William de Corbeil: Wikis


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William de Corbeil
Archbishop of Canterbury
Enthroned 22 July 1123
Reign ended 21 November 1136
Predecessor Ralph d'Escures
Successor Theobald of Bec
Consecration 18 February 1123
Personal details
Born circa 1070
Died 21 November 1136
Buried Canterbury Cathedral

William de Corbeil or William of Corbeil (c. 1070–1136) was a medieval archbishop of Canterbury. Educated as a theologian, he taught briefly after finishing his education. He then served the bishops of Durham and London as a clerk before becoming a canon, a priest living a communal life. He was elected as a compromise candidate to the see of Canterbury in 1123, succeeding Ralph d'Escures who had employed William as a chaplain. William was the first canon to become an archbishop in England.

William was soon involved in the Canterbury-York dispute over primacy with Thurstan, the archbishop of York, which continued throughout his archibishopric. A temporary solution was imposed by the papacy when William was made papal legate for England, which made his powers superior to those of York. William also concerned himself with the morals of the clergy. He was known as a builder, constructing the keep of Rochester Castle in England. At the end of his life, William was instrumental in the selection of Count Stephen of Boulogne as king of England instead of the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England.


Early life

William de Corbeil was born probably at Corbeil on the Seine possibly around 1070,[1] and was educated at Laon, where he taught for a while.[2] Otherwise, nothing is known of his early life.[3] His teacher at Laon was Anselm of Laon, the noted scholastic and teacher of theology.[4] He had two brothers, Ranulf and Helgot, but nothing else is known about his parents or ancestry.[1] His brothers appear as witnesses on William's charters.[5]

He joined the service of Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham as a clerk, and was present at the translation of the body of Saint Cuthbert in 1104.[1] He is listed early in the witness list, which would imply that he held an important place in Flambard's household, but appended to his name is "subsequently archbishop", which might mean his addition to the witness list or his placement was not contemporary. He was also the teacher of Flambard's children; and although the exact time frame he held that post is unclear, it is likely that it was around 1107 to 1109.[6] At some point, however, he seems to have transferred to the household of the archbishops of Canterbury, although the exact dating of this is unclear. It was in the period 1107 to 1112 that he went to Laon and attended Anselm of Laon's lectures.[1] By 1116 he was a clerk of Ralph d'Escures, Archbishop of Canterbury, and went with Ralph to Rome in 1117 when Ralph was disputing with Thurstan the Archbishop of York over the primacy of the see, or diocese, of Canterbury.[7] In 1118, though, he entered the Augustinian order at Holy Trinity Priory in Aldgate.[1] This was a house of canons not monks.[8] Later he became prior of the Augustinian priory at St Osyth in Essex,[9][10][10] appointed by Richard de Beaumis, bishop of London, in 1121.[1]

Archbishop of Canterbury

After the death of Ralph d'Escures in October of 1122, King Henry I decided to allow a free election, and the new primate was chosen by the leading men of the realm, both ecclesiastical and secular.[11][notes 1] The monks of the cathedral chapter and the bishops of the kingdom disagreed on who should be elected. The bishops insisted on electing a non-monk, and the monks insisted that they alone had the right to elect the archbishop and that the new archbishop had to be a monk. However, only two bishops in either England or Normandy were monks (Ernulf Bishop of Rochester and Serlo Bishop of Séez), and no monk other than Anselm of Canterbury, Ernulf, and Ralph d'Escures had been elected to an English or Norman see since 1091. Thus recent precedent favored the bishops.[7] King Henry sided with the bishops, and told the monks they could elect their choice from a short list selected by the bishops. The list unsurprisingly contained no monks.[12]

