BRIDLINGTON PRIORY IN LATE MEDIEVAL ENGLAND AND THE CULT OF JOHN THWENG
In 1421, after the coronation of his new queen, Catherine of Valois, King Henry V set out on a tour of the major towns and pilgrimage shrines of the kingdom . Some historians call this a pilgrimage; some see it as a sort of royal progress . It was probably both . Included amongst these pilgrimage shrines were Bridlington and Beverley . Henry had his own particular attachment to St John of Bridlington, but his Pilgrimage to Bridlington reflects the Priory’s status by the early 15th century as one of the principal saints’ shrines in England . It had become a destination of national importance to which many more pilgrims than Henry came, of all social ranks . Henry V had come to Bridlington before 1421 as Prince of Wales – perhaps a very different sort of royal pilgrim to the one you had this year! [showing a picture of HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at Bridlington Priory]. I think it is fair to say that if Bridlington had not become the centre of the universe by the early 15th century, it had become a centre of the universe, and that situation only really emerges at the beginning of the 15th century.
I want to set this rise of Bridlington Priory’s fortunes in the wider religious and political contexts of late medieval England, and of the English Augustinian canons regular in those contexts in order to explore the particular significances that become attached to the Priory and to the person of John Thweng, Prior of Bridlington from 1361 to his death in 1379.
The Priory before St John
I want to start first of all by talking about the Priory . Clearly the establishment of the cult of St John of Bridlington was of central importance to the eminence of the house by the early 15th century, but Bridlington Priory was already important before John’s canonization in 1401 . We have been hearing something about its foundation in the 12th century from Professor Mayr-Harting, who I think made that point extremely eloquently and persuasively . The house was a high status and lavishly endowed foundation . We have already heard about its wealth by the 16th century, and it was also one of only twenty Augustinian houses with twenty or more canons, so it was a large house, relatively speaking . It was also the only monastic house in the East Riding when founded, and became one of the chief northern houses of the order. So Bridlington had status from the beginning.
In the late 12th and 13th centuries, Bridlington’s status and reputation grew under a series of scholarly and capable Priors . I think Professor Mayr-Harting has it absolutely right that it establishes itself as a centre of learning . Robert the Scribe has already been mentioned . He was prior by 1150, and he was a key figure in establishing Bridlington as a centre of learning . He compiled some of his works as we know at the request of northern Cistercian houses . Lawrence has written about this . And the Bridlington dialogue is evidence of an emphasis on devotional reading and the exposition of scripture, as well as book acquisition and production . A few Bridlington books have survived, and the classmarks on them suggest a well-organized and sizeable library . The late 12th century list of books in British Library Harley Manuscript 50 is not only extensive and quite wide-ranging but contains some more obscure works . We will probably never know just how big Bridlington’s library was . I’m not suggesting it was as big as Leicester’s; the Augustinian house at Leicester had over 2,000 volumes by the 16th century – that is a really extensive library . But that perhaps gives us an upper limit . All of this points to a monastic school with potential for more advanced teaching and a leading role in the development of a learned monastic culture in the north of England.
Augustinian learning in general was relatively intellectually conservative, and this seems to have been the case at Bridlington too . Alongside works of theology and canon law, other surviving Bridlington manuscripts suggest an interest in historical works, and in the classics, including Latin poetry . This interest in historical literary works was not just passive . Bridlington became associated with the writing of history . Peter Langtoft, a canon of Bridlington in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, wrote an enormously popular chronicle, a bestseller if you like, in rhyming French, which recounted the history of the British kings up to the reign of Edward I . The most contemporary sections of that chronicle were translated into English in 1338 for a lay audience . So we can see that there was a demand by readers to read it, quite far down the social scale . We know that other chronicles were written at the house too, not least because the king’s commissioners quoted them at the beginning of the 14th century to support Edward I’s claim to the overlordship of Scotland . The major 14th century Bridlington chronicle to have survived, the Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvan, was written by an unknown canon of the house, probably in the 1370s . It is based on an earlier work, now lost, that covered the years 1307 to 1339 and includes some later material that brings the story up to around 1377 . The chronicle draws on a record of historical documents, a sort of dossier if you like, which the writer had at Bridlington, possibly compiled, which is now lost . This was known as the Incidentia Chronicorum . This further demonstrates the keen interest in history writing and in history at the house.
