09.09.17, Liddy, Bishopric of Durham in the Late Middle Ages

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Virginia Blanton

The Medieval Review 09.09.17

Liddy, Christian D.. The Bishopric of Durham in the Late Middle Ages: Lordship, Community and the Cult of St. Cuthbert. Regions and Regionalism in History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2008. Pp. 278. ISBN: 9781843833772.

Reviewed by:
Virginia Blanton
University of Missouri-Kansas City

In the palatinate of Durham, the bishops of Durham exercised sovereign lordship in the county and governed using an institutional apparatus that mimicked the king's. As lords without an overlord, they were exempt from paying taxes or providing knight service to the king, which made the county of Durham an economic and political boon to the men appointed to the see. These rights were claimed as ancient privileges, stemming back to the granting of the liberty to Cuthbert himself. Where the economic history of Durham, as well as the constitutional structure of the bishopric, has been much studied (an extensive literature review is given in the introduction), Liddy's thoroughly researched discussion of locality and community seeks to provide a more complex picture of the economic and social nature of the palatinate, demonstrating how landholders--including clergy and laity--participated in the political structure of the bishopric of Durham. The great success of this book is the wealth of research done on the bishops (principally Thomas Hatfield 1345-1381 and Thomas Langley 1406-1437) and on the laity, especially the gentry landholders and the aristocratic families of the county; the priory of Durham receives far less attention here, and while Liddy shows well the ways in which community was defined in and across the various sub-groups within the bishopric, he does not often distinguish between the see and the priory as separate entities whose office-holders had differing agendas. To be sure, juggling the details of these various groups over a two-hundred year period is an enormous task; more than once it became confusing who was responsible for what and whom they affected. An appendix with a list of bishops and priors, along with a listing of the major landholders discussed and their dates would be a useful tool for sorting out the complex relationships covered. Indeed, the prosapographical details would be enhanced with additional figures, ones that could not only outline genealogies but also illustrate the relationships between these various groups. It is valuable to know, for example, that lawyers for the aristocratic Nevilles were also working as legal counsel for the priory or for the bishop, as it shows the complexity of alliances at work in this region.

Liddy's repeated assertion, that all of these groups claimed the liberty of Durham, is made throughout the book but only realized in the final chapter, which is focused on the politics of the community and the Haliwerfolc, the landholders within the bishopric who claimed the rights of the ancient liberty as descendents of those who had protected the tomb of Cuthbert on its long journey from Lindisfarne to its final resting place at Durham. In many ways, the most fascinating and least realized section of the book, this chapter attempts to illustrate how these multiple social and political relationships worked and what tensions arose among the groups. Liddy recounts the mythic narrative about Cuthbert and Durham that was used as a justification for resistance to royal or episcopal commands but does not indicate how the palatinate was originally established. Providing some insight into how this institutional structure developed would allow the reader to understand how the mythic properties of this narrative were enhanced and how the cult of Cuthbert was being framed by those invoking the saint's support. The rhetoric of the liberty, at least as far as it is represented here, was simply recounted by all and sundry whenever a group wanted to justify their resistance (to a command for knight service or taxation, for example). What is not clear is how these groups may have used the rhetoric differently, nor is it distinguished how these claims were not only political or economic but also spiritual, ones that seemed to have differed if made by the bishop (whose claims seem more secular as Liddy presents them) from those made by the gentry (whose claims seem to be more about their association with the saint himself--a difference that is likely a result of their insider status as locals and the bishops' place as outsiders appointed to the see). The final chapter tries to bring these various threads together with some degree of success. A discussion of the use of the cult throughout the book, however, would have been appropriate to demonstrate more fully how these groups were invoking the saint to lay claim to their own rights as landholders; it would also have provided more cohesion for the work as a whole.

As part of the Regions and Regionalism in History series (no. 11, not no. 10 as title page indicates), this book offers a great deal to those working on the medieval northeast of England and will be readily intelligible to those who already know well the history of the area. It may be less useful to those working on other regions of England. While Liddy acknowledges the scholarship of other economic historians, such as Edward Miller, he does not reference their work explicitly, as he does social historians. Miller's The Abbey and Bishopric of Ely (1951) documents much of the same kind of political negotiations between bishop and prior that Liddy hints occurred at Durham, and Helen Cam provides an extensive discussion of other liberties in England in her book Liberties and Communities in Medieval England (1944), a discussion that illustrates that while the palatinate of Durham was unique in some regard, it was not exceptional in its claims to liberty from royal control. Neither is cited by Liddy or included in the bibliography. Perhaps more troubling is that this book approaches the mythology of the Durham cult without drawing upon the work of hagiography specialists, who have charted this path so well. Susan Ridyard's book The Royal Saints of Anglo- Saxon England (1989) demonstrates how religious communities in England used saints and miracle stories to support their claims to liberty, especially their exemption from royal or episcopal intrusions. Stranger still is that explicit research on the cult of Cuthbert is missing from the bibliography, including important articles by Barbara Abou-El-Haj (1996) and R. Barrie Bodson (2001), as well as two significant books: the often cited St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community (1989), edited by Gerald Bonner, D. W. Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe, and the beautifully illustrated St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham (2000) by Dominic Marner. The work of these scholars would have informed Liddy's account of the cult of Cuthbert considerably, even as it would have provided a means to deepen the discussion of the political and social tensions in the bishopric. Given that Boydell has demonstrated an investment in publishing books on the English hagiographical tradition, it is disappointing that more is not made of the cult rhetoric in defense of the landholders' liberty.

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Virginia Blanton

University of Missouri-Kansas City