Theobald of Bec: Morality and Divided Loyalties

Before we get into the nitty gritty of this particular topic, I would like to apologise for my somewhat extended absence! I’ve been busy doing nothing as they say. So while I do my best to get back into writing more bits for this blog, please accept this as something of an apology as we return to a (hopefully) more regular routine!

St. Augustine’s Abbey, with Canterbury Cathedral in the background.

Theobald was Archbishop of Canterbury for nearly all of Stephen’s reign, being appointed to the position in December 1138. A Norman abbot like all his predecessors since the Conquest bar William of Corbeil, and abbot of Bec, his decisions highlight clearly the issue faced by the English clergy during Stephen’s reign: where should their loyalty lie? Theobald in particular, having in theory if not always in practice, primacy of the English church was at the centre of any conflict between Stephen and the papacy. When one examines his role after the Battle of Lincoln and Stephen’s capture; his disobedience in going to the papal council of Rheims in 1148 and finally his refusal to crown Stephen’s son Eustace, one starts to get a measure of this pivotal figure. Essentially, as this essay will endeavour to show, Theobald was unquestionably loyal to Stephen, but this was because the official church line was that he was indeed rightfully king. This is not to say however that Theobald was merely loyal because he was told to be: he appears a very moral person, and his refusal to crown Stephen’s son in his own life time is most likely due to him (and many others) not wishing to prolong a conflict that, by 1154, had lasted 19 years.


Much of Theobald’s early time is marred by a degree of animosity, if not outright hostility, directed at him and King Stephen by the King’s own brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and, by 1139, papal legate. R.H.C. Davis wrote that the election, despite being canonical, was ‘obviously engineered to exclude’ Henry, it being made on 24th December 1138 in the presence of the King, the Papal Legate Alberic of Ostia and several bishops, but when Henry was in fact at St Paul’s for an ordination of deacons. Naturally, Davis says, Henry was furious at the appointment of a nobody whose sole qualification appeared to be that he was ‘not Henry.’ However, Donald Matthew argues that too much has been made of Gervase of Canterbury’s late comment that Henry was indignant, instead arguing that it is ‘impossible’ to imagine that the election took place without his acquiescence in advance. It is important to bear such beginnings in mind though, as Stephen’s presence and backing of Theobald could not just partially explain Theobald’s strong sense of loyalty and duty to the king, but also why Henry of Blois was so quick to abandon his brother compared to Theobald following the disaster that was the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. It is similarly entirely plausible that in roughly the first three years of his time as archbishop, Theobald was seeking Stephen’s protection or support against Henry’s ambition to create a third ecclesiastical province in England based around Winchester (undoubtedly a threat to Theobald). Such an idea is not totally outlandish, as when he was elected Theobald had done homage and sworn fealty to Stephen, just like any powerful layman would, and so had entered into a contractual relationship with the King.


The first major incident that really tested Theobald’s loyalty to Stephen was the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, which saw Stephen captured by Robert of Gloucester. On Monday 4th March, the Empress was escorted into Winchester cathedral attended by several bishops and abbots, at the head of which was Henry of Blois. Henry, along with many other bishops and leading churchmen, held a council which concluded that Stephen’s cause was lost, and that Matilda was in fact Lady of the English. However, Theobald was notably absent, and it was not until a few days after Matilda’s departure from Winchester that he met her. It was not in order to do homage, but to negotiate. He asked for, and received, permission to visit Stephen in Bristol where he was held, and with a group of bishops (and some magnates) allegedly received permission from the King himself to move with the times and offer his allegiance to the Empress. This is even implied by William of Malmesbury, who wrote what is in essence Robert of Gloucester’s chronicle, but even Malmesbury refrains from writing that Theobald swore fealty to the Empress. What Theobald did by seeking Stephen’s permission to repudiate his oath was to acknowledge his royal authority in spite of his imprisonment. While no others are named as having done this, it is somewhat unlikely that Theobald was the only member of the clergy who had misgivings about going back on an oath, even if Henry and some churchmen did not seem to share his qualms. Nevertheless, events soon turned against the Angevin faction: first the Empress was driven out of London, then while besieging Winchester she in turn was besieged, before finally her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, one of the great champions of her cause, was captured while leading the rear guard. Interestingly enough, Theobald was with the Empress in London, though very much in the background, and even with her at Winchester, which I believe shows that he was indeed a loyal man, only for this brief period in time he was loyal to the Empress rather than Stephen. But it serves as an interesting focus point regardless. Following Stephen’s release that same year (in return for the release of Robert of Gloucester), it was Theobald who, as Archbishop of Canterbury, re-crowned Stephen on Christmas Day in Canterbury Cathedral. An easier return to the fold one can imagine than for the King’s brother and those bishops who nearly leapt at the chance to, in Stephen’s eyes, abandon him.


