‘Princes of the Church and their Palaces’ Conference


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On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week I attended the first three days of a five-day conference, ‘Princes of the Church and their Palaces’, at Auckland Castle in County Durham. This was the first ever conference devoted to episcopal palaces. The conference brought together medieval historians, archaeologists, landscape historians, librarians, archivists and curators. In my case, I attended the conference to represent the Bishop’s Palace in Ely, with a view to learning how other bishops’ palaces present themselves to the public and to consider how the unique history of Ely’s Bishop’s Palace can better be promoted.

Day 1

The conference began on Tuesday afternoon in the Castle chapel with an introduction to the Auckland Project from Chris Ferguson, who explained the aims of the Auckland Castle Trust. This was set up in 2012 following an attempt by the Church Commissioners to sell a series of paintings of the Sons of Jacob by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarrán, which were purchased in 1756 by Bishop Trevor and placed in a room specially designed for them, the Long Dining Room. The Trust was formed in order to save the paintings, but as a consequence of a £10 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund it was able to acquire the Auckland estate from the Church Commissioners. Auckland Castle remains the Bishop of Durham’s Palace and the home of the Diocesan Offices, but the historic core of the building is being made accessible to visitors. Furthermore, an annexe is to be built which will house a permanent exhibition on the story of faith in Britain. All of this is expected to be completed in 2018.

Delegates were given a tour of the Castle and grounds, including usually unseen areas such as the great kitchen, which was divided up in the 1960s and currently contains a plant room made of breeze blocks; plans are afoot, however, to clear the area and restore the kitchens to their original plan. We were also shown Bishop Cosin’s astonishing chapel, a re-worked medieval banqueting hall (although this would be hard to guess) and the late eighteenth-century ‘Strawberry Hill Gothick’ rooms designed by James Wyatt, including the magnificent throne room. Finally, we were taken into the grounds and shown the remains of the south-facing walled gardens, which are also due to be restored in future.

After dinner, the Bishop of Durham opened the conference and a public lecture was delivered by Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, entitled ‘What is special about bishop’s palaces?’ Thurley began with an examination of two buildings constructed by Cardinal Wolsey – York House (later Whitehall Palace) and Hampton Court. He argued that these belong to a group of buildings built between 1450 and 1530 that features a chapel, cloister and hall, with residential buildings on an axis. They include Hampton Court, York Place, the Palace of Westminster, the Priory of St John at Clerkenwell, Lambeth Palace and Ely Place. Thurley set out to answer the question, ‘Why do these buildings have cloisters?’ To do so, he returned to the origins of secular cloisters at Sarum Cathedral in the twelfth century, and he argued that bishops began constructing cloisters in their residences, beginning with Bishop Roger of Sarum at Sherborne, so that the full processional liturgy of the Sarum usage could take place in their private chapels.

Royalty began to imitate the episcopal model and cloisters were installed in the Palace of Westminster and at Windsor, where the Canons of St Stephen and St George respectively formed a college to demonstrate the King’s piety. Bishops, Thurley argued, naturally wanted to imitate royalty in this respect, as their personal courts needed to proclaim their piety; indeed, bishops themselves participated in the liturgy on occasions of high diplomatic importance. A case in point is the summer residence of Cardinal Beaufort at Bishop Waltham, where a new chapel was begun in 1416. Progress on the Palace was slow owing to Beaufort’s changing fortunes at court; the Palace was glazed in 1427 (the year Beaufort received his red hat) but not finally completed until 1441. Beaufort’s palace, like a college of secular canons, contained a detached cloister whose only apparent use was for liturgical processions.

Thurley argued that an elite of bishop-administrators (some of them Cardinals) appropriated cloisters from colleges of secular canons and royal palaces. The cloister became the defining feature of the bishop’s palace and thus made bishop’s residences closer in form and function to royal palaces than to the houses and castles of the great temporal barons. As a coda to his paper, Thurley observed that in the reign of Edward VI the cloister at Whitehall was reinvented as a preaching space; a pulpit was constructed in the centre, and an oriel window built out into the cloister where the King himself could listen to sermons.

