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The Church and the propaganda of political reform in 13th century England

In the 13th century, the English episcopate took a leading role in overseeing the government of the kingdom, enforcing Magna Carta by sentence of excommunication. Between 1258 and 1265, many churchmen went further by supporting the Montfortian revolution that seized the reins of government from the king’s hands. Seeking to engage a broad section of society, churchmen disseminated these political programmes to the wider population accompanied by the ecclesiastical sentences that fortified them. This talk explores the methods they employed and how the liturgical setting they provided for the propaganda of political reform contributed to the politicisation of English society.

The talk is the annual lecture of the Pipe Roll Society and follows its AGM.

Sophie Ambler was awarded her doctorate in 2012 at King’s College London for her thesis ‘Peacemakers and Partisans: Bishops and Political Reform 1213-67’. She is currently working for the AHRC-funded Breaking of Britain project:


‘If only the lord King had creatures on his side like those of the opposition party, it would be better for him’. With this grim-faced pronouncement Henry III’s minister, John Mansel, wrote to his colleagues in August 1260. Two years previously King Henry had been victim to a court coup led by his charismatic brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Montfort and his confederates had imposed a council on their unwilling king and had since been ruling England in Henry’s name. They used their new-found power to reform Henry’s unpopular and prodigal court and take action against oppressive activities of government officials in the localities.

1258 was the beginning of a critical period in English history lasting until Simon de Montfort’s defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265 often referred to as the period of baronial reform and rebellion. This name is misleading, however, since it obscures the unprecedented involvement of churchmen, knights and peasants on a major scale. John Mansel’s statement is a useful pointer to three defining features of what is perhaps better called The First English Revolution. This is the title of the new book on the period by Adrian Jobson.

Firstly, Montfort commanded the support of a host of churchmen including skilled preachers. Secondly, both sides were convinced of the need to argue their case to an audience beyond the nobility and gentry and thirdly, Montfort was a gifted and innovative propagandist, keen to deploy every weapon in his arsenal to win the battle for hearts and minds. This marriage between the demagogic Montfort and the prelates, diocesan clergy and mendicant friars who had the means and will to carry his message to a popular audience, was crucial to the short-lived success of the Mortfortian regime.

I would like then to address the subject of this paper in three stages. Firstly, I will sketch the role played by churchmen in disseminating the propaganda of Mortfortian reform and attempt to reconstruct from patchy evidence the possible content and delivery of their communications. Secondly, I will set this in the wider context of how the church hierarchy in England developed its interest and skills in the communication of political programmes in the first half of the thirteenth century, principally through the enforcement and dissemination of Magna Carta. Thirdly, I will raise a broader question of how these activities contributed to the fabric of the political community in England. I pose this last question in the context of a paper by Dr John Maddicott published in his most recent thirteenth-century England volume. Here Dr Maddicott describes a kingdom in which subjects across society were politically aware. They experienced regular points of contact with government including the receipt of royal proclamations with the advent of genuinely national movements like the rebellion surrounding the issue of Magna Carta in 1215 and the Montfortian revolution. Those in power made increasing efforts to communicate with, and involve, the lower levels of society.

Dr Maddicott points out how, in the thirteenth century, ecclesiastical support and popular preaching became increasingly important as tools of political communication and I would like to explore this further. What sort of differences in content, style and scope of delivery were presented by the deployment of ecclesiastical spokesmen when compared to the traditional use of royal officials and what impact might this have produced in the experiences of their audience: the women and men of the lower levels of society.

We begin then with the cohort of churchmen who disseminated the propaganda of Monfortian reform between 1258 and 1265. By 1264 Montfort commanded the support of five bishops, that is: Chichester, Lincoln, London, Winchester and Worcester. These men were all leading figures in the Montfortian regime and together they made up about a third of the episcopate. More prelates provided support to Montfort in 1264 and 1265. Although the baronial takeover of royal power had been a radical and shocking move and had led to civil war, churchmen as well as lay people were drawn to Montfort by his powerful charisma, believing that the earl was uniquely virtuous and inspired and sanctioned by God. Montfort could tap into a powerful current in English culture that particularly appealed to churchmen, namely a popular model of sanctity inspired by Thomas Becket. English churchmen in the thirteenth century looked with admiration upon Becket’s example: the suffering of persecution in defence of a just cause against an oppressive king.