Following the numerous disasters that beset both sides in 1141, its most important victims after Stephen’s re-crowning were the Empress, and crucially the church. With the death of the Pope in 1143, Henry’s legateship came to an end, thus the early 1140’s marked the beginning of Theobald asserting his control and the primacy of Canterbury. It is following this period when issues as to the extent of Theobald’s loyalty to Stephen arise. The first of these issues was Theobald’s poorly timed visit to Pope Eugenius III in Paris in March 1147 that coincided with one from Geoffrey of Anjou. This was not long after he had refused to support Henry of Blois in the York election, a stance that was common knowledge at the time. Cronne went so far as to write that, in regards to his ill timed visit, ‘as far as Stephen and his brother were concerned, Theobald was not to be trusted.’ Theobald and Stephen’s biggest single disagreement up to that point came in 1148, when Eugenius III called a papal council at Rheims. As such the Pope expected as many archbishops, bishops and abbots as possible to be present, for the council was a chance to simply exercise papal authority in its own right. It also had the aims of addressing simony, usury, clerical marriage and to a lesser degree investiture (though that issue had, for the most part, been laid to rest). In 1148 Stephen, as he most likely had in 1139 at the last papal council, decided which members of the clergy could obey the summons. The only clergy that could go were the bishops of Chichester, Hereford and Norwich, with the only sign of disobedience to the royal command coming from Theobald. For Theobald, it was ‘essential’ to make a very public demonstration that his first duty was to the pope. Theobald’s decision to disobey a royal command was, by its very nature, disloyal, but it must be looked at within the context of his other actions mentioned so far. It does not strike me that he wilfully ignored Stephan’s command out of disloyalty, rather that he did it out of loyalty for the Pope. I doubt such a decision was guided by secular politics but instead by moral and religious convictions.

Stephen, though, did not see it this way. He saw a flagrant disregard for his personal royal authority, and as such exiled Theobald that year. Eugenius intended to excommunicate Stephen in an effort to force his hand and make him welcome Theobald back, but the Archbishop begged the Pope to delay such a drastic action for three months. Even though an interdict was eventually placed on the kingdom, and Theobald was allowed to return, it shows how remarkable a character he was, and that the Pope listened to him indicates a certain respect. However, the English episcopate as a whole were reluctant to join Theobald’s resistance, as Cronne described it. For Stringer, Theobald’s act of stopping Stephen becoming excommunicate was a show of ‘basic reverence for royal authority.’ Alternatively, whilst it does not portray Theobald as disloyal by any means, it shows his reasoning as being more pragmatic and anti-war, than pro-Stephen. With the Empress Matilda’s departure from England, people on both sides were anxious for peace and had no desire to risk having the civil war flare up again (and so soon); this is a more probable reason for Theobald protecting the King, rather than just a sense of loyalty or duty. Were the Pope to have excommunicated Stephen, it would have made null and void every single oath sworn to him: the magnates would have no reason to side with him, and there is a real chance that true anarchy would ensue.

