Bishops in 15th century England and Wales
For administrative purposes, the 15th century Church in England (not the Church of England which appeared in the 16th century) divided up the country into two main areas: the Archdiocese of York northwards from Cheshire, Yorkshire & Nottinghamshire to the Scottish border, and of Canterbury claiming every other county from the Midlands to the south. Within these areas, there were smaller divisions (dioceses) each with their own Cathedral (Latin ‘cathedra’ = a seat or throne): fifteen in England and four in Wales.
The dioceses of 15th century England: Bath & Wells, Carlisle, Chichester, Coventry & Lichfield, Durham, Ely, Exeter, Hereford, Lincoln, London, Norwich, Rochester, Salisbury, Winchester, Worcester. Welsh dioceses: Bangor, Llandaff, St. Asaph, St David’s.
Each diocese had a senior cleric – a Bishop – to oversee the life of the church, regulate the work and conduct of priests, officiate at ecclesiastical courts and attend Parliament as one of the Lords Spiritual. Some Bishops played a greater part than others in national politics, either due to their individual merits or to the fact that they were powerful landowners as a consequence of their office.
Prominent Bishops & Archbishops in 15th Century England
Bishops are usually referred to by the name of their Diocese (or ‘See’), sometimes with a cross before the name such as +York. The very brief notes here illustrate that clerics were often appointed to very senior positions in government such as Treasurer, Keeper of the Privy Seal, Master of the Rolls and Lord Chancellor but whose political tenure was dependent on the support of the king independently of their career in the Church.
When looking at dates it is worth noting who was on the throne at the time:
Richard II 1377-99;
Henry IV 1399-1413;
Henry V 1413-1422;
Henry VI 1422-1461, and October 1470-March 1471;
Edward IV 1461 – October 1470 and March 1471 – April 1483;
Edward V April 1483 – July 1483;
Richard III July 1483-August 1485;
Henry VII Aug 1485 – 1509.
Henry Beaufort (circa. 1375 – 1447) son of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, illegitimate but legitimized by Richard II, Pope Boniface IX and again by Henry IV. +Lincoln (1398), +Winchester (1404), Lord Chancellor for brief periods under all three Lancastrian kings: Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. Cardinal (1426). For a time in the 1420’s and 30’s, the most politically powerful prelate in England. He was a leading member of the Council during the minority of Henry VI but he and Humfrey, duke of Gloucester had such bitter disputes over policy that the eldest surviving brother of Henry V, John, duke of Bedford, had to return to England several times from his Regency in France to sort them out. Beaufort and Humfrey were both disempowered by their disputes and both died within weeks of each other in 1447.
Thomas Bourchier (circa 1411-1486) +Worcester (1434), +Ely (1443), +Canterbury (1454), Lord Chancellor (1455). Became a Yorkist and crowned Edward IV at his first Coronation in 1461, followed by Elizabeth Woodville as Queen (1464). Cardinal (1473). In May 1483 he was sent to see the Queen in sanctuary at Westminster and persuaded her to release her younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury, to join her other son, Edward V, in the Tower of London. She never saw either of her sons again as far as we know. Bourchier then crowned Richard III (July 1483). After joining Henry Tudor in France, he then had the honour of crowning Henry VII (1485) and his Queen, Elizabeth of York (1486).
Henry Chichele (circa 1364-1443) Attended the newly founded New College, Oxford (1387). He was a highly skilled lawyer and diplomat and was involved in attempting to solve the problem of the schism that had developed between the Avignon and Rome popes. Appointed personally by Pope Gregory XII to + St. David’s (1408), he later became +Canterbury (1414). He crowned Henry V’s Queen Katherine (1421) and baptized her son, the future Henry VI. He opposed the election of Henry Beaufort to Cardinal in 1414 who had to wait until 1426.
Peter Courtney (circa 1432-1492) A diplomat under Edward IV, he was clearly sufficiently skilled at diplomacy to retain the confidence of the Lancastrians for the brief readeption of Henry VI in 1470, and then continue in Edward IV’s second reign as his private secretary. +Exeter (1478). After Edward’s death he supported Richard at first but joined the Buckingham Rebellion and then fled, with his brother, to join Henry Tudor in Brittany. Henry VII rewarded him with the post of Keeper of the Privy Seal, He later became +Winchester (1487).
Thomas Langton (b. ? d. 1501) A diplomat under both Yorkist kings who also thrived under Henry VII. +St. David’s (1483), +Salisbury (1485), Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford (1487), +Winchester (1493), +Canterbury (1501) but died before taking office.
