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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Simon Phillips

The Prior of the Knights Hospitaller in Late Medieval England

Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009. 210 pp. $95.00/£50.00. ISBN 978-1-84383-437-3.

The Knights Hospitaller are the least well-studied of the major military religious orders, and their late medieval history remains largely and surprisingly unexplored. Simon Phillips’ study of the Hospitaller priors in England thus represents an ambitious enterprise, not least because of his prioritization of the un-indexed English governmental records over the more easily accessible (but less extensive) calendared material and the Hospitaller central archives on Malta. Phillips’ stated aim is to understand the relationship between the Hospitaller priors and the English crown, rather than that between the provincial priors and the central hierarchy of the Order in the eastern Mediterranean, and thus to oppose the contention that the priors found themselves caught in an essentially antagonistic relationship between their order and the English royal court. He successfully demonstrates that this view is too narrow, and shows instead that the priors – at least in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries – acquired the status of senior lay barons with important roles in the provision of military, diplomatic, and governmental service to the crown.

In the aspect with which Phillips begins his study – the provision of finance – the priors’ roles, however, were actually very limited. By far the most interesting figure in this respect is Joseph Chauncy, the long-serving Hospitaller treasurer at Acre who had in large part arranged the finance for the crusade of the future King Edward I in 1271-72, and who returned to England in 1273 to become English prior and royal treasurer. Chauncy spent seven years in these offices before returning to the Holy Land in 1280, but despite his potential responsibility for the introduction of the wool tax, his incumbency does not mark the start of a close financial relationship between the English crown and the Hospitaller priors. Only two priors would subsequently become royal treasurers: Robert Hales for a few months in 1381, and John Langstrother in 1469 and 1470-71. Both were executed, and it is an annoying feature of the distribution of material in this study that we do not learn of the significant contexts of these deaths (Hales beheaded on Tower Hill during the Peasants’ Revolt; Langstrother similarly despatched after the Lancastrian defeat at the battle of Tewkesbury) until well into later chapters. The financial advantage which the priors gained through holding these offices appears to have extended little beyond the ability to secure the more rapid repayment of such limited loans to the crown as they had provided.

In other areas, the priors’ service was rather more extensive. In the military field, the priors were included from 1297 in the last generation of feudal levies raised for service against Scotland but do not appear to have undertaken active service. With the appointment of Philip Thame as Keeper of Southampton in 1339, the priors were occasionally brought into active military roles in the English navy and later priors were appointed as Admirals of the Southern Fleet in 1360, 1376-77, and 1385-86. Still, all the cases of action they were required to undertake, even John Radington’s blockade of the French fleet at the Flemish port of Sluys in 1386, could be legitimized as ‘defensive’ in character. Their service was based on contract, and Phillips uses their example to make some interesting observations on the fourteenth-century transition from the servitium debitum to the paid contract as the basis for military service in England. With the exception of Langstrother’s unfortunate participation in the Lancastrian cause at Tewkesbury in 1471, the only subsequent military engagement of the prior in service to the English crown was that of Thomas Docwra at the head of Henry VIII’s expeditionary force in France in 1513-14, an action anything but ‘defensive’ in character. The pattern of change in terms of diplomacy, by contrast, is rather more that of a development: an initial period in which priors were engaged in crown diplomatic service in the later fourteenth century, followed by their more regular employment from 1440 onwards. Docwra is again the most significant figure, remaining in royal diplomatic service in the 1520s despite repeated requests from his order to adjourn to Rhodes. The Hospitaller priors were thus an integral part of the professionalization of diplomatic service in late medieval England and formed a close cadre of regular functionaries. Phillips makes the important point that a closer and more consistent engagement in some aspect of English politics became more urgent for those who, like the priors, sought regular access to the royal power to facilitate the conduct of their office, as access of that kind became considerably more difficult to obtain.

As abroad, so at home: the summonses of the prior to Parliament, which commenced in 1295 and became regular after 1330 were followed by the consistent inclusion of the prior on the royal council from 1453-54 onwards, and his more frequent service in the trial of petitions (a huge amount of evidence is assembled to prove that the priors were reliable attendees). The prior became the senior baron in England because with titles having become heritable and at the same time family lines dying out, the prior, who ‘inherited’ his title from his predecessor and thus belonged to an inextinguisable ‘line’, gradually moved up the list of seniority until he came to occupy the prime place. Phillips is convincing in his argument that the increasing involvement of the Hospitaller priors in English government and crown affairs from the mid-fifteenth century represented an appropriate response to a novel emphasis on the importance of national identity in the exercise of political power. The reshaping of their profile as English lay barons was sufficient to secure consistent proximity to the levers of royal power, and thus to manage the affairs of their order with a degree of success. They were not, however, ultimately able to protect themselves from dissolution in 1540.

The picture of the English priors which emerges from this solid study is, however, only a partial picture. The focus on the priors’ relations with the English crown is an exclusive focus. The absence of any substantive consideration of the priors’ roles within their order makes it impossible to judge the extent to which any given prior balanced the competing demands placed upon him. The exclusive focus upon England, moreover, with hardly a single comparative example from any other priory, gives little sense as to whether the English situation was or was not distinctive within the order, or representative of similar trends detectable in other priories. Most problematic, however, is the view of the priors as priors. It is both conceivable, and demonstrable in other priories, that different priors adopted quite different approaches to the exercise of their office: some focused on the internal reform of their priory, others on warfare in the Mediterranean, others still on the pursuit of their personal interests as senior noblemen. With Rhodes at such a distance from any of the order’s priories, Hospitaller priors enjoyed an autonomy rare in a religious order to shape their own roles. In this study, the priors’ individuality is subsumed beneath the rather naive idea that a prior saw his duty towards his order as being ‘to govern his priory well and to maximise its income’ (166): a statement that may be true in the broadest terms, but which fails to allow for the different stamp which a given prior could put on his exercise of that duty. Insufficient consideration is given to the background, career, and person of individual priors in the explanation of why certain priors were singled out by the crown to occupy certain roles, with those explanations reliant instead on factors relating to the office of prior. The case of Joseph Chauncy, quite possibly appointed English prior in order to allow his translation from Acre to occupy the office of royal treasurer to Edward I, is the exception which proves the rule.

Stephen Mossman

University of Manchester <stephen.mossman@manchester.ac.uk>

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