One of the notable features of the Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvan is its extensive quotations from prophetic works, including the Bridlington Prophecies . The Prophecies comprise 29 Latin poems on the reigns of Edward II and Edward III up to either around 1350 or c . 1363, depending on which scholarly opinion one wishes to follow . There has been considerable disagreement about this . In some manuscripts the Latin verses are accompanied by a prose commentary, also in Latin, that purports to interpret the content of the verses . Together the verses and commentary masquerade as prophecy, but they offer a satirical and politically charged critique of English foreign policy towards France, and of the English royal court by the early 1360s . This is contrasted with Edward III’s earlier military achievements and the good sides of his character . There is quite sexualised language in the work about his affairs with mistresses . It is an interesting text which I will come back to.
The commentary was written probably in around 1363 by someone called John Erghome, an extremely learned Austin friar of York who had a very large personal library and close family connections with Bridlington Priory . Erghome attributed the Prophecies themselves to an unnamed Augustinian canon – he did not mention Bridlington, just that it was an Augustinian canon . But we know that the Bridlington Prophecies soon became associated with Bridlington Priory because the Kirkstall chronicler, a Yorkshire Cistercian monk writing at the turn of the century, placed their authorship at the house by around 1400, and we have written evidence of that . The important thing I want to stress here is that by the time of John Thweng’s death in 1379, the Bridlington Prophecies were already in circulation and very popular and may already have been associated with Bridlington Priory or were soon to be so associated . I want to return to the question of who wrote the Prophecies, or who is thought to have written the Prophecies, a bit later on . For now I would just like to emphasise that by 1379, Bridlington had a very well established reputation for the writing of history, and in addition had become associated with Latin poetic composition of a political bent . I think one should not overlook this when considering the campaign for the canonisation of John Thweng that began in the 1380s and his subsequent popularity as a saint . After all, foretelling the future was considered to be one of the miraculous signs of sainthood in the Middle Ages.
I want to move on to set the scene in the 14th century in the run-up to the campaign for John’s canonisation . By the 14th century, Bridlington Priory was acquiring, relatively speaking, only meagre amounts of new property, and without wanting to sound too cynical, it would not be surprising if the canons were seeking to increase the wealth and status of the house by establishing it as a destination for pilgrims . The promotion of the cult of St John was not the first time that Bridlington Priory had tried to put itself on the map as a pilgrimage destination, and there is information about this story I’m about to summarise in the Victoria County History for Yorkshire which cited in Diana Webb’s book Pilgrimages in Medieval England (2000) . In 1314, the Priory acquired a devotional image known as the Fraisthorpe Madonna or the Blessed Mary of Melrose . It was already, it seems, attracting pilgrims before it was brought to Bridlington, as the previous year Archbishop Greenfield of York had prohibited veneration of the image at Fraisthorpe fearing it was encouraging idolatry . The Priory had cut a deal with the vicar of Carnaby church, to which Fraisthorpe was attached, to split the offerings made by pilgrims . Carnaby was one of the Priory’s appropriated churches . However, Bridlington then got into a dispute with Joanna, the widow of Thomas Poynton who had originally acquired the Madonna in Scotland and brought it to Fraisthorpe . As far as she was concerned, this was private property and she could sell it to whom she liked . She sold it to Robert Constable, the rector at Foston on the Wolds, to where the image was moved in 1313 . In 1314 the Prior of Bridlington, it is reported, and others, broke into the church at Foston, assaulted Constable and carried the image back to Bridlington . That same year, Archbishop Greenfield ordered that the prohibition of veneration be repeated throughout the East Riding and especially at Bridlington itself . Webb suggests that the Priory was actively promoting veneration of the image and that is why the prohibition specifically orders it to be read out in Bridlington . Greenfield died in 1315, which I think is an important tipping point in this story and in 1315 the Prior requested that the prohibition be lifted . It looks as though it was, and there is evidence in at least one 15th century will that the image was still being venerated at Bridlington in the 1460s . I imagine there are other references out there which would be interesting to look into . This is a rather sordid tale . I think it gives us a very good sense of the lengths to which a religious house would go to secure images or relics that would bring pilgrims to its doors . This was not just about the financial rewards, but also about prestige, influence and indeed devotion . I very much enjoyed Professor Mayr-Harting’s points about mixed motives and paradoxical holding of different motives which to us seem to be a contradiction . I think there are all sorts of different motives involved in this and similar stories.
Compared to the acquisition of the Madonna of Melrose, the canonisation of John Thweng in 1401 and the translation of his relics in 1404 placed the Priory in an entirely different league . It enters the ‘premier league’ of pilgrimage destinations . Toby Burrows has written on Bridlington’s property acquisitions and refers to the relics of St John as the Priory’s most important property by the early 15th century . It is symbolic property as well as securing wealth and prestige . They ensured that the Priory received a series of lucrative grants and privileges from kings and the pope in subsequent years, not least the wealthy rectory of Scarborough church in 1405, and no doubt considerable sums and offerings by pilgrims . Quite how long after this Bridlington remained an important pilgrimage centre is another matter, however . The evidence suggests that the shrine was not of national significance by the 1530s, and it may have declined in importance by the late 15th century . This a common pattern to most saint’s cults.
John Thweng and the Establishment of His Cult
As we all know, John Thweng was the last Englishman to be canonised before the Reformation . The last English canonisation before St John’s was that of St Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford in 1320 . Between 1260 and 1460 only four English men were canonised, and all three apart from John of Bridlington were bishops . This was not for the want of trying: there were several efforts, all unsuccessful, to have individuals canonised in the 14th and 15th centuries . These included John Dalderby, Bishop of Lincoln, who died in 1320; Thomas of Lancaster, the king’s cousin, who was executed at Pontefract in 1321; Edward II himself, who died in 1327; Richard Rolle of Hampole, the Yorkshire hermit and mystic, who died in 1349; Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, executed in 1405; and King Henry VI, who died (possibly murdered) in 1471 . Why, of all these candidates, did St John alone achieve official sainthood? It is on this question that I want to focus for the rest of this talk .
One very important factor in all of this is aristocratic and royal backing . The person who set the ball rolling was Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York . In 1386, at request of the Priory, Neville ordered the commission to investigate reports of the miracles of John Thweng . Neville was of the Nevilles of Raby, County Durham, which was one of the leading baronial families in the north . I do not want to suggest that Neville was simply furthering his family’s interests in promoting John Thweng for canonisation . It is not as simple as that . He was also fulfilling his office as archbishop . But I do think that the idea of a major new northern saint would certainly have appealed to his familial and regional interests and loyalties . The Thwengs themselves were leading landowners in the East Riding, and were related by marriage to the Nevilles in the 1320s . In other words, John Thweng was from the same social milieu as his high status backers, and was one of Archbishop Neville’s kinsmen . He may have served as tutor to the children of Neville’s eldest brother John Neville, Lord of Raby, after he returned from Oxford in 1339 . John and Alexander Neville’s father, Ralph Neville, gave stone to the fabric of Bridlington Priory church when John Thweng was Prior in the 1360s . It may also have been Archbishop Neville who influenced the King, Richard II, to support the campaign for John’s canonization . Neville became one of Richard’s closest counsellors in 1385 . Richard also appears to have been a key petitioner for papal enquires into John’s miracles which effectively marked the inception of canonisation proceedings in 1391.
Richard II did not live to see John Thweng canonised as he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster in 1399, and was probably murdered by St Valentine’s Day, 1400 . Biographers of Bolingbroke, who in 1399 seized the throne as Henry IV, and of his son Henry V, have made quite a bit of how the new Lancastrian dynasty’s special devotion to St John of Bridlington grew over time . There is no doubt that Henry IV helped push the canonisation proceedings over the finish line in 1400, but I think there is less certainty as to when Bolingbroke first became attached to St John, and why . In 1391, we know that he made a pilgrimage to Bridlington and made offerings there, possibly at the pre-translation shrine of St John, and visited Beverley at the same time . Bridlington was not very far from Bolingbroke itself, in Lincolnshire – Bolingbroke’s seat and also his birthplace . This might partially explain his early interest in the cult . He went there after coming back from a crusade in Prussia.
