Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
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Lords Temporal and Spiritual:
The Interactions of Papal and Royal Power
in John Capgrave's Abbreuiacion of Cronicles.

Slawomir Konkol

In her discussion of the study of historical texts, Gabrielle M. Spiegel postulates such positioning of the text which involves "an examination of the play of power, human agency, and social experience as historians traditionally understood them" (27) and claims that only the consideration of the social and political context in which the text was created allows the full understanding of the construction of its meanings. At the same time, she stresses the significance of the vision of the past for the political life of the Middle Ages, arguing that whereas the origin of government was unhistorical in being associated with expressing the will of God, the methods of action and specific policies were based on the record of the past. She further links this perception with the tendency to use history for the legitimisation of political power: "the medieval chronicler utilized a very fluid perspective with regard to past and present. The search for the past was guided by present necessities" (86). This paper examines the reflection of the conflicting influences of John Capgrave's era in the presentation of the relations of royal and papal power in his chronicle. Showing the influence of both the perception of the divine as the source of all human authority and the political climate of his times, with the emerging sense of national identity, Capgrave captures the changing spirit of historiography at the beginnings of the fifteenth century.

John Capgrave was born in 1393 in Lynn (Norfolk) where he was brought up and, probably around 1410, entered the Augustinian order. Later, he studied at London and Cambridge. In 1446 he hosted the visit of Edward IV to the priory (it is assumed that he was by then prior at Lynn). In the years 1453-57 he was prior provincial of the Augustinian order in England. He remained a scholar and writer until his death in 1464. Capgrave was a prolific author and the body of his work includes various types of writing. Most of his texts were dedicated to particular people: heads of religious orders (Gilbert dedicated to Nicholas Reysby, master-general of the Gilbertine order of Sempringham, Concordia to John Watford, abbot of the Canons Regular and St. James's Abbey, Northampton); bishops (In Actus Apostolorum to William Gray, bishop of Ely); and aristocracy (De ilustribus Henricis presumably to King Henry VI, commentaries In Genesim and In Exodum to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester). Peter Lucas comments, "Evidently Capgrave remained throughout his career to a large extent an author in search of a public" (xxix), and points to an overall correspondence between the type of work and the dedicatee to confirm this claim: the writings dealing with the founders of religious orders and the orders themselves were dedicated to heads of religious orders assuring readership among their members; commentaries and other theological works were dedicated to bishops and Duke Humphrey; and biographies and historical works were dedicated to kings.

The preoccupation with finding a reading audience is one of the consequences of the changing spirit of historiography in Capgrave’s times. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be seen as a time in which the writing of history gradually stops being the exclusive concern of the clergy and displays increasing authorial interest in political and social issues (Galloway 274-76), moving away from the monastic tradition of works in Latin towards national histories in English, addressed to a wider public (Thompson 406). Abbreuiacion of Cronicles "begins as a universal chronicle, but concentrates on the kings of England from the year 1216 on, and ends abruptly in 1417 with a reference to the Council of Constance (1414-18), which is mistakenly said to have taken place at Basel" (Matheson 219). Lucas demonstrates the transitional character of Capgrave's chronicle, in its combination of the Augustinian views of history with a rising awareness of national identity. The shape of Capgrave's chronicle is based on St. Augustine's providential conception of history and his division into six ages ending respectively with the Flood, the death of Abraham, the death of David, the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon, and the birth of Christ; the sixth age is to end with the second coming of Christ and mark the end of history, after which the seventh age, a time of eternal rest will come (Lucas xcii). In the first section of his work, Capgrave follows the fate of the Jews, whose role as the chosen people is in the second part taken over by the Christians. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, seen as the last of the four great empires of Daniel's prophecy, the continuity of God's will shown in history is interrupted (Lucas xciv). At this point, Capgrave apparently places the English in the role of God's chosen people. As Lucas notes: "By attempting to extend a universal chronicle by the addition of national history Capgrave merely exposes the cracks that the passage of time had opened in the philosophy underlying universal history. Already humanist historians were beginning to replace the theory of the six ages with division between classical antiquity and the period that followed," adding that the use of English rather than Latin follows the tendencies of contemporary historiography, emphasising the anachronism of the universal chronicle mode (xcv).

