Grosseteste, Robert

, an English prelate, and the most learned ecclesiastic of his time, was born probably about 1175, of obscure parents at Stradbrook in Suffolk. He studied at Oxford, where he laid the foundation of his skill in the Greek tongue, and was thus enabled to make himself master of Aristotle, whose works had been hitherto read only in translations: at Oxford too he acquired a knowledge of the Hebrew. He afterwards went to Paris, where he prosecuted his studies of Greek and Hebrew, and made himself master of French. Here he also studied the divinity and philosophy of the age, his proficiency in which was so remarkable as to draw upon him the suspicion of being a magician. At Oxford, on his return, he became celebrated as a divine, and was the first lecturer in the Franciscan school in that university. In 1235 he was elected, by the dean and chapter, bishop of Lincoln, which see was then, and continues still, the largest in England, although Ely, Oxford, and Peterborough have been since taken from it. Grosseteste, who was of an ardent and active spirit, immediately undertook to reform abuses, exhorting ‘both clergy and people to religious observances, and perhaps would have been in a considerable degree successful, had he not confided too much in the Dominican | and Franciscan friars, as his helpers in the good work. But they being appointed by him to preach to the people, hear their confessions, and enjoin penance, abused these op-­portunities by exercising dominion over the superstitious minds of the laity, and enriched themselves at their expence. Although, however, the hypocrisy of the Dominicans and Franciscans in this instance escaped his penetration, he could not be deceived in the dissolute character and ignorance of the more ancient orders, and was very strict in his visitations, and very severe in his censures of their conduct. Partly through this sense of his duty, and his love of justice, and partly from his warmth of temper, he was frequently engaged in quarrels with convents, and other agents of the pope. At one time he was even excommunicated by the convent of Canterbury; but treating this with contempt, he continued to labour in promoting piety, and redressing abuses with his usual zeal, firmness, and perseverance. Although the friars continued to be his favourites, and he rebuked the rectors and vicars of his diocese, because they neglected to hear them preach, and be^ cause they discouraged the people from attending and confessing to them, in time he began to see more clearly into the character of those ecclesiastics. In 1247, two English Francisqans were sent into England with credentials to extort money for the pope; and when they applied, with some degree of insolence, to Grosseteste, for six thousand marks, as the contribution for the diocese of Lincoln, he answered them that (with submission to his holiness), the demand was as dishonourable as impracticable; that the whole body of the clergy and people were concerned in it as well as himself; and that for him to give a definitive answer in an instant to such a demand, before the sense of the kingdom was taken upon it, would be rash and absurd.

He continued afterwards to exert himself in promoting the good of the church as to doctrine and morals, with the most upright intentions, and to the best of his knowledge, although it must afford the present age but a poor opinion of his knowledge in such matters, when we find him translating, and illustrating with commentaries, such works as those of John Damascenus, and of the spurious Dionysius the Areopagite; and even ^ The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs," which he thought a valuable monument of sacred antiquity, and equal in importance with the scriptures. But the ignorance of the times, and the difficulties | of acquiring divine knowledge, were in that age greatly beyond what can now be conceived. In the case, however, of external morals, Grosseteste showed more discernment. In 1248 he obtained, at a great expence, from pope Innocent IV. letters to empower him to reform the religious orders, fortified by this authority, he first turned his attention to die waste of large revenues by the monastic orders, and determined to take into his own hand the rents of the religious houses, probably with a design to institute and ordain vicarages in his diocese, and to provide for the more general instruction of the peopled But the monks having appealed to the pope, Crosseteste, in his old age^ was obliged to travel to Lyons, where Innocent resided, and where he immediately decided against our bishop, and treated him with much harshness of language, to which Grosseteste replied with great spirit, and went so far as to insinuate the power of money at the court of Rome. All, however, that he could do was to leave a kind of remonstrance, in the shape of a long sermon, one copy of which he delivered to the pope, and others totwo of the cardinals, in which he sharply inveighed against the flagitious practices of the court of Rome, particularly the appropriation of churches to religious houses, the appeals of the religious to the pope, and the scandalous clause in the bulls of nan obstantd, which was the great engine of the pope’s dispensing power, anil enabled him to set aside all statutes and customs. He was for some time so dejected with the disappointment he had met with, that he intended to resign his bishopric, but upon more mature -reflection, thought it his duty to remain in his office, and do all the good which the bigotry and ignorance of the times would permit.

