It has long been recognized that many late medieval bishops were heavily involved in secular government. Scholars have tended to characterize these activities in fairly general terms, labelling those who chose to serve the crown as ‘administrators’, ‘bureaucrats’ or ‘civil servants’. In fact, they are better described as king’s judges, for a large part of what bishops did in government was dispensing justice in the king’s name. The first part of this article explores the contexts of this judicial activity, showing that bishops were especially active in institutions such as parliament, chancery and the council which offered justice to the king’s subjects on a discretionary basis. Discretionary justice was closely informed by the precepts of natural law, which in turn derived authority from the abstract notion of the divine will. The second half of the article suggests that the strong theological underpinning of discretionary justice meant that bishops’ involvement in secular government did not stand in opposition to their spiritual vocation or their role as leaders of the church. I argue that the sweeping and rather disparaging contemporary and modern characterizations of ‘civil-servant’ bishops as self-serving careerists ought to be replaced by a more nuanced understanding of the rationale and motivation of those senior clergymen who involved themselves in secular governance.
Dodd, G. (2014). Reason, conscience and equity: bishops as the king's judges in later Medieval England. History, 99(335), doi:10.1111/1468-229X.12052