Robert  Grostete, Bishop of Lincoln.
[Sources include, Foxe`s Acts and Monuments; and Memorials of the Dawn of the Reformation in Europe, Nelson, London (1847) ]

Robert Grostete or Greathead ( Foxe in his Acts and Monuments calla  him Grosthead) was born of poor parents in in the parish of Stradbrook, the Hundred of Hoxne, in Suffolk, ca 1175 and from modest beginnings progressed to the bishopric of Lincoln in 1235, then aged sixty. It is said that the mayor of Lincoln found the boy Robert begging at his door and, impressed by an intelligent conversation with the boy, took pity on him, paying for his education. Thus began a lifetime of study for a remarkable man who sounded the advance against the excesses of Rome.

His early days at  Oxford University included developing his knowledge of foreign languages. He learnt Hebrew from the Jewish scholars at the university and some three hundred years before Erasmus, he brought Greek to England, Robert Grostete developed its use to improve on the translations of the few works of Greek authors which were mainly from Arabic copies..  He later went to Paris and became extremely fluent in that language . In 1209 Hugh de Welles became bishop of Lincoln and patron of Robert  once again studying at Oxford. In the space of some twenty years  Robert became archdeacon in four different  bishoprics. At university he graduated to Master of Arts and eventually Doctor of Divinity and Chancellor of Oxford. He was a scholar in Latin Greek and Hebrew and made several translations as well as wrote commentaries on the works of Aristotle, concerning mathematics, philosophy  and astronomy. He was also very widely regarded as an astrologer, the use of which was prevalent at the time. Among his other talents, he was an artist and illuminated manuscripts, and wrote music for the harp. Passionate about the harp, he wrote several long religious romances  in an easy flowing style that were sung both within and without the cloister. His "The Castle of Love" an allegory of the fall and restoration of man, ran to 1700 verses.

At the good age of sixty he still had an enthusiasm to begin a reform of his new diocese, one of the largest in England. His direct personal involvement and the visitations he made were largely dreaded by the incumbents who knew that the fearless bishop would question them endlessly and demand change. One of the tasks the bishop required to be done by his staff was to calculate the amount of revenues passing to the papacy and its nominees, which came to

 "the sum of three score and ten thousand marks  and above, whereas the mere revenues of the crown came not to a third of that sum."

The first Franciscan monks , four clerks and two lay brothers, came to England in 1224 under the leadership of an Italian deacon called Agnellus Pisanus. These and the Dominican monks were welcomed by Grostete because they were then, studious orders and presented as examples for conformity to the word of God. In this context Grostete supported their activities and for some ten years was a lecturer for them at Oxford. At this time there were other seekers of truth in the group that formed around Grostete, including Adam de Morisco; Stow of Suffolk, Fishacre from Devon - the first Dominican monk to receive a theological doctorate, and Roger Bacon himself.

He seems to have been a man of conscience as well as something of a prophet. He took exception to the manner in which the Pope  Innocent IV (1243-1254) not content with being the vicar of St Peter, had proclaimed himself the vicar of God and had demanded that positions, with benefices, be found in England for 300 priests he would nominate. Merle D`Aubigne, in his History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century quotes Grostete as saying

"to follow a pope who rebels against the will of Christ, is to separate from Christ and his body ; and if ever the time should come when all men follow an erring pontiff, then will be the great apostasy. Then will true Christians refuse to obey , and Rome will be the cause of an unprecedented schism."

Thus did he predict the Reformation  which he followed up by making representations in Rome about the avarice of monks and priests.

In 1253 the Pope commanded Grostete to appoint a nephew of his to be a canon at Lincoln cathedral. The Papal letter of 26 January 1253 boldly stated that the Pope had confirmed the appointment of his nephew Frederic de Lavinia to the post.

The bishop refused to accept the nephew saying

" the character of your present letter is not consonant to apostolic sanctity, but utterly dissonant and at variance with the same ."

" Bad pastors are the cause of unbelief , heresy and disorder . Those who introduce  them into the Church  are little better than antichrists , and their culpability is proportionate to their dignity. Although the chief of the angels  should order me to commit such a sin , I would refuse. My obedience  forbids me to obey; and therefore I rebel. " [ cites Matthew of Paris writing in 1252 AD ].

This, D`Aubigne says, was the principle of the Reformation.

On his death bed the bishop again pursued the line of the reformers by declaring that a heresy was

"an opinion conceived by carnal motives , contrary to the Scriptures , openly taught, and obstinately defended"

By this he asserted the authority of Scripture  instead of the authority of the Church.

The story continues that Innocent IV intended to have vengeance on the bishop whom he had called "a frantic old dotard" and  excommunicated him, saying

".... I would throw him into such confusion ... For is not the King of England our vassal ? nay, more, our manciple, who only needs a nod from us , to imprison him  and put him to utter disgrace ?"

 Seemingly the criticisms by Grostete had some effect on cardinals present who spoke against precipitate action knowing the criticism to be true. Vengeance was denied by Grostete`s own death, but the tale is told that one night his apparition appeared and struck the Pope with his staff saying "Wretch, the Lord doth not permit thee to have any power over me. Woe be to thee !." The Pope never had a quiet night thereafter, and pursued by his phantoms he  "expired while the palace re-echoed with his lamentable groans" in 1254. The death came soon enough to thwart a final act of desecration , as the Pope`s letter to the King demanding the casting out of Grostetes bones from Lincoln Cathedral , had not been sent.

Grostete was not alone in representations made by senior members of the Church in England. Sewal de Bovilll, Archbishop of York (1256-7) advised Alexander IV in 1256 to "Moderate your tyranny  for the Lord  said to Peter, Feed my sheep, and not shear them, flay them, or devour them" The Pope`s response was said to be a patronising smile  as he knew full well that the King ( Henry III, r1216-72) allowed him to act just as he pleased.

Robert Grostete, Bishop of Lincoln, died at Bugden in October 1253  having bravely stood up for his beliefs much to his peril. He is reputed to have had an interest in  Magic, Astrology, and Alchemy and that he made a head of brass which was able to foretell future events; it is claimed to be buried in Lincoln Cathedral. A similar tale was told of Roger Bacon (1214-1294), the scholar, scientist and philosopher

18/07/2011

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact