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(c. 1100–1169)
  • John Hudson

Nigel (c. 1100–1169), administrator and bishop of Ely, was a nephew of Roger, bishop of Salisbury. His date of birth is uncertain, but must have been about 1100. He was possibly, but not certainly, the brother of Alexander who became bishop of Lincoln. Nigel himself had at least two sons, one obscure, called William the Englishman, the other very prominent in Henry II's regime, Richard fitz Nigel, born c.1130. Like Alexander, Nigel was a pupil of Anselm of Laon. He attended the consecration of Bishop Bernard of St David's (d. 1148) at Westminster in September 1115. It is uncertain when he took clerical orders, but he held a prebend of St Paul's Cathedral at Chiswick, and was also an archdeacon in his uncle's diocese of Salisbury. Nigel first appears as a witness to a royal charter in 1126, and in total witnessed over thirty of Henry I's surviving charters. The importance of his link to Roger of Salisbury is emphasized by the fact that until 1133 such charters always referred to him as 'nephew of the bishop'. However, Nigel was reaching an administrative prominence of his own, and it is likely that from the mid-1120s he was Henry I's treasurer. The pipe roll of 1130 records Nigel receiving treasure in Normandy with Osbert de Pont de l'Arche, and in May 1131 at Rouen he witnessed a papal letter as 'Nigel the treasurer' (Reg. RAN, 2, no. 1691 n.). The same pipe roll also gives some indication of the extent and distribution of his lands: he was pardoned a total of 66s. in Wiltshire, 30s. in Huntingdonshire, 22s. in Hampshire, 10s. in Berkshire, 6s. 8d. in Essex, and 6s. in Middlesex. A document from the second half of the 1130s concerning the king's household, the Constitutio domus regis, was quite possibly written for, or even by, Nigel.

Like many of Henry I's ‘new’ men, Nigel was well rewarded, and in accordance with Henry's wishes he was elected bishop of Ely in 1133, and consecrated at Lambeth by the archbishop of Canterbury on 1 October. Secular business took him back to London almost immediately, but his early years as bishop were not without their benefits for Ely. As a first step to the resumption of any lands that had previously been wrongfully alienated he ordered a description to be made of the possessions of the church. With backing from the pope, Henry I, and Stephen he succeeded in regaining certain lands. In general, however, the entrusting of the administration of the bishopric to a former monk of Glastonbury called Ranulf was not successful. He reputedly dispersed rather than reassembled the church's possessions and quarrelled heatedly with the monks for two years up to 1137. Ranulf's fall, however, came not through the internal affairs of the monastery, but rather through a plot of potentially national consequence. Its details are somewhat uncertain, but according to Orderic Vitalis, Ranulf and his collaborators planned that all Normans should be killed and the government of the realm handed over to the Scots. Nigel learnt of the conspiracy, and passed on the information to other prelates and nobles, and to royal officials. Ranulf fled and Nigel was reconciled with his monks.

As his behaviour in relation to the conspiracy shows, Nigel was loyal to Stephen early in his reign. Like his uncle Roger he had accepted the king's succession, and, according to William of Malmesbury, Roger obtained the chancellorship for Alexander and the treasurership for Nigel. In February 1136 Nigel was with Stephen in the north, where he witnessed charters at York and Durham, and on his return south he witnessed the king's Oxford charter in April. During 1137 he was in Normandy with the king, and witnessed a charter at Rouen. However, the power of Nigel and his kinsmen made them feared by Stephen and unpopular for their influence over the king, with rivals, notably the Beaumont family, who accused them of plotting in favour of Henry I's daughter, the Empress Matilda. The Gesta Stephani described Nigel, together with Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, as:

men who loved display and were rash in their reckless presumption … disregarding the holy and simple manner of life that befits a Christian priest they devoted themselves so utterly to warfare and the vanities of this world that whenever they attended court by appointment they … aroused general astonishment on account of the extraordinary concourse of knights by which they were surrounded on every side.

