Becoming an Archbishop of York

The first folio of the register of Archbishop Thoresby recording the correspondence between himself (then Bishop of Worcester), Pope Clement VI and the Dean and Chapter of York concerning his election as Archbishop of York in 1352-3 (BIA, Register 11, f. 1).

On 9 July 2020 Stephen Cottrell will be confirmed as the newly elected Archbishop of York. He will be the 98th occupant of the office which dates back to the seventh century, when Paulinus, a monk from Rome, was sent to the north in 625 and founded a new diocesan church in York, on or near the site of the present York Minster, so becoming the first archbishop of York. Bishop Cottrell’s confirmation will be unlike any other. The ceremony will be broadcast online since York Minster remains closed for large services during the Covid-19 pandemic. In other respects though his election and confirmation will reflect the long history of the province of York, one of two metropolitan provinces of the Church in England (the other being Canterbury). 

During the 14th century the church in England was part of the wide communion of the Catholic Church headed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. When in the 16th century King Henry VIII renounced the authority of the papacy and the English church adopted new Protestant forms of religion, the diocese and province of York and the Minster were reconstituted as part of the new ‘Church of England’ but despite these very significant changes there is still some continuity in the institutions and processes of the church.

Indeed the long history of the church in York is nowhere more obvious than in the usual setting for the service: the monumental cathedral church of St Peter, more usually known as York Minster. The present Minster was largely rebuilt during the later thirteenth, fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and it is remarkable that its fabric has largely been preserved, more or less intact, for over five centuries since. But what of the people who built this cathedral, and what of the Archbishops who were elected and held office during the centuries of its first construction? “The Northern Way”, a project based at the University of York in partnership with York Minster and The National Archives, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is currently exploring the history of the Archbishops of York during the fourteenth century, between 1304 and 1405. It is researching and making available to the public online the vast archives of administrative records that document the archbishops’ official activities and their role as leaders in the North of England. These under-explored archives form the historic core of the collections of the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, but there are also thousands of records now held at The National Archives in Kew, London that the project will also be making available online. You can find out more about the project here:

The formal process of election and installation of a modern archbishop is protracted; there are no less than 17 steps involving the Prime Minister and the Queen as well as the Dean and Chapter of York Minster. The Archbishop’s confirmation on 9 July will be followed by consecration and will mark the beginning of his new ministry. Eventually, at some date in the future, there will be a full ceremonial enthronement in York Minster. 

In the archives there is ample evidence of the similarly protracted process through which medieval archbishops were chosen, elected and installed in office, and of the high drama that sometimes accompanied these events. In the fourteenth century the Dean and Canons of the cathedral church in York, the Pope (then the head of the Church across western Europe), and the King of England all had a part to play in providing, electing, confirming and consecrating a new archbishop with the final installation (or enthronement) in the Minster often following months or even years later. At the beginning of Archbishop Thoresby’s register (Reg. 11), for example, a series of letters over the autumn and winter of 1352-3 trace the process through which the chapter elected Thoresby, notified both him and the Pope of their intentions, secured from the Pope permission for Thoresby not to travel in person to collect the pallium (the insignia of his office and symbol of papal authority) but to be represented by ‘proctors’, and also appointed a ‘vicar general’ to cover his work in the diocese during his absences. Meanwhile ecclesiastical petitions to the king and in the patent rolls, which recorded outgoing royal correspondence intended for public proclamation (TNA C 66, C 84) trace the process from the royal perspective over the same period of time, revealing the influence of the king over the appointment.