The partisan approach to the English nation and rulers in the chronicle may also be attributed to the perception of the role of the monarch in Capgrave's times. Comparing the Elizabethan and Tudor ages, B. P. Wolffe stresses one similarity between the attitudes of both: the attachment to the idea of order and "a mortal dread of disorder and anarchy." Because of this, "rebellion against an anointed king, let alone regicide, was a heinous sin as well as a crime, odious and horrible to the Elizabethans, not to be thought of. It is perhaps not generally appreciated that a very similar feeling pervaded fifteenth-century England" (31). This attitude resulted in a perception of the king as a virtually godlike figure. Contemporary criticism of the monarch was very rare and the historical texts showed a tendency for propagandism (Wolffe 32). The view that a king is always perfect is expressed by Capgrave in his description of the change that took place in Henry V after the coronation (1413): "And aftir his coronacion he was euene turned onto anothir man, and all his mocions inclined to vertu" (“And after his coronation he turned into a different man, and all his motions inclined to virtue”; 238). 1

The veneration for the kings can no doubt be related to the medieval apprehensions about the origin of political power. The line of thought originated by Eusebius of Ceasarea that influenced both St. Augustine and his mentor, Ambrose, sought parallels between the ideal celestial monarchy and its earthly counterpart, with the monarch representing God on earth. Moreover, since human society was merely a stage on man's way towards God, it was crucial that the social order followed God's design, and this was to be ensured by the perfection of the ruler (Bergvall 171-72). However, Augustine makes a clear distinction between the divine and the human. Recognising the impossibility of achieving perfection in human endeavour (including the political sphere), Augustine rejects both early Christian renunciation and the later unconditional acceptance of the state: "he steers a hugely influential middle course between the withdrawal from society of the early Christians and the Christian imperialism of Eusebius" (Bergvall 175). In Book 19 of his City of God, Augustine distinguishes between the celestial and the earthly realm, dealing respectively with man's eternal happiness and his social interests. The supremacy of the divine authority is stressed; however, the "city of God" and the "city of man" are perceived as closely related. The temporal rulers are a part of the divine hierarchy and the Christians owe allegiance to both (Bergvall 176), and Augustine, in his acknowledgement of the cooperation of church and state, lays the foundation for a mentality reflected in Capgrave.

The significance of royal authority in the work as well as its relation to divine power is quite explicitly signalled in Capgrave’s Dedicatory Preface, which was added to celebrate the accession of King Edward IV (1461). Apart from sending the king "prayer, obediens, subjeccion and al that euir be ony deute a prest schould offir onto his kyng" (“prayer, obedience, subjection and all that by duty a priest should offer to his king”; 7), Capgrave contrasts Edward IV with Henry IV (1399-1413) and suggests God's approval in the case of the former: "He that entered be intrusion was Herry the Fourte. He that entered be Goddis prouision is Edward the Fourt" (“He that entered by intrusion was Henry the Fourth. He that entered by God’s provision is Edward the Fourth”; 9). He also compares the relation between the two kings to that of Adam and Christ, hoping that Edward will redress the errors of Henry. Significantly, in this he also uses the divine authority for support: "as I suppose, it is the desire of the euirlasting hillis that dwelle aboue" (“as I suppose, it is the desire of the everlasting person that dwells above”; 9).

At many points in the chronicle, the situation is reversed. The secular power is often employed for ecclesiastical purposes, with the popes and bishops quite openly appealing for support or leaving the execution of their decisions to the lay authorities. A letter from Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) to King Henry IV suggests the complexity of the interdependencies of the two powers. The pope begins his attempt to resolve the prolonged argument over the benefices in England by reminding the king of his obligation to support the church against the antipope (at this time, Benedict XIII). Only then does he protest against certain laws existing in England (in particular Quare Impedit and Praemunire Facias, both designed to reduce the pope’s influence on the English church) that he perceives as directed against the church. Finally, the pope makes it clear that he does not believe the statutes to be the will of the king and requests their annulment. He then goes on to inform the king about the alliance of the antipope and the king of France, Charles VI, aimed at making the latter the emperor and the threat posed by these developments to England (200). The pope concludes by advising Henry to support him by pressuring the French king to recognise him as the real pope. Significantly, Urban VI does not rely on God's authority exclusively to influence the king, but points out their common political interests.

The case of John Oldcastle, a Lollard knight in the court of King Henry V, "a gret enmye to the Cherch" (“a great enemy to the Church”; 239), provides an interesting example of division of jurisdiction. Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, complains about the knight to the king, who tries to amend the situation but eventually asks Arundel to summon the knight to answer before him. The knight refuses to accept the summons and is only brought before two bishops at the king’s order. After being questioned by the bishops, the knight is finally condemned as a heretic but left to secular hand (241). The king is also shown to be responsible for securing the interests of religion when he is recalled from Ireland at the request of the English clergy who implore him to counteract the Lollard efforts against the church (203).