Gesta Stephani, 72

At the king's court in Oxford on 24 June 1139 Roger and Alexander were arrested, but Nigel, who had not yet reached court, succeeded in fleeing to his uncle's castle at Devizes. Through ostentatiously harsh treatment of his kinsmen the king forced Nigel to surrender. He left for Ely, having, according to Orderic, been declared a public enemy of the whole country. Nigel fortified his position, but was attacked first by a royal force and then, at the end of 1139, by the king in person. The assault, using boats and a specially constructed bridge, proved successful. Nigel fled by night with only three companions and succeeded in reaching the empress, who was then at Gloucester. He may at this stage have sent a delegation to Rome to complain of his expulsion, and on 5 October 1140 Innocent II issued a bull ordering his restoration. Meanwhile the see was in the custody possibly first of Aubrey de Vere, and then from May 1140 of Geoffrey de Mandeville and perhaps of the earl of Pembroke.

Nigel's position was strengthened by Stephen's capture at Lincoln on 2 February 1141. On 3 March he was one of the people present at the empress's ceremonial procession in Winchester Cathedral. He witnessed her charters at Oxford in late March, at St Albans probably in June, at Westminster at midsummer, at Oxford again in late July or early August, and at Reading. The empress, moreover, restored him to his see, but Stephen's release from captivity in November 1141 marked another shift in fortunes. The king struck back by sending against Nigel the earl of Pembroke and Geoffrey de Mandeville, now earl of Essex. Afraid, Nigel sent to the king and was received into his peace. This, however, did not mark the end of his difficulties. The events of 1143 are confused, but in March of that year he attended the king's council at London, perhaps in order to answer an appeal by a clerk named Vitalis whom Nigel had expelled from his church for simony. Soon afterwards he may have gone to join the empress, but was surprised and plundered by the king's men at Wareham. Geoffrey de Mandeville, possibly with the absent bishop's knowledge, and certainly at the request of his knights, took over the Isle of Ely as one of the centres of his rebellion against the king. Perhaps at the council in March, or perhaps at another later in the year, Nigel was also charged with alienating church lands to knights and with encouraging sedition in the realm. As a result, he appealed to Rome, but first had to take various precious treasures from his church, in return for which he gave back to the monks the vill of Hadstock, which they had long claimed. Having reached Rome, and helped by his treasure, by the archbishop of Canterbury, and by a letter of commendation from Gilbert Foliot, abbot of Gloucester, in May 1144 Nigel obtained several bulls from Pope Lucius II, which reinforced his position. Nigel then returned from Rome to Ely, and soon afterwards Geoffrey de Mandeville died. Only slowly, however, did the king and Nigel come to terms, and Stephen required a payment of £200 and the giving of Nigel's son Richard as a hostage before he restored him, through an agreement made at Ipswich. Again the raising of the money afflicted the church and again, apparently, the vill of Hadstock was in return confirmed to the monks. Nigel's part in the later stages of the reign was rather quieter. In 1147–8 he resumed his witnessing of royal charters. In 1150 he was present at a meeting of the Norfolk and Suffolk shire court specially ordered by the king, and in 1153–4 he was addressed in a royal charter concerning a grant to St Radegund's priory, Cambridge. Late in 1153 he was one of the witnesses of Stephen's charter granting the kingdom to Henry II after his death, according to the terms of the treaty of Winchester.

On 19 December 1154 Nigel attended the coronation of Henry II, and with the new reign his former prominence was restored. Even though the exchequer had not completely collapsed during Stephen's reign, it remains likely that considerable renewal was necessary. According to the Liber Eliensis Nigel bought the treasurership for his son, Richard, for the sum of £400, and Richard gives a highly laudatory account of Nigel in the Dialogus de Scaccario, written at the end of the 1170s. Richard treats him as a repository of opinion on various matters, notably the privileges of the barons of the exchequer. Nigel may indeed have had a hand in a significant element of policy making, with an insistence that previously alienated royal demesnes be restored to the king. In 1159–63 he was present at the king's court for a judicial hearing, and on 29 September 1165 he was the first named of the royal justices in whose presence a quitclaim was made at the exchequer. For his service he duly received rewards, for example enjoying terrae datae in Gloucestershire early in Henry II's reign.

