The Corrupt Archbishop: The Story of Alexander Bicknor

Corruption by powerful officials is a familiar tale throughout history, where men and women succumb to the temptation of greed. One notable instance occurred in the 14th century with an Archbishop of Dublin, who orchestrated an elaborate plot of embezzlement and forgery.

This story is recounted in James W. Lydon’s article, “The Case Against Alexander Bicknor, Archbishop and Perpetrator,” part of the collection of essays titled Ireland and the English World in the Late Middle Ages.


Alexander Bicknor arrived in Ireland in 1302, serving under English monarchs Edward I and Edward II in various capacities, including as deputy chancellor and justiciar. He was appointed Archbishop of Dublin by the Pope in 1317.

Eight years later, an investigation by the Royal Exchequer in London uncovered evidence that the Archbishop had been diverting funds from the English king, which were intended for distribution throughout Ireland.


For instance, a writ instructed Bicknor to pay the Earl of Ulster £2500, 15s. for his service in the Scottish war, but Bicknor kept 500 marks for himself, falsely claiming he had sent the full amount to the earl.

As the investigation proceeded, the English government discovered that the Archbishop, along with the treasurer and other officials in Ireland, routinely embezzled royal funds and fabricated false records. Bicknor enlisted a clerk named John of Manchester to carry out the forgeries.

An archbishop depicted in a 13th-century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 2 A. XXII, f.221

One scheme dated back to 1313, where they forged a letter from the prior of the Dominicans in Dublin, claiming receipt of 35 marks in alms from the King, when in truth they only received 5 marks.

The royal court obtained confessions from several of the Archbishop’s accomplices in the forgeries and frauds, including John of Manchester. Bicknor was summoned to London, where he admitted knowledge of and consent to the crimes.


The court determined that the embezzlements totaled £1168, 6s. over the years and ordered all involved, including the Archbishop, to be imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and have their assets seized. In addition to properties around Dublin, the crown confiscated lands in Gloucester, Shropshire, and Staffordshire belonging to Bicknor.

However, Alexander Bicknor’s imprisonment was brief. Within days, King Edward II issued an order for his release, citing “devotion to the holy church and reverence for the episcopal dignity.” Lydon suggests that Bicknor’s effective administration and ability to increase royal revenues might have swayed Edward towards leniency.

In contrast, Bicknor’s accomplices endured months or years of imprisonment, followed by hefty fines for their release, with some permanently barred from royal office. Despite Bicknor’s pardon, officials from the Royal Exchequer continued investigating him over the next twenty years, particularly regarding revenues and goods confiscated from the Templars.


One lingering question is why Bicknor engaged in years of defrauding the royal government. Lydon notes, “there is no apparent reason 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.