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The Italian Connection Reconsidered: Papal Provisions in Thirteenth-Century England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2020

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Summary

In 1245, the English delegation to the First Council of Lyons protested to Pope Innocent IV against the provision of foreign clergy to ecclesiastical benefices in England. ‘So that the truth may become fully known to you’, their letter complained, ‘the Italians in England are taking sixty thousand marks a year and more’ – an impressive sum, if true. This document is preserved in the Chronica majora of Matthew Paris under an unequivocal title ‘Letter from all the English in complaint about the extortion of revenues by the Roman curia’ (‘Epistola universitatis Angliae pro gravaminibus reddituum extortorum per curiam Romanam’). Such invective should come as no surprise, for the famous Benedictine was no friend of the Roman Church. In composing his historical works, Matthew seized every opportunity to rail against what he saw as papal meddling in England. For 1252, his Chronica record that the income of foreign clergy had risen again, allegedly to seventy thousand marks; in contrast, the king's income was apparently not even a third of this. Matthew's chronicle is a catalogue of papal injustice, interference and intrusion in the affairs of the English Church. His writings have left the indelible impression that in the thirteenth-century ecclesia Anglicana, foreigners took all the best jobs, sent all the money out of the country and could not even speak English. Matthew's views have exerted a strong pull on the scholarship on provisions right up to the beginning of this century. In 1869, Frederic Madden sided with Matthew in criticising the ‘unceasing’ provision of ‘needy, ignorant, and worthless Italians’ to valuable English benefices. Similarly, in an essay from 1929, Hugh MacKenzie rounded on the ‘greedy … foreigners’, whose ‘inability to speak English’, in his view, jeopardised pastoral care. Most scholars no longer accept Matthew's prejudices at face value, but because his chronicles represent some of the foundation stones of medieval English and European history, his views remain extremely influential. In 2005 Christopher Harper-Bill argued that:

The chronicler's rhetorical outbursts against foreign exploitation of English benefices have been frequently discounted, but recent work has suggested that the situation may have been almost as serious as contemporary English critics claimed.

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Thirteenth Century England XVII
Proceedings of the Cambridge Conference, 2017
, pp. 147 - 162
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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