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Robert Grosseteste

Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253), English statesman, theologian and bishop of Lincoln, was born of humble parents at Stradbroke in Suffolk.

He received his education at Oxford where he became proficient in law, medicine and the natural sciences. Giraldus Cambrensis, whose acquaintance he had made, introduced him, before 1199, to William de Vere, bishop of Hereford. Grosseteste aspired to a post in the bishop's household, but being deprived by death of this patron betook himself to the study of theology. It is possible that he visited Paris for this purpose, but he finally settled in Oxford as a teacher, and as head of Greyfriars.

His next preferment of importance was the chancellorship of the university. He gained considerable distinction as a lecturer, and was the first rector of the school which the Franciscans established in Oxford about 1224. Grosseteste's learning is highly praised by Roger Bacon, who was a severe critic. According to Bacon, Grosseteste knew little Greek or Hebrew and paid slight attention to the works of Aristotle, but was pre-eminent among his contemporaries for his knowledge of the natural sciences. Between 1214 and 1231 Grosseteste held in succession the archdeaconries of Chester, Northampton and Leicester.

In 1232, after a severe illness, he resigned all his benefices and preferments except one prebend which he held at Lincoln. His intention was to spend the rest of his life in contemplative piety. But he retained the office of chancellor, and in 1235 accepted the bishopric of Lincoln. He undertook without delay the reformation of morals and clerical discipline throughout his vast diocese. This scheme brought him into conflict with more than one privileged corporation, but in particular with his own chapter, who vigorously disputed his claim to exercise the right of visitation over their community. The dispute raged hotly from 1239 to 1245. It was conducted on both sides with unseemly violence, and those who most approved of Grosseteste's main purpose thought it needful to warn him against the mistake of over-zeal. But in 1245, by a personal visit to the papal court at Lyons, he secured a favourable verdict.

In ecclesiastical politics the bishop belonged to the school of Becket. His zeal for reform led him to advance, on behalf of the courts, Christian pretensions which it was impossible that the secular power should admit. He twice incurred a well-merited rebuke from Henry III upon this subject; although it was left for Edward I to settle the question of principle in favour of the state. The devotion of Grosseteste to the hierarchical theories of his age is attested by his correspondence with his chapter and the king. Against the former he upheld the prerogative of the bishops; against the latter he asserted that it was impossible for a bishop to disregard the commands of the Holy See. Where the liberties of the national church came into conflict with the pretensions of Rome he stood by his own countrymen.

Thus in 1238 he demanded that the king should release certain Oxford scholars who had assaulted the legate Otho. But at least up to the year 1247 he submitted patiently to papal encroachments, contenting himself with the protection (by a special papal privilege) of his own diocese from alien clerks. Of royal exactions he was more impatient; and after the retirement of Archbishop Saint Edmund constituted himself the spokesman of the clerical estate in the Great Council.

In 1244 he sat on a committee which was empanelled to consider a demand for a subsidy. The committee rejected the demand, and Grosseteste foiled an attempt on the king's part to separate the clergy from the baronage. "It is written," the bishop said, "that united we stand and divided we fall."

It was, however, soon made clear that the king and pope were in alliance to crush the independence of the English clergy; and from 1250 onwards Grosseteste openly criticized the new financial expedients to which Innocent IV had been driven by his desperate conflict with the Empire. In the course of a visit which he made to Innocent in this year, the bishop laid before the pope and cardinals a written memorial in which he ascribed all the evils of the Church to the malignant influence of the Curia. It produced no effect, although the cardinals felt that Grosseteste was too influential to be punished for his audacity.

Much discouraged by his failure, the bishop thought of resigning. In the end, however, he decided to continue the unequal struggle. In 1251 he protested against a papal mandate enjoining the English clergy to pay Henry III one-tenth of their revenues for a crusade; and called attention to the fact that, under the system of provisions, a sum of 70,000 marks was annually drawn from England by the alien nominees of Rome. In 1253, upon being commanded to provide in his own diocese for a papal nephew, he wrote a letter of expostulation and refusal, not to the pope himself but to the commissioner, Master Innocent, through whom he received the mandate. The text of the remonstrance, as given in the Burton Annals and in Matthew Paris, has possibly been altered by a forger who had less respect than Grosseteste for the papacy. The language is more violent than that which the bishop elsewhere employs. But the general argument, that the papacy may command obedience only so far as its commands are consonant with the teaching of Christ and the apostles, is only what should be expected from an ecclesiastical reformer of Grosseteste's time. There is much more reason for suspecting the letter addressed "to the nobles of England, the citizens of London, and the community of the whole realm," in which Grosseteste is represented as denouncing in unmeasured terms papal finance in all its branches. But even in this case allowance must be made for the difference between modern and medieval standards of decorum.

Grosseteste numbered among his most intimate friends the Franciscan teacher, Adam Marsh. Through Adam he came into close relations with Simon de Montfort. From the Franciscan's letters it appears that the earl had studied a political tract by Grosseteste on the difference between a monarchy and a tyranny; and that he embraced with enthusiasm the bishop's projects of ecclesiastical reform. Their alliance began as early as 1239, when Grosseteste exerted himself to bring about a reconciliation between the king and the earl. But there is no reason to suppose that the political ideas of Montfort had matured before the death of Grosseteste; nor did Grosseteste busy himself overmuch with secular politics, except in so far as they touched the interest of the Church. Grosseteste realised that the misrule of Henry III and his unprincipled compact with the papacy largely accounted for the degeneracy of the English hierarchy and the laxity of ecclesiastical discipline. But he can hardly be termed a constitutionalist.

Grosseteste died on October 9 1253. He must then have been between seventy and eighty years of age. He was already an elderly man, with a firmly established reputation, when he became a bishop. As an ecclesiastical statesman he showed the same fiery zeal and versatility of which he had given proof in his academic career; but the general tendency of modern writers has been to exaggerate his political and ecclesiastical services, and to neglect his performance as a scientist and scholar. The opinion of his own age, as expressed by Matthew Paris and Roger Bacon, was very different. His contemporaries, while admitting the excellence of his intentions as a statesman, lay stress upon his defects of temper and discretion. But they see in him the pioneer of a literary and scientific movement; not merely a great ecclesiastic who patronized learning in his leisure hours, but the first mathematician and physicist of his age. It is certainly true that he anticipated, in these fields of thought, some of the most striking ideas to which Roger Bacon subsequently gave a wider currency.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.