John Morton (circa 1420-1500) A Lancastrian lawyer. Captured at Battle of Towton (1461) but escaped and joined Margaret of Anjou in exile. Pardoned by Edward IV, Master of the Rolls (1472), +Ely (1479). Arrested by Richard III as a suspected Woodville supporter, he was placed in the care of Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham whom he seems to have persuaded to rebel against Richard. Before the attainders and executions of 1484, Morton went into voluntary exile in Flanders and then joined the government-in-waiting of Henry Tudor. Henry VII appointed him to +Canterbury (1486) and Lord Chancellor (1487). The pope appointed him Cardinal (1493). As Chancellor he operated a policy known as ‘Morton’s fork’: no-one was too poor to pay taxes. In the 1490’s a young Thomas More was a servant in Morton’s home, and may there have collected stories about Richard III which he later wrote down in his History of King Richard III.
Robert Morton (1435-1497) Nephew of John Morton, Master of the Rolls (a senior government law officer) under Edward IV, sacked by Richard III in 1483, fought at Bosworth on the side of Henry Tudor and was reinstated in 1485. Appointed +Worcester the following year.
Thomas Rotherham (1423-1500) Attended the recently founded King’s College, Cambridge. Keeper of the Privy Seal (1467), +Rochester (1468), +Lincoln (1472), Lord Chancellor (1475) Archbishop of York (1480-1500). During the crisis of April to July 1483 he was of the Woodville faction and lost his appointment as Lord Chancellor when Richard prevailed. Henry VII briefly re-appointed him in 1485.
John Russell (b? d. 1494) Lord Privy Seal (1474), +Rochester (1476), +Lincoln (1480). An executor of Edward IV’s will, he was appointed Lord Chancellor by Richard remaining in post for virtually the whole of Richard III’s reign. After Bosworth he focussed on his role as Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Robert Stillington (1420-1491) Keeper of the Privy Seal (1460), +Baths & Wells (1466), then Lord Chancellor under Edward IV till dismissed in 1473. Imprisoned for a week shortly after George duke of Clarence’s execution (1478). By 1483 Stillington was in favour again and a member of the king’s council. He is believed by some, (following Philippe de Commynes’ account of events), to be the cleric who revealed that he had officiated at a secret marriage between Edward IV and another woman, possibly Lady Eleanor Talbot-Butler, who was still living when Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville. This was the official reason given for the constitutional crisis which resulted in the deposition of Edward V and the coronation of Richard III in July 1483. Stillington is thought to have been one of the authors of the Act of Parliament, Titulus Regius, which legitimized Richard III’s right to the throne. After Bosworth (1485) he was imprisoned by Henry VII and his evidence about a bigamous marriage was nullified. Not only was Titulus Regius was repealed and instructions given for it to be removed from the Parliamentary records. Stillington supported the claimant Lambert Simnel (1487) for which he was imprisoned again by Henry VII and died there.
John Stafford (b.? d. 1452) illegitimate at birth but with a papal dispensation, he become a priest and later +Baths & Wells (1425). Lord Treasurer then Lord Chancellor during Henry VI’s minority. +Canterbury (1443) died in office 1452. No relation to the Stafford dukes of Buckingham.
William Waynefleet (circa 1398-1486) Headmaster of Winchester College (1429), Provost of Eton College (1441), +Winchester (1447), Lord Chancellor (1456). Founded Magdalen College, Oxford (1458). During the Cade Rebellion (1450) he was one of the king’s negotiators. He baptized Edward the Lancastrian Prince of Wales (1453). Lord Chancellor (1456). His interest in natural science is commemorated by the Waynefleet Professorships at the University of Oxford.
Lionel Woodville (1447-1484) a brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, +Salisbury (1482). He does not appear to have held any position in his brother-in-law’s government and he died during the reign of Richard III.
21st Century England
Despite the dissolution of the monasteries (Abbeys and Priories) in the 1530’s, twenty-five pre-reformation medieval cathedrals survive and are among Europe’s greatest architectural treasures. Visits are strongly recommended, and a list of their websites is on our Places to Visit page.
Today, 26 Bishops and Archbishops have seats in the House of Lords ex officio – by reason of their Church appointment. This is one of the links of contemporary political representation that can be traced back to medieval Parliaments of Lords Spiritual, Temporal and Commons.
Bishops of the Church of England are political appointments – the Prime Minister is advised by diocesan and other Church of England representatives and then makes recommendations to the monarch of who is most appropriate to be appointed as a Bishop
No Roman Catholic Bishop has a seat in the UK House of Lords: they are forbidden, not by UK law, but by canon (Church) law, to hold any position in a government other than that of the Roman Catholic Church – the Holy See i.e., the Vatican. This rule avoids a clash with the former writ in the law of England of praemunire facias (repealed in 1967) which created a crime of allegiance to a foreign power – a form of treason.