Constitutionalism and the Cloister: Matthew Paris and the Crisis of Royal Monastic Patronage in Thirteenth Century England
By Jason Colman
Honor’s Thesis, University of Michigan, 2005
Introduction: On May 14, 1264, the armies of King Henry III of England lined up near a castle named Lewes to face the forces of the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort. On the high ground were Simon and other English barons, who were in open rebellion against King Henry. Henry III was the fourth Plantagenet king of England, a line begun by his grandfather, Henry II (r.1154-1189), who had established a great empire on the Continent. Henry III’s barons took arms against him because of the King’s refusal to uphold Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford, two agreements reached between the Crown and the barons to place limits on royal power. Led by the Crown Prince, Edward Longshanks, the royal forces outnumbered the barons significantly. On the side of the rebellious magnates – at least in spirit – were the monks of the abbey of St Albans, a heretofore royal establishment. In a matter of two decades, the monastery had gone from total identification with the monarchy to supporting a rebellion against the Crown. How could such a change have come about? What could have led the monks to oppose the King? Before attempting to answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand something of the history of the Benedictine monastic tradition to which St Albans belonged.
From the seventh century to the twelfth, the Black Monks of Saint Benedict (so called because of the dark color of their robes) and their offshoots were undoubtedly the dominant force in Western Christian monasticism and also one of the central influences behind the spiritual and intellectual development of society. Across the Continent and the British Isles, the Benedictines founded abbeys and lived together – at least theoretically – under the guidance of the famous Rule of Saint Benedict . Their great houses were home to hundreds of religious men and women, and their wealth was exceeded only by the wealthiest of barons. Naturally, the Benedictines did not simply arise from a vacuum. They evolved out of what began as an Eastern way of holiness in the third century of the Common Era.