Pity the poor prelate? The case of Thomas Bourchier

Des Atkinson is a PhD candidate in medieval history at the University of Exeter.

One churchman whose reputation can only be described as dented is Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury from 1454 until his death in 1486. Bourchier (born around 1411) came from a family with royal and aristocratic connections. As a consequence, he gained rapid preferment within the Church, picking up his first benefices at the age of sixteen, and becoming the bishop of Worcester at the startlingly early age of twenty-four in 1435. In 1443, he was translated to the wealthy see of Ely and then onwards to Canterbury after the death of John Kempe. Bourchier was also Chancellor of England, a post he held from March 1455 until October 1456. His misfortune was to be at the apex of Church and state during the tempestuous period from 1450 onwards. It is noteworthy that, as archbishop, Bourchier crowned three kings, namely Edward IV in 1461, Richard III in 1483 and Henry VII in 1485. Against such a tumultuous background, Bourchier has been given some harsh treatment for not achieving more to stem the conflicts and bloodshed of his times. The historian R.G. Davies in particular launched a full broadside against him in 1995, describing Bourchier as ‘a teflon archbishop’, a ‘congenital appeaser’ and as somebody who ‘turned lack-lustre mediocrity into an art.’[i] Clearly Davies had expectations for a primate that Bourchier singularly failed to achieve. Writing back in 1867, Dean Hook also had some harsh words, describing the young Bourchier as having ‘vaulting ambition’, and as ‘being culpably negligent of his episcopal duties’. Hook softened his stance somewhat when looking at Bourchier’s later career, but his description of him as ‘not a man of much vigour of mind and worldly wisdom’ is hardly a ringing endorsement. The best that Hook had to say is that Bourchier was ‘able to do more good than could have been done by a better and abler man’![ii]

Figure 1. The arms of Thomas Bourchier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In her biographical summary of Bourchier for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published in 2004, Linda Clark chooses quite different language. Davies’ ‘appeaser’ becomes a ‘mediator’. Clark points to the role Bourchier took as a peacemaker, attempting to reconcile the conflicting factions. She also points to the opinions of his contemporaries, especially Sir John Fastolf, who described Bourchier as ‘one of the lords earthly that I most trust upon’.[iii] It seems clear therefore that historians’ opinions are divided, and there are some obvious reasons why a strong debate as to Bourchier’s actions will continue. His role during the period when Richard Duke of Gloucester took the throne is a particularly key episode. Perhaps most notorious was his urging Elizabeth Woodville to give up her second son, Richard Duke of York, from sanctuary. From there the young prince joined his brother in the Tower of London, and their subsequent fate has spawned centuries of speculation and debate.

Could Bourchier have adopted a more heroic pose against Richard III, perhaps going as far as leading an opposition faction to rescue and reinstate Edward V? The precedents for such an action would not have looked very promising. When Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, took part in the northern rising against Henry IV in 1405, the king did not hesitate to act with decisive and deadly force against the archbishop. Despite the urgent intervention of Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry was implacable and Scrope was executed.[iv] Notwithstanding the stories of miracles being wrought by the dead man, Scrope did not achieve the Europe-wide status of holy martyr that Thomas Becket had achieved after his murder at Canterbury in December 1170. Since the reign of Henry II, the status of Church and state, and the strength of the secular power had shifted. The English kings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries represented a potentially deadly threat to those churchmen perceived as treasonous or acting directly in opposition to royal power. Henry VIII’s break with Rome saw Bishop John Fisher of Rochester and Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury (together with two of his monks) executed for their opposition to the king’s authority. Bourchier, surely aware of any king’s potential for sudden wrath and violent retribution, would have thought that outright opposition would be brief, pointless and subject to extreme sanction.

In view of the difficult circumstances that Bourchier found himself in, it seems that the re-appraisal of his career as begun by Linda Clark should be given more momentum. The prelates of the later fifteenth century have not been given the full, biographical studies that their status and importance would merit. Bourchier was at the heart of events that continue to hold the public’s imagination, but his role is consistently underplayed or overlooked when modern dramatisations of the period are produced. A full-length assessment of his career and role, including a careful examination of the role of the prelates, would certainly provide some fresh and important insights into the conflicts that we today call the Wars of the Roses.

Figure 2. John Zephaniah Bell, Cardinal Bourchier Urges the Widow of Edward IV to Let her Son out of Sanctuary, exhibited 1868 (Tate Gallery, ref. N01392, image released under Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).

[i]     Biographical entry for Thomas Bourchier by Linda Clark, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/2993, accessed 2 September 2018.

[ii]     C. Given-Wilson, Henry IV (New Haven ; London, 2016), pp. 267-70.

[iii]     R.G. Davies, ‘The Church and the Wars of the Roses’, in A. J. Pollard, ed., The Wars of the Roses, Problems in Focus, (London, 1995), pp. 139-40.

[iv]     W.F. Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, C. E. Woodruff, ed., vol. 5, 12 vols (London, 1867), pp. 275, 280, 311.


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