In 1896, James Hamilton Wylie claimed that Henry placed his son, the future Henry V, under the special patronage of St John of Bridlington at his baptism in 1386/7, but he does not supply any reference for this assertion . I have so far not been able to find any evidence to support this claim . The date would make some sense as it coincided with Archbishop Neville’s commission to examine the miracles, but it was another three years before Thomas Walsingham, the great Benedictine chronicler of St Albans, reported widespread amazement at the miracles of St John . It therefore seems very early for Bolingbroke to have chosen as special patron St John of Bridlington, John Thweng, for the young prince . I suspect that while Wylie may have supposed this to be the case in order to explain later references to St John being Prince Henry’s specialis patronus, and I want to come back to these in just a moment.
At what point did the house of Lancaster adopt St John as a patron saint, and why? The first reference to Henry V’s attachment to St John is in the terms that were drawn up between him and the Welsh outside the gates of Aberystwyth in September 1407 before the besieged town fell to the Prince . This document declares that Henry desired an end to bloodshed out of reverence “for God and all the saints, as well as for his special patron, John of Bridlington 1. It is perhaps this reference that made Wylie assume St John was named as patron saint at Henry’s baptism . Prince Henry appears to have gone on a pilgrimage to Bridlington and Beverley in May or June 1408, before Aberystwyth finally fell, before the final push against the town . It was perhaps on this occasion that his close friend Thomas Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, went with him and made a vow, either to take or send five marks to the shrine every year for the rest of his life, which we know about from his will . He says he was with the Prince when he made the vow . Once Henry was king, before leaving to campaign in France in 1415 (we all know the significance of that date), Henry named St John among a roll call of major medieval saints in his will . John is placed in the will alongside another English saint, Edward the Confessor, and that Englishness is important there, but the Yorkshire saint is not referred to as his special patron in this instance.
The chronicles state that during Henry’s final visit in 1421, he prayed at the shrine of St John of Beverley, who was credited as interceding at Agincourt . The battle of Agincourt was actually fought on 25th October, which just happened to be the feast day of John of Beverley, and that victory came to be associated with Yorkshire’s other St John . I am sure it is very likely that he also came to Bridlington and prayed at the shrine, and possibly gave thanks at the shrine of St John of Bridlington . It is interesting that no writer mentions it, and it has been assumed in the historiography that he must have done that, but it is St John of Beverley that takes first place in those accounts and chronicles.
The evidence is somewhat ambiguous, but whenever Henry V’s attachment to the saint began, it seems likely that it only really gained significant meaning after 1401 (after the canonisation), and that after that, Henry actively promoted St John of Bridlington as his special patron in his military campaigns . One of the reasons both Henry IV and Henry V adopted St John and supported his cult was that he was a relatively safe and uncontroversial figure, both politically and religiously, and he was a new English saint by means of whom they could assert English identity in their wars with France, the Welsh and the Scots, and they could use him to assert their legitimacy as English kings after the usurpation of Richard II . Henry IV and Henry V were obsessed with asserting their legitimacy, for obvious reasons; they had to be to survive and remain on the throne . It was also a way of extending their power and influence in the North.
Compared to other candidates for sainthood in the 14th and early 15th centuries, St John was pretty tame . I do not mean this derogatively, but politically he is not that charged . He was not a martyr like Thomas of Lancaster or the contemporaneous Richard Scrope, who was executed for his part in the northern rebellion against Henry IV in 1405 and whose unofficial cult formed a focus for the opposition to the crown in Yorkshire for a number of years, despite attempts at suppressing it . I think that Lancastrian support for John of Bridlington’s cult after 1405 may have been seen as a means to neutralise the threat posed by devotion to Scrope in the north by providing a less politically charged alternative.
St John only became a Lancastrian saint over time in the 15th century as the Beauforts, the Nevilles and the Beauchamps patronised his cult, but I think it is incorrect to identify him as such before his canonisation . Alexander Neville, for example, was far from being a Lancastrian . He was a member of Richard II’s court in the late 1380s and he was actually one of the chief targets of the Lords Appellant who sought to curtail Richard’s power and prosecute those responsible for perceived misrule, to the extent that they actually tried him for treason in his absence at the Merciless Parliament of 1388 . There is a popular and derogatory tract written about Neville which achieved some circulation . Neville’s nephew, Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland, remained loyal to Richard II right up to the day that Bolingbroke arrived back in England from exile in 1399 . He then switched sides for reasons of realpolitik.
