Robert Grosseteste’s integralism

Over the past few years, there have been numerous attempts to mark out a course for postliberal political thought by looking to preliberal regimes. Much attention has been devoted to St. Louis IX’s France. One could devote similar attention to St. Louis’s contemporary, Frederick II, and his rule in Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire. Though perhaps one would find somewhat less to admire in Frederick’s conduct than St. Louis’s. And underpinning all of this is reliance on St. Thomas Aquinas and his successors, all writing in the milieu of St. Louis, Frederick II, and the popes.

The distinctions between these various sources is not irrelevant. While papal pronouncements, such as Boniface VIII’s Unam sanctam, represent a definitive source of political theology, the approaches taken by this or that kingdom are not in and of themselves definitive. Political prudence necessarily admits of different solutions in different contexts (e.g., ST II-II q.47 a.3; II-II q.50 a.2). In a given context, the example of Frederick II or, indeed, St. Louis might be unavailing while the example of some other ruler might provide clearer guidance. The development of postliberal thought through preliberal thought requires more, not less, information about the various realms of Christendom.

For a variety of reasons, one finds less attention, at least in postliberal or Catholic circles, devoted to questions of English history. I have written previously on some questions, however, both seriously and satirically. The reason, I think, why English sources have been neglected and why those sources are important is the same. The precedents of England before the so-called reformation have been drawn into post-reformation polemics, particularly liberal and protestant polemics.

It is common to see this or that pre-Tudor practice or person framed as a precursor to protestant or liberal practices. This is certainly true in the legal context, where the English common law has been stripped, unjustifiably, of its important civil and canonical antecedents and presented as the bulwark of liberalism and protestantism. This makes it essential to recover those civil and canonical precedents, however. Heightening the civil and canonical roots of the common law offers an important perspective on the common law and its modern interpretation.


In and of itself, especially in the legal context, this would be a praiseworthy goal. But, since preliberal regimes are considered an important source of guidance for postliberal thought, it is doubly important to have an accurate picture of Christendom before liberalism. St. Louis IX is not Frederick II, for example, and one may draw different conclusions from the reigns of either ruler. And England under the Plantagenets and Tudors represents still another source of preliberal political thought.

One leading figure of England under the Plantagenets was Robert Grosseteste. Born in humble circumstances around 1175, Grosseteste became eventually one of the most prominent churchmen in England—and, indeed, the whole of Europe. He lectured on theology at Oxford, teaching Franciscans such as Roger Bacon, and wrote a number of very influential theological and scientific treatises. He was no less successful in his administration at Oxford, serving, by some accounts, as the first chancellor of the University. In 1235, he was elected bishop of Lincoln, a suffragan diocese of Canterbury. In Francis Stevenson’s magisterial biography, Robert Grosseteste, one reads that Grosseteste’s predecessor, Hugh de Wells, probably had commended Grosseteste to the chapter (and conferred on him archdeaconries and other tokens of favor).

While perhaps not as well known generally today as Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas, Grosseteste contributed significantly to the revival of Aristotelian philosophy in the Church, translating into Latin and commenting upon some of Aristotle’s texts. He also helped introduce the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite to the west, translating and commenting upon them. In other words, Grosseteste was one of the leading minds of the Church when he was elected bishop of Lincoln. His diocese was geographically huge in addition to being politically and culturally important, containing, as it did, the University of Oxford.

Some have attempted to find in Grosseteste a forerunner of the so-called reformation, though this overstates the matter. Like other bishops of great learning and moral clarity, Grosseteste struggled against abuses in the Church wherever he found them. Much of Grosseteste’s fame as a proto-reformation figure comes from a letter he wrote in early 1253 (Ep. 127, Luard pp. 432–37) refusing to accept one of Innocent IV’s nephews as a canon (with a rich prebend, no doubt) of Lincoln. Part of the fame of this letter stems from a confusion: it was addressed to a papal official named Innocent present in England, not Pope Innocent himself. Grosseteste’s letter, at any rate, does not deny the pope’s authority in any way; instead, it protests, in sharp language, against a perceived misuse of that authority. Grosseteste’s refusal had some effect, since Innocent later that year restored the rights of the English Church regarding election and presentation.

