York Minster, Cathedral of
the Archbishops of York
The princess Mary, known as Mary of Woodstock, was the thirteenth of sixteen children born to Edward I and his wife Eleanor of Castile. (The widowed Edward had three more children by his second wife, Marguerite of France.) When her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, the widow of Henry III, decided to take the veil as a nun at Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, she asked that two of her granddaughters, Mary and Eleanor of Brittany, be sent along to the convent as well. Mary was only seven years old when fated to convent life, though she was not officially veiled as a nun until she was twelve.
Amesbury was an English house of the Fontrevault order. Fonterevault was a monastery in Anjou (France) with strong ties to the Plantagenets, the English Royal Family. Fontrevault had been founded by Robert of Abrissel (1045-1116), a reformer and preacher. It was a double monastery of nuns and monks with the Abbess of the nuns as superior of both communities. Henry II, as Duke of Anjou, had been a major benefactor of the Abbey and he, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and several of their children—including Richard the Lionheart—are buried there. Amesbury Abbey had been founded under the Rule of Saint Benedict in Anglo-Saxon days but had been suppressed under Henry II and turned over to the Fontrevault Order which sent nuns to the monastery which was by this fact reduced to priory status as a dependent house on Fontrevault. Fontrevault was regarded as a reformed order and its level of observance was supposed to be quite strict. But not for the Lady Mary.
Mary was given a very generous allowance worth about $100,000 a year in modern sums. She also had a special allowance for clothing (habits and veils are expensive, I guess). She also was entitled to 20 tuns of wine (over five thousand gallons) a year from the royal stores. Despite the papal bull, Periculoso, requiring nuns to remain in their convents, Mary travelled freely about and maintained an entourage of servants to accompany her. She often returned to court and she sometimes went on pilgrimage. She ran up considerable gambling debts which her brother, King Edward II, had to pay off and she may have had an affair with John de Warrenne, a political foe of her brother the King.
Meanwhile, her cousin, Eleanor of Brittany had become Abbess of the mother house at Fontrevault and tried to rein in this loose-living nun, but was quite unsuccessful in doing so. Her brother the King defended her and even the Pope took her side. Meanwhile, seeing her free lifestyle, various daughters of the nobility decided that being a nun wasn’t all that bad a deal and entered the priory at Amesbury under Mary’s “guidance,” leading to a decline in the house’s observance and reputation.
Looking at the life of Mary of Woodstock, one can see the sort of nun that Chaucer would use as his model in the Canterbury Tales.
Let’s go back to Henry II for a moment—remember him? Henry was the king who had the fight with Becket. In addition to the six legitimate children he had with Eleanor of Aquitaine Henry fathered at least two bastard children. The elder of these, indeed the eldest of all Henry’s children, was Geoffrey, not to be confused with a legitimate son also named Geoffrey. Henry’s father was named Geoffrey and Henry idolized his father. His father, a man of remarkable military prowess but of cold and evil temper was not worthy of his son’s obsessive admiration. (Isn’t that so often the way?) In any case, young Geoffrey—being illegitimate and of a commoner mother—was not a suitable heir for the kingdom. The Church could provide a career for the young man and at age 21 he was named Bishop of Lincoln. He wasn’t ordained a priest yet, of course, and he delayed taking Holy Orders while collecting the bishop’s income. That was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Geoffrey was more cut out for secular life—like his grandfather, he was a prodigious soldier. When in 1173-74, his half-brothers (Henry the Young King, Richard, Geoffrey and John) rebelled against their father in an attempt to seize the kingdom, Geoffrey took his father’s side and played an important role in defeating the over-anxious princes. In 1181Pope Lucius III demanded that Geoffrey be consecrated a bishop or give up his diocese. He gave up his diocese and his father, Henry, named him Lord Chancellor.
When Henry died in 1189, Geoffrey was in trouble. Richard the Lionheart remembered this older brother had fought against him in the rebellion of 1173 and Richard was not about to allow him to remain as Lord Chancellor. Richard wanted to neutralize any claims to the throne that Geoffrey might make, especially given that Richard was planning on going on Crusade and wanted to leave his kingdom secure. He named Geoffrey Archbishop of York and forced him to receive episcopal consecration in 1191. Geoffrey was a most quarrelsome prelate—fighting with his cathedral chapter, with the other bishops of England, and with his half-brother, the King. Geoffrey adopted for himself and by no authority other than his own, the title “Primate of England” which set off a fight with the Archbishop of Canterbury who claimed the primacy. (Eventually it was settled with York being the “Primate of England” and Canterbury being the “Primate of All England.” (Wasn’t there something in the gospels about the apostles arguing over which was the greatest? Do we ever learn?) He seems to have had a chip on his shoulder that he had not been allowed to succeed to the crown and was forced to a career in the Church, a career he never truly embraced other than as a source of power and pride. This was a huge problem in the medieval Church, however, where prelates were chosen not for their pastoral gifts, or even for their piety, but regardless of their character they were named for political reasons.
These stories—of the princess-nun, Mary of Woodstock, and the bastard Archbishop Geoffrey fitzHenry, give us a glimpse of the malady into which the Church of England had sunk in the thirteenth century. Traditionalist Catholics often hold that century up as the apex of Catholicism. A century ago, the pseudo-historian, James J. Walsh even wrote a book The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries. It remains a perennial favorite among Catholic romanticists. The truth is, however, that the same century that gave us Francis and Dominic also gave us characters of much lower sanctity and worth. But every century is like that. There is no golden age of Catholicism—the wheat and the tares grow alongside one another in the field until the day of judgment.