For these reasons St John did not have a partisan political identity, but could be broadly appropriated . His political neutrality may in itself have appealed to the Lancastrian kings as they sought to build up a broad constituency of support for the new regime . He was not a divisive figure, and that made him much more likely to get through that process of canonisation . Henry IV and Henry V do appear to have had a personal affection for St John, but their support for the cult as kings continued what Richard II had initiated; and in a similar fashion, the Yorkist king Edward IV maintained this royal patronage by reconfirming grants to the priory out of his special devotion to St John . St John’s appeal seems to have been too broad for a single dynasty to have called him their own.
The slight complication with this portrait I am attempting to paint of St John as an uncontroversial figure is his identification that emerges over time with the Bridlington Prophecies . The Latin poems, even without John Erghome’s interpretive commentary, criticised as well as eulogised the achievements and character of Edward III . They were far from politically anodyne; there were references to Diana wiggling her bottom and so on . Also, they were interpreted by both Lancastrians and Ricardians to either legitimise or undermine the new regime after the usurpation, and at least four people lost their lives for invoking the Prophecies, either to claim that Richard was still alive, as lots of people did, or that Henry IV would shortly fall from power . They are quite hot stuff! They were employed in more subtle ways too, though nevertheless politically controversial . Thomas Walsingham invoked the Prophecies when writing disapprovingly of how Archbishop Scrope was tricked into surrendering prior to his execution in 1405 . He also claimed that the Prophecies were used by Richard II’s sycophantic advisors; these ‘false prophets’ are accused of deceiving Richard into believing his own overinflated imperial aspirations.
What bearing did the Prophecies have on the appeal of John’s cult? Written references to the tradition that St John of Bridlington was the author of the Prophecies we now know only appear in the 15th century . This tradition competed with an alternative attribution to Robert the Scribe, the 12th century Prior of Bridlington . However, the Prophecies were already associated with the priory by the end of the 14th century, when they became enormously popular . It is likely that some connection, however implicit, was made between the Prophecies and the rise of John’s cult, and this may have enhanced his reputation as a significant national figure, or certainly Bridlington as a place, as the origin of this work.
Most scholars who have read the various lives of St John point out that they do not mention his authorship of the Prophecies, but I think it is naïve to think that they would have done so . Such an attribution would have been unlikely to have helped his cause for official canonisation, and yet it would have added to his appeal among the political classes . Among this constituency they would have been seen as a positive mark of sainthood, even if they would not have got him through the canonisation process, or even if they might cause problems for that process; they were understood differently in different contexts.
As we have seen, Bridlington already had a reputation for the writing of history, and the Prophecies were largely history in disguise . The Prophecies may have played a part in furthering St John’s cult . As long as his authorship remained uncertain, it may have enhance his status and relevance whilst not jeopardising his politically neutral claims to sanctity . Did John write them? The silences of the various Lives on this point can be passed over on the basis that they are hagiography not biography; but one of the things that the Lives do stress is John’s learning . In 1988, A . G . Rigg persuasively argued that John Erghome could not have written the verses as well as the commentary, and that the verses were written earlier than previously thought in 1349–50 and were largely about the preceding three decades . Rigg makes a convincing case for not dismissing John Thweng’s authorship, and suggests that John and the priory could have kept this secret so as not to downgrade the prophetic claims of the work; after all, it was hardly prophecy if it was written after the events it purported to foretell . There are also reasons to think that the Prophecies were written at Bridlington . Bridlington Priory clearly had its own copy of the Prophecies by the 1370s; we know this from the Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvan . The Gesta quotes extensively from the poems, including verses that we do not find in any independent manuscript of the Prophecies, and yet the quoted verses seem to be by the same author . A Bridlington origin for the poems would also explain how John Erghome got hold of a copy by the early 1360s; I have already mentioned that he had close family connections with the Priory.
What about John Thweng? This does not prove that he was the author . John Thweng’s own family background and social milieu accorded with the chivalric values of the Bridlington Prophecies, and we have already been hearing about the knightly class that endowed Augustinian houses and provided recruits . This might seem to jar with the impression we get of him from his written lives, but if the Augustinian friar John Erghome, who belonged to another prominent East Riding family, could write a commentary on the poems espousing these sorts of martial values, then why could not an Augustinian canon embark on a similar politically savvy literary enterprise? We will probably never know who wrote the Prophecies, but for now I do not think we can rule out the possibility that John Thweng wrote them . In the context of the 14th century, his authorship would not have been considered incongruous with sanctity by many people.
