William de Blois, Bishop of Worcester 800 Years Ago: Bells, Bones and Disorderly Townsfolk

Two bishops’ effigies lie today in the Lady Chapel at the east end of Worcester Cathedral. It is thought that Bishop Walter de Cantilupe lies on the right, and Bishop William de Blois on the left. Walter was Bishop between 1236 and 1266, ending his days in disgrace due to his association with Simon de Montfort. William was his predecessor, Bishop of Worcester from 1218 until 1236.

 

Effigy of William de Blois. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Bishop William was enthroned on the 28th October, the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude. We know a good deal about his life and work from a handsome volume in the Cathedral Library, published in 1737 and named A Survey of the Cathedral-Church of Worcester, with an Account of the Bishops Thereof written by William Thomas, Rector of St Nicholas, Worcester.

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Details of the work of Bishop William can be found in both parts of this book. He had much to do with the upkeep of the Cathedral:

In 1220, in the time of William be Bleys, W. de Bradewe being then Sacrist, the great bells were cast and consecrated by that Bishop to the Honour of our Saviour and his Mother, and Hauteclere, to the Honour of St. John the Evangelist.

 In 1222, about the Feast of St Andrew, a violent Storm of Rain and Wind and Thunder blew down the two lesser Towers of the Church and did a great deal of Damage.

 In 1224 it was new fronted, Bishop Bleys laying the Foundation Stone.

Hauteclere was the name of one of the bells. The name came from French and meant ‘High and Clear’. Bishop William also built a new chapel just outside the Cathedral Church:

He also built the Chapel of the Charnel-house, between his Cathedral Church and Palace, and under it he made a large Crypt, for the better depositing of the Bones of the Dead. He dedicated it to St Thomas the Martyr, and ordered that Mass should be said daily therein for the Repose of his Soul, and of the Souls of his Predecessors, and of all the Faithful.

A charnel house was used to store bones from graves when the ground in the churchyard was too full for new burials. The Worcester charnel house was situated between the North Porch and the Bishop’s Palace and there are still parts of the crypt below the road surface.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III had summoned Bishops and other clerical leaders to a ‘Great Council’ at the Lateran Palace. At this Council many reforms were enacted in a series of Constitutions, and the church leaders were given the job of educating local priests and monks about them.

 

Pope Innocent III. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

It seems that Bishop William was strict in implementing this vital education. He laid down a rule that candidates for the priesthood must be examined on their knowledge of the Lateran Canons before their ordination. During his time in office the Bishop called several Synods or Councils, and he ruled that lower clergy must bring a copy of the Papalé Constitutions to the Synod and be prepared to read from it and to answer questions on baptism, penance, the eucharist and matrimony.

There is a short but fascinating reference to an action taken by the Bishop in 1225, saying how “he excommunicated all the Persons that were concerned in a great Tournament made in the City of Worcester.” It is thought that this tournament was held on Pitchcroft, being, as now, a large flat area just outside the city walls. A word of explanation is perhaps needed to explain why the Bishop should go to the trouble of punishing the organisers and participants in one of these popular events.

Modern film versions of tournaments always feature the joust as the main event, where two mounted knights attack each other with lances. But in medieval times it was the melée that dominated the day, a mounted charge of all the combatants at once. Those that remained on horseback after the charge would turn themselves round, all together, and charge again. The word tournament comes from the French verb tourner, meaning to turn.

 

A melée. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Tournaments were always banned in Lent. They could be unpopular with the burghers as they involved a lot of expense to the town. King Henry II banned them as leading to riot and disorder and sometimes even fomenting rebellion. King John and Henry III were more lenient which may have encouraged disorder, drinking and lax behaviour amongst the audience and so incurred the disapproval of the Church.

The first years of Bishop William’s time in office were also notable for a bitter dispute with the Prior, Simon Pimme. But that is a story for another Blog. For now let us remember Bishop William de Blois for his hard work in the Cathedral and in the large Worcester Diocese.

 

The head of the effigy of William de Blois. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

             Tim O’Mara

 

Reference: A Survey of the Cathedral-Church of Worcester with an Account of the Bishops Thereof from the Foundation of the See until the Year 1600 by William Thomas D.D. Rector of St Nicholas Worcester, London 1737

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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