There is no evidence for a cloister at the Palace in Ely (although since the evidence we have for the Palace’s original layout is somewhat patchy, it is not impossible that one existed). However, overall it seems more likely that Ely was closer to the model of a Cambridge college, without a cloister – the cloister at Jesus College, founded by Bishop Alcock, only exists because the college was previously a convent of Benedictine nuns. However, the very fact that Ely did not have a cloister could be interpreted as significant – was it because Ely also served the purpose of a military installation? It seems likely that Alcock saw the purpose of the Palace at Ely quite differently from Ely Place; the latter was a London residence that served the diplomatic functions outlined by Thurley, whereas the Palace at Ely was a symbol of the Bishop’s temporal power within the Isle of Ely itself. Another possible explanation for the absence of a cloister is that Bishop Alcock’s Palace was replacing Hugh of Northwold’s thirteenth-century palace on the west side of the monastic cloister; Ely does not, therefore, fit into the lineage of secular buildings posited by Thurley. Thurley’s description of the oriel window at Whitehall led me to wonder whether Bishop Goodrich’s oriel, facing Cathedral Green, might originally have served a similar purpose. Did public sermons take place on Cathedral Green in Edward’s reign? If so, then the oriel window would have been the ideal place from which the Bishop could listen to them. We certainly know that burnings of heretics took place on Cathedral Green in Mary’s reign.

Day 2

Wednesday’s proceedings took place primarily in Bishop Auckland Town Hall and began with a paper delivered by Jaqueline Sturm of Princeton University on late antique episcopal complexes. I found this paper especially interesting, since a few months ago I visited the ruins of early episcopal complexes at Kourion, Palaepaphos and Agios Georgios in Cyprus. Sturm focussed on the sole surviving and intact sixth-century episcopium at Parenzo (Porec) in Croatia. She argued that bishops began to adopt an ‘imperial architectural vocabulary’ as a consequence of the decline of curial government under the Tetrarchy; as barbarian incursions into the Empire intensified, bishops assumed the role of middlemen between invading forces and the citizens of Roman towns. The Euphrasian Basilica at Parenzo is still linked to its original baptistery and episcopium, which features an aula designed as a miniature version of an imperial basilica. Remarkably, the bishop’s residence at Parenzo was continuously occupied by bishops between around 550 and 1994, when the Bishop moved out and it became a museum. It must surely be a contender for the longest continuously occupied residence in Europe. However, as a consequence of its continuous occupation the house was remodelled many times, and original features such as marble and mosaic have long since disappeared.

The second paper of the morning was delivered by Michael Burger from Montgomery, Alabama, who spoke on the evidence for architectural space in thirteenth-century bishops’ registers. Burger noted that most registers contain a combination of charters and memoranda – the memoranda usually containing information about where a bishop was when he performed a particular act. In some cases this information is very specific, telling us that a bishop was beneath a particular window or in front of his hearth in a particular chamber. Most commonly, the acts of the bishop are recorded as having taken place in a hall, chamber or chapel at an episcopal residence. Burger interprets this as an incursion of Italian notarial practices into England, associated with a desire to be precise about time and place for legal reasons. He noted that English episcopal places often had two halls, one smaller and one larger – the reason for this being that an older hall would be replaced by a larger one, built at a later date as an indication of status. Indeed, so great was the reputation of bishops’ halls that Henry III may have modelled Westminster Hall on episcopal models.

It is worth noting that this is consonant with the evidence from Ely, where we see an extremely large hall as part of Bishop Alcock’s Palace. Could it be that the grandeur of medieval episcopal halls derived ultimately from the basilica-like audience chambers of late antique episcopia? Finally, Burger noted that a number of episcopal acts took place not in the hall but in the bishop’s chamber – some of which were very large – such as the collation of clerks to benefices or the appointment of archdeacons. Burger did not suggest this, but I wonder whether the choice of the more intimate setting of the bishop’s chamber was intended to reinforce the bishop’s relationship with his clerks, especially the archdeacon. As Burger observed, the setting of the bishop’s chamber was more advantageous to the bishop than it was to the clerk, since it meant that the meeting took place on the bishop’s own terms and the witnesses were determined by him. The hall, by contrast, was a much more public space.

