Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury

Born: c. 1240

Died: May 11, 1313

Otford, Kent, England (Age c. 73)

Canterbury in History

Information is sparse concerning the early life of Robert Winchelsey, but it is known that he was educated at Paris (where he was master of arts) and Oxford, where he received his doctorate in theology (1288). Winchelsey had already been receiving preferments within the church since 1272, and these continued until his ecclesiastical career culminated with his being named Archbishop of Canterbury in 1292 (though he was not officially consecrated for another year and a half due to a papal vacancy). Though Winchelsey now held the most important church office in England and was a highly influential man, he did not truly make a name for himself until he began to vehemently oppose King Edward I on certain policies. His first opposition to the king involved royal appointments to certain church offices that the archbishop felt it was the pope's duty to fill. Canterbury was also not happy with the fact that many members of the free royal chapels received so much preferment. But it was Canterbury's opposition to the war with France and the heavy taxation of the church that truly set him at odds with his king.

Edward I desperately needed money if he was to fund his expedition to France in order to defend the English-controlled duchy of Gascony, which had recently been confiscated by the French, but was met with great opposition from the church, led by Canterbury, on the matter of taxation. Canterbury felt that the church should not have to pay for the king's rash enterprise and threatened excommunication on any man who attempted to force the church to pay. This action prompted the king to threaten the church with outlawry, and at this point, many church officials gave in and agreed to pay whatever taxes were asked of them. Canterbury was not one of those who submitted and continued to resist the king's proposed taxes on the church. For a time, he was stripped of many of his lands. The issue was not resolved until the Scots began to put pressure on the English with northern raids, and it became clear that action must be taken (1297). Canterbury finally agreed to the taxes to defend the country from their northern neighbor, but the expedition to France was now completely dead. In the end, Canterbury had succeeded in enforcing the law first imposed on Edward I's grandfather, King John, in Magna Carta, which stated that the king could not tax without the people's approval. The extension of Magna Carta came to be known as the Remonstrances, contained within Canterbury's Confirmatio cartarum. It was a fairly humiliating defeat for the king, but he would, soon enough, have his revenge on the archbishop.

In the following years, Canterbury heavily involved himself in bettering the church while the king focused his attentions on the war with Scotland. By 1305, however, an opportunity had arisen for Edward I to take revenge on the archbishop when Clement V, a man who was friendly with the king, was elected pope. All sorts of unwarranted charges were brought against the archbishop, and he was sent into exile for a period of three years, which he spent between Bordeaux and Poitiers, also being stripped of his archbishopric. In 1308, Edward I was dead, and his son, Edward II, was on the throne, who decided to recall and reinstate the archbishop. The move may not have been the smartest move on the part of the new king, considering that Canterbury joined forces with a group of magnates who were opposed to Edward II's shabby governing as a result of all the attention he showed Piers Gaveston, his favorite at court. This led to the formation of the lords ordainder (1310), a group of magnates and clerics (including Canterbury) that was assigned (reluctantly) by the king to reform the realm. The archbishop then played a large role in the strict actions the magnates took after Gaveston had been recalled from exile for a third time (1312), which led to the favorite's execution at the hands of the Earls of Warwick and Lancaster. After Gaveston's death, the magnate coalition gradually dissolved, and Canterbury died the following year as a man over seventy. His opposition to the king on taxation would be his lasting legacy and would be an inspiration for future fighters for justice.

Canterbury in Marlowe

Appears in: Edward II

The Archbishop of Canterbury appears in the early part of Edward II when he is seen forming an alliance with the magnates (he is prompted to do this after the king seizes all of the Bishop of Coventry's possessions and gives them to Gaveston) against the king's bad government. He is then seen in the play's later half at the coronation of the new King Edward III. Historically, Robert Winchelsey, the archbishop at the time of the earlier events of the play, had died in 1313. Edward III's coronation did not occur until 1327. Therefore, it can safely be assumed that Marlowe created a composite figure, joining together Winchelsey and his successor, Walter Reynolds, simply to eliminate confusion and create a single character.


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