Gilbert Foliot and the two swords : law and political theory in twelfth-century England

Henry II quarrels with Becket

Gilbert Foliot and the two swords : law and political theory in twelfth-century England

Christopher P. Hill

Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin, May (2008)


Over the last fifty years or so, historians have largely neglected Gilbert Foliot, the man who was Bishop of London during the 1160s and 1170s, as representative of any larger theoretical position, dismissing his famous polemic letter Multiplicem nobis as the product of envy and thwarted ambition. In this dissertation I argue that Gilbert Foliot was neither out of step with the attitudes of his contemporaries nor driven blindly by anger and envy. Rather, his position was the result of legal training combined with his experience as a cleric in the tumultuous years of twelfth century England. Foliot’s legal training inculcated in him a political theory stressing a bifurcated authority structure in which the clerical and lay “swords” would be drawn to complement one another, but were at the same time necessarily separate and independent. Thus he believed that the Church’s success in its goal of saving souls was reliant on the goodwill and protection of an effective and powerful king. During the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign, Foliot urged his clerical brethren to unleash the sword of excommunication against barons who committed crimes, and he was frustrated by the lack of coercive power he felt King Stephen ought to have exercised over the rebellious knights who terrorized the countryside.

Later, during the reign of Henry II, Foliot feared that the archbishop’s new insistence on clerical superiority would limit the king’s lawful coercive power, while pushing the king to work against the Church rather than with it. Foliot, the jurist, found the archbishop’s argument not only ill-advised, but legally illegitimate and dangerous. Thus Foliot’s diatribe in Multiplicem should be understood not simply as a moment of anger, but as representative of a valid strain of thought in the English clergy, and that the attitude toward the crown on the part of churchmen was more dynamic than historians have recognized.

Click here to read this thesis from The University of Texas at Austin

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