Monday, October 28, 2013

Thomas Arundel

Thomas Arundel, Lambeth Palace Collection
Let us talk about the "Worst Briton" of the 15th century, according to a 2005 poll of historians, and the man who may have been Chaucer's greatest enemy.

Thomas Arundel (1353-19 February 1414) was a well-born lad of 20 at Oxford when he was made Bishop of Ely. He showed no particular proclivity to the religious life (or the scholarly life, for that matter), but his father—who had considerable financial standing at the court of the increasingly feeble-minded Edward III—arranged it for his son. Ely was a very lucrative position, and Arundel might have been comfortable with it, but good and bad fortune were to follow.

The reign of Richard II, starting in July 1377, was tumultuous. The Peasants' Revolt, waves of the Black Death, financial excesses of the Crown, continuing tensions with France, and maybe just the fact that a France-raised child was now king—all these and more contributed to a general unrest in England. Parliament took steps to curb Richard's authority, creating several political crises as loyalists faced off against the elements of the aristocracy that wanted to increase their own power.

One of the elements that opposed the Crown was Arundel's brother, John FitzAlan, the 1st Baron Arundel. He helped get Thomas promoted to the prestigious position of Archbishop of York in 1388, and eventually pulled Thomas into the political intrigue, getting Thomas' support during a crisis of 1386-88. Thomas did his best to stay on Richard's good side, and succeeded to an extent: Richard even made him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1396, but then exiled him to Florence within a year when Richard had apparently regained enough power to take revenge against those who had opposed him in the 1380s. Richard got Pope Boniface IX to make Arundel the Bishop of St. Andrews in Scotland, a huge demotion.*

But how did any of this make Arundel into Chaucer's enemy?

In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke invaded England and attacked his cousin, Richard II, with the intent to take the throne from him. Arundel joined him, and upon Henry's ascendance to the throne as King Henry IV, Arundel once again became Archbishop of Canterbury, the most powerful prelate in the land. While Henry worked to reverse many of the political works of Richard's reign, Archbishop Arundel set about to change the moral climate of the realm, which he felt had become very slack.

To do that, he had to undo the damage to society perpetrated by two of his countrymen: John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer.

More on that tomorrow.

*And a huge problem, since the Avignon Crisis was going on at the time, and Scotland recognized the Avignon pope, not the Roman pope, who had already put his own Avignon-loyal bishop in St. Andrews. Boniface needed England's support against Avignon and was happy to help him in the Arundel matter.

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