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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XV. English and Scottish Education. Universities and Public Schools to the Time of Colet

§ 4. University and Bishop

Meanwhile, bishop’s officer as he was in origin, the chancellor, in Cambridge, as in Oxford, had, with the episcopal countenance, first shaken himself free from the control of other episcopal officials; and then, in alliance with the archbishop and with the pope, successfully challenged the authority of the diocesan himself. The contest against minor ecclesiastical officials is best illustrated by the award issued in 1276 by bishop Hugo de Balsham in the dispute between the archdeacon of Ely and the Cambridge scholars, who had denied the jurisdiction of the archidiaconal court, and in a contemporary discussion between the Cambridge chancellor and the “Master of Glomery,” in whom we may recognise the master of local grammar schools, who was a nominee of the archdeacon. The award is conceived in the spirit at once of liberal policy and of strict justice. He adjudges that all disputes in which a “glomerel” is defendant shall be decided by the Magister Glomeriae; he thus enjoying the same privilege as that possessed by the other masters, of deciding the suits in which his students were involved. But this minor jurisdiction shall not extend (1) to the taxation of houses, or (2) to serious offences calling for imprisonment or expulsion from the university; in which cases the chancellor shall adjudicate. A scholar plaintiff may appeal to the chancellor from the decision of the Magister Glomeriae; but in disputes between two glomerels the chancellor shall have no right of intervention, except in the two above cited cases. Persons doing services exclusively for scholars shall enjoy the privileges of scholars, and shall rank as exempt from the control of the archdeacon. Rectors, vicars, parish chaplains and others in the service of local churches shall be held subject to the archdeacon; but clergy residing in Cambridge merely for the purposes of study shall be exempt. Hugo concludes by approving and confirming a statute issued by the chancellor and masters which provides.

  • that no one should receive a scholar who has not had a fixed master within thirteen days after the said scholar had entered the university, or who had not taken care that his name had been within the time aforesaid inserted in the matriculation book of his master, unless the master’s absence or legitimate occupation should have prevented the same.
  • It may be that the equity of this decision and the consequent absence of local friction helped to preserve from attack for a long period that jurisdiction of the bishop himself, which Hugo clearly reserved. Moreover, Hugo himself was the founder of Peterhouse, the oldest Cambridge college; he, and a long line of his successors as diocesans, not only took an enlightened interest in the well-being of the scholars, but were enrolled among their most conspicuous benefactors; and the propinquity of Cambridge to Ely gave little opportunity for the unnoted nursing of rebellious projects. Certain it is that the bishop of Ely continued to exercise a regular jurisdiction over the university down to the date of the Barnwell Process in 1430. And then the chancellor, John Holbroke, master of Peterhouse, and his advisers turned against their diocesan and, at the same time, against his metropolitan, the engine of the framers of the forged decretals. They submitted to the papal arbitrators at Barnwell Priory, and secured a favourable verdict on, a bull of Honorius I and a like asserted document of Sergius I, which declared the exemption of the university of Cambridge from all archiepiscopal, episcopal or other ecclesiastical control. Henceforward, the university was not only a regularly recognised and organised body, orderly, legislative and possessed of peculiar powers—in a word, a privileged corporation; but it was independent of other control than that of king, parliament and pope.

    Oxford reached the same end gradually and more rapidly. Lincoln was far removed from the university town. Between the university and bishop Grosseteste, a former rector scholarum and an enthusiastic patron of learning, the relations were of the most friendly order; but under his immediate successor disputes began. Prolonged vacancies in the see assisted the scholars in the establishment of their independence. The position of the bishop was, indirectly, sapped by the successive royal amplifications of the rights of the chancellor in the town. In 1280, the privileges of the chancellor were strongly asserted against bishop Oliver Sutton, the grant of probates of scholars’s wills being, inter alia, claimed. The contention was boldly put forward that, even in spiritual matters, the jurisdiction of the diocesan was only “in defect of the chancellor,” or by way of appeal in the last resort (in defectu cancellarii et universitatis). In a provincial synod, Oliver’s episcopal brethren, with their metropolitan, were induced to side with the university against his lordship of Lincoln. In future, an appeal was to run from the chancellor’s court to the regent congregation; thence, finally, to the great congregation.

    In 1350, an application to the pope resulted in the reduction to a mere formality of the episcopal confirmation of the Oxford chancellor, and, in 1368, its necessity was, by the same authority, entirely abrogated. In 1395, a bull of Boniface IX exempted the university from the jurisdiction of all archbishops, bishops and ordinaries, and when, in 1411, archbishop Arundel, in pursuit of his anti-Lollard crusade, attempted a visitation of Oxford, St. Mary’s was fortified against him, and swarms of armed scholars compelled his retreat. In this instance, the university acted with more legality than discretion. The king took up the cause of his offended kinsman; the chancellor and proctors were summoned to London and compelled to resign; and, when the university decreed a cessation and boldly re-elected the deposed officers, pope John XXIII ruined the defences of the scholars by revoking the bull of Boniface. Parliament confirmed their defeat by a declaration of the archbishop’s right of visitation. It was not until 1479, after the extirpation of Lollardism, that, by means of a bull of Sixtus IV, the university recovered the lost ground. Meanwhile, the scholars had learned a lesson in policy; the chancellorship was erected into a permanent office and conferred upon a powerful court prelate or noble; a vice-chancellor annually nominated by the chancellor assumed the functions of the resident head.

    The peace of both universities was, from time to time, disturbed by serious domestic broils. Irish students raised commotions; the struggles of north and south well-nigh assumed the proportions of petty civil wars, and called for the interference of the king. Disputes, more interesting from the educational standpoint, were excited by the presence of monks and friars. When the successive barbarian irruptions burst upon western Europe, learning had taken refuge in the monasteries. It might have been anticipated that, on the return of brighter days, scholarship would emerge with the Benedictines. Within limits this, indeed, had been the case. The Benedictines never lost their love of letters, and their schools were long and deservedly in high repute. The Benedictine monasteries and the episcopal schools together preserved the useful arts of writing, illuminating and music, and in the Latin tongue held the avenue to ancient stores of knowledge. But the Benedictine scheme of education was directed exclusively to the requirements of the religious life. The Benedictines had their schools in Oxford and Cambridge before the rise of the two universities; but it was not until after the coming of the mendicants that they were roused to play an active part in English university life.