John Thweng’s Religious Identity
I want to look now at St John of Bridlington’s religious identity, moving on from politics, and to think about his significance as a religious figure within the context of the late 14th and early 15th centuries . To do that, I want to largely focus on Canon Hugh’s Life which was written by 1401, almost certainly by a contemporary at Bridlington Priory . Firstly, Canon Hugh’s Life constructs John as an ideal monastic figure and stresses his humility, his adherence to the monastic rule and asceticism in diet, dress and lifestyle, his generosity in providing hospitality and his caring and compassion for the needs of the poor . Crucially, Hugh’s Life and the lives in general stress how John managed to hold an intentionally inward life of religious contemplation and observance of the canonical hours with an outward-looking concern for the poor and needy . In this way, John provided a contemporary apology for the regular religious life at a time when it was coming under intense attack . There were long-standing criticisms of the religious orders, but that attack intensified in the late 14th century due to John Wycliffe, the Oxford theologian, his academic followers at Oxford and a significantly growing following outside the University, not least among members of Richard II’s court and, up until around 1382 when Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as heresy, John of Gaunt and the Black Prince’s widow and mother of Richard II, Joan of Kent.
Wycliffe saw no place for the regular orders within the church but condemned them as forms of private religion that selfishly served the needs of the few whilst distracting from the care of souls by parish priests . He also condemned what were commonly perceived as the morally lax and luxurious lifestyles of the monastic orders . He taught that all the monastic houses should be stripped of their wealth and this distributed to help priests care for their flocks.
Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as heretical at the Blackfriars Council in 1382 and Wycliffe himself died in 1384, but Wycliffites or Lollards remained a significant intellectual and political force into the second decade of the fifteenth century . At the same time, in the 1380s, and 90s, church and state moved together to meet the heretical challenge by investigating and persecuting Wycliffites . In 1401 the first reported follower of Wycliffe’s teachings was burned for his beliefs, and in 1410 the first layperson . At precisely the same time as this judicial response to Lollardy, senior clergy such as archbishop Neville would have seen John Thweng’s cult as an ideal opportunity to promote an effective orthodox answer to the Wycliffite critique of the monastic orders . This also helps to explain the degree of royal and aristocratic support for his canonization.
Another aspect of this is St John’s reverence for the sacrament of the altar . One of Wycliffe’s most prominent followers at Oxford was Philip Repingdon who, like John of Bridlington, was an Augustinian canon attached to the house at Leicester . Before he recanted his heterodox beliefs Repingdon preached at Oxford on Corpus Christi Day 1382, in support of Wycliffe’s teachings on the Eucharist . Wycliffe denied the orthodox doctrine of Transubstantiation which held that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ at the consecration . Although he held that Christ’s body and blood were present after the words of consecration, the idea that the bread and wine no longer existed defied his philosophically realist first principles . The orthodox saw this as a serious assault on the sacrament of the altar, as well as on the exclusive power of the priesthood to enact it and heterodox views on the doctrine of the Eucharist became the litmus test for heresy in the fifteenth century.
St John’s intense reverence for the Eucharist is another feature of his written lives that suggests a conscious effort to present him as an orthodox riposte to Wycliffite Eucharistic scepticism . Hugh’s life describes his intense physical reaction to celebrating Mass as arising from his reverence and fear of the sacrament . Once again this bears all the hallmarks of the anti-heretical climate of the late 14th century . St John’s orthodox (and implicitly anti-Wycliffite) credentials would certainly have appealed to the Lancastrian kings, who took great pains to stress their support for the church in its efforts to combat heresy, although Henry V was more zealous in this than his father . To put it simply their devotion to St John signalled their own orthodoxy . This may have been true of other major political figures too . In 1417 Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, and the king’s brother John, Duke of Bedford, visited John’s shrine on their way north to campaign in Scotland after it was rumoured that Sir John Oldcastle, the Wycliffite knight who had tried to seize the kingdom in 1414, had made a treaty with the Scots . This was one occasion when John was being called upon not just as a patron of the English and of the regime, but of the orthodox fight against heresy.
