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In medieval Europe, bishops were not just religious leaders, but eminent figures who advised kings, controlled large territories and had significant incomes. Now, a new project led by the University of Hull will examine just how ‘well-connected’ these bishops were, and the influence they had both within their diocese and on the wider international stage.
Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Hull, explained, “To be a bishop during this time was to be a leader who might crown kings or provoke a rebellion. So the question we’re asking is, if you wanted to become a bishop, who did you need to know?
“We will be studying bishops across northern Europe, in particular England, Scotland, Norway and Sweden. We will look at their familial, social and educational networks and try to establish if bishops had similar backgrounds which aided them when it came to promotion.”
Dr Thomas is working in partnership with Professor Stefan Brink of the University of Aberdeen, and the pair will also be recruiting a PhD student to assist them in their research.
One example of the bishops they will be working is Mark, Bishop of Sodor (the area of the Isle of Man and the Hebrides) from 1275 to c.1303. “He’s provided to the bishopric by King Alexander III against the wishes of the monks of Furness Abbey who had elected their own candidate,” said Dr. Thomas. “I’ve been researching Mark’s personal background to try to understand what his connection to Alexander III was. It looks like he’s an illegitimate son of Thomas of Galloway, earl of Atholl, and the brother of the Baillie of Man who is also appointed by Alexander III.”
Looking at the entire project, Dr Thomas added, “The period we are most interested in spans from around 1250 to the end of the Middle Ages at the Protestant Reformation of the mid-1500s. This fascinating period includes the Wars of Independence in Scotland, which took place between 1296 and 1357, and we know at least one of our bishops was imprisoned by the English.”
Although the team will be studying bishops whose dioceses were a long way from Rome, they believe that many of the ideas formed in the centres of Christendom were able to cross international boundaries. Bishops are known to have travelled well beyond their home countries to attend church councils, and the policies agreed at these assemblies were then expected to be introduced throughout church provinces.
“We’d like to know if bishops were successful in enforcing rules like clerical celibacy and the payment of tithes (religious taxes) in their own dioceses,” added Dr Thomas.
The findings from the research, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will benefit museums and other cultural bodies that maintain historical sites relevant to the project. Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, for example, was built by the Vikings, but later used by the Church due to the large cathedral included within its walls. This was the medieval cathedral of the diocese of Sodor, which were under Norwegian control until 1266.
The group will also run a project blog, updating members of the public and school pupils on their research, and the exploits and achievements of any noteworthy bishops they uncover along the way.