Montfort had remained defiantly committed to the reform programme, pitting himself against the king when others had deserted the cause. His inspirational zeal for justice as well as his evident piety helped to identify him with this heroic prototype. When Montfort’s army defeated superior royal forces as the Battle of Lewes in May 1264, for many it stood to confirm the belief that God looked with favour on his actions. So, as the earl looked to underpin his regime after Lewes, he turned to senior churchmen in the expectation of their support. In January 1265 he set out to muster an impressive force of supporters in parliament, summoning 120 ecclesiastics including 12 bishops and 102 senior religious clergy. According to a chronicle account of the parliament, nine bishops pronounced a sentence of excommunication against all those who contravened the reformers’ provisions. Montfort could also call upon the support of many Franciscan and Dominican friars. He shared long-standing connections with the mendicant orders, particularly the Franciscans, having been part of the illustrious circle of friends that included the leading Franciscan scholar, Adam Marsh, as well as the great Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253 and first elected to the Oxford Franciscans.

Although we can’t know just how many friars or advocates in Montfort’s cause, it is clear that many were willing to support the reform movement from an early stage. It was the house of the Oxford Dominicans, indeed, that hosted the parliament of June 1258 in which the reformists promulgated their programme. Together the bishops and friars commanded extensive lines of communication into the localities, offering Montfort a spectacular opportunity to carry his programme across England. To take one important example, the bishop of Lincoln ruled a diocese covering almost nine counties with the help of eight arch-deacons and below them 77 deans who supervised a total of 1,600 parishes. In the words of words of Sir Richard Southern the bishop of Lincoln was ‘far more effectively than the king could ever be, the ruler of about one-fifth of the whole population of England’. To have the support of the bishop of Lincoln alone was a major boon to Montfort’s cause before we even consider the size and strategic importance of the other diocese governed by his episcopal supporters. The support of friars also gave Montfort the opportunity to extend the geographical and numerical scope of his support base.

The mendicant orders had arrived in England in the early 1220s and in the following years their numbers swelled as houses were set up in towns across England. By the early 1240s the Dominican order had 19 houses and the Franciscans 39. By 1300 these numbers had grown to 51 for the Dominicans and 55 for the Franciscans. The friars were educated, many at the universities of Paris and Oxford, and were trained and experienced in the art of preaching, the practice of which was their stock in trade. In some ways the activities of these churchmen are well documented but frustratingly there is no evidence that describes churchmen in the act of disseminating the Monfortian programme. We can only glimpse the traces left by their activity. For instance, as well as John Mansel’s warning with which we began, we have the complaint against Montfortian preaching by the royalist author of the Merton Flores Historiarum and an order from Henry III from May 1262 in which the sheriffs are ordered to arrest anyone who ‘presumed to persuade the people or preachers against the king and his honour’.

There are clues though as to what form this Montfortian campaign might have taken. One is provided by the testimony of Robert Grosseteste. In 1250 Grossetest recounted events that took place soon after his consecration as bishop of Lincoln in 1235, he describes how he undertook a comprehensive visitation of the Lincoln diocese with the help of several friars in such a way that he could reach as many of his flock as possible. Grosseteste explains, ‘I began to perambulate my bishopric, arch-deaconry by arch-deaconry and rural deanery by rural deanery, requiring the clergy of each deanery to bring their people with their children together at a fixed place in time in order to have their children confirmed, to hear the word of God and to make their confessions. When the clergy and people were assembled, I myself frequently preached to the clergy and a friar preacher or minor preached to the people’.

Grosseteste’s account shows how a bishop, even one governing such a vast diocese as Lincoln could mobilise his clergy so that he and his mendicant helpers could preach to as large an audience as possible. The Montfortian bishops might well have taken Grosseteste’s approach as a model since at least two of them had been part of his circle. As to the form and content of such sermons, again, we have no direct evidence but we can get an impression from the greatest surviving work of Montfortian propaganda, the Song of Lewes. The song was written after Montfort’s great victory over royal forces at the Battle of Lewes in May 1264. Based on internal evidence it was probably authored by a friar in the household of the Montfortian bishop of Chichester. The song is comprised of 968 lines of rhyming Latin couplets so was clearly written for an educated audience, perhaps the scholars at the University of Oxford including friars whose loyalties were undecided.