At home he still opposed the lazy Italians, who had procured the pope’s letters for provisions, and were the objects of Grosseteste 1 s greatest detestation, for he said “if he should commit the care of souls to them, he should be the friend of Satan.” Upon such principles he would often, with indignation, cast the bulls out of his hand, and absolutely refused to comply with them. He was suspended at one time for disobeying a papal mandate of this kind. Pope Innocent, persisting in his old courses, notwithstanding all the fair promises and assurances he had given to the contrary, commanded the bishop to admit un Italian, entirely ignorant of the English language, to a rich benefice | in his diocese, and be refusing to comply, was suspended for it the Lent following. This sentence, however, seems to have been soon relaxed, as we find the bishop singing mass at Hales the same year. A more remarkable instance of Grosseteste’s spirited opposition to the papal usurpations occurred in 1253, when Innocent ordered his nephew, aa Italian youth, to be promoted to the first canonry that should be vacant in the cathedral of Lincoln, and declared that any other disposal of the canonry should be null and void; and that he would excommunicate every one who should dare to disobey his injunction. The pope also wrote to the archdeacon of Canterbury, and to one Mr. Innocent, both Italians, to see this business completed, with a clause of non obstante and to cite all coiuraveners to appear before him without any manner of plea or excuse and under another clause of non obstante^ in two months time.

Grosseteste wrote immediately to the pope, or to his agents, in the most resolute and spirited terms, almost retorting, as Brown in his “Fasciculus rerum expetendarum,” &c. observes, “excommunication for excommunication.” This epistle, of which we have many copies notv extant, both in manuscript and printed, is a most celebrated performance, and has immortalized the bishop’s memory, and endeared it to all generations. He insists, that the papal mandates cannot be repugnant to the doctrine of Christ and his apostles, and that, therefore, the tenor of his holifiess’s epistles was not consonant to toe sanctity of the holy see, on account of the accumulated clauses of non obstante. Then, that no sin can be more adverse to the doctrine of the apostles, more abominable to Jesus Christ, or more hurtful to mankind, than to defraud and rob those souls, which ought to be the objects of the pastoral care, of that instruction which by the scriptures they have a right to, &c. Hence he infers that the holy see, destined to edify and not to destroy, cannot possibly incur a sin of this kind; and that no one that is not an excommunicate, ought to obey any such absurd mandate, though an angj^l from heaven should command him, but rather to revolt and oppose them, &c.

The pope, on receiving this flat denial, which he little expected, written, as our readers may perceive, in a sarcastic styje implying much more than is expressed, fell into a furious passion, exclaiming, with a stern countenanc, and with all the pride of Lucifer, “Who is this old dotard, deaf, | and absurd, that thus rashly presumes to judge of my actions? By Peter and Paul, if the goodness of my own heart did not restrain me, I should so chastise him, as to make him an example and a spectacle to all the world. Is not the king of England my vassal, my slave, and for a word speaking, would throw him into prison, and load him with infamy and disgrace?” And, when the cardinals interposed, they had much ado to mollify him, by telling him, “it was little for his interest to think of animadverting on the bishop; since, as they must all own, what he said was true, and they could not condemn or blame him, &c.” giving the bishop, at the same time, a most noble testimony, in respect of his piety, learning, and general character, as acknowledged by all the world: in all which, they confessed frankly, they were none of them to be compared to him. The pope, however, excommunicated the bishop, and even named a successor to his see; but the bishop, on his part, contented himself with appealing from the sentence to the tribunal of Christ, after which he troubled himself no more about it, and remained quietly in possession of his dignity.

Towards the end of this summer (1253) he fell sick at his palace at Buckden, and sent for friar John de St. Giles, who was a physician and a divine, in both which capacities he wanted his assistance, as he foresaw, to the great uneasiness of his mind, the troubles that would shortly befall the church. He then gave orders to the clergy of his diocese to renew the sentence of excommunication upon all who should infringe the magna charta concerning the liberties of the kingdom, which made the incumbents very obnoxious to many of the courtiers. In all his conversations on this subject in his last illness, he appears to have retained the strength of his understanding, and conscious of the uprightness of his conduct towards the pope, he still fully approved it in his heart; nor was his courage in the least broken, or his spirits dejected, by any fulminations that had Hfcen launched against him from that quarter. His conversations on this occasion, given by his biographer, display his real sentiments on the depraved and corrupt state of the papacy in his time, the particulars or articles on which he grounded his charge, and that abhorrence of its proceedings which does him so much honour.

