By Lorris Chevalier
While the primary role of priests and bishops was to guide their flocks spiritually, some individuals ventured beyond the pulpit and into the battlefield. Here are five medieval bishops who, against the expectations of their ecclesiastical positions, found themselves personally involved in actual battles.
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux
Known for his role in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, Bishop Odo was not just a clergyman but also a military commander. He was the half-brother of William the Conqueror and played a significant role in the Battle of Hastings. Mounted on horseback and wielding a mace, he actively participated in the fighting, providing both spiritual and martial support to the Norman forces.
Baldwin of Forde, Archbishop of Canterbury
Baldwin was a prominent figure in the Third Crusade, demonstrating that the call to Holy War was not limited to secular rulers. In 1188, Baldwin embarked on a preaching tour across Europe, urging Christians to take up arms for the liberation of Jerusalem. He personally claimed 3000 Crusaders took the vow from his preaching. However, his crusading fervour went beyond mere rhetoric – Baldwin personally participated in battles in the Holy Land, displaying a unique blend of spiritual and martial leadership. As joint commander of the Angevin advance force during the Siege of Acre in 1190, Baldwin is described as leading some 200 knights and 300 men-at-arms under the banner of Saint Thomas Becket who came out of the besieged city to attack Saladin’s army.
Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich
This 14th-century bishop was more than once involved in a fight. Just two years after his ordination, he spent some time in Italy fighting for Pope Urban V in his war against Milan in 1369. He was praised as a “great warrior” which gave him the favours and promotion from the pope.
The Bishop was involved in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. According to the English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, in the Battle of North Walsham, Henry le Despenser himself led the assault and overpowered his enemies in hand-to-hand fighting. Many of the peasants were slain or captured, including the rebels’ leader, Geoffrey Litster. When the rebel was hanged, drawn and quartered soon afterwards, Despenser reverted to a more spiritual role. Walsingham explains:
After hearing his confession and absolving him by virtue of his office, he followed him to the gallows, showing, although he had overcome him, a deed of kindness and piety, for he supported his head lest it should be bruised by the ground when he was being drawn to the hanging.
Adhémar de Monteil, Bishop of Puy-en-Velay
Adhémar was not only a bishop but also a skilled and renowned knight, diplomat, and troubadour. Having been the Bishop of Puy-en-Velay from 1080, he was appointed as the Papal Legate and spiritual guide to the Crusaders by Pope Urban II. Adhémar found himself at the forefront of the Holy War, serving a dual role as a military leader and a religious figure with a unique and influential presence on the battlefield. Adhémar led by example, fighting alongside his fellow knights and inspiring them with his courage and dedication to the Crusder cause.
One of the pivotal moments in Adhémar’s combat involvement occurred during the Siege of Antioch in 1098. As the Crusaders faced a protracted and challenging siege, Adhémar took up arms, rallying his troops and engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat. His leadership proved crucial in boosting the morale of the Crusader forces, ultimately contributing to the successful capture of the city.
Albert de Buxhoeveden, Bishop of Riga
A lesser-known but intriguing figure in medieval history, Albert distinguished himself as a missionary Bishop in Livonia and then as the first Bishop of Riga through his personal involvement in combat during the tumultuous times of the 12th century. This included organizing his own crusade in the Baltics.
At the head of a fleet of twenty-three ships, he arrived in his diocese in 1199 and, in 1201, founded the city of Riga. To secure exclusivity in Baltic trade with the Hanseatic League, he placed an interdict (excommunication) on all Baltic ports other than Riga. This measure effectively prohibited any dealings between those under interdict and Christians, leaving only the inhabitants of Riga for trade.
In 1202, he established the Order of the Sword Brothers (Schwertbrüder) in Dünamünde, with the aim of defending the colony against the Livonians and supporting the evangelization of the region. In 1204, Pope Innocent III granted the new order the same status as the Templar Order.
While the primary role of medieval priests and bishops was to guide their communities spiritually, the historical sources reveal instances where these ecclesiastical figures crossed into the realm of martial action. Whether motivated by political alliances, personal beliefs, or a sense of duty, these individuals left a lasting mark on the intersection of church and war during the Middle Ages. Their stories serve as a testament to the complex and multifaceted nature of medieval society, where the lines between the sacred and the secular were often blurred.
Dr Lorris Chevalier, who has a Ph.D. in medieval literature, is a historical advisor for movies, including The Last Duel and Napoleon.