Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Robert Winchelsey

Robert Winchelsea (died 1313), archbishop of Canterbury, was probably born at Old Winchelsea.

He studied and then taught at the universities of Paris and Oxford, where he attained celebrity as a scholar, and became rector of the former, and subsequently chancellor of the latter university. He held prebendal stalls in the cathedrals of Lincoln and St Paul's, and was made archdeacon of Essex about 1283.

In December 1292 John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury, died, and early in the following year Winchelsea was elected as his successor. His consecration, which took place at Aquila in September 1294, was delayed owing to the vacancy in the papacy, but he found no difficulty in obtaining the temporalities of the see from King Edward I.

Winchelsea is chiefly renowned as a strenuous upholder of the privileges of the clergy and the authority of the pope, and as a fearless opponent of Edward I. Strengthened by the issue of the papal bull Clericis Laicos in 1296, he stimulated the clergy to refuse pecuniary assistance to Edward in 1297; but after the king had pronounced sentence of outlawry against the delinquents he instructed each clerk to decide this question for himself. Personally the archbishop still declined to make any contribution towards the expenses of the French war, and his lands were seized and held by Edward until July 1297, when a somewhat ostentatious reconciliation between king and prelate took place at Westminster.

He took some part in the movement which led to the confirmation of the charters by Edward later in the same year, but the struggle with the king did not exhaust his energies. He asserted his authority over his suffragans to the full; quarrelled with Pope Boniface VIII over the presentation to a Sussex living, and was excommunicated by one of the pope's minions; and vigorously contested the claim of the archbishop of York to carry his cross erect in the province of Canterbury. Before these events, however, the quarrel with Edward had been renewed, although Winchelsea officiated in 1299 at the king's marriage with Margaret, daughter of Philip III of France.

Joining the barons in demanding certain reforms from Edward at the parliament of Lincoln in 1301, he compelled the king to give way on the main issues; but the indignation which followed the claim of Pope Boniface to be the protector of Scotland, a claim which was supported by Winchelsea, led to the rupture of this alliance. It is probable that one of the reasons which led the archbishop to join in these proceedings was his hostility to Edward's adviser, Walter Langton, bishop of Lichfield, whom he sought to disgrace both in England and at Rome. The king cherished his indignation until his friend Clement V became pope in 1305, when he made his final move against Winchelsea. Listening to Edward's envoys, Langton and Henry Lacy, earl of Lincoln, Clement suspended the archbishop, who, after vainly imploring the intercession of the king, left England and journeyed to the papal court at Bordeaux, remaining in exile until Edward's death in July 1307.

The new king, Edward II, requested Clement to allow Winchelsea to return to his see. The pope assented, but soon after his return to England early in 1308 the archbishop joined the king's enemies; even demanded the release from prison of his old enemy, Langton, and was one of the "ordainers" appointed in 1310. He assisted the barons in their struggle with Edward II by a frequent use of spiritual weapons, and took part in the proceedings against the Knights Templars. He died at Otford on May 11, 1313.

Miracles were said to have been worked at his tomb in Canterbury cathedral, but efforts to procure his canonization were unavailing. Although as a secular priest Winchelsea was somewhat ascetic, and his private life was distinguished for sanctity and generosity. As an ecclesiastic, however, he was haughty and fond of power; and he has been not inappropriately described as "the greatest churchman of the time."

See Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, edited with introduction by W Stubbs (London, 1882—1883); S Birchington, in the Anglia sacra, edited by H Wharton (London, 1691); and W Stubbs, Constitutional History, vol. ii. (Oxford, 1896).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.