No archbishop retired in those days, most served until the end of their natural lives. Of the eight archbishops we are studying between 1304 and 1405 five died of natural causes; four in their palace at Cawood (their major place of residence) and one in London. Of the other three, one, Alexander Neville, was forced into exile by his political opponents; another, Thomas Arundel, was promoted to Canterbury; and the third, Richard Scrope, was tried and executed for high treason in York in 1405. What might be described as the ‘unplanned’ nature of these endings, and the very political nature of some of them, made their replacement often quite tricky and it would be negotiated during a sometimes long ‘vacancy’ during which the crown took control of and profited from the landed endowments of the archbishopric. This division of powers could lead to disputes, so prolonging the process. Some newly elected archbishops also certainly used the process to emphasise their authority. William Melton (archbishop from 1317-1340) did travel to Avignon to see the Pope in person for his consecration and to collect his pallium, and on his return to England travelled through the southern province to Yorkshire with his cross carried proudly erect in front of him. Given that the province of York was supposed to be subordinate to Canterbury this was interpreted as a challenge and led to a resurrection of the dispute over precedence between the two provinces that was only resolved later under Thoresby. It is also in Melton’s register (Reg. 9a) that we find notices of the elaborate and costly preparations for Melton’s installation as he wrote to many of the secular aristocracy and leading prelates of the day inviting them to attend the ceremony of his enthronement in York Minster.

Generally speaking the King wielded the greatest influence in the choice of a new archbishop. All but one of the archbishops appointed in this period earned their position as a result of service to the crown as senior administrators and political supporters. William Greenfield (1304-15) was Chancellor of England at the time of his election, William Melton (1317-1340) rose through the ranks of the royal government’s financial administration to become a trusted advisor of Edward II before being appointed to the see of York, and John Thoresby (1353-73) was also Chancellor at the time of his election. Appointments during the latter half of the century were particularly political: Alexander Neville (1374-1388), Thomas Arundel (1388-1396) and Richard Scrope (1398-1405) all came from influential baronial families who were closely involved in the contentious politics of the courts of King Richard II and Henry IV while Robert Waldby (1397-98) was a senior royal administrator who never even set foot in the province of York. Only once in the century did the chapter at York successfully resist royal influence and chose their own man; William Zouche, a previous Dean of York, was elected by the chapter in 1340 instead of the King’s preferred candidate. However it is also fair to say that the influence between crown and church was not one way. Archbishops often effectively chose their successors and developed their careers in both the church and royal service: Greenfield found and promoted Melton to his first posts in royal government, Melton did the same for Zouche and Thoresby, and Arundel developed the career of Richard Scrope. It is therefore possible to imagine a line of succession in this period and to see each archbishop as deliberately building upon the work of their predecessors. Such friendships lasted a lifetime and beyond. Thoresby was Melton’s executor, and carried out many of his last wishes with great determination. Thomas Arundel, by then archbishop of Canterbury, is said to have ridden through the night to try to prevent the trial and execution of his protegee, Archbishop Richard Scrope, in June 1405. Knowing this, Henry IV ordered the trial and execution to go ahead anyway, before Arundel could arrive. Imagine what Arundel felt when he arrived shortly after the execution had taken place?

Despite the clearly political overtones of their appointment and service, some of these archbishops did step back from their royal service and focussed instead on the pastoral care of the diocese and province of York. Their surviving registers are packed with records relating to the visitation and correction of the clergy and of those religious houses, particularly nunneries, that fell within their oversight. Thoresby also turned his attention to the laity and commissioned The Lay Folk’s Catechism, a lengthy alliterative rhyming work in English that was designed to enable the laity to learn and memorise the essentials of the Christian faith. This became one of the most widely used instructional texts in the later middle ages but the oldest surviving copy is in Thoresby’s register (Reg. 11). Arundel and Scrope continued to develop these concerns about the welfare of the whole church (laity and clergy) and this perhaps contributed to their criticisms of aspects of royal government in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV so bringing them into direct conflict with the crown that ended so disastrously in 1405 with the execution of not just the Archbishop but many other northerners.

The rebuilding of York Minster was a major concern for nearly all those who held the office during this period. Greenfield and Melton presided over the construction of the Nave while Zouche, Thoresby and Scrope turned their attention to the eastern choir and Lady Chapel. The new building created space for great new windows that were filled with painted glass retelling the history of the northern church from the time of the old testament down to the present day, and celebrating the role of the archbishops as leaders by God’s grace. At the same time new histories of the Archbishops of York were commissioned (the Chronicles of the Archbishops of York), celebrating their achievements as reformers and builders.

Becoming and being an Archbishop of York in the 14th century was clearly a complex task; the role demanded spiritual, political and financial leadership in order to achieve the many and sometimes conflicting obligations of the office. Our project hopes to shed much greater light on the ways in which archbishops chose to exercise their power.

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