The next panel featured a paper from Julia Barrow of the University of Leeds on bishops’ itineraries, beginning with the Anglo-Saxon period. Barrow observed that there are no consistent records of bishops’ itineraries until the thirteenth century, but more general evidence of bishops on the move can be gleaned from earlier sources. Bede’s Letter to Egberht, for example, tells us about a number of visits to Carlisle made by St Cuthbert and tells us that Cuthbert conducted visits around his diocese in a particular order. Other sources for the movements of Anglo-Saxon bishops are Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, which gives information on how bishops travelled to royal centres (e.g. the journey of Finan to a royal estate to baptise Peada and Sigeberht ad murum). Anglo-Saxon bishops also regularly travelled to church councils, especially during the period of Mercian dominance.

Philippa Hoskin of the University of Lincoln picked up where Barrow left off, concentrating on bishops’ itineraries in the thirteenth century. Hoskin cautioned that bishops’ itineraries do not always constitute an accurate guide to where a bishop was at any given time, because charters might record the bishop’s formal consent but need not have been drawn up in his presence or personally sealed by him. Episcopal households were complex, ever-shifting institutions, and the bishop’s chancery did not always accompany the bishop. The distinction between the bishop’s seal of dignity (which could be applied by his representative on his written instructions) and the bishop’s personal seal (which would only be applied by the bishop himself) means that even ‘performative’ documents do not necessarily guarantee the bishop’s personal presence.

John Hare concluded the panel by considering the episcopal houses of the Bishop of Winchester, and asking why the bishop needed so many houses. He observed that the number of episcopal residences declined in the later Middle Ages as royal authority became more centred on London. For Hare, the difference between an episcopal residence and a mere episcopal manor was the provision of fishponds, a park and a wine cellar – all of these indicating the preparedness of the palace to receive the bishop. Hare observed that bishops began building castles during the unstable period of the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda – a case in point being the castle at Ely traditionally attributed to Bishop Nigel. Hare noted that the residences of the Bishop of Winchester fell into a number of categories determined by function; categories that can equally be applied to Ely. There was the ‘administrative headquarters’ where the pipe rolls were kept – Wolvesey Palace in the case of Winchester, Ely Palace in the case of Ely. There was the London residence (Southwark Palace for Winchester, Ely Place for Ely). There was the country house and hunting lodge (Esher for Winchester, Hatfield for Ely). Finally, there was the fortified castle (Farnham Castle for Winchester, Wisbech Castle for Ely). Hare noted that, even if the bishop was not in residence, his household at a particular residence, particularly the chapel establishment, could maintain a sense of his presence and influence the local gentry and aristocracy. Hare argued for a growing distinction, as the Middle Ages progressed, between those houses regularly visited by bishops and those that were merely assets. He also noted the increasing challenge to bishops’ local dominance by the gentry and aristocracy after the Reformation – something seen particularly clearly in the case of Ely in the conflict between Bishop Cox and the Norths.

The panel was followed by an interesting discussion that struck at the very title of the conference itself. Simon Thurley noted that the Palace of Westminster was the only building consistently called a palatium in the Middle Ages; Henry VIII passed an Act of Parliament to ensure Whitehall was considered a palace. He questioned whether a clear distinction can be made between palaces and other buildings, since there is no use of the word palatium in thirteenth-century documents referring to bishops’ residences. Hoskin observed that in most itineraries it is usually just the name of a town or village that is given, and the reader is meant to know where the bishop might have been. Burger noted that domus episcopi is sometimes used. The question of when large episcopal residences in see towns were first referred to as ‘palaces’ was raised, but not adequately answered. Barrow said that a bishop’s residence is sometimes described as aula episcopi, and John Hare noted that the phrase curia episcopalis sometimes designates the bishop’s residence in pipe rolls. Mike Ashby took the discussion forward to the eighteenth century, mentioning letters published in The Gentleman’s Magazine expressing anxiety in the eighteenth century about bishops’ houses being called palaces and bishops’ seats being described as thrones. Such ‘relics of popery’ cast into question how reformed the Church of England really was. Thurley said that the most common term used to describe an episcopal residence in the medieval period was simply ‘manor’. However, Maureen Miller indicated that she might be able to shed further light on the use of the word palatium in her lecture on Italian bishops’ palaces, as in an Italian context the word implied a very specific claim to power.