Henry I from a 13th century manuscript of Matthew Paris

On 2 February[13] or 4 February 1123,[14] William was chosen from among four candidates to the see of Canterbury, but the other three candidates' names are not known.[7] William refused to concede that Thurstan, archbishop of York, was independent of the see of Canterbury.[12] Thurstan had claimed independence as a way to resolve the long-running Canterbury-York dispute dealing with the primacy of Canterbury over York.[15] William's refusal led Thurstan to refuse to consecrate William. Instead, the ceremony was performed by William's own suffragan bishops on 18 February 1123.[12][14] William was the first Augustinian canon consecrated archbishop in England, a striking break with tradition that had favored monks in the see of Canterbury.[16] As such, he caused some trepidation in the monks of the Canterbury chapter, who were "alarmed at the appointment, since he was a clerk," clerk here meaning a non-monastic clergy-member.[17]

Traveling to Rome for his pallium, the symbol of his authority as an archbishop, William discovered that Thurstan had already arrived and had presented his case to Pope Callixtus II. There were four objections against William's election, first that he was elected in the king's court, second that the chapter of Canterbury had been coerced and was unwilling, third that his consecration was unlawful because it was not performed by Thurstan, and fourth that a monk should be elected to the see of Canterbury, which had been founded by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, a monk.[7] However, King Henry I and the emperor Henry IV, King Henry I's son-in-law, managed to persuade the pope to side with William, with the proviso that William swear to obey "all things that the Pope imposed upon him."[12][18] At the visit's conclusion the pope denied the primacy of Canterbury over York; dismissing the Canterbury monk's documents as forgeries.[7] William then returned to England, and was enthroned at Canterbury on 22 July 1123.[1]

The archbishop's next opponent was the papal legate of the new Pope Honorius II, Cardinal John of Crema,[18] who arrived in England in 1125. A compromise between York and Canterbury was negotiated, which involved Canterbury allowing York the supervision of the dioceses of Bangor, Chester, and St Aspah in return for the verbal submission of Thurstan and the written submission of Thurstan's successors. However, when the compromise was laid before the pope, the pope discarded it and substituted his own solution.[1] This involved Honorius appointing William papal legate in England and Scotland in 1126.[19] However, this merely postponed the problem, as neither Thurstan or William renounced their claims.[1] William held the legateship until 1130, and received a new grant of legatine powers in 1132, which he held until his death.[20]

In ecclesiastical matters, William called legatine councils in 1125, 1127 and 1129 all at Winchester. The one in 1125 met under the direction of John of Crema, and prohibited simony, purchase of the sacraments, and the inheritance of clerical benefices.[21] John of Crema had been sent to England, not only to seek a compromise in the Canterbury-York dispute, but to publicize the decrees of the First Council of the Lateran held in 1123. The legatine council of 1125 in England thus legislated on points from the Lateran Council.[1] In 1127 the council condemned the purchase of benefices, priesthoods, or places in monastic houses. Lastly, in 1129 the clergy were once more admonished to live a celibate life and to put aside their wives.[21] The festival of the Conception was also allowed at one of these councils.[22] William also seems to have been somewhat eclipsed in ecclesiastical administration and appointments by Roger of Salisbury, Bishop of Salisbury, and King Henry's primary advisor.[23] However, William reformed the nunnery of Minster-in-Sheppey, and put a college of regular canons at the church of St. Gregory's, in Canterbury.[1] His legateship from Honorius lapsed when the pope died in February 1130, but was renewed by Honorius' successor Pope Innocent II in 1132.[13]

William as an architect

Map of Medieval Rochester, showing the tower that William built. From E. A. Freeman's The Reign of William Rufus 1882

William designed the keep of Rochester Castle,[24] which at 115 feet (35 m) is the tallest Norman-built keep in England. It is still intact, although it no longer has a roof or floors. The work at Rochester was built within the stone curtain walls that Gundulf of Rochester had erected in the late 11th century. William built a stone keep within the walls for King Henry. The keep was not only designed for defence, but also had comfortable living quarters, which were probably intended for the use of the archbishops when they visited Rochester.[25] In 1127, the custody of Rochester Castle was granted to William and his successors as archbishop by King Henry, including the right to fortify the place as the archbishops wished, and the right to garrison the castle with their own men.[26] He also built a new church at Dover which he planned to staff with canons from Merton Priory, but the plan was interrupted by William's death, and the church instead was staffed from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. William also finished the building of the Canterbury Cathedral, which was dedicated in May 1130.[1]

