- R. G. Davies
Stafford, John (d. 1452), administrator and archbishop of Canterbury, was the illegitimate son of Sir Humphrey Stafford of Southwick, Wiltshire (d. 1413), and of one Emma of North Bradley, Wiltshire, whom the archbishop supported until her death in 1446. Sir Humphrey's legitimate son and heir, another Humphrey Stafford (1404–1442), was a close friend of the bishop, who acted as a trustee during his minority and later as an executor. Although not closely related to the comital family, the branch's kinship was acknowledged and maintained through patronage and business, and it was itself prominent in the south-west. John and another brother, Henry, were both dispensed their illegitimacy to enter priestly orders before 4 January 1398. Benefiting from this unusually extended family affection, shown even to a bastard child in a junior line, Stafford was able to study at length at Oxford University, becoming DCL by 1413, and still resident in Oxford on 4 March 1414 when called to appear before Bishop Repyndon's inquiry into heresy there. At this time he was licensed on 23 February to become a deacon, and indeed was ordained to the priesthood itself as soon as 7 April 1414. Starting in December 1404 he already held by now, or had held, three rectories, a vicarage, two prebends, and a portion, mainly in the south-west.
On 5 December 1414 Stafford was appointed as an advocate in the court of arches, and was living in Elden Lane in London (afterwards known as Stafford's Inn) in 1418. Meantime he had become a member of the council of Christ Church, Canterbury, by 1416, and represented the clergy of the Exeter diocese in convocation in November 1417, when he participated in discussions about improving opportunities for preferment for graduates. Edmund Stafford, bishop of Exeter and, of course, a kinsman, was among his benefactors in these early years. By 6 December 1419 John Stafford was chancellor and auditor of causes to Archbishop Henry Chichele, and is found among those witnessing the early stages of the trial of the heretic William Taylor on 12 and 14 February 1420. His gradual accumulation of preferment peaked in his collation as consecutively archdeacon (9 September 1419) and chancellor of Salisbury (30 October 1420).
Henry V's success in France drew Stafford, like several other leading church administrators, into work for the crown. On 23 February and 28 March 1419 he was appointed to a team to meet French envoys in England and prepare peace terms, and again on 22 April and 6 May. On 15 July and 1 August 1420 he was asked to negotiate with Brittany regarding that duchy's observance of the treaty of Troyes. On 1 May 1421 he was charged to help negotiate an alliance with Genoa.
Stafford's transfer into crown service was confirmed by his appointment as keeper of the privy seal on 25 February 1421. After Henry V's death he was promoted to treasurer of the realm on 18 December 1422, in the general arrangements for administration of Henry VI's minority. That same day he was made dean of St Martin's-le-Grand in London. His episcopal promotion was now only a matter of suitable opportunity, and his election as dean of Wells (confirmed on 9 September 1423) probably indicated where his own preferences lay. On the death of old Bishop Nicholas Bubwith, Stafford was duly elected as bishop of Bath and Wells, c.19/20 December 1424, but had indeed been papally provided on the 18th, so smoothly had plans been laid. The crown's assent was given on 26 December and Stafford had immediate possession, although formal restitution of temporalities was only made on 25 May, with consecration at Blackfriars on the 27th and profession to the archbishop on the 31st. In the past Archbishop Chichele had protested strongly at such reversal of the traditional order of proceeding, implying as it did that profession to Canterbury was not a necessary precondition, and Stafford was now the immediate colleague of the chancellor, Bishop Henry Beaufort, no friend of the archbishop. But the archbishop raised no objection in the case of this, his former protégé and official; indeed, Stafford had recently been admitted to the confraternity of Christ Church, Canterbury, very much Chichele's personal interest, on 8 May 1424.
In his time as treasurer Stafford had also helped negotiate the release of James I of Scotland from his imprisonment in England (appointed on 3 December 1423), which was much to Beaufort's liking, and had gone with Beaufort three times (18 October 1424, 4 May and 13 July 1425) to try to coax a more generous subsidy from the Canterbury convocation. On 13 March 1426 he resigned. While he had served a long, stressful term, it is certain that he was forced out of office by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester's uncompromising campaign against the council's approach to funding and pursuing the war. Beaufort resigned as chancellor on the same day, when the long-running bitterness came to a public showdown.
None the less, Stafford remained active on the council, and although he could now make a formal primary visitation of his diocese in 1426–7, and spent about three months a year thereafter in residence (regarding Dogmersfield as a favourite base), his overall record as an active diocesan was to be an indifferent one, a fact of which he was not unmindful. Thomas Gascoigne, the contemporary Oxford moralist, who though curmudgeonly was not usually a liar, also asserted that Stafford had several children with a nun in this period, although no corroborative evidence survives. On 15 November 1428 Stafford served on the convocation committee to discuss a more effective response to heresy. On 23 April 1430 he crossed to Calais in the escort of Henry VI, but returned to London by 8 September.
