Thomas Merke, Bishop of Carlisle

Born: Unknown

Died: 1409

Carlisle in History

The early life of Thomas Merke is obscure, though it is highly likely that he was a protege of William Colchester, Abbot of Westminster. During the 1390s Merke became a scholar and preacher at Oxford University and a close companion of King Richard II. Merke joined the king on several expeditions, including the successful journey to Ireland in 1394. In 1397, Merke was given the title of Bishop of Carlisle (although he had virtually no responsibilities to go along with the title) and was given a number of important duties to perform for the king. It was Merke himself that persuaded Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, not to fight his exile during Richard's destruction of the Lords Appellant. In 1399, Merke once again accompanied the king to Ireland. This time the journey would not be a success, and the king and his party returned to England where Henry Bolingbroke had returned from exile to retrieve his rightful inheritance from his recently deceased father (John of Gaunt), which the king had used to fund the Irish expedition.

Merke remained loyal to King Richard and was most certainly with him when he was captured by the Earl of Northumberland. When it became apparent that Bolingbroke would take more than his inheritance (he was now thought to be deposing Richard and putting himself on the throne) many of Richard's followers were punished. Several of his favorites had already been executed, and Merke himself was stripped of his title of bishop after he was implicated in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, the king's uncle. In early 1400, Merke played a part in the Earls Rebellion in which the goal was to murder the new King Henry IV and his sons and place Richard back on the throne. Because of this plot, Henry (most likely) did away with the former king. Merke was tried and sentenced to death but was ultimately pardoned and set free for some unknown reason. For the rest of his life Merke remained active at Oxford and, to an extent, in politics. He is said to have been at the Council of Pisa in 1409 and died sometime in between October 1409 and January 1410. Although Merke was cut down to size, so to say, by King Henry IV, he was certainly one who was let off easy in comparison to many others that lost their lives for their continued support for King Richard.

Carlisle in Shakespeare

Appears in: Richard II

Within Richard II, Carlisle is one of only a few select men to remain completely loyal to King Richard, whom he knows to be the rightful King of England. He is present at Flint Castle with the king when he is captured by Bolingbroke, and it is Carlisle who informs Bolingbroke of the death of his enemy, Thomas Mowbray, in Venice. During the deposition scene, Carlisle comes forward and utters some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare and a scalding prophesy for what will happen to later generations as a punishment for Henry's deposing of Richard. The bishop says:

My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,

Is a proud traitor to proud Hereford's king;

And if you crown him, let me prophesy,

The blood of English shall manure the ground

And future ages groan for this foul act (R2, 4.1.134-38).

With this speech, Carlisle predicts the many rebellions that will happen during the reign of Henry IV and the Wars of the Roses that will occur during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. Carlisle is promptly arrested for his words but is still able to participate in the Earls Rebellion against the new king. In the play's final scene, Carlisle is captured and brought before King Henry. Whereas a majority of the rebels were executed, Henry pardons Carlisle and sets him free under the condition that he retire and lead a quiet life.


Davies, R. G. ‘Merk , Thomas (d. 1409/10)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 20 Oct 2009]

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