Medieval bishops: not to be messed with.

Ranulf Flambard is my example here, but you could pick a dozen more — starting with Adhemar of Le Puy, for example, the papal legate on the first Crusade. He got shot with an arrow by a Pecheneg horseman while on the way to Constantinople and basically just toughed it out. You brought your A-game on Crusade or you didn’t go home. Some of the time you didn’t go home no matter what. But Flambard, yes.

Flambard’s dad was a priest — they were a little laxer about this stuff in those days — and his mom was, get this, a witch. With one eye. Or at least that’s what contemporary chroniclers, who couldn’t stand the pushy, grasping son of a bitch, wrote. Whoever she was, she raised a young cleric who was resolved not to take any shit. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, Flambard worked his way up through the ranks until he became one of William Rufus’s royal chaplains, in the sense of the hatchet-men assigned to chisel as much money out of the country as possible. I don’t think you can chisel with a hatchet, but whatever. Eventually, he got made Bishop of Durham, which is not like being bishop of just anywhere — the bishop of Durham was one of the most powerful men in the north. He saw as much of the King of Scotland as he did of the King of England, and sometimes the King of Scotland was strapped.

But to summarize, some stuff that Flambard did or allegedly did during his career:

  • got kidnapped by pirates
  • and talked his way out of it.
  • got locked up in the Tower of London (first person to be so imprisoned, actually)
  • and then busted out (another first).
  • ran off to Normandy, hooked up with a rival claimant, and organized an invasion of England
  • but eventually made up with the king and swanned back to Durham smelling like roses.
  • died at home in his old age, surrounded by his relatives, with whom he had packed the Durham cathedral community.

Here’s what people had to say about him:

  • St Anselm of Canterbury called him “not only a tax collector, but the most infamous chief of the tax collectors,” which is pretty harsh.
  • Pope Paschal II send him a badass letter at Anselm’s instigation, in which he accused Flambard of committing “many illegal acts.” Which was a fair cop. There was also some concern about his having been irregularly made bishop, which was a big deal in a period where one of the key issues relating to church and crown was who had the right to appoint their venal, worldly cronies to positions of ecclesiastical power.
  • Liber Eliensis: “the iniquitous plunderer…”
  • Orderic Vitalis: “by his cunning accusations and obsequious flatteries [he] obtained authority over all the royal officials from the king.”
  • William of Malmesbury: “but when he had committed this and that sin and not been punished, he grew so bold that he did not hesitate to … [dare] a crime unheard of in all the years of the past.”

And let’s not forget the fascinating Life of Christina of Markyate, in which Flambard, who used to have a little action on the side with Christina’s aunt, tries to have his dirty dirty way with the virtuous young holy woman:

The shameless bishop took hold of Christina … and with that mouth which he used to consecrate the sacred species, he solicited her to commit a wicked deed.

Damn. Anyway, Flambard gets some good press from his own guys at Durham, where he was bishop for 29 years (although for some of those years he was on the run from the law), especially in the period after his death, when the Durham community is getting the hell beat out of it by the Scots and by some other unscrupulous characters I won’t go into here. Flambard, you can hear them thinking, would not have put up with this kind of bullshit.

To recap: mom was a witch, all about the cheddar, talked smack to pirates, busted out of jail, engaged in armed rebellion against his king and walked away scot free, despised by the 12th century’s most notorious player-hater, built a big-ass cathedral and died still wearing the big hat.

Ranulf Flambard: bad motherfucker.

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Medieval bishops: not to be messed with.

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