It is important, as I said, to emphasize Grosseteste’s Catholic beliefs and attitude toward the Holy See. He was not a proto-reformer; instead he was one of many Catholic priests and bishops who sought over the centuries to purge abuses from the Church. It would make just as much sense to call St. Charles Borromeo or St. Jean Marie Vianney a protestant for their zeal to restore the portions of the Church in their care to holiness and virtue. There is little reason, then, to hide Grosseteste’s example away.


One could go on and on about interesting and picturesque scenes from Grosseteste’s life, to say nothing of his writings, but I will here confine my scope to just a few of Grosseteste’s letters. In some of these letters we see the interaction of Church and secular authorities worked out by one of the leading minds in the Church at the time. In addition to the evidence from St. Louis’s France and Frederick’s Sicily, the thought of Robert Grosseteste on some of these problems is an important source as we begin to recover the idea of Christendom.

It is probably a little misleading, I admit, perhaps a little too late, to speak in terms of Grosseteste’s “integralism.” Even in Frederick II’s endless struggles with Gregory IX and Innocent IV, no one would have seriously denied that Church and temporal society were closely connected and interrelated. The suggestion that the two ought to be separated in a definite way, that the Church ought not to play a central role in the life of a Christian polity, would have been met with some combination of horror and amusement.

Some time in the fall of 1243—no earlier than the end of October—Grosseteste wrote to King Henry III with evident concern about Henry’s interference in an ecclesiastical dispute (Ep. 192, Luard pp. 308–09). Word reached Grosseteste that Henry had seized the property of the Benedictine abbey of Bardney and ordered his official, William de Compton, to provide not only support for Walter de Beningworth and his monks but also to grant them access to the church at Bardney. In Grosseteste’s letter, we find clear evidence of Grosseteste’s notions of the limits of the civil power.

Stevenson explains the convoluted dispute between Grosseteste, the monks of Bardney, and ultimately the cathedral chapter of Canterbury and Pope Innocent IV (pp. 155–60). What happened was this. Grosseteste’s supporter, Thomas Wallensis, archdeacon of Lincoln, seized upon a dispute over a debt to diminish some of the privileges claimed by the monks at Bardney, an important abbey in the diocese. The dispute—Wallensis angling to quash Bardney’s privilege and Walter standing on claims of that same privilege—soon spiraled out of control. The Bardney monks appealed to the chapter at Canterbury, which excommunicated Grosseteste, claiming the right to assert the powers of the archbishop sede vacante. On the other hand, Grosseteste deposed Walter with the assistance of the Benedictine abbots of Warden, Ramsey, and Peterborough. Finally, Pope Innocent IV intervened and ordered the sentence against Grosseteste (but notably not Walter) rescinded.

Grosseteste’s primary concern in writing to Henry, however, was the report that Henry had seized the temporalities of the abbey and directed William de Compton to assist Walter de Beningworth and his monks. Grosseteste began by noting that the royal power extends only so far as doing right. The monks of Bardney were in rebellion against their spiritual father, which is far worse than rebellion against one’s natural father. Henry’s order to William de Compton therefore exceeded royal authority insofar as it favored the unjust rebels. In other words, Henry’s royal power did not extend far enough favor injustice.

Grosseteste anticipated an objection: what if the sentence against Walter de Beningworth was unjust? First of all, Grosseteste responds, it should not be presumed that the monks of Bardney justly rebelled against their ecclesiastical superiors until the Church has declared it. Unless the Church found justice in their cause, it should be presumed unjust. Second, Grosseteste outlines a general limitation the royal power. Whether the decision against the monks of Bardney was just or unjust, the royal power cannot restore them to their possessions against the judgment of the ecclesiastical power. He compares this to Uzzah, struck dead by the Lord for presuming to touch the ark of the covenant. Perhaps Henry was interfering out of zeal: Uzzah touched the Ark to steady it when it tottered.

