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The Case of the Corrupt Archbishop

Corruption by powerful officials is not a new story. There are many examples in history where one can find how men and women were overcome by temptation of greed. This includes a 14th century Archbishop of Dublin, who spent years orchestrating an elaborate plot of embezzlement and forgery.

Pile of English coins – photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr

This story is told in the article, “The Case Against Alexander Bicknor, Archbishop and Perculator,” by James W. Lydon, which is part of a collection of essays entitled Ireland and the English World in the Late Middle Ages.

Alexander Bicknor had come to Ireland in 1302, serving the English monarchs Edward I and Edward II in various official duties, including as deputy chancellor and justiciar. He was appointed by the Pope to be the Archbishop of Dublin in 1317.

Eight years later, an investigation carried out by the Royal Exchequer in London began turning up evidence that the Archbishop had been for years skimming money from the English king, which Bicknor was in charge of distributing to the rest of Ireland.

For example, a writ was sent to Bicknor ordering him to pay the earl of Ulster £2500, 15s. for wages in serving in the war in Scotland, and Bicknor kept 500 marks for himself, while stating that he had sent the full amount to the earl.

As the investigation proceeded, the English government found that the Archbishop, along with the treasurer and other royal officials in Ireland, were routinely embezzling royal funds and then forging false records. A clerk named John of Manchester was hired by Bicknor to commit the forgeries.

One of the illegal scams goes back to 1313, when they concocted a letter patent from the prior of the Dominicans in Dublin stating that he had received 35 marks in alms granted by the King – in reality the Dominicans only got 5 marks.

The royal court was able to get several of the archbishop’s underlings to confess to the forgeries and frauds, including John of Manchester. Bicknor was summoned to London, and when questioned, said they he did not wish to deny that he knew about or consented to them.

The court ruled that the embezzlements over the years totalled the sum of £1168. 6s. and ordered all those involved, including the archbishop, to be confined to the Fleet Prison and have their property seized. Besides property around Dublin, the crown seized other lands in Gloucester, Shropshire and Staffordshire belonging to Bicknor.

However, the imprisonment of Alexander Bicknor did not last long. Within days, King Edward II sent an order releasing him, “because of devotion to the holy church and reverence for the episcopal dignity.” Lydon adds that Bicknor was an effective administrator and increased royal revenues, which may have been reason enough for Edward to be lenient with him.

The other accomplices spent months or years in prison before they were able to pay large fines to obtain their release, and some were even banned from serving a royal office again. Although Bicknor was given a pardon, officials from the Royal Exchequer spent the next twenty years continuing to investigate and question the archbishop, in particular about revenues and goods confiscated from the Templars.

One question left unanswered was why Bicknor spent years defrauding the royal government. Lydon writes, “there is no apparent reasons for his actions. It can be said with some certainty that he did not need the money for personal use. He certainly did not live a life of extravagance and did not acquire wealth by the time of his death.”

Lydon’s article can be found in Ireland and the English World in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Brendan Smith, was published by Palgrave in 2009.

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