- Roy Martin Haines
Lisle, Thomas (c. 1298–1361), bishop of Ely, probably came from Kent. He may have been a kinsman of the Thomas Lisle (Thomas de Insula) associated with collectors of customs at Sandwich in 1292, while his nephews Thomas, Robert, and William Michel came from Canterbury diocese. According to the antiquary William Cole (d. 1782), the coat of arms adopted by the future bishop was 'a chevron between three trefoils slipped', suggesting that he claimed a relationship with a branch of the Hampshire Lisles. It has been assumed since the sixteenth century that Lisle studied at Cambridge (of which he was to become a notable benefactor), entering the Dominican house there and incepting as doctor of theology. Closer investigation of the evidence has cast doubt on these claims, and it is possible that Lisle was not even a graduate; it is certainly hard, if not impossible, to find a reference to him as magister.
Probably born about 1298, Lisle was ordained priest on 18 December 1322 by Rigaud d'Assier, bishop of Winchester. He was then a member of the Dominican convent at Winchester. By 1340 he was prior—an office he probably held until his promotion as bishop. In that year he was at Avignon on royal business, seeking a dispensation for the marriage of Hugh Despenser and Elizabeth, daughter of William Montagu, earl of Salisbury (d. 1344). The bull was issued on 27 April 1341, but already in March the same envoys had been deputed to oppose William Zouche's election as archbishop of York and to press the claims of William Kilsby (d. 1346), the king's secretary, who at the time was in conflict with Archbishop John Stratford (d. 1348) in his royal master's interest. Ironically—in view of Lisle's subsequent misfortunes—they were also ordered to protest to the pope about the archbishop's conduct.
Following the unexpected death of Simon Montagu in 1345 the prior of Ely, Alan Walsingham, was elected bishop. Lisle was conveniently at the curia, where he had been appointed a penitentiary. He was provided to the see on 15 July and consecrated at Avignon on the 24th. To meet his expenses he was granted a faculty to raise a loan of 12,000 florins and permission to levy a charitable subsidy from his diocese. His profession to Canterbury followed on 9 September and the day after, having performed fealty, his temporalities were restored, which suggests that Edward III was not averse to the appointment even if he disliked the method. Lisle was solemnly enthroned on 27 November, following which, alleges his Ely biographer, he acted with extravagant splendour.
Lisle's episcopal register suggests diligence. He performed all recorded ordination ceremonies in person except for one in 1349, when the bishop of Leighlin acted for him during his absence abroad. He held a visitation of his cathedral priory in 1346, and in that year and the following one is stated to have visited seven religious houses, for some of which injunctions are recorded. Of parochial visitation nothing is discoverable. Under the year 1352 the register lists his dedication of thirteen parochial and conventual churches, and his consecration of the high altars of six other churches. In 1349 he had papal licence to appropriate Leverington church, valued at £85, to the bishop's mensa, or general fund for his support, on the grounds that his possessions were held of the king in capite, and could therefore be confiscated. Administration was complicated by the fact that, although Pope Clement VI (r. 1342–52) had provided Cardinal Gaillard de la Mothe to the archdeaconry of Ely, there were two other claimants, one of whom—unnamed but presumably in de facto possession—was, so the bishop alleged, publicly defamed of adultery and fornication in the diocese and guilty of failing to exercise his office in accordance with the canons. The king, who for reasons of his own had confiscated the fruits of the archdeaconry, issued a prohibition against interference with the archdeacon's jurisdiction. Lisle, however, explained the situation and secured a writ of consultation, which enabled him to continue proceedings. The outcome is unknown.
The black death took a heavy toll of incumbents. Between the beginning of April 1349 and the end of January 1350 eighty-one institutions are recorded, as against a total of fourteen for the years 1345–8 inclusive. By March 1349 Lisle himself was at Avignon, but on 1 October 1348, before his departure, he had appointed no fewer than five vicars-general—an unprecedented number. So great was the mortality, however, that emergency arrangements were called for, and on 9 April 1349, still at Avignon, Lisle appointed three supplementary vicars-general, and on account of its impracticability cancelled the clause in the earlier commissions requiring two persons for certain types of business. Lisle was back in his diocese by the end of 1350, and the following year appropriated Whaddon and Caxton rectories to St George's Chapel, Windsor. On 1 January 1352 at his manor of Hatfield he confirmed the refoundation by the Norwich diocesan, William Bateman (d. 1355), of the Hall of the Annunciation, as Gonville Hall was called following its founder's death, and on 3 February 1353 licensed the founding of another college under the name of the Guild of Corpus Christi. The establishment of a third Cambridge college, Pembroke, had been confirmed (23 November 1349) in his absence by Chancellor John Hoo as vicar-general. It was alleged that in 1358 the bishop appropriated the manors of West Wratting and Swaffham Prior to Peterhouse without licence.
