Saturday, 14 September 2013

Battle Abbey Case (1157)

May 1157 Henry II held a trial at Colchester Abbey concerning the right of the pope to overrule him on matters of religion. This was a case of the bishop of Chichester versus the abbot of Battle Abbey.

In 1070 William the Conqueror had founded Battle Abbey, a new monastery at the site of the Battle of Hastings, partly as a penance for the deaths which had happened in the battle and partly as a memorial to those who had died. He ordered a special charter to be drawn up which exempted Battle Abbey in certain matters from the authority of the local diocesan bishop, Chichester. In this manner he had granted it special Royal Peculiar status.

The abbot of Battle Abbey was Walter de Lucy, brother of king Henry II's Chief Justiciar, Richard de Lucy. Walter had applied to his brother Richard to have his abbey's full set of privileges confirmed . Hilary, bishop of Chichester had applied to Theobald, the archbishop of Canterbury, to have his episcopal rights enforced. The king summoned a full council of the Curia Regis, a Magnum Concilium, to hear the case.

The case discussed here had originally begun during king Stephen's reign. And was continued afterwards, in May 1157 at Colchester Abbey, after Henry II had succeeded to the throne. Walter, the abbot of Battle Abbey, argued for the Royal Peculiar status of his abbey and its autonomy from the bishop. Hilary, the bishop of Chichester, who also happened to be an expert in canon law, declared that the king did not have any right to exempt an abbey from ecclesiastical authority and episcopal oversight without having first obtained the pope's consent. He argued that the abbey could not have any such privilege, and neither could the king confer any such exemption, unless he had first got a necessary and special licence from the pope allowing him to do so. Bishop Hilary had excommunicated the abbot Walter. Henry was horrified at this and was short-tempered with the bishop. What right did the pope (and his bishop) have to interfere and decide such matters in his kingdom? He felt that he was full well within his royal prerogative and rights to decide this particular case on his own without any intercession from outside.

The case had taken place in a Royal Court [Curia Regis and Magnum Concilium] instead of an Ecclesiatical Court, which it should have done. Forged charters aided the decision to exempt the Abby from episcopal control.

During the deliberations, Thomas Becket, who was Henry's chancellor at the time, was one of chief contenders against Hilary's claim and gained a reputation for being anti-ecclesiastical as a consequence. Eventually, the case was decided in favour of the abbot by inducing and persuading Hilary into accepting the king's authority and his relinquishing any canonical rights that he might have had over the abbey. Becket had helped the king win his case against the Church, Canon Law and Papal Authority.


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Thomas Becket martyr patriot
Thompson, Robert Anchor
CHAPTER V. p.77-
The King Upon The Judgment-Seat — The Battle Abbey Case.

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The Chronicle of Battle Abbey
H. W. C. Davis
The English Historical Review
Vol. 29, No. 115 (Jul., 1914), pp. 426-434
http://www.jstor.org/stable/551120

Hilary, Bishop of Chichester (1147-1169) and Henry II
Henry Mayr-Harting
The English Historical Review
Vol. 78, No. 307 (Apr., 1963), pp. 209-224
http://www.jstor.org/stable/560029

Forgery and the Literacy of the Early Common Law
Bruce O'Brien
Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies
Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 1-18:
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4052668

A New Charter of Henry II to Battle Abbey
V. H. Galbraith
The English Historical Review
Vol. 52, No. 205 (Jan., 1937), pp. 67-73
http://www.jstor.org/stable/554600

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