Anthony Bek

Bishop of Durham 1284-1310

mitre and crown

Not a typical Prince Bishop

Anthony Bek`s was a successful, but not typical, Prince Bishop. He had the characteristics of the most outstanding medieval holders of the post, but on a much grander scale.  As the third son of a knightly family he was educated at Oxford and destined for the Church, but he remained more warrior than churchman. His path to a bishopric was through his service to the King:  first, Henry III and then Edward I, whom he had accompanied on Crusade before becoming King.  Bek was prominent in both Edward’s conquest of Wales and attempted conquest of Scotland.   He took part in a diplomatic mission to Prince Llywelyn who was resisting Edward’s efforts to assert his Overlordship of Wales, and also to Aragon in France to negotiate the marriage of Edward to Eleanor, the daughter of King Alfonso.

Early Bishop of Durham

In 1284 Bek became Bishop of Durham.  In 1286 King Alexander III of Scotland died, leaving only his young granddaughter, Margaret of Norway, as his heir.  Bek was ideally placed to act as her joint guardian with the Scots, and also to negotiate her marriage with the young Edward Prince of Wales, son of Edward I, which he did.  However in1290 Margaret died, and the Scots asked Edward to arbitrate between the various claimants to the throne. He met them at Norham Castle in Northumberland at a magnificent court, where Bek appeared wearing a sword and clothes covered with jewels. Edwards chose John Balliol, who had land in Scotland, England and France.  As lord of Barnard Castle he was also a vassal of Bek, who took a leading role in his coronation.  Balliol refused to acknowledge Edward as his Overlord, and rebelled. Bek and the Earl of Surrey summoned all knights north of the Trent to military service.  In 1296 the Scots invaded. Bek played a leading role in defeating them and took Balliol into custody and stripped him of his powers.  Edward took the Stone of Scone, on which Scottish Kings were crowned, taken to Westminster Abbey.

William Wallace

In 1297 the Scots, lead by William Wallace, defeated the English at Stirling Bridge. He then invaded, burning and looting his way south to Hexham before returning to Scotland.  Bek was with Edward in Flanders, but they returned swiftly, and by the summer of 1298 they were ready to ride out from Durham. Bek led his own large contingent, 140 knights and 1,000 foot soldiers, raised from the Palatinate, preceded by the banner of St Cuthbert.  During the campaign in Scotland Bek took Direlton Castle, under difficult conditions.  Eventually the English army met Wallace and the Scots at Falkirk.  Bek led one of three divisions as a military commander. One knight challenged Bek’s leadership: “It is not your office to instruct us in the art of war; to thy Mass, Bishop.”  The battle was a victory for the English, and Wallace fled abroad, to be captured and executed seven years later on his return to Scotland.

Fulfilling Bishopric Duties

Bek turned his attention to Durham. These were not his first priority, as the chronicler Robert de Graystanes put it “This Antony was of a lofty disposition, second to none in the kingdom in splendour, dress and military power, concerned rather with the business of the Kingdom than the affairs of his Bishopric.”  Bek had supported the Prior and monks of Durham against the Archbishop of York who insisted on his rights of Visitation (inspection) of the Priory.  This was a long running dispute. Neither the Bishop nor the monks wanted their liberties infringed.  Now Bek found himself in dispute with both the Prior and monks.  He intervened in a dispute between the monks and the Prior, who refused Bek’s demand to undertake a Visitation. When Bek demanded the monks elect a new Prior they refused. Bek laid siege to the Cathedral and Priory, assisted by some heavies from Weardale and Tynedale, in order to expel the Prior.  The monks held out for three days, with only three loaves and 16 herrings for provisions. Finally Prior Houten was seized and imprisoned, and a new Prior appointed.  Houten escaped; he now had the support of the King, who was angry with Bek when he refused to give him his support in a dispute with the Barons.  Houten took his case to the Pope, who ruled in his favour and he returned in triumph.  Bek now had to go to Rome himself which he did with typical panache, “with such a retinue and such magnificence as to raise wonder everywhere.” Tales were told of his arrogance and wealth as he travelled.  The Pope was impressed, and took Bek’s side. However this was not the end.  The King was still angry with Bek and seized the temporalities of the diocese, and held a new hearing in England, reinstating Houton.  Bek finally found a new supporter in a new Pope, who even made him Patriarch of Jerusalem. The dispute ended Houten died returning from a visit to Rome. A new Prior was installed but real peace between Bek and the King only came with the death of Edward I in1307.  His successor Edward II restored Bek to favour, giving him sovereignty over the Isle of Man.

Bek’s important role

Bek stands in the line of Prince Bishops notorious for their wealth and power and pride; they were not necessarily typical.  Beks predecessor was a monk of humble birth from Lindisfarne for example.  Bek was an outstanding personality, acknowledged as such at the time.   He took full advantage of the wealth and power given to him as ruler of the Palatinate, seeing himself as as much Earl as Bishop. His position made him vital to Edward in negotiations and war with Scotland. Here he found scope for his talents, including those of a military nature; “hands on” warrior bishops were not common by this stage of the Middle Ages. His dispute with the Priory was not unusual, but his prolonged defiance of both King and Pope took it much further.  He lived in great splendour, adding to Durham Castle by building the Great Hall for lavish entertaining. He also built Auckland Castle.  The title of Patriarch of Jerusalem gave him precedence, in theory, over both Archbishops.  When he died he was given the honour of burial within the Cathedral, in the Chapel of the Nine Altars.  There was even a move to canonise him; he was known for his chastity, if not for a profound faith, but nothing came of it and Bek embodied the secular, rather than spiritual, values of the age.