The Medieval Review 14.05.10

Crosby, Everett U. The King's Bishops: The Politics of Patronage in England and Normandy, 1066-1216. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xviii, 519. $160.00. ISBN: 9781137307767.

Reviewed by:

Hugh M. Thomas
University of Miami

In his lengthy exploration of patronage and bishops in England and Normandy between the Norman Conquest and the death of King John, Everett U. Crosby has two main concerns, royal control of episcopal appointments and nepotism. His first chapter sets the stage by discussing medieval and modern views of bishops in the period. Crosby criticizes what he regards as snap judgments about individual medieval bishops made with inadequate evidence by some modern historians, warns against relying too heavily on medieval judgments that were based on impossibly high standards set by reformers, and argues that we should not focus too much on opposition between church and state. The second chapter consists of an overview of royal control of episcopal appointments, with most attention on the period up to Thomas Becket, and discusses the dual role of bishops as church officials and powerful lords. The third chapter provides a good deal of useful information, much of it set out in tables, on a variety of subjects, including episcopal appointments by royal reign; the background of bishops as regular clerics, royal clerks, or secular clerics; and the lengths of episcopal vacancies in various reigns. Scholars will find a large amount of research digested into a brief space here. Chapter four starts with a brief overview of the campaign for clerical celibacy in England in the period and then argues that nepotism was widespread. Chapters five and six, which together account for seventy percent of the text, are the heart of the book. In Chapter five, Crosby discusses every bishop in England between 1066 and 1216, with a focus on information that will shed light on the reasons for each bishop's appointment and relationship with the king. He also notes every relative of a bishop for whom information survives, and describes in detail benefices, grants of land, and other forms of patronage bishops provided to their assorted kin. Chapter six does the same for Normandy, though Crosby sensibly ends with King John's last appointment in each diocese rather than going up to 1216. In this chapter Crosby tends to give a little more information about each bishop, perhaps because there is less secondary work on Norman than on English bishops. At the same time, he includes less material on relatives of bishops, I suspect because less evidence survives for them in Normandy. Chapter seven is an overview of the career of Henry, bishop of Bayeux from 1165 to 1205. Henry was the sort of bishop of whom Crosby approves who could successfully navigate dual service to the crown and to the church, and Crosby compares his character favorably to the "arrogant and inflexible one of Thomas Becket" (266). In the last chapter, Crosby provides a useful table of kinship links between bishops and delivers some final thoughts on continuing royal reliance on bishops and on the nature of patronage structures in the period.

If any reader doubts that kings had a major say in episcopal appointment in the period, or that nepotism was common, she or he will doubt no more after reading this book! Yet these are hardly controversial arguments. Indeed, as I read through Chapters five and six I found myself, somewhat perversely, most fascinated with the bishops for whom no evidence of nepotistic practices survive. In many cases, particularly early in the period, the evidence may simply not survive, but in other cases one has to wonder why individual bishops might not have followed the prevailing trend. Of course, one can hardly fault Crosby for discussing lack of nepotism when his argument is that it was widespread. However, I wish he had advanced his analysis of the evidence further than the main and unsurprising arguments he does make. Crosby's great contribution in this work is to gather a tremendous amount of evidence. Indeed, Crosby is extraordinarily thorough in gathering evidence for any claim he makes, a point that was driven home for me when I looked at a footnote to a passage noting that many scholars have incorrectly applied the byname "de Beaumont" to Henry, bishop of Bayeux. In that note Crosby includes an "incomplete" list of references to fifteen scholars who have done so (409). Much more importantly, Crosby has provided a wealth of information about episcopal appointments, nepotism, and kinship ties between churchmen. There is not likely, for instance, to be much evidence about episcopal nepotism in the period that Crosby has not uncovered. The overall prosopographical work here is remarkable, and will allow other scholars to track clerical families or to follow the nuances of royal patronage in individual cases. However, most readers will probably end up using his two main chapters for purposes of reference rather than reading them through. Indeed, it would have been helpful for Crosby to compile various tables about nepotism as he did in chapter three about episcopal appointments. Though he proves his point about the frequency of nepotism through a mountain of anecdotal evidence, his arguments might have been even more effective had he compiled figures on percentages of bishops who can be shown to have practiced nepotism, numbers of relatives who benefitted, and similar matters. I wish even more, however, that Crosby had more fully exploited the evidence he provides for a more extensive analysis of patronage and nepotism and that he had developed more detailed conclusions. Crosby certainly provides useful and intelligent insights in passing at various points in the book: to take only one example, I was struck by his observation in chapter two that with bishops, as with secular lords, kings often inflicted punishments but then sought reconciliation. More generally, he stakes out a clear position in favor of those bishops who tried to reconcile service to church and state, and though others may disagree, they will need to take his views into account. Moreover, even though Crosby's main arguments are unsurprising, he makes them in a learned, eloquent, and overwhelmingly convincing manner. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel that he might have done more with the impressive amount of evidence he has gathered in this deeply researched study of patronage in England and Normandy between 1066 and 1216.

Copyright (c) 2014 Hugh M. Thomas

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