Death of King Henry and the coronation of King Stephen

The archbishop swore to Henry I that he would support Henry's daughter Matilda's claim to the English throne, but after Henry's death William crowned Stephen king instead.[19] The archbishop was persuaded to do so by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and Stephen's brother, and it was this persuasion that lead to Stephen's crowning on 22 December 1135.[27][28] Roger of Salisbury also was party to the consultations, and both bishops persuaded the archbishop that the oath had been imposed wrongly by Henry, and that in any event, the dying king had released the barons and the bishops from the oath. The royal steward, Hugh Bigod, swore that he had been present at the deathbed, and had heard the king say that he released the oath.[29] Bigod's oath helped persuade William to crown the king.[30] William did not long outlive Henry, as he died at Canterbury on 21 November 1136.[14] William was buried in the north transept of Canterbury Cathedral.[1]

Contemporaries were grudging in their praise, and William's reputation suffered after the ascension of Matilda's son Henry II of England to the throne. William of Malmesbury said that William was a courteous and sober man, with little of the flamboyant lifestyle of the more "modern" bishops. The Gesta Stephani author claimed that he was avaricious, and hoarded money. None of the chroniclers, however, doubted his piety, even when they named him a perjurer and a traitor for his coronation of Stephen.[1] Due to his lengthy dispute with Thurstan, William went to Rome more often than any bishop before him, except for Wilfrid in the 7th century.[31]


  1. ^ This would have included both the barons and earls as well as the leading royal servants on the secular side, and the bishops and some of the abbots on the ecclesiastical side.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Barlow "Corbeil, William de (d. 1136) (subscription required)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  2. ^ Hollister Henry I p. 23
  3. ^ Spear "Norman Empire" Journal of British Studies p. 6
  4. ^ Hollister Henry I p. 432
  5. ^ Bethell "William of Corbeil" Journal of Ecclesiastical History pp. 145–146
  6. ^ Bethell "William of Corbeil" Journal of Ecclesiastical History p. 146
  7. ^ a b c d e Bethell "English Black Monks and Episcopal Elections in the 1120s" English Historical Review
  8. ^ Knowles, et al. Heads of Religious Houses p. 173
  9. ^ Knowles, et al. Heads of Religious Houses p. 183
  10. ^ a b Barlow The English Church 1066–1154 p. 85
  11. ^ Cantor Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiture p. 282
  12. ^ a b c d Hollister Henry I p. 288–289
  13. ^ a b Greenway Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066–1300: volume 2: Monastic cathedrals (northern and southern provinces: Canterbury: Archbishops
  14. ^ a b c Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 232
  15. ^ Barlow English Church 1066–1154 pp. 39–44
  16. ^ Knowles The Monastic Order in England p. 175
  17. ^ quoted in Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings p. 399
  18. ^ a b quoted in Cantor Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiture p. 312–313
  19. ^ a b Barlow The English Church 1066–1154 p. 44–45
  20. ^ Keat-Rohan Domesday Descendants p. 149
  21. ^ a b Cantor Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiture p. 275–276
  22. ^ Barlow The English Church 1066–1154 p. 195
  23. ^ Cantor Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiture p. 299
  24. ^ Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings p. 277
  25. ^ Platt The Castle in Medieval England & Wales p. 23–24
  26. ^ DuBoulay The Lordship of Canterbury p. 80
  27. ^ Huscroft Ruling England p. 72
  28. ^ Hollister Henry I p. 478–479
  29. ^ Crouch The Normans p. 247
  30. ^ Hollister "Anglo-Norman Succession Debate" Journal of Medieval History pp. 32–33
  31. ^ Bethell "William of Corbeil" Journal of Ecclesiastical History pp. 157–158


Further reading

  • Whitelock, D.; M. Brett, and C. N. L. Brooke, editors, Councils and synods with other documents relating to the English church, 871–1204 Volume 2 (1981)
  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Corbeil, William of". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.  

External links

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Ralph d'Escures
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by
Theobald of Bec
(in 1139)


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