The Medieval Review 14.03.21

Gemmill, Elizabeth. The Nobility and Ecclesiastical Patronage in Thirteenth-Century England. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. 257. $99.00. ISBN: 9781843838128.

Reviewed by:

Michael Burger
Auburn University at Montgomery

Although there have been studies of the church patronage of individual noble houses and regional studies of the nobility's church patronage, Elizabeth Gemmill has produced the first study of the ecclesiastical patronage of the English aristocracy as a whole. Moreover, she has done so over the course of a significant period of time--the thirteenth century--although she concentrates on the latter part of the period. Moreover, Gemmill also for the first time joins the study of the patronage of benefices, usually parish churches, with a study of the patronage of monastic houses. The result is an illuminating, well-argued book that refines and extends the established understanding of church patronage in thirteenth-century England. I myself have written on ecclesiastical patronage, and wish I'd read this book before doing so.

Just as the Crown was usually the most important fact of national political life, the Crown is inescapable in this book. Yet Gemmill establishes that the nobility had an active role in shaping royal policy toward the church. Given political conditions in the thirteenth century, one would expect this, but Gemmill establishes the point concretely, showing what noble concerns were regarding the Church and how the Crown responded to, or even exploited, them. Hence, Gemmill produces evidence that the nobility worried about the impact of papal provisions, not because their own advowsons were being overridden--as has been long known--but because they worried that advowsons that might be exercised by monasteries on their behalf might be obviated. Indeed, such influence was especially great when a religious house's advowson had been granted by the family of the magnate in question. Hence, noble families acted as protectors of "their" religious houses and thus were drawn into efforts to counter the papacy. Although Gemmill does not say so, this discussion looks forward to the fourteenth-century Statute of Provisors as a product of noble as well as royal interests. Yet, patrons could be comparatively passive regarding other royal moves aimed at the Church. While individual nobles sought exemptions for their clerks or religious houses in the face of Edward I's measures against alien clergy and priories, they accepted the principle that it was Edward's right to act as he did. Nor did they protest Edward's attempt to tax the clergy in the face of Clericis laicos, although they had argued that papal annates effectively deprived them of their patronage by using ecclesiastical wealth for purposes other than those for which they or their predecessors had originally given it. Similarly, Gemmill shows that even before 1279, nobles desired to regulate grants to the Church in order to safeguard the rights of overlords. Indeed, since 1228 the king had enjoyed greater protection in such matters than the nobility. The magnates thus gained real benefit from the Statute of Mortmain that they helped to create. Gemmill also shows nobles as well as the Crown exercising licensing authority under the statute.

The Crown also haunts this book even beyond the realm of high politics. In various ways, Gemmill compares noble and royal patronage. Thus, in giving a close account of the chronology of the growing detachment of advowsons from land, Gemmill suggests that the Crown, namely Edward I, took the lead in that development. In a fine account of the on-the-ground mechanics of how nobles discovered vacancies and went about filling them, Gemmill establishes that the nobility, being less dependent than the Crown on windfalls such as wardships or monastic (not to mention episcopal) vacancies for parochial patronage, relied on their estate managers to notify them of vacancies. The royal position was more complicated, with the king needing to discover what his rights were in the first place (hence inquisitions post mortem) and relying on importunate clerks to hear of actual vacancies.

This book is about nobles' patronage rights and their use of them, not about (aristocratic) lay piety. Gemmill does observe, however, that nobles looked largely to the friars, chantries, and their own household worship when it came to their spiritual needs. Monasteries, and in particular parishes in their advowson--even those appurtenant to their manors--were of less interest regarding spiritual concerns than regarding patronage. Indeed, nobles often established chantries in houses of which they were not the patrons.

As to the use of ecclesiastical patronage, Gemmill identifies the usual suspects as recipients: relatives, administrators needing support and clerks of other great persons presented as a favor to their lords. This third category has long deserved more attention than it has gotten from historians, and so it is good to see it get it here. Gemmill also establishes what one only suspected: that relations were favored over other classes of recipient.

Less expected is the distinction Gemmill draws between holding the advowson of a church--that is, the right to present a clerk to be instituted by the bishop--and the patronage of a church, which included responsibility to protect it. Gemmill is wise to note that these terms are only sometimes distinguishable. The question could provide more scope for further research. Another move by Gemmill will interest not only historians of ecclesiastical patronage: her rehabilitation of inquisitions post mortem, at least for the thirteenth century. That rehabilitation allows Gemmill to firm up the value of certain churches as well as trace advowsons from patron to patron.

My criticisms are few and minor. Given the nature of Gemmill's evidence and argument, it is unavoidable that examples of this or that tend to pile up, which does not always make for an easy read, despite the clarity of her prose. Given this weakness, extraneous detail should probably be avoided. Hence, for example, the fact that Archbishop Pecham had tried to reconcile Edmund of Cornwall and his wife, which seems to play no role in Gemmill's conclusions, could have been pruned.

This book was also probably difficult to structure. An organizational problem is that much of the evidence of magnates' distinguishing between land and advowsons comes from Chapter 6, in the context of nobles' continuing support of monasteries by donating advowsons to them,rather than Chapter 4, where the chief discussion of the disassociation of land and advowson takes place. And some of that discussion is to be found in Chapter 1.

Copyright (c) 2014 Michael Burger

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