Mike Ashby of Emmanuel College, Cambridge began the next panel by speaking on ‘Episcopal Hospitality in the Eighteenth Century’. I am familiar with Mike’s work as we corresponded at the time I was writing A History of the Bishop’s Palace at Ely (2012), at which time he pointed me towards some important sources. Mike explained that his PhD thesis began as a study of the relationship between the Church of England and the ‘age of elegance’ in the eighteenth century, through both sermons and material culture. It also considered episcopal propagation of loyalty to the Hanoverian regime, e.g. through portraiture, and asked the question ‘What was it to be a Georgian churchman?’ Ashby noted that much work has been done on ecclesiastical administration but little has been done on the social life of bishops and their hospitality. How were bishops expected to receive guests in the period 1740–89? Ashby argued that since bishops’ palaces were such socially vibrant places, we must try to understand the etiquette used there.

Ashby has conducted much research into Bishop Yorke at Ely, and a key source of evidence has been around 800 letters written by the Bishop’s wife Mary Yorke to her mother and niece. Bishop’s palaces played host to many occasions governed by highly theorised principles of politeness, which through the bishops’ efforts led Anglicanism to be strongly associated with politeness. However, the Church of England has featured little in scholarly discussions of politeness because it has been falsely perceived as a ‘secular’ feature of eighteenth-century culture, yet many bishops were described and praised in terms of politeness in funeral sermons. William Cole was very critical of Robert Butts of Ely, who failed to live up to expected standards of polite conduct, reporting that ‘the only Time he ever went to his public Day at Ely, he behaved so rudely & insolently to the clergy, that he resolved it would be his first and last visit there’. Even worse, Butts consumed most of the port that was set out.

Ashby argued that churchmanship in the eighteenth century was a social pursuit; social mechanisms were required to reconcile the upper and lower clergy in a highly divided church. Grayson Ditchfield has argued that Archbishop Frederick Cornwallis played a key role in avoiding a revolution in Britain by leading a national church which maintained the loyalty of the lower clergy as well as the loyalty of the vast proportion of the laity. Tim Hitchcock adds that politeness enabled Britain’s elite to become comfortable with governing the British Empire. In the subsequent discussion, Ashby noted that Bishop Gooch, who was also Master of Gonville and Caius College, usually stayed at the Master’s Lodge at Caius rather than the Palace when he visited the Diocese of Ely. He also observed that a subtle distinction that separated episcopal hospitality from the largesse of the temporal nobility was that bishops were not supposed to partake of their hospitality themselves, but to stand back from it.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, most bishops stayed at the Palaces in their cathedral cities in summer and winter when Parliament was not in session (the fact that the number of episcopal palaces was greatly reduced during the Interregnum led to bishops spending more time at a smaller number of residences). Thousands of crab and lobster claws have been found at Bishop Auckland, and there may be similar deposits to be discovered at other bishops’ palace which can shed light on episcopal hospitality from an archaeological perspective. Ashby argued that the strong emphasis placed on politeness by the bishops of the Church of England was an attempt to wrest the concept from the grip of extreme Whigs like Shaftesbury, and the bishops seem to have believed that their lavish spending benefited the lower orders by providing employment.

In the final panel of the day, Christine Penney, the librarian at Hartlebury Castle, spoke about Bishop Hurd’s library, which is the only library of a Church of England bishop to remain in the room designed for it, although other episcopal libraries remain intact. Bishop Moore of Ely was a noted book collector, and Bishop Yorke bequeathed his entire library to the University of Cambridge, where it remains as part of the collection of Cambridge University Library. An interesting discussion on episcopal libraries followed Penney’s paper, and one delegate observed that a registry of episcopal libraries would be very helpful. I was intrigued to learn that the Hurd Library contains Alexander Pope’s own copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, which had previously belonged to John Dryden, as well as a 1543 Greek New Testament given by to Pope by Jonathan. The bibliographical history of the Bishop’s Palace at Ely is one aspect of the building’s history that could usefully be explored; I have so far only researched Sir Thomas Tresham’s library, which wholly or partially accompanied him to the Palace during his imprisonments there in the 1580s and ’90s.