At other points, the church lends its authority to support the king. The involvement of Pope Celestine III (1191-98) in the freeing of King Richard I from captivity provides an example. After Richard is captured by the men of Leopold of Austria and imprisoned by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in December 1192, the pope "cursed this duk of Ostriche, and he, aftir mech sorow and tribulacion, deied so acursed " (“cursed the duke of Austria and he, after much sorrow and trebulation, died so cursed”; 115). Ecclesiastical authority is used in a similar way to support lay power by Pope John XXII (1316-34) although with a less spectacular effect. During the early stages of Scottish struggle for independence (which the pope only recognised in 1320, when he lifted the excommunication of Robert Bruce), he sends his counsellor to England with a bull cursing the Scottish ruler for breaking peace with England (141).

In situations of conflict, the power of the church is usually shown to be superior, whether with or without direct divine intervention. The power of the pope's authority is clearly demonstrated by the investitures conflict between Gregory VII (1073-1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. When in 1075 Gregory declared that the appointment of church officials was the duty of the pope alone, Henry reacted by demanding that the pope step down. Gregory excommunicated the emperor in 1076, and a year later Henry was forced to demonstrate his subservience: "He cursed the Emperour Herry for the scisme he set in the Cherch, and compelled him to com barefoot in frost and snow and aske his absolucion" (“He cursed the Emperor Henry for the schism he caused in the Church and compelled him to come barefoot in frost and snow and ask his absolution”; 100). The authority of the popes includes secular, political issues, but is always rooted in divine sources. When King Henry II refuses the request of Pope Lucius III (1181-1185) to support Jerusalem against external and internal threats, he is visited in 1184 by Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem (1180-1191), who accuses him of neglecting his duty to protect Christianity:

“Thou at this tyme forsakest the labour for thi Lord. Before this tyme thou hast regned in gret joye; fro this tyme schal thou regne in gret misery. To the kyng of Frauns hast thou be fals, Seynt Thomas hast thou killid, and now to forsake the proteccion of all Cristen men.” And whan the patriark aspied that the kyng was wroth, for he wex pale for angir, he bowed his hed and his nek, and seide, “Do with me as thou ded to Seynt Thomas. I had as lef be killid of the in Inglond as of a Sarasine in Surre, for I holde the wers than ony Sarasine.”

“At this moment you forsake the labour for your Lord. Before this time you have reigned in great joy; from this time on you will reign in great misery. To the king of France you have been false, you have killed Saint Thomas, and now forsake the protection of Christian people.” And when the patriarch saw that the king was angry, for he turned pale with anger, he bowed his head and his neck, and said, “Do with me as you did to Saint Thomas. I may as well be killed by you in England as by a Saracene in Surre, for I think you worse than any Saracene.” (111)

The king ignores the patriarch, and "sone aftir" (“soon afterwards”; 111) the figure of crucified Christ appears in the air, which is understood to express God's anger at the unwillingness of the English to avenge his cause.

In the conflict between King John and Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) over the right of electing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Capgrave's sympathies are evident in the exceptionally biased presentation of the king. Capgrave enumerates his offences from the moment he first mentions him (115), and the death of the king clearly serves as a moral lesson:

For this inobediens, and many myscheuous dedis whech he ded, in manslauth, gloteny, and lecchery, and specialy robbyng and spoilyng of monasteries, the pope cursed the kyng, and assoiled all his lichmen fro his obeychauns; the lond eke was enterdited ny seuene yere. And than cam fro Rome a legate and Steuene Langdon, and aftir the kyngis repentauns and promisses, he assoiled him and losed the enterdite. The ende of this kyng was lich his lif, for, as thei sey, he deyed of poyson at Swyneshede.

