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Thurstan
(Died 1140)

Archbishop of York
Died: 5th February 1140


Thurstan was one of the most remarkable of the northern archbishops. Like other great churchmen of his time, he was the son of a priest. His father's name was Auger, a Prebendary of London. Auger was a native of Bayeux and had another son, Andoenus (Ouen), who became Bishop of Evreux. Thurstan had be longed to the household of William Rufus and, upon that King's death, became the Chaplain and Secretary of King Henry I, by whom he was nominated the successor of Archbishop Thomas II in 1114. At this time, Thurstan was only a sub-deacon. He was ordained deacon by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, and was then solemnly enthroned in the Minster at York.

The following five years were occupied in the great dispute between York and Canterbury. Thurstan steadily refused to make the required submission to the southern primate; and Archbishop Ralph d'Escures, who in the same year, 1114, was translated from Rochester to Canterbury, refused, as steadily, to consecrate him without it. Thurstan was, however, ordained priest by Flambard, Bishop of Durham. The King himself supported either side in turn and, on one occasion, Thurstan resigned into his hands, as suzerain, all the preferment that he possessed. This was afterwards restored but, in spite of support and influence for Thomas from three successive popes - Paschal, Gelasius II (who died in 1118) and Calixtus II - Archbishop Ralph persisted in his refusal. Thurstan was at length consecrated during the Council of Rheims (20th October 1119) at the hands of Calixtus himself. Henry dissiesed Thurstan of the Archiepiscopal lands; and the new archbishop remained for some months in the Papal Court, until Calixtus. The latter determined that the Church of York should be for ever freed from the profes­sion to Canterbury, gave Thurstan a charter of exemption to that effect, with the papal bull affixed, and despatched him toward England. He even carried letters threatening King Henry with excommunication if the Archbishop were not, at once, placed in his see. Thurstan, with the Papal Ambassadors, the Archbishop of Tours, and the Bishop of Beauvais, found Henry in Normandy and, after some debate, it was agreed that the temporalities should be restored to Thurstan, if he would still remain absent for a time from England. Thurstan consented and Henry sailed from Barfleur (25th November 1120), his son following him in the ' White Ship' which was lost with all on board.

At Christmas, the King summoned the Archbishop of Canterbury and his suffragans and showed them the letters and mandates of Calixtus. They did not venture to disobey them and Thurstan was invited to cross the sea to England once more. Early in the Spring of 1121, he was received at York, by vast multitudes who thronged out of the city to meet him, and was re-enthroned in the Minster. The claims of Canterbury were, however, by no means extinguished. They were revived, and before the Pope, by Ralph's successor, William de Corbei. They were only placed in abeyance, for a time, by the appointment of Corbeil as Papal Legate in England, thus giving him personally an undisputed superiority.

As Archbishop of York, Thurstan is especially noticeable for the part he took, in 1138, on the occasion of the Battle of the Standard. In 1137, he had visited Scotland as ambassador and had induced King David to make a truce with England until the return of King Stephen from abroad. But, in the following yea,r the Scots broke into Northumberland and thence advanced as far as the neighbourhood of Northallerton in Yorkshire. The English army, which met them there, was assembled mainly by the exertions of the Archbishop. The result of the battle was the entire defeat of the Scots and the assured safety of the north of England. The "Standard" from which the field was named, was a wheeled platform, resembling the "Carrocio" used for the same purpose in Italy. On it were raised the holy banners of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverley and St. Wilfrid of Ripon. (The historians of the "Bellum Standardi" are Ailred of Rievaulx and Richard of Hexham.)

He was also a great patron of monasticism in the north of England. As its reviver, Thurstan is almost entitled to rank with St. Bernard, his personal friend and correspondent. At the time of Thurstan's accession to the see of York, there were few religious houses in the north of England. The only orders being Benedictines, Augustinian Canons and Cluniacs, the last of whom had one monastery only at Pontefract. During his archiepiscopate, six new houses of Augustinians were established in Yorkshire - Kirkham, Gisborough, Bridlington, Bolton, Nostel and Drax; and the great order of Reformed Benedictines - the Cistercians - were first introduced. The Cistercian houses of Rievaulx, Byland and Fountains, were founded and fostered at the especial insistence of Thurstan. It is probable that the monks who colonised Rievaulx had been sent into Yorkshire by St. Bernard himself, in the hope that Thurstan would provide them with a resting-place. The site of Fountains had been the Archbishop's own property.

A few days before his death, Thurstan, in accordance with the advice of St. Bernard and in fulfilment of a vow made at Cluny in his youth, became a monk among the Cluniacs at Pontefract. He died on 5th February 1140 and was buried before the high altar of the Cluniac Church. The Chapter of York first chose as his successor, at the insistence of Henry of Blois, the powerful Bishop of Winchester, his nephew, Henry do Sully, Abbot of Fecamp. The Pope, however, refused to recognise him, because he would not give up his monastery; and in January 1142, the Chapter chose William FitzHerbert, another of the great Bishop's nephews, instead.

Edited from Richard John King's "Handbook to the Cathedrals of England: Northern Division" (1903).

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