Nigel's relations with the monks of Ely, however, remained difficult. Their disputes focused on the issue of the church's dispersed lands, and on 22 February 1156 Pope Adrian IV (r. 1154–9) issued a bull threatening Nigel with suspension unless within three months he restored the church's possessions to their state when he became bishop of Ely. The king's absence in France prevented full restitution, but further bulls concerning Ely's unjust losses were issued by Adrian, and related orders by the archbishop of Canterbury. Finally, at the petition of the king, archbishops, and bishops, and of John of Salisbury, Adrian lifted the threat of suspension on the condition that Nigel swear in the presence of Archbishop Theobald (d. 1161) that he would strive for the restoration of Ely's lands and would alienate no others. Even then, a further scandal arose because Nigel made a married clerk sacrist of Ely, drawing upon the bishop admonition from Archbishop Thomas Becket.

On 3 June 1162 Nigel was present at Becket's consecration, and he also attended the council at Clarendon in January 1164. However, Nigel's active life was ended by paralysis, by which he was struck in either or both of autumn 1164 or spring 1166. He seems to have taken little part in the Becket dispute. A letter of Becket in 1166 names him and the bishop of Norwich as responsible for giving force to the excommunication of the earl of Norfolk, while a letter of Gilbert Foliot, probably from June of the same year, demands that Nigel seal a letter of appeal directed to the pope against Becket. The pipe roll of 1165/6 records him rendering account of £59 3s. 4d. in the matter of his promise of service concerning Wales, and that of 1167/8 payments for the aid for the marriage of the king's daughter. Nigel's last years seem to have been spent quietly at Ely, and he died on 30 May 1169. In the north chancel aisle of Ely Cathedral, an impressive mid- or late twelfth-century marble slab, depicting a large angel holding a small naked figure, may be a memorial to Nigel, although it does not bear his name and the imprecise dating cannot associate it with him for certain.


  • E. O. Blake, ed., Liber Eliensis, CS, 3rd ser., 92 (1962)
  • R. Fitz Nigel [R. Fitzneale], Dialogus de scaccario / The course of the exchequer, ed. and trans. C. Johnson (1950)
  • William of Malmesbury, The Historia novella, ed. and trans. K. R. Potter (1955)
  • Reg. RAN, vols. 2–3
  • K. R. Potter and R. H. C. Davis, eds., Gesta Stephani, OMT (1976)
  • R. C. van Caenegem, ed., English lawsuits from William I to Richard I, 2 vols., SeldS, 106–7 (1990–91)
  • The letters of John of Salisbury, ed. and trans. H. E. Butler and W. J. Millor, rev. C. N. L. Brooke, 2 vols., OMT (1979–86) [Latin original with parallel Eng. text]
  • J. C. Robertson and J. B. Sheppard, eds., Materials for the history of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, 7 vols., Rolls Series, 67 (1875–85)
  • F. Liebermann, Einleitung in den Dialogus de scaccario (Göttingen, 1875)
  • Letters and charters of Gilbert Foliot, ed. A. Morey and others (1967)
  • R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 3rd edn (1990)
  • H. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayles, The governance of medieval England (1963)


  • statue, Ely Cathedral
Selden Society
Oxford Medieval Texts
Camden Society
Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. M. Chibnall, 6 vols., OMT (1969–80); repr. (1990)
, PRSoc. (1884–) [pipe rolls]
H. W. C. Davis & others, eds., , 4 vols. (1913–69)