But even if the sermons delivered by Montfortian friars were aimed at a broader and largely less educated audience, they might well have shared content. Indeed the song’s author makes liberal use of two distinctive techniques of mendicant preaching: similitudes and prolific biblical quotation.

Similitudes were recognised by preachers as a powerful tool which could convey a point straight-forwardly. Thus, the author of the song can condemn the king’s practice of providing foreigners with patronage as well as justify the reformer’s corrective but radical action in a concise and evocative statement. The king’s policy is ‘a great see which could not be dried up by a small effort but was to be crossed by the great assistance of God’. Preachers also knew that similitudes possessed an emotive power. Thomas of Chobham writing his summa on the art of preaching around the turn of the thirteenth century noted that a preacher ‘should know the natures of animals and also of other things because there is nothing which moves the hearts of an audience more than the properties of animals and of other things’ for similitudes of things because they seem to be something novel, moved the soul more easily and in a more pleasurable way.

The author of the song utilises this tool to tarnish the reputation of Montfort’s enemies. He compares the Lord Edward, the king’s son, to a leopard. He divides the name in two: lion and pard, and the pard is the legendary creature which it was believed mated with a lion to produce a leopard. He explains that the prince is a ‘lion by pride and fierceness but he is by inconstancy and changeableness a pard, changing his word and promise, cloaking himself by pleasant speech’. The author also employs many biblical examples to lend authority to his cause. For instance, the English people are likened to the Israelites who languished under Pharaoh. Montfort is liked to Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabaeus who fought untiringly to defend his religion from persecution and was distinguished by his zeal for the law. The earl is also likened to Christ because he has given himself to death for the many, but also because his leadership is vital to the salvation of England.

Psalm 117 is particularly important to the author’s case. The royal party had rejected and derided Montfort’s pious offer to negotiate a settlement and so, the author proclaims, ‘the stone long refused by the enemy was afterwards fitted to the two side walls. The division and desolation of England was on our borders but for a defence against division was present a cornerstone, the holy singular religion of Simon’. It is not difficult to imagine how images such as this could be employed powerfully in Montfortian popular preaching.

In the second part of this paper, I would like to outline the immediate background to the propaganda campaign launched by Montfortian churchmen, namely the relationship of the English church with Magna Carta.

There had been precedents for Magna Carta both in terms of content and publication. King Canute’s proclamation of 1019 or 1020 promising good government as well as Henry I’s coronation charter of 1100. Senior churchmen had played a part in disseminating these documents in that cathedrals and monasteries held copies and might well have displayed them but access would probably be restricted to a literate elite. The job of wider oral publication fell to royal officials who made proclamations in the shire courts. This had also been the case with the first issue of Magna Carta in 1215.

An important turning point came in 1225 when it became the job of churchmen to enforce Magna Carta. They did this by means of a broad sentence of excommunication pronounced against anyone who contravened its decrees. This role could be justified by appeal to biblical precedents by which Old Testament prophets who chastised and corrected wayward kings were held to be the forerunners of the Christian clergy. This theme was explored by theologians at the University of Paris in the late twelfth century, one of whom was Stephen Langton who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207. As David d’Avray has shown, Langton was key to embedding these ideas in the English episcopal mind set when he stepped forward in 1225 to take responsibility for enforcing Magna Carta. Thenceforth, confirmations of Magna Carta were accompanied by a broad sentence of excommunication pronounced by the bishops.

By the time of Magna Carta’s confirmation in 1253, senior churchmen were keenly aware of the need to publicise the sentence of excommunication to wide section of society to ensure that nobody would fall under the sentence in ignorance. To achieve this they would utilise their existing communication networks and develop techniques to convey their message with clarity and power.

The contents of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, the latter first issued in 1217, were already widely known. Each re-issue was distributed to the counties to be read by the sheriffs in the shire courts. In 1253 the bishops introduced special measures to publicise the accompanying sentence of excommunication. The sentence was read out in parish churches across England accompanied by lighted candles and the ringing of bells on Sundays and feast days. In the diocese of London and Lincoln, the latter governed of Robert Grosseteste, the sentence was also read in public meeting places in the shire, hundred and other secular courts by priests with crosses and hand bells. This must have been an impressive spectacle. One chronicler commented that the sentence was ‘impressed indelibly on the hearts of all’.