Although Stafford does not seem to have been intimate personally with Beaufort or the leading figures in the household of the young king, there is no doubt of the confidence he enjoyed with such men, and on 25 February 1432 he was appointed as chancellor of the realm, to begin an unbroken term in office exceeded in length only by Robert Burnell (1274–92) before, and by the earl of Hardwicke (1737–56) and Lord Eldon (1807–27) since. He went in delegations to convocation at least three times (18 September 1432, 19 November 1433, and 26 November 1439) to cajole subsidies, naturally attended formal meetings of councillors more than anyone else, and opened parliaments, often emphasizing the particular ideology of the regime that the unity of the body politic rested in the person of the king. Although he was fully involved in the increasingly factional rule of first Cardinal Beaufort and then the duke of Suffolk, there is little sign that he was a policy initiator. Primarily, he was the government's principal administrator and lawyer, not a politician.
On 10 April 1442 Archbishop Chichele wrote to Pope Eugenius IV asking to be allowed to retire and nominating Stafford as his successor. The king supported this proposal, but the pope refused to let the old man go, recognizing him as a stalwart supporter against the Council of Basel. However, Chichele's death on 12 April 1443 allowed for Stafford's smooth promotion; he was elected on 20 May but had in fact been papally provided as early as the 13th. Clearly this vacancy, too, had been well prepared for, and the pope had no objections to Stafford in himself. Stafford received the temporalities on 25 June, the pallium on 23 August, and was enthroned on 22 September during a one-week visit to his diocese proper. Almost at once he appointed an intimate of Suffolk, James Fiennes, Lord Say, to be steward of all the estates of the archbishopric.
There is no sign that Stafford had the slightest intention of ever resigning as chancellor, even though he was now primate of all England. Although he kept the diocesan administration formally in his own hands, his diocese saw him for little more than half a dozen flying visits of a week or two until the last year of his life. When he did travel away from Lambeth Palace, Croydon was his country retreat. Stafford made no effort to inspect the other parts of his province or promote any reforms, and remained fully occupied by his work as chancellor. He conducted the coronation of Margaret of Anjou on 30 May 1445, and was among the leading men of the realm who received a comparably substantial embassy from France in July. He continued to witness crown documents more frequently than anyone else, to see that the formal bureaucracy under the great seal did its job, and to open parliaments. These, however, included the assembly on 10 February 1447 at Bury St Edmunds, whose sole agendum was to attack the duke of Gloucester, and Stafford could not avoid being identified with Suffolk's increasingly controversial domination of government policy. This culminated in the fall of Normandy in late 1449 and the duke's own impeachment in the new year. Stafford resigned on 31 January 1450, shortly after this process began in parliament. Although he remained at the heart of government, and was never charged with any impropriety in office, still less with treason, he could not have presided over a trial so closely concerned with events during his own tenure. Indeed, no leading minister of state retained his office through this crisis.
When Jack Cade's followers marched in revolt to London from Kent, Stafford again seems to have been free of any popular ill will, even among men from his own diocese intent on condemning the evil advisers of the king, and especially the running of local government in their shire. Indeed, on 16 June 1450 he led the royal delegation to Blackheath to hear the protesters' grievances, and was one of the few lords who stood their ground and were available to negotiate a settlement after all the violence on 7 July. On 1 August he was appointed to an oyer and terminer commission for Kent to resolve the underlying problems and causes of the rising. This at least obliged him to spend that month and September in his diocese proper, a rare moment, if still of no obvious pastoral merit.
Stafford returned to Lambeth Palace for the parliament in November and December 1450 and remained there, apart from one short new year break, until March. Thereafter, his register ceases almost entirely, a change about which it would be unwise to speculate, for while he still witnessed many royal documents he does seem to have taken to Kent much more in his remaining year. His will does not survive, in many ways a pity, given that he had a mediocre performance as archbishop to consider, and also the reputed complexities of his personal life. He died on 25 May 1452 at Maidstone, and was buried in the north-west transept of his cathedral, close by the scene of Thomas Becket's martyrdom, a fact that may explain why he never had more than a marble slab, when his contemporaries so favoured great effigy-tombs; it would have been entirely out of character if he had not made his own good preparations. Of his administrative reputation there can be no doubt, and evidently he ensured that the routine work of his episcopacy ran competently. It is difficult to advance beyond such faint praise for him as leader of the English church.
- R. G. Davies, ‘The episcopate in England and Wales, 1375–1443’, PhD diss., University of Manchester, 1974, 3.cclxiv–xviii
- T. S. Holmes, ed., The register of John Stafford, bishop of Bath and Wells, 1425–1443, 2 vols., Somerset RS, 31–2 (1915–16)
- register of John Stafford, LPL
- T. Gascoigne, Loci e libro veritatum, ed. J. E. Thorold Rogers (1881), lxxii, 22–3, 231
- register S, Canterbury Cathedral, fol. 197v
- Lambeth court roll, LPL, MS 224b
- LPL, register