- Michael Prestwich
Kirkby, John (d. 1290), administrator and bishop of Ely, began his career as a clerk in Henry III's chancery. He may have been related to the John Kirkby who acted as justice in 1227 and 1236, and who was perhaps parson of Kirkby Lonsdale, Westmorland, but the name was a common one, and such identification is conjectural. He was keeper of the rolls of chancery in 1269, and received custody of the great seal on 7 August 1272 on the death of the chancellor, Richard Middleton. On Henry III's death on 16 November, Kirkby handed the seal to Walter Giffard, archbishop of York, and the other councillors of the new king. He remained in the chancery under Edward I, and when the chancellor, Robert Burnell, was absent, it was Kirkby who always had custody of the seal, notably in February 1278, May 1279, February 1281, and March 1283. He was vice-chancellor in fact, if not in title, and was so termed by the author of the Dunstable annals. He was a member of the royal council from at least as early as 1276.
In 1282 Edward I was in urgent need of money to pay for the Welsh war. On 19 June he informed the sheriffs from Chester that he had appointed Kirkby as his commissioner for announcing certain important matters to all the shires (except Cornwall). Walter of Amundsham was associated with him, and he was to be given all assistance. Similar writs went to the boroughs, religious houses, and other authorities. The aim of Kirkby's mission was to obtain voluntary gifts and loans, and in the course of his travels in the autumn he collected about £16,500, and aroused considerable hostility, reflected in the comments of chroniclers. The money raised, however, was insufficient for the king's purposes. Meetings were summoned at York and Northampton early in 1283; Kirkby was sent to the latter as the king's representative, together with Edmund, earl of Cornwall, and the treasurer, Richard Ware, the abbot of Westminster. A grant of a thirtieth was duly obtained; the sums previously collected by Kirkby were set against the tax.
On 6 January 1284 Kirkby was appointed treasurer, on the death of the abbot of Westminster. He was almost certainly responsible for the major overhaul of the exchequer which took place in the aftermath of the Welsh war, a process which began with the statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. This dealt with the problems of debts owed to the crown, and attempted to speed up exchequer procedure. In the next year the treasurer instigated the survey known as Kirkby's Quest, a detailed investigation into debts owed to the crown, and into various dues and rents, including feudal resources. This was undertaken in the context of recent reforms in exchequer administration, and was very wide-ranging. Regrettably few full returns survive.
Kirkby's interests were not confined to financial matters. He also played a significant role in the king's dispute with London. In 1285 he was appointed to head a special commission to investigate the state of public order in the city, following the scandal of the murder of the goldsmith Lawrence Duket by the followers of Ralph Crepyn, a city alderman. In order to avoid appearing before Kirkby at an inquest held in the Tower, the mayor resigned his office. Kirkby immediately seized the city into the king's hands, and ordered the citizens to appear before the king at Westminster. Two officials were appointed by Kirkby to perform the sheriffs' task of collecting the customary farm of the city. The city was then put under a warden appointed by the king, and did not recover its liberties until 1298. Kirkby's action was extremely unpopular.
Kirkby's services to the crown were rewarded by the grant of so many benefices that he was widely regarded as a scandalous pluralist. The process of acquisition began in 1271, when he received a grant from Henry III of rents worth 47s. 9d. yearly in Medbourne, Leicestershire, along with the advowson of the church there. Although he was only in deacon's orders, he became rector of St Buryan, Cornwall, dean of Wimborne, canon of Wells and York, and, after 1272, archdeacon of Coventry. In 1283 he was elected bishop of Rochester, but Archbishop Pecham was resolutely hostile to rewarding officials in this way, and he exerted so much pressure that Kirkby resigned his claims to the see. Pecham then ordered a fresh election, on the grounds that Kirkby's pluralism had made him an impossible candidate.
On 26 July 1286 Kirkby was elected bishop of Ely, and on 7 August he was presented to the king, who was at Melun in France. This time Pecham made no objections, and confirmed the election on 17 August. On 21 September the archbishop in person ordained Kirkby a priest at Faversham, consecrating him bishop the next day at Canterbury. Election to a bishopric did not distract Kirkby from affairs of state. In 1287 he went to south Wales to assist in putting down the rebellion of Rhys ap Maredudd. He attempted to negotiate a tax at a gathering in London in February 1289, but the magnates refused to make a grant in the absence of the king. According to the Osney annals, he then initiated a tallage, which did not require consent, but nothing was collected. Edward supported him in his actions; he was not one of those officials who lost office in the purge that followed the king's return to England in August 1289.
Kirkby was a generous benefactor to his see. He gave The Bell inn in London to provide for celebrating his anniversary, and in his will left his successors a house, later called Ely Place, and nine cottages in Holborn. He died at Ely on 26 March 1290. His health was affected by an operation to bleed him, and he suffered a recurrence of a fever which had affected him earlier in the year. He was buried in his cathedral, on the north side of the choir. The chroniclers' verdict on him was for the most part unfavourable: Bartholomew Cotton quoted some Latin lines describing him as greedy, loquacious, self-assertive, and quarrelsome. The Dunstable annalist, however, admitted that he was just and truthful. He left as heir his brother, William; he also had four married sisters. At the time of his death all were in their thirties; he cannot himself have been of any great age.
- Bartholomaei de Cotton … historia Anglicana, ed. H. R. Luard, Rolls Series, 16 (1859)
- Inquisitions and assessments relating to feudal aids, 6 vols., PRO (1899–1921)
- Registrum epistolarum fratris Johannis Peckham, archiepiscopi Cantuariensis, ed. C. T. Martin, 3 vols., Rolls Series, 77 (1882–5)
- The survey of the county of York, taken by John de Kirkby, ed. R. H. Scaife, SurtS, 49 (1867)
- M. Prestwich, Edward I (1988)
- TNA: PRO, E 368
- TNA: PRO, SC/1