The final paper of the day, from Adrian Green of Durham University, addressed John Cosin as an architect. Green intriguingly suggested that Cosin’s interest in architecture may have been stimulated by the Renaissance glories of his undergraduate college, Gonville and Caius, although I am not sure this can be demonstrated. I was unaware that, as Vice Chancellor of the University in 1639, Cosin draw up plans for a University Library and Senate House – a typical example of the visionary agenda of the pre-Civil War Laudians, so cruelly cut short by the storm to come. Cosin was also responsible for the restoration of the tomb of St Bede in Durham Cathedral for the occasion of Charles I’s visit there in 1633, and his relationship with the pre-Reformation church seems to have been complicated at best. Certainly, the chapel at Auckland Castle is a strong contender to be considered the masterpiece of seventeenth-century Gothic.

Day 3

The focus of the third day of the conference was bishops’ forests, chases and parks, and the panel was opened with a paper by Graham Jones of St John’s College, Oxford on ‘Mapping episcopal forests’. Jones defined forests as delimited districts in which Sthe king had a monopoly on hunting certain animals, and in which there was legal protection for both animals and vegetation (venison and vert). Together with John Langton, who delivered the next paper on episcopal hunting, Jones is the author of two recent volumes on forests and chases. Jones argued that the mapping of forests tells us not just about the royalty and nobility who hunted in them but also about the wider social context of forests, which sustained large numbers of people who exercised their common rights.

Langton’s paper outlined the theoretical canonical restrictions on bishops hunting – they were allowed to do so, but only for lawful health and recreation – although in practice many bishops and abbots seem to have spent much (or even most) of their time hunting. Henry Spelman argued in the 1620s that bishops needed to hunt in order to be fitted for their duties as lieutenants-in-chief of the crown, which might involve leading armies into battle. Hunting was a huge part of episcopal households, and the Bishop of Winchester had fox hunters, otter hunters and falconers in addition to deer hunters. Furthermore, hunting took place in parks as well as forests, where it enjoyed the same protection as the forest hunt; freewarrens were also a venue for hunting ‘vermin’ (such as rabbits). Langton noted that the sale and purchase of venison was made illegal by James I in 1607 and was only legalised in 1833, as a means of preserving the giving of venison as a relic of chivalry and protecting it from commercial exploitation.

The final two papers I heard before leaving the conference were delivered by Linda Drury and Andrew Miller, on the park at Bishop Auckland and the expression of masculinity in episcopal hunting. I was interested to note that Jones and Langton have identified Somersham in Huntingdonshire as a hunting lodge of the Bishop of Ely, as well as a couple of sites outside his Diocese. However, I also noted that Hatfield Palace was not identified as a hunting centre in spite of its proximity to one of the great royal forests, Hatfield Chase. These are all matters that merit further investigation. The conference continues today (Friday) and concludes on Saturday with field trips to other palaces and residences of the Bishops of Durham.

There were some themes that the conference did not address; it was entitled ‘Princes of the Church and their Palaces’ – and Princes of the Church included Abbots as well, of course. No attention was given to abbatial palaces and priors’ residences (perhaps they deserve a conference of their own?). The conference might also have addressed the household of Cardinal Pole, both in Italy and in England, which would have tied together the conference’s British and European themes. It could also have included discussion of the households of foreign bishops who acted as ambassadors to England, such as Alvaro de la Quadra. Furthermore, I personally would have loved to hear some discussion of the accommodation of the Catholic Vicars Apostolic between 1623 and 1850, and a discussion of Catholic bishops’ houses since the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 would also be intriguing. Perhaps a future companion volume to A Glimpse of Heaven could address the architecture of bishops’ houses, presbyteries and conventual buildings?

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