In 1255 the sentence was republished by order of Pope Innocent IV. The deans of London and Lincoln, charged with executing the papal mandate, sent letters promulgating the sentence across England to all bishops, arch-deacons, deans and other diocesan officials. These men were to publish the sentence distinctly and lucidly in English and French wherever and whenever they deemed expedient. A transcript of the sentence with its confirmation was sent to them so that ‘you may have a copy of it and may cause others to have a copy of it so that it may come to the notice of all, lest anyone wishes to excuse himself on account of ignorance’.

In addition, the dean of Lincoln dispatched copies of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest to recipients to transcribe so that the charters could be distributed or in other ways brought to public attention in the same manner as the confirmation of the sentence of excommunication. This means then, that by the time of the Montfortian revolution, English churchmen were already practised in publicising political programmes on an ambitious scale. Indeed one Montfortian churchman in particular would have been an expert on the matter. The dean of Lincoln, one of the two men responsible for overseeing the publication of the charters and the sentence of excommunication in 1255 was none other than Richard Gravesend, who was to become a committed Montfortian, consecrated Bishop of Lincoln in 1258. Gravesend had been a protégé of Robert Grosseteste.

We have seen that Grosseteste was committed to communicating with his flock, attempting to reach every soul in his care and engage their attention whether by preaching missions or by taking his message into parish churches and public meeting places, in pressing his proclamations onto the hearts of the congregation with the use of sensory stimuli such as candles and bells.

Richard Gravesend probably assisted Grosseteste in these activities in 1253 and perhaps we can see Grosseteste’s ambition in the rigorous instructions issued by Gravesend in 1255 for the dissemination and publication of the charters and sentence of excommunication. When Gravesend himself took command of the diocese of Lincoln in November 1258 and immediately began work for the governing council, the reformers gained a confederate with a valuable expertise in communicating programmes to a wider public.

This emerging role of churchmen from the 1250s as proactive propagandists for political reform aimed to reach a wide and socially diverse audience was intertwined with several phenomena: the increasing need felt by the political elite to garner the support of the lower levels of society and the expansion of the political community in the thirteenth century beyond the noble classes. The ambition of the church to engage the laity signalled in: the fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the enthusiastic response of energetic pastors, like Robert Grosseteste, the birth and dramatic expansion of the mendicant orders and the opportunities this offered in achieving the church’s goals and finally the particular duties of English prelates in overseeing the government of the kingdom.

In the third and concluding part of this paper, I would just like to make two suggestions about the impact these changes might have had on the political community of medieval England. Firstly, churchmen in general and friars in particular brought a new style to political communication that must surely have excited their audiences. People were accustomed to hearing royal proclamations read out by the king’s officials in royal courts, probably in clear but undramatic fashion. How would it have felt therefore to experience the reading of the sentence of excommunication upholding Magna Carta in your parish church or local court surrounded by lighted candles before an elevated cross with the ringing of bells in your ears? How would it have felt to hear a sermon delivered by a highly-trained and practised preacher who compared Simon de Montfort to Christ as the cornerstone of England? It seems likely, moreover, that these changes brought a second major impact upon English society because, for the first time it seems, the political elite were engaging on a serious scale with a female audience. The principal forums through which the government communicated had thus far been the shire and hundred courts and increasingly, in the thirteenth century, the marketplace. Whilst women might have borne part of a marketplace audience, they would not have been present in numbers in the shire and hundred courts to which only men were summoned.

This probably meant that most women received royal communications second-hand, if at all. When churchmen in the thirteenth century carried their messages into the parish churches, towns and villages of England, it likely meant that non-noble women could now engage first-hand with the politics of the kingdom. These suggestions are necessarily speculative given the patchy nature of the evidence but I hope that they have at least served to raise the question of what impact clerical propagandists might have had on thirteenth century English society. They do, I think, go some way to elaborating the gloomy sentiments of John Mansel’s statement in 1260 that if only the king had creatures like these on his side, how much better off would he be?

Transcribed by Sara Perry as part of a volunteer project, February 2015.