One act that is of the utmost importance when looking at how loyal Theobald was took place prior to his return to England. During his stay in Flanders, he consecrated Gilbert Foliot, Abbot of Gloucester, to the bishopric of Hereford. The act of Theobald taking it upon himself to consecrate a new bishop while in exile is not itself the issue here: what is the issue is that, as the well placed contemporary writer John of Salisbury describes in his Historia Pontificalis, Gilbert was chosen because he was ‘personally acceptable to the Duke of Normandy, now King, who then controlled the election to this see.’ It is possible that the wording referring to Henry being duke of Normandy, rather than Geoffrey, is in common parlance rather than by law. Hereford was in the heartland of Angevin support in England, and as such it was Geoffrey of Anjou’s adherents who were in control around the Midlands, not King Stephen. The Duke demanded Gilbert swear on the gospels to do fealty to him within a month of consecration, not to king Stephen ‘whom the whole English Church followed by papal decree.’ Salisbury goes further, describing how ‘although individual dignitaries followed different lords, the church as a whole recognised only one.’ This much is true: bar the brief fracturing following Lincoln, since Innocent II’s acceptance in 1136 of Stephen’s declaration that public order depended on his being crowned, the church had been a staunch supporter of the King. Robert of London, Jocelin of Salisbury and Hilary of Chichester refused a papal mandate instructing they help Theobald consecrate Gilbert as it was not only contrary to their oaths of fealty, but also ancient customs. Gilbert though, on arrival back in England, swore fealty to Stephen, resulting in Geoffrey charging Theobald with a breach of faith. Salisbury records that Theobald ‘partly by threats, partly by promises, appeased the duke, and persuaded him than a bishop had no right to cause schism within the church by refusing fealty to the prince approved by the papacy.’ This truly underlines the delicate line Theobald had to tread between not just the secular lords vying for power, but the secular and the ecclesiastical world as well. The wording seems to suggest that Theobald’s defence of Gilbert’s change of heart is, while not made from a position of blind loyalty, carried out due to the papacy’s commands, and his own morality.


Finally, one must examine the ever contentious subject of Stephen’s desire for his son, Eustace, to be crowned and recognised as heir to the English throne. In 1152 Stephen demanded Theobald and the bishops anoint Eustace, and when they refused, the bishops present were placed under house arrest. Theobald again escaped into temporary exile, with Gervase of Canterbury informing us that he fled once more to Flanders and that his lands were confiscated. One reason for Theobald’s refusal to anoint Eustace during his father’s lifetime was that there was no precedent in England for such an act. More importantly though is that Eugenius and Theobald both adhered strictly to the view that there should be absolutely, unequivocally, no innovation in regards to the English throne as set down in the decrees of Pope Celestine II. The church continued to recognise and support Stephen as king, but to consecrate Eustace would be open defiance of Celestine’s decrees. For Theobald and the church, it was Duke Henry who was the rightful heir to the throne. By so late a stage in the civil war, it had become apparent to many that, should Eustace succeed his father, there would be no end in sight to the fighting. The issue of consecration then is very much a case of the present and the future being two very separate notions for Theobald. The loyalty to the father did not extend to the son.


When all of these different aspects of Theobald as archbishop are drawn together they paint a portrait of a man who is fiercely loyal when he has made an oath, but who is also guided by his own morality and faith. Theobald’s allegiance to Stephen is without question. While there were moments where it seems as though he was being difficult and purposely thwarting Stephen’s ambitions, notably regarding the council at Rheims and Eustace’s consecration, his decisions were the result of his loyalty to God’s own representative on Earth taking precedent over that to Stephen as a secular monarch. His aversion to Eustace as an heir was also moulded by, one can assume, a great degree of foresight and knowledge, along with his refusal being well within the bounds of his oaths to Stephen and what were Anglo-Norman precedents for coronation. In regards to suspected pro-Angevin sympathies Theobald may have held, as a Norman one could have expected Theobald to see the Angevins as hereditary enemies, not worthy successors to the English throne. As such, Crouch’s assessment that Theobald was ‘anything but intransigent’ towards king Stephen in spite of their disputes is correct. He was a man of principle, as shown in 1141, and these principles ensured his allegiance to Stephen was beyond reproach; even those instances where his allegiance to the Pope came first, it was not at the cost of supporting Stephen as firmly as his other responsibilities, duties and oaths allowed.

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