerning the dignity of the church of Canterbury, addressed to archbishop Justus, Decem. Script. col. 1749—the privilege which pope Honorius granted to the church of Canterbury of the primacy of all the churches of Britain; addressed to archbishop Honorius. Ibid. col. 1750. And the decree of pope Formosus, in the time of archbishop Plegmund, that the metropolis and first see of all the kingdom of the English should be in the city of Canterbury. Ibid. col. 1751.
  • 13. Most of these letters are printed in the Decem. Scriptores, together with a letter of archbishop Rodulph, relating to the same subject, under the title of Papal Decrees concerning the Primacy of Canterbury, col. 1335. See Spelman's Councils, tom. i. p. 519. Wilkins's Councils, tom. i. p. 41 et seq. in which are several charters and bulls relating to this primacy.
  • 14. See Wilkins's Councils, tom. i. p. 126.
  • 15. Ibid. p. 432.
  • 16. See the letter of king Ceonulph for this purpose, anno 801, in Spelman's Councils, tom. i. p. 320.
  • 17. Malmesb. de gestis, Reg. Ang. l. i. p. 3. Decem. Script. Ralph de Diceto. Abbreviat. Chron. Thorn, col. 1775. See Gervas, in vita Lamberti. Battely's Somner, p. 216, pt. ii. p. 39.
  • 18. According to Stow and some other historians, king Offa translated the archiepiscopal see from Canterbury to Lichfield; but they certainly misrepresent the fact, for the metropolitical dignity was not removed from Canterbury, for Lambert, who was then archbishop of Canterbury, continued so till his death. Lichfield was indeed erected into an archbishopric, and had some of the provinces which before belonged to Canterbury given to it, but Lambert still presided as archbishop over the rest, the same as before. Bishop Godwin has given a true account of this matter accordingly, in his History De Præsulibus Angliæ.
  • 19. In the 33d year of king Henry VIII. an act passed that the bishopric and diocese of Chester; and the bishopric and diocese of Man in the Isle of Man, and the archdeaconry of Richmond, and the bishop of Chester's house at Weston, should be annexed to the bishopric of Chester; and all people in the same diocese should be united to the province and archbishopric of York, and should be dissevered from that of Canterbury.
  • 20. Ad Extremos Scotiæ fines. Ralph de Diceto, col. 484.—Higden Polychron. p. 204.
  • 21. Bromton, col. 1101. in Decem. Script. Ant. Brit p. 17.
  • 22. See Chronica Pontisicum Ecclesæ Eborac, autore Thoma Stubbs, in Dec. Script. col. 1686, &c. and the epistle of archbishop Ralph to the pope, asserting the privileges of his church, and its primacy over that of York, against Thurstan, archbishop of York; which is printed in Dec. Script. col. 1735.—Knyghton, col. 2345–2348.
  • 23. Ralph de Diceto, col. 484. Bromton, col. 970, 1005; 1107, 1109, 1263. De gestis Pontis. Angl. lib. i. See Spelman's Councils, tom. ii. p. 5–11, et seq.
  • 24. In vita Lanfranci.
  • 25. Vol. p. 65, &c.
  • 26. Spelman's Councils, tom. ii. p. 5–11, where the professions of several archbishops of York are inserted.
  • 27. Concerning this dispute, see Wilkins's Councils, tom. ii. p. 43, 119, 128, 255, 488.
  • 28. See this letter, Battely, pt. ii. appendix, p. 10.
  • 29. Ibid. pt. ii. appendix, p. 11.
  • 30. Regist. Eccl. Christi P. Battely, pt. ii. appendix, p. 11.
  • 31. Peramb. p. 85.
  • 32. The cross borne before the archbishop of Canterbury was esteemed so sacred, that when he went with it to parliament, the Lords and Commons were sworn with much solemnity on it; of which, see many instances in Cotton's Records.
  • 33. Stow's Annals, anno 1126.
  • 34. Anglia Sacra, vol, i. p. 77. E. Registro Bothe Eborac Archiep.
  • 35. In Wilkins's Councils, tom. iii. p. 31, is inserted the confirmation of the composition between the archbishops of Canterbury and York, concerning the bearing of the cross by pope Innocent VI. anno 1354.
  • 36. The writers of the life of Becket all accuse bishop Foliot of aspiring to the archiepiscopal honour; John of Salisbury makes heavy complaints against him upon this very account. "Behold, says he, the bishop of London has publicly protested to the grief of all good men, that he owes no obedience to the church of Canterbury, the prime see of Britain, and that he will cause the metropolitical chair to be translated to that place, where he pretends, I will not say with what untruth, that it ought to be fixed, namely, in his church at London, where he boasts that the Archflamen was in the time of Paganism." See Epist. p. 272.
  • 37. See Battely's Somner, pt. ii. p. 43.