As an Augustinian, John belonged to an order that was at the forefront of the orthodox response to heterodoxy, and we know that the black canons in England had long been associated with the pastoral mission . There is much debate, as Professor Mayr-Harting has shown, as to the extent in which they were actively involved in the parish, and the extent to which that continues in the late Middle Ages . However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, what we do know is that Augustinian writers played a very important part in the production of orthodox pastoral literature for priests and literate laypeople . John Mirk, canon and later Prior of Lilleshall in Shropshire, is one of the most important of those writers, and the Festial, his sermon cycle in English, was extremely popular . The Festial is openly anti-Lollard . Around the same time Walter Hilton joined the Augustinian house at Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire before writing his most influential work The Scale of Perfection. Augustinians did not just write works; they also copied and disseminated them . St John would have been associated with these ideals and activities.
Another aspect of this religious context was mysticism . England’s most important 14th century mystical writer was the hermit Richard Rolle who died in 1349 . Rolle is controversial for a number of reasons . Rolle used the metaphors of heat, sweetness and song to describe and advocate his experiences of mystical ascent in numerous works in Latin and English . Some of his followers took his teachings more literally than he intended them to, and claimed to have had physical sensations such as heat (that he seems to use largely as a metaphor, although he sometimes uses it literally, in his writings) and also claimed to have heard angels singing . These claims were seen as dangerously heterodox by the late 14th century, because they tended to go hand in hand with claims to special revelation, visionary theology if you like, in matters of theology . Walter Hilton addressed these controversies in The Scale of Perfection and even more directly in his Of Angel’s Song . Hilton’s response was conservative, stressing that it is one’s motives and lifestyle that matter rather than one’s experiences . Again, Hugh’s Life is rather conservative on these issues of contemplation . It has some of the hallmarks of 14th century mysticism in the way that it describes John’s engagement with the contemplative life, but nothing outlandish or radical . I think again he is presented as wholly orthodox, even safe, religiously . There is none of the dangerous radicalism or heightened ecstatic experience of Rolle . John is humble, self-effacing and moderate in his piety . Hughes’ Life very much conforms to the Hiltonian model . Interestingly, it is the later life of St John in Capgrave’s Nova Legendae Angliae, a 15th-century compendium of English saints, which does employ Rollean mystical terminology when describing John’s piety and contemplative experiences . This really works up the mystical language, and I suspect this is to do with the ongoing impact of mysticism in England after Rolle.
Finally, John is presented as the ever-practical head of a household and as a shrewd businessman . Hugh’s Life repeatedly stresses John’s diligence, foresight, and conscientiousness in matters both spiritual and secular . Although John was obviously a canon, as prior he had considerable responsibilities in running the priory’s secular affairs and dealings with the outside world and John’s capabilities in this regard are repeatedly emphasised . Hugh’s Life appears to have been intended to provide a model for the mixed religious life, that new mode of devotional living that was being propounded by writers such as Hilton and which was being taken up by precisely John Thweng’s own social milieu, members of the gentry and aristocracy, as well as wealthy townsfolk who were themselves heads of households but who wanted to engage in religious contemplation . We can see this in straightforward statements of how John managed to attend to matters spiritual and secular but also in his more practical miracles (for example he brings a ladder to help put out the fire and then prays; he prays and a barn is filled with corn) . Once again John’s cult seems to have been attuned to orthodox developments in pastoral care and the devotional life that would characterise the fifteenth century.
- Bridlington Priory was already an important and wealthy northern house with a reputation for learning and for the writing of history by the fourteenth century.
- However, it was John Thweng’s canonization that put it on the map as a pilgrimage destination of national importance.
- John must have had considerable personal qualities in order for miracles to have been attributed to him both during his life and after his death, but he also matched a number of criteria for him to be adopted by the English aristocracy and the English kings as a national patron. Henry V in particular appears to have consciously associated St John with his victories in France.
- His neutral domestic political identity (albeit with possible tantalising associations with the Bridlington Prophecies) made him a useful counter to dangerous political saints and possibly a means of healing political wounds.