From Grosseteste’s letter to Henry III regarding the dispute at Bardney, we can see that Grosseteste believed that it was simply beyond the royal power to interfere with ecclesiastical affairs. Whether Henry believed the deposition of Walter de Beningworth was just or not was irrelevant; likewise, it did not matter whether Henry was motivated by an excess of zeal or not. The royal power cannot interfere with the judgments of the ecclesiastical power. To do so was to cross a line that ought not to be crossed.


The dispute between Grosseteste and the monks of Bardney was not the only complicated ecclesiastical dispute he found himself embroiled in. Indeed, one dispute in particular attracted considerable attention in England and elsewhere, not least because of the precedent it would set, one way or the other. In 1238 or so, Grosseteste found himself at odds with his own cathedral chapter at Lincoln. Grosseteste, expressing his view of the authority and duty of a bishop in his own diocese, undertook to conduct a visitation of the prebendal churches held by the priests of the chapter of Lincoln. This was received exceedingly poorly by those priests and touched off a dispute that would last until 1245.

The twists and turns of the dispute are outside my scope here. Stevenson explains the matter at great length in Robert Grosseteste. Suffice it to say that Grosseteste adduced numerous arguments, including arguments from scripture and the teachings of the Church, to support his claim to conduct a visitation of the dean and chapter. For their part, the dean and chapter asserted that it was entirely unprecedented for a bishop to conduct such a visitation and they commanded the priests subordinate to them in the prebendal churches to disobey Grosseteste. Grosseteste responded by suspending the dean, precentor, and sub-dean of Lincoln from the cathedral. At length, Pope Innocent IV resolved the case at the Council of Lyons, for the most part in Grosseteste’s favor. At the very least, Innocent confirmed Grosseteste’s right to conduct a visitation of the dean and chapter.

At one point, early in the dispute, the dean and chapter obtained a prohibition from Henry III, forbidding the dispute between Grosseteste and the chapter from being tried before ecclesiastical judges. Grosseteste wrote two letters to the chapter around 1240 concerning the royal prohibition (Epp. 91, 92, Luard pp. 285–87). Grosseteste was quick to remind the chapter that a canon of the Council of Oxford held in 1222 excommunicated anyone who interfered with the liberties of the Church. In Grosseteste’s view, the liberty of the Church required this dispute, between the bishop and the chapter of his cathedral, to be tried by ecclesiastical judges.

Grosseteste unleashed stinging rebukes on the chapter for presuming to obtain a prohibition from Henry. If the chapter took this step, it certainly imperiled the liberty of the Church. They were excommunicated by the canon of the Council of Oxford. More than that, the chapter was faithless, turning away from God and the courts of God’s Church toward Egypt and Pharaoh for help. And they were perjurers, having previously sworn oaths with Grosseteste regarding the resolution of dispute. Strong medicine, indeed.

In a sense, this is a counterpart to Grosseteste’s admonition to Henry III in the Bardney case. Ecclesiastical disputes were, for Grosseteste, ecclesiastical disputes. Just as Henry III could not involve himself in the dispute between Grosseteste and Bardney, the dean and chapter of Lincoln could not seek to remove their dispute with Grosseteste from the ecclesiastical courts by the connivance of the king’s court.

As the coronavirus pandemic has recently heightened disputes between the Church and various secular authorities, Grosseteste’s notion of the liberty of the Church takes on new importance. Involving the secular authorities in the Church’s business infringes upon the liberty of the Church. Ecclesiastical disputes must be tried in ecclesiastical courts. Certainly the Church avails itself of tools that it would not permit to be used against the Church and has for a long time. That is to say, there is nothing especially troublesome about the Church seeking to vindicate its rights in secular courts, even if it would be a significant violation of those rights to permit someone to press a claim arising from ecclesiastical matters against the Church in those same courts.


