Thomas of Hereford


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bishop. Born at Hambledon (Bucks.) of a noble and powerful Norman family related to the earls of Pembroke, Hereford, and Abergavenny, Thomas was the son of the steward of the royal household, while his mother was dowager countess of Evreux and Gloucester. An uncle Walter, bishop of Worcester 1236–66, was entrusted with his education, which prepared Thomas for the high offices he later held in both Church and State. He was sent first to Oxford in 1237, but his arrival coincided with a period of considerable student unrest caused by a conflict of jurisdiction following violent incidents. So Thomas and his brother Hugh went to Paris instead, where they lived in wealthy style as befitted their rank. Thomas was ordained priest when he took part in the Council of Lyons (1245) and obtained from the pope the useful dispensation of being able to hold several benefices at once (a practice often attacked by reformers), which he freely used, both during his prolonged period of study and afterwards. He read civil law at Orléans, obtained his licence in Paris in canon law (the subject usually chosen by curial career clerics), and returned to Oxford to lecture in it. But almost at once he became Chancellor of Oxford University (1261). He became known both as a firm disciplinarian and as a friend of poor students; he confiscated offensive weapons which were used by both northerners and southerners in riots and demonstrations. Thomas supported the barons against Henry III and was sufficiently important to be chosen for the delegation of spokesmen of their case, pleaded before Louis IX at Amiens in 1264. When Henry III had lost the battle of Lewes, Thomas, from being Chancellor of Oxford, became Chancellor of England. But he held office for only a year, was replaced after the defeat of Simon de Montfort at Evesham, and retired to Paris as a lecturer.

An academic pluralist, with the advantages of high birth and considerable experience in politics, Thomas seemed destined for success in a worldly career rather than sainthood if he could overcome the enmities his previous actions had inevitably caused. Described by contemporaries as a redhead with a ruddy complexion, he also had a choleric temperament to match, which ensured that his remaining years would be both stormy and eventful. First he returned to Oxford, became a Doctor of Divinity and Chancellor for a second term in 1273. Meanwhile he continued to hold the precentorship of York, the archdeaconry of Stafford, four other canonries and several Herefordshire parishes. These he did not neglect, for he used to make unexpected visits to them to check up on his vicars' care for the parishioners, and the condition of the church fabric. Perhaps it was this contact with the diocese besides his family connections in the West and the favour of Edward I which led the canons of Hereford to elect him as their bishop in 1275. After the civil wars and two ineffective predecessors' reigns the diocese was in a reduced state owing to the aggression of local lay lords. Thomas noted with displeasure the absence of the Welsh bishop from his consecration and set to work to regain the lost rights of his see. Both lay and ecclesiastical magnates who had encroached on the rights of his diocese were confronted and generally defeated: the Earl's Ditch along the Malvern Hills was renewed by Gilbert of Clare, earl of Gloucester, to prevent his deer grazing on the bishop's lands. As a bishop, Thomas was also a changed character. He habitually wore a hairshirt, he was zealous in visiting his diocese and particularly in confirming children, he rebuked public sinners, especially the wealthy, and forbade unauthorized pluralism. As an energetic diocesan bishop he did much that was admirable; unfortunately his episcopate coincided with that of the angular John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury 1279–92. The two men were destined to quarrel as certainly as were Thomas of Canterbury, whom Thomas Cantelupe resembled in several ways, and Henry II. The conflict predictably was over metropolitan jurisdiction, especially in matters of wills and marriages which had been dealt with, or should have been, in the Hereford courts. These cases led to conflict over more general disputes about the nature and extent of metropolitan jurisdiction over local bishops; in this Thomas was the spokesman of the aggrieved bishops at Reading in 1279, and in due course Rome found largely in their favour. But in his personal quarrel with Pecham words and actions resulted in Thomas being excommunicated by his metropolitan. He went to the papal court at Orvieto in 1282, but died on 25 August at Montefiascone, worn out with asceticism and energetic involvement in many lawsuits, before judgment was pronounced. He was buried at Orvieto, but his heart and some bones were sent back to Hereford; Pecham tried unsuccessfully to have Christian burial refused.


Subjects: Christianity.

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