In August 1265 Walter de Cantilupe, Bishop of Worcester, entertained Simon de Montfort at his Kempsey Manor. Earl Simon was a rebellious subject who was holding King Henry III hostage and preparing to fight a battle against the King’s son Edward. Bishop Walter said mass for the rebel’s safety and success on the morning of August 4th. How could a distinguished man of the church find himself in such a position?
Matthew Paris here sets out Walter’s election as Bishop in his Angli Historia Magna. In 1237 Walter was enthroned in the presence of King Henry III, the Queen of England, the Queen of Scotland, the Papal Legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other great nobles. In 1265 he retired from Worcester broken-hearted and stayed in his distant manor of Blockley in Gloucestershire until his death a few months later. What could have gone so terribly wrong?
The extract from the John Speed Map of Worcestershire shows in outline the places mentioned in this blog. Kempsey (‘Kemsey’) is marked in green, Evesham (‘Evesholm’) in red, and Blockley in blue.
The previous two years had witnessed the culmination of a period of revolutionary political upheaval second only to the English Civil War in scope and consequence, known today simply as the Second Baron’s War. On August 4th 1265 the rebel Barons were decisively defeated by Prince Edward at the Battle of Evesham – a disturbing and bloody affair that ended with Simon de Montfort’s death and dismemberment. And the five Bishops who had supported Simon were suspended and ordered to Rome to face the judgment of the Pope.
Walter came from a family that had risen by devoted service to the crown. His father and his elder brother had been consistently loyal officials of an unpopular master, King John. Walter followed in his father’s footsteps, entering the service of the Exchequer and acting as an itinerant Justice in the early years of Henry III.
He proved himself to be a zealous reforming bishop. He instructed the sometimes ignorant parish clergy in their duties. He removed married clergy and those who had inherited their benefices. It was said that the Bishop visited Great Malvern Priory and all the other religious institutions of the Diocese, and put right anything that needed improvement. He successfully claimed the town and churches of Dudley for Worcester. Older readers will remember that Dudley remained a little island of Worcestershire within Staffordshire until 1974, and it still is part of the Anglican Diocese of Worcester.
Why would Walter and other Bishops have supported the rebellious Simon de Montfort and even seen the anointed King taken prisoner by him at Lewes the previous year? Bishops had played a part in overseeing the exercise of royal power since before the Norman Conquest. With Archbishop Stephen Langton they had played a vital role in producing Magna Carta, while Archbishop Edmund had threatened King Henry with excommunication in 1234 if he refused to dismiss his foreign councillors. Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, a friend and ally of Walter de Cantilupe, had expressed the right of the subject to rebel where the monarch was unjust.
Bishop Walter was one of a group of reforming churchmen critical of some royal policies, particularly the unfair taxation of clerics. Efforts were made to take control of government through permanent councils advising and sometimes replacing the King. But in 1264 Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester took political and military steps of a sort not seen again in England until the time of Oliver Cromwell, and five English Bishops found themselves trying to justify the arrest of King Henry III and his son Edward following the Battle of Lewes. Edward escaped captivity and pursued Simon with a great army, finally meeting up with him on August 4th 1265 at a place outside Evesham. Edward is portrayed in his battle armour on a seal:
William of Rishanger continued the famed Angli Historia Major of Matthew Paris and gave this Latin account of what happened in the days before Evesham:
There is quite a lot to take in here! The feast day of St Peter in Chains is August 1st. Simon de Montfort came to stay with Bishop Walter de Cantilupe at his Kempsey manor, still holding King Henry III a captive from the Battle of Lewes the year before. Kempsey is just a few miles from the centre of Worcester, and had been a favourite home for the Bishops since Anglo-Saxon times. There is a house in the village still calling itself the Palace, and a pub named after Bishop Walter!
The next day saw the Battle of Evesham, with its disastrous consequences for Simon and the rebellious barons, as described briefly on the Speed map of Worcestershire:
Walter de Cantilupe died on 12 February 1266. He was buried in the Cathedral and his stone effigy can be seen today at the east end in the Lady Chapel. It is fair to say that he remained a respected figure meriting admiration for his vigour and moral character.