A few years later, Grosseteste set forth a more positive vision of the relationship between the Church and secular rulers. Shortly after Innocent IV’s resolution of the dispute with the chapter of Lincoln, probably in early 1246, Grosseteste wrote a letter to Henry III (Ep. 124, Luard pp. 348–51). There, he identified the priesthood and the kingship as the two foundations of human government. The priesthood is concerned with eternal peace and the kingship with temporal peace. But temporal peace is ordered to eternal peace: temporal peace makes the transition to eternal peace easier (“ut per eam quae temporis est, facilius sit transitus ad eam quae aeternitatis est”).

An aside. Here we find a precursor of Jean Cardinal Daniélou’s Prayer as a Political Problem, recently reissued in a handsome paperback edition by Cluny Press. Temporal concerns are not irrelevant to spiritual concerns. And it is all too possible to erect temporal barriers to focus on spiritual matters. By the same token, like Daniélou, Grosseteste recognized that temporal peace—that is, the well-ordered concord of citizens—makes easier the transition to eternal peace.

And Grosseteste recognized that the relationship between the priesthood and the royal power will necessarily have to be close. They must help and promote one another. This does not mean that there will be undue interference, to say nothing of hindrance: the Church has, according to Grosseteste, no interest in managing the defense of the realm, the establishment of just laws, or the conduct of the nobility. By the same token, the royal power, meant to assist the Church, has no business interfering with the Church’s spiritual work, which is to say the work of sacraments and prayer. Grosseteste’s vision of concord and harmony between the ecclesiastical power and the royal power required that spiritual matters be addressed by spiritual men and secular matters by secular men.

It follows, then, that the royal power ought not to attempt to embroil clerics in secular business. And this seems to be broadly what was on Grosseteste’s mind. Grosseteste was responding to an (apparently) lost letter of Henry’s, which appears to have expressed the king’s views on Grosseteste’s refusal to admit a clerk presented by the king to a benefice. Apparently word had reached Henry of Grosseteste’s refusal, who wrote to clear matters up. It seems that the clerk in question was a forest judge (justitiarius forestae, a justice in eyre), and Grosseteste did not wish to bestow a cure of souls upon someone with such secular duties. No doubt this was the entanglement he wished to avoid.

We see that Grosseteste did not advocate a separation of Church and secular power by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite. Temporal peace is necessary for an easier transition to eternal peace. And the two powers must support each other, helping and promoting each other. But there is a distinction: secular matters ought to be handled by secular men and spiritual matters by spiritual men. The Church does not seek to interfere unduly in the business of the secular authorities, but the secular authorities must defer to the Church in the Church’s sphere of activities.

Certainly this echoes Pope St. Gelasius’s Famuli vestrae pietatis (also known as Duo sunt), which set forth the doctrine of the two powers, ecclesiastical and royal, to the Emperor Anastasius. St. Gelasius implies what Grosseteste later stated: the Church does not seek to interfere unnecessarily in the temporal authorities’ administration of temporal matters. But in ecclesiastical matters, even the Roman emperor bows to the ecclesiastical authorities. Grosseteste echoed both of these teachings in clear terms over two letters to Henry. Certainly popes after St. Gelasius, notably Gregory VII and Boniface VIII, would deepen and clarify the teaching regarding the relationship between the spiritual and temporal powers.

Yet the importance of Grosseteste’s views should not be understated. In the 1240s, one of the most prominent churchmen in England—both with respect to his standing as a theologian and his importance as bishop of Lincoln—set forth a vision of a truly integral society, with the Church and the royal authorities supporting and promoting one another. But the roles for each in Grosseteste’s vision were clearly delineated. Secular men handle secular business. Spiritual men handle spiritual business. Secular men should not attempt to interfere in ecclesiastical business, and churchmen should not attempt to take ecclesiastical disputes outside the Church. The concord of order does not require separation so much as it requires clarity and distinction.

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