The anonymous Historia Eliensis considered Lisle a good pastor and an excellent preacher, but felt that although he advocated mercy he himself preferred justice. He kept a good table and maintained a fine retinue. The ill omen of the fracture of a glass flagon full of wine at his consecration need not be taken too seriously—it follows the recitation of two other miracles. His quarrel with the prior and convent over their right to dig gravel and clay from the episcopal demesne for the cathedral's repair temporarily impaired their relationship. On the evidence of commissions of oyer and terminer it has been claimed that Lisle was prone to violence. Early in his episcopate commissions were appointed to examine complaints against him, and the final years of the episcopate saw a bitter quarrel with the king. Previously he had been been on good terms with Edward. Thus, in 1346 he had added a forty days' indulgence to that of Archbishop Stratford for those praying for the king's safe return from the continent, and in the following year he had given rather than loaned him six sacks of wool. He was among those who in August 1354 sealed the ‘procuration’ for persuading the pope to act as arbiter in his quarrel with the French king.
The damaging dispute that erupted between Lisle and Blanche, daughter of Henry of Lancaster (d. 1345) (hence kinswoman of the king), widow of Thomas, Lord Wake of Liddell (d. 1349), precipitated a fracas at Colne near Somersham, Huntingdonshire, in the summer of 1354. Following Blanche's complaint two commissions of oyer and terminer were appointed, and on an indictment that the bishop was an accessory to trespass (a wide-ranging term) the case was taken before king's bench but not actually tried. Meanwhile, the second commission found the bishop and others guilty of trespass and awarded damages against him of £900. This verdict was upheld in king's bench by Sir William Shareshull (d. 1370). There was doubt as to whether a writ of elegit could be issued against a bishop, but Shareshull and his fellow justices ruled in favour and Lisle was forced to pay the fine. In the summer of 1355 Lisle was again indicted, this time for incitement to murder one of Blanche's retainers and for having harboured the murderers. The bishop, having irritated Edward by claiming that his justice was perverted in Blanche's favour, planned to escape abroad, but the king issued a prohibition and summoned Lisle to answer in the parliament of November 1355 where, incensed by the bishop's conduct, he adopted Blanche's quarrel and demanded confiscation of the bishop's temporalities. The doubtful legality of this step was overcome by a coroner's indictment brought into king's bench in 1356, the holding of an inquest in which the jury found Lisle guilty as an accessory, and his subsequent surrender as a clerk to Archbishop Simon Islip (d. 1366). Refusing to submit to the king, as the archbishop advised, Lisle, who had previously unsuccessfully demanded trial by his peers, now sought purgation. Either this was denied on the grounds that he was a convicted clerk, or possibly Islip was too afraid to publish the outcome, since no one testified against the bishop. He fled to Avignon in November 1356. On the 18th his temporalities were confiscated and in February 1357 farmed to the Lynn merchant John Wesenham, for 3740 marks—3000 in successive years—payable to the royal wardrobe. In 1357 the archdeacon of Richmond, Henry Walton, was under sentence of excommunication for contumacy in failing to appear in the case brought against him by Lisle in the curia for injuries alleged to total 10,000 marks, the archbishop and the bishops of Lincoln and London having failed to take action.
Clement VI responded to Lisle's appeal by citing to Avignon three of the justices (including Shareshull), the commissioners, and the coroner. On their failure to appear, he excommunicated them, entrusting the execution of the sentence to Bishop John Gynwell of Lincoln. Archbishop Islip—castigated by the pope in 1357 as a dumb dog who had not acted as the successor of St Thomas—had been prevented from securing transcripts of the English court proceedings. The affair possibly complicated the negotiations for peace with France, which hung fire until 1360. Wesenham was still in possession of the temporalities at Lisle's death on 23 June 1361, perhaps from a fresh outbreak of plague.
Lisle was buried at Avignon in the church of St Praxedes, a house of Dominican nuns. Aspects of his case bear a resemblance to those of Adam Orleton (d. 1345), John Stratford, and even Simon Mepham (d. 1333), who were likewise accused of provoking violence, but he might have argued, as they certainly did, that he was defending clerical immunity against secular power. His anonymous biographer, a monk of Ely, doubtless mindful of the reputation of the see, defended the bishop against any complicity in the crimes and regarded his accusers as malicious. By contrast, the most recent analyst of his career attempts to prove that, like some lay magnates of the period, 'he was the leader of a criminal gang that operated in East Anglia', whose crimes involved arson, theft, abduction, extortion, and even murder (Aberth, Criminal Churchmen, 203). This ‘gang’ was allegedly comprised principally of relatives, notably his brother John, his nephews, and his manorial servants. Certainly the most damning evidence against the bishop is the number of violent incidents and his failure to disown those of his familiars implicated in them. However if, as suggested, the purpose of such conduct was to support an extravagant way of life, it proved counter-productive.
To Peterhouse, for which college he secured papal authority to appropriate Hinton church, thus implementing a plan of his predecessor Hugh of Balsham (d. 1286), Lisle gave a number of manuscripts: a Bible, a commentary of Thomas Aquinas on the Sentences, and a glossed version of St John's gospel, in which he noted the meaning of logos. To his cathedral priory he left vestments, a chalice, and other silver vessels.
- register of Thomas de Lisle, CUL, EDR G/1/1
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