For this disobedience and many mischevious deeds which he commited—manslaughter, gluttony, and lechery and especially robbing and spoiling monasteries—the pope cursed the king and absolved all his subjects from obedience to him; the land was also interdicted for almost seven years. And then came from Rome a legate and Steven Langdon, and after the king’s repentance and promises he absolved him and lifted the interdict. The end of this king was like his life, for, as they say, he died of poison at Swineshead. (116)

Significantly, however, there are instances in which Capgrave places his loyalties on the side of the king. Lucas perceives this to be a testimony to the changing norms in historiography and the movement towards the priorities of a national chronicle (xcv). The first instance is the request of Pope Honorius III (1216-27) to King Henry III and his parliament to be allowed to give benefices, which is answered negatively (118). The matter returns in the conflict between Pope Clement VI (1342-52) and King Edward III, who opposes the pope's exclusive control over appointments to bishoprics and benefices. In a letter to the pope (1344), Edward argues the separation of ecclesiastical and lay authority and suggests that the pope "schuld not interrupt the priuilege of this lond, ne pryue hem of her rite that were patrones of cherches; 'for whan a aliene hath cure of a puple, that knowith not her tonge, the goodes of the Cherch ar trewly gadered, but the teching of soule is not had'" (“should not interrupt the law of this land, nor deprive those who were patrons of churches their right; ‘for when an alien has care of a people, not knowing their tongue, the goods of the Church are truly gathered, but the teaching of the soul is not had’”; 163). In light of the passages immediately following this section—the appearance of the deceased bishop of Lincoln, Henry Burghersh (1320-1340), to his followers and his request to restore the land taken over by the canons of Lincoln to its owners and the refusal of the pope to support the king's claims to the French throne (164)—the authority of the king is arguably presented as not entirely prevailing over the pope's.

However, Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln (1235-53), unambiguously and irreverently undermines the power of the pope, opposing what he sees as abuses of papal administration. When Pope Innocent IV (1243-54) introduces benefices without the king's consent, the bishop supports the interests of the latter: "this same Bischop Robert wrot and seid ageyn the pope, and at Rome in his presens appeled fro him to the hy Juge of heuene" (“the same Bishop Robert wrote and spoke against the pope, and in Rome in his presence appealed from him to the high Judge of heaven”; 122). More significantly, after death he still challenges the pope, punishing him and thus proving God's support of the king's cause: "So cam he hom, and deied, and in his deth he appered to the pope, and smet him on the side with the pike of his crosse-staf, and seid thus, 'Rise, wrech, and com to the dom'. This wordis herd the cubiculeres, and the strok was seyn in his side, for he deyed anon aftir that" (“So he came home and died and in his death he appeared to the pope and hit him on the side with the pike of his cross-staff and said, ‘Rise, wretch, and come to your judgement’. The chamber servants heard these words and the stroke was seen in his side, for he died soon after that”; 122).

John Capgrave's Abbreuiacion of Cronicles was created at the border of the great monastic tradition of chronicle writing and more modern historiography. Combining the formal features of a universal and a national chronicle, the text is also a hybrid in its incongruous portrayal of political issues. As his work progresses towards contemporary events, viewed from a national perspective, the author also visibly changes his priorities. Capgrave’s increasing tendency for moral leniency towards the kings is accompanied by their growing involvement in matters of ecclesiastical law. Of course, lords temporal and spiritual are still closely interrelated as demonstrated by the treatment of heretics in Abbreuiacion of Cronicles: the transgressions against the church are presented as undermining royal power as well. The comprehensiveness of Capgrave's presentation of the relationship of the church and the state is typical of a more general shift of focus in history writing of the early fifteenth century, a time when the increasing importance of universities and the rise of a national consciousness combined to create a climate for a new kind of history.


1Translation is mine. Spelling has been normalised. Return.

This article was originally read as a paper at the 2004 Polish Association for the Study of English conference in Tarnowo Podgórne.


Works Cited

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Bergvall, Äke. Augustinian Perspectives in the Renaissance. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 2001.

Capgrave, John. John Capgrave's Abbreuiacion of Cronicles. Ed. Peter Lucas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Galloway, Andrew. "Writing History in England." The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Ed. David Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 255-83.

Lucas, Peter. Preface. John Capgrave's Abbreuiacion of Cronicles. Ed. Peter Lucas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Matheson, Lister M. "Historical Prose." Middle English Prose. A Critical Guide to Major Authors and Genres. Ed. A. S. G. Edwards. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984. 209-48.

Ross, C. D. "The Reign of Edward IV." Fifteenth-Century England 1399-1509. Ed. S.B. Chrimes, C.D. Ross and R. A. Griffiths. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1997. 49-66.

Spiegel, Gabrielle M. The Past as Text. The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Wolffe, B. P. "The Personal Rule of Henry VI." Fifteenth-Century England 1399-1509. Ed. S.B. Chrimes, C.D. Ross and R. A. Griffiths. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1997. 29-48.