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21.08.03 Copsey, Biographical Register of Carmelites in England and Wales, 1240-1540

The Medieval Review

21.08.03 Copsey, Biographical Register of Carmelites in England and Wales, 1240-1540


This huge volume is an immense labor of scholarly dedication, the culmination of 30 years of research. At varying levels of detail Copsey has identified 4912 members of the Carmelite order (4489 of the English and Welsh province). It is safe to say that this work will not be replaced, though additional names and details, as with Emden's biographical registers for Oxford and Cambridge, will no doubt be added from time to time.

The men of the order are listed alphabetically by first names: a tremendous number of Johns, Gilberts, Henries, etc., and each usually followed by a goodly assortment of attributed surnames. The entries run from one-liners--just a man's name and its source, to entries for major figures--mostly the order's scholars and often accompanied an exhaustive bibliography that might run to a dozen pages needed to list his writings (extant, lost, putative, etc.). Though with over 4000 entries it is not useful to talk in terms of overall percentages or aggregations, by far the largest number of entries are those that trace a friar's path towards his ordination, basic information culled largely from the wealth of episcopal registers, published or still in manuscript. Some of the pathways to ordination turn out to be become dead ends, as was the case with Adam Thorp who can only be followed up to his ordination as an acolyte, perhaps leaving him and many others as mendicant proletarians. But, as we do for many hundreds of others, we fare better with Edmund Penyman, ordained an acolyte at the York Dominicans, then as subdeacon at the York Franciscans, then as deacon back at the Dominicans, and finally as priest at the York Augustinians. Between Edmund's first and last ceremony there was only an interval of eleven months and some other men ran the full course in just six or seven months. Clearly men were not put forward until they were fully prepared and Penyman's moves around the city also argue for cooperation between the mendicant orders.

In his introduction Copsey explains the care the Carmelites took to educate their young recruits, the end result being that their ranks show a great number of university scholars (D.Th). Many a friar's resumé could boast of academic work at a number of universities, continental as well as insular, and very often with a good deal of academic distinction along the way. The order could take pride in men like Hugh Virley, "a gifted musician and a fine organist...skilled in oratory and poetry," just as it could in John of Avon, "a noted mathematician," though his perpetual almanac had been lost. Merely listing the scholarly work of John Baconthorpe needs twelve pages, even if some items listed are now judged to be misattributions. And in addition to training their own men from England and Wales, several hundred friars of the German provinces crossed the Channel to study at one of the English Universities.

Like men of the other mendicant orders, the Carmelites served king and pope. Adam of Walnewyk received 18s. in royal alms for three day's pittance for his house and Edmund of Norwich, prior of the London house, was given over £6 from Edward II. The king was so pleased with Adam of Brom, one of his clerks, that Adam's house at "Fletestrete" was given an exemption so that "no officer of the king shall lodge therein," and a royal grant subsidized Carmelites attending the general chapter of the order in Barcelona. Other friars were appointed as chaplains to Boniface IX and Pius II and some men preached before (or to) the pope. Nor were they indifferent to some of the controversies of the day and a few men got involved in contentious aspects of the faith. Henry Tuyllet testified that he knew of a priest who had ministered to the Templars and who had been heard to say that he "was forbidden...to say the words of consecration of the lord's Body...at the celebration of the Mass." Sometimes the ripple of these serious matters came closer to home, as when Henry Parker got into serious trouble for preaching a radical view a radical view in favor of apostolic poverty. He cleared himself: "objuryd that he sayd...and he confessyd alle."

Being licensed to hear confessions or to preach in public was a contested privilege between the many layers of the medieval church and it is hard to tell if the Carmelites received what they might have considered their fair share. We do know that men were licensed to hear confessions in Canterbury diocese, or between March 6 and Christmas, or from twenty people, or in Durham for one year. One license that catches the eye was that given to the prior of Doncaster with a broad sweep, though his writ did not extend to confessing "violators of the liberties and franchise of the cathedral...and to those who have abducted or had sexual intercourse with nuns," their sins being reserved for the archbishop. A friar might be "appointed to be one of the spiritual directors for Lady Emma Stapleton, a recluse," and another was allowed to perform this role for Margery Kempe. As the order had almost forty houses in England and Wales with between 800 and 1000 men at any one time, the public presence of the Carmelites in these roles is hardly to be wondered at.

With so many friars listed in this register it is hardly surprising that all sorts of odd events and activities get mentioned. Several of them died by violence. Alexander of Berwick was stabbed by brother Robert of Sutton "in the daytime in a garden" and he died the next day, a fate that also befell Geoffrey Stretton who was killed during a robbery of the London house. At least poor Henry Fryeis had gone to swim in the Charwell when he fell into a deep pool and drowned. A little more violence and crime: one friar was restored to good standing when he returned the chalice he had pawned. Another was charged before the sheriff of Chester because he and some companions "had wandered armed about the city to the terror of the citizens." On a different note, we find men who moved from one mendicant order to another--some becoming Carmelites, others leaving to become Dominicans or Franciscans. This does not seem to cover the case of the man who had let the Cambridge house "without permission and was wandering around dress in secular clothes," though with the proper penance he too may have been restored to his proper place in the Order.

Then comes the dissolution. This seems to have been carried out with relatively little high drama; no martyrs in the Carmelite ranks. Some of the friars are noted as simply having "signed the surrender document for his house" though a few did not seem willing. But most of whom we have a record seem to have accepted the wind of change: "granted dispensation to change his habit," and quite a few even made what we can think of as a horizontal move and became secular clerics. Many a Carmelite followed the path of their brother who "was appointed rector of Pulborough Parish, Sussex in 1549 and remained in office until 1558." The dissolution of religious houses would have put a wave of men on the ecclesiastical job market and we can trace numerous instances of this in the entries that point to many a career change that seems to have been satisfactory.

This rich study is not a history of the Carmelite order in England and Wales. The introduction focuses more on the historiography of the Order, much of it resting on the extensive 16th-century work of John Bale, supplemented by the endeavors of modern scholarship. What this volume does offer, in a sense, is a glimpse of life in the halls and on the streets--thousands of men, presumably at least starting out with a single vision of life--and then following that vision or calling as it led them. In an understated fashion Copsey has given us a glimpse of the diversity that chance, opportunity, ability, and dedication spelled out for so many. In its special way the register is a read for all seasons.