He died at Buckden, Oct. 9, 1255, and the corpse was carried to Lincoln, where it was met by archbishop | Boniface, who attended the funeral. He was interred in the upper south transept. For an account of his tomb, &c. we must refer to our principal authority. The pope, who rejoiced at his death, ordered a Letter to be written to king Henry, enjoining him to take up the bishop’s bones, cast them out of the church, and burn them, but this letter was not -sent. As Grosseteste was a person of acknowledged piety and strictness of manners, he easily arrived at the beatitude, or title of Beatus, and even at sanctity 9 in the general estimation; but he could never obtain these jhonours from the church, though they were solicited for him in the strongest terms. Indeed, as l>r. Pegge observes, it would have been improper and absurd for the popes to repute and proclaim a person to be now an holy beatified saint in heaven, who in their opinion had so openly traduced, insulted, and vilified both the see and court of Rome, which were still pursuing the very same measures he condemned, and continued to be invariably the same depraved, venal, and corrupt body. It is, however, for the honour of bishop Grosseteste, that for his piety and integrity, his learning and abilities, he still lives valued and revered in the breasts of all sober and reasonable men. It is plain that he did not suffer the least in the esteem of the world, any more than he did in his own opinion, by the anathema which pope Innocent had denounced against him. Indeed the papal censures, of which our prelates stood so much in dread at Lyons, in 1245, had been of late so infamously prostituted, that they seem to have lost their efficacy. Grosseteste, in particular, paid no regard to that which was denounced against him, for he still continued to exercise his function; his clergy also made no scruple of obeying him when under the sentence; and his exequies were solemnized not only by the secular but even by the regular clergy of his diocese.

Few authors, ancient or modern, ever mention bishop Grosseteste without an eulogium, and from the many evidences brought by his biographer, he appears to have excelled all his contemporaries in learning, piety, judgment, and conscientious integrity in the discharge of his episcopal duties, and to have powerfully aided in producing what we may term the preliminaries of that reformation which was afterwards to take place in a church so corrupt, and so weak, that even at this time it was not able to support itself against the arguments of one English prelate, a | point of religion, the papists are very desirous of having bishop Grosseteste for their own; and it must be acknowledged that he was much with them doctrinally, and at first entertained a high opinion of the power of the keys, and the personal authority of the pope; but at last, in a case manifestly unscriptural and injurious to the welfare of religion, he openly contemned it, and did not even regard dying in a state of excommunication. He had also at one time conceived a most elevated idea of the hierarchy in general, thinking it superior to the regal dignity. To this he was led, exceeding in this respect even Becket himself, by the authority of the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” and this is the best excuse that can be made for him; the blindness of the times being sucb, that men of the best learning, and the greatest acuteness, had not critical skill sufficient, though this be the first and proper object of criticism, to distinguish a spurious composition from the true word of God. But, however, he afterwards changed his mind in regard to the hierarchy. Had he lived in more enlightened times, when points formerly taken fur granted as principles not to be controverted, were more maturely canvassed and considered, his ideas on many religious topics would have been greatly enlarged, and he would not have been at all averse to a separation from a church so venal and corrupt as that of Home, nor to a reformation both of her doctrines and discipline.

Bishop Grosseteste was a severe student to the very end of life. He was a master of languages, of some that were not jhen generally known, and also of every branch of learning, both human and divine, as they were then usually studied and professed; and he improved many of them by the productions of his own pen. His erudition was truly multifarious, so that he may justly be said, both in respect of himself and his own acquirements, and of that general patronage and encouragement which he afforded the literati of his time, to stand at the head in this country at least, of all the learning of the age. His forte seems to have been logic, philosophy, and theology, and his knowledge of the scriptures was very intimate.

For a list of his works, both published, which are but few, and unpublished, we must necessarily refer to Dr. Pegge-’s elaborate life of our prelate, where it occupies twenty-five closely printed pages in quarto. It is thought Grosseteste was the most voluminous writer of any | Englishman, at least wrote more tracts, and on a greater variety of subjects, than any one. Archbishop Williams had once an intention of collecting them for publication; but as Dr. Pegge has very justly remarked, it is not much to be regretted that the design was not executed,when we consider the superior light and knowledge of our times, and how much better every thing is understood. His style is copious and verbose, and bordering frequently upon turgidity, abounding with uncouth words, which, though formed analogically, are yet new, and not very pleasing to a reader of the classics; but he expresses himself in general very intelligibly, particularly in his books “De Sphaera” and “De Cessatione Legalium.” He proceeds also in his compositions very methodically and perspicuously. 1


Life of Robert Grosseteste, by Samuel Pegge, LL. D. 1793, 4to, which supersedes the necessity of any other references, except, perhaps, to M liner’s Church History, who has ably analyzed the bishop’s character as a divine, and the Archaeologia, vol. XIII. where he is introduced as an Anglo-Norman poet. Dr. Pegge’s work, one of his last and best, throws great light upon the history of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.