- His identity as an Augustinian canon regular meant that he could be appropriated as an ideal monastic figure in response to the Wycliffite critique of the religious life; and he may also have been associated with Augustinian efforts to enhance pastoral care through the dissemination of vernacular religious writing. Canon Hugh’s life seems to present him as an example (albeit a monastic one) of the mixed life that so appealed to lay religious readers and patrons.
- Canon Hugh’s life also carefully positions John as wholly orthodox and safe in relation to the more radical types of mysticism in the late fourteenth century . Compared to Rolle he was always more likely to be canonized.
- Finally, the aristocracy and gentry would have identified with John Thweng as an industrious, careful, and pious head of a large household who was, by birth, one of them.
1 Thomas Walsingham, Chronica Majora (2011), ii, 521, 527.
Suggested Further Reading
- Allmand, C ., Henry V (London, 1992), pp . 32-33
- E . Blore, Monumental Remains (London, 1826)
- Burrows, Toby, ‘The Geography of Monastic Property in Medieval England: A Case Study of Nostell and Bridlington Priories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 57 (1985): 79-86
- Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II: Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvan Auctore Canonico Bridlingtoniensi, ed . William Stubbs (Rolls Ser . 76; London, 1883)
- Curley, Michael J ., ‘The Cloak of Anonymity and “The Prophecy of John of Bridlington”, Modern Philology 77 (1980), 361-69
- Curley, Michael J ., ‘Fifteenth-Century Glosses on The Prophecy of John of Brdilington: A Text, Its Meaning and Its Purpose’, Mediaeval Studies 46 (1984), 321-339
- Doig, James A ., ‘Propaganda and Truth: Henry V’s royal progress in 1421’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 40 (1996): 167-79
- Dugdale, William, Monasticon anglicanum
- Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land made by Henry Earl of Derby, ed . L . Toulmin-Smith, Camden Society (1894)
- Hanna, R ., ‘Augustian Canons and Middle English Literature’, in A .S .G . Edwards, V . Gillespie and R . Hanna (eds), The English Medieval Book (London, 2000), pp . 27-42
- Hudson, A ., Premature Reformation. Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford, 1988)
- Hughes, Jonathan, Pastors and Visionaries. Religion and Secular Life in Late Medieval Yorkshire (Woodbridge, 1988)
- Lawrence, Anne, ‘A Northern English School? Patterns of production and collection of manuscripts in the Augustian Houses of Yorkshire in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’, in Hoey, Lawrence R . (ed .), Yorkshire Monasticism . Archaeology, Art and Architecture, from the 7th to 16th Centuries (London, 1995), pp . 145-53
- Meyvaert, Paul, ‘John Erghome and the Vaticinium Roberti Bridlington’, Speculum 41 (1966), 656-664
- Purvis, J . S ., St John of Bridlington, The Journal of the Bridlington Augustian Society, No . 2 (1924)
- The Register of Henry Chichele, 1414-1443, vol . ii
- Rigg, A . G ., ‘John of Bridlington’s Prophecy: A New Look’, Speculum, 63 (1988), 596-613
- Rymer, Foedera, viii Sanok, Catherine, ‘John of Bridlington, Mitred Prior and Model of the Mixed Life’, in Cullum, P . H . and Lewis, K . J ., (eds), Religious Men and Masculine Identity in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2013), pp . 143-59
- Victoria Country History of Yorkshire, North Riding and East Riding
- Walsingham, Thomas, Historia Anglicana, ed . Riley, vol . ii (1381-1422) (London, 1854)
- The St Albans Chronicle. The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham, vol . I (1376-1394) and vol . II (1394-1422), ed . J . Taylor, W . R . Childs and L . Watkiss (Oxford, 2003)
- Wardle, John, St John of Bridlington. His Life and Legacy (York, 2013)
- Warner, Lawrence, ‘Latin Verses by John Gower and ‘John of Bridlington’ in a Piers Plowman Manuscript (BL Add . 35287)’, Notes and Queries 55:2 (2008), 127-31
- Webb, Diana, Pilgrimage in Medieval England (London and New York, 2000)
- Wills and Inventories of the Northern Counties, ed . James Raine, 2 vols . (Surtees Soc . 38, 1835)
- Wylie, J . H ., History of England under Henry the Fourth (New York, 1896),vols iii (1407-1410) and iv (1411-1413)