Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Strike in the Chapter House: Archbishop Neville and the Canons of Beverley

The Registers of the Archbishops of York contain a great many interesting stories - but few more dramatic than the story of what has been described as the ‘most notorious clerical strike in medieval English history’ - Archbishop Neville’s feud with the Chapter of Beverley Minster in 1381 from Register 13, f 77r -92v. 

Here, Gary Brannan, our Access Archivist, takes us through this fascinating period - a dispute that eventually resulted in deep divisions between clergy, church and state.

For stories from this (and other) Archbishops’ Registers, see

It is the 2nd March, 1381.

A messenger arrives at the heavy doors of the Chapter House of Beverley Minster. He has come the short distance from the Archbishop's Manor in Beverley to bring the news that the Archbishop of York - Alexander Neville (c.1332-1392) - intended to visit the Chapter House of Beverley to undertake a Visitation of the Chapter, sometime around Lady Day (25th March). The Canons - and other clergy - were ordered to appear in person. The Archbishop had been busy in this regard, and had already appointed Roger de Pickering as his judicial assessor, and John Stane of Beverley - now at the door with the order - as his official runner and messenger.

The Chapter House, Beverley Minster
To say that this, relatively normal, procedure caused outrage amongst the Chapter understates things greatly. By the 20th of March, an official appeal had been sent to his Holiness Pope Urban VI appealing this jurisdiction. In the appeal, the Chapter set out their many rights and privileges that they said existed over the Archbishop. For 60 years or more, they argued, they had run and governed themselves, and had managed their own issues of discipline and correction and that, anyway, they were all good natured and peaceful men, undertaking their duties lawfully, and that the Archbishop knew this, too. They feared, they said, the Archbishop's’ use of his power, and that the Archbishop's’ argument that he had a seat in the Chapter may be true, but that he had no official power such as a vote there. 

The Chapter threw themselves on the mercy of the Papal Court, desperate not to be subject to the Archbishop. The Archbishop was, as one could expect, having precisely none of this, and the footnotes and annotations by the Archbishop give a very rare insight into the fury of a prelate scorned. In a section describing the past use of rights in the church, the Archbishop writes ‘Careful! This story is false!’. 

'Careful, this story is false!'
Just on the opposite side of the page, next to a section explaining that the Archbishop had usually been absent from Beverley and never laid claim to a Canonry there, the Archbishop furiously responds “And wrongly - consequently, this Archbishop will purge the negligence of his predecessors’.

'And wrongly, consequently, this Archbishop will purge the negligence of his predecessors'
In an appeal from Richard Ravenser, Archdeacon of Lincoln and Canon of Beverley, he notes a sarcastic ‘Show your authority’. Later, when explaining how the Archbishop was a mortal enemy of his, the Archbishop writes ‘ Yet your messenger came to the Archbishop with this writing and the archbishop asked him to dinner as he would have invited you if you had come’. Others complained of the many occasions the Archbishop had exceeded his authority - going to the place behind the altar, once citing the executors of Richard Kylling to appear; the same with the executors of Robert of Beverley; and wickedly made Margery, wife of Adam Cook of Beverley purge herself for her wicked crimes.

'Yet your messenger came to the Archbishop with this writing and
the Archbishop asked him to dinner as he would have invited you if you had come'
The notices of visitation were affixed to the seat of the Chapter House on the 26th March (the day after Lady Day). The names of 47 priests were cited to be present- but only 3 appeared. When asked where the rest were, he was told they were outsude, but were scared to appear because of the Canons of the Minster, and so they left. The Archbishop angrily demanded their return. The day after, only another four appeared. Now furious, the Archbishop demanded to know why they should not all be excommunicated. 

By now, it was the 5th April, and only another four vicars had appeared, the rest having left. They were summarily excommunicated. But now, who could undertake services? The Archbishop went to Matins - the evening service - on the 8th April, and was so saddened at the fact that the lack of priests meant there could basically be no adequate service, he called for priests trained in serving and chanting to be urgently sent from York to take services in place of the excommunicated priests.

Register 13, showing the Beverley visitation
And at this point - it got serious.

On the 21st April, letters were received from the King, Richard II. In these, he delicately explained that, actually, Beverley’s independence came from the time of his ancestor, King Athelstan. Under pressure to appeal to Rome but worried that this would ‘take more money out of the Kingdom’, the Archbishop was commanded to appear before the King before St George's day to settle the matter. The matter was settled on the 11th May - with a slight whimper as it was found the Archbishops’ Counsel did not have the full authority to represent him, the visitation was therefore ordered to be formally suspended.

The Archbishop was outraged - he notes in the margin that 'It is not the business of the temporal to interfere with the spiritual court' and that 'the request is not just and is therefore not granted'.

'the request is not just and is therefore not granted'
In this, the Canons of Beverley had won a significant battle with York over their independence. Beverley was not visited again as a result, though the Archbishop kept a Manor close by, just in case, and was able to visit the other churches in Beverley - all while the Canons no doubt kept a close eye on his comings and goings.

For Neville, the feud with Beverley was a marker of his obsession with local clerical issues, and also a sign of how his strategic decision making with marr his future. Neville became closely involved with the inner retinue of Richard II. Caught in the maelstrom of Richard's downfall, Neville found himself charged with treason in 1388 after being caught off Tynemouth while attempting a clandestine crossing of the North Sea. Spared execution, he finished his days in Leuven in the Netherlands as a lowly parish priest in 1392.

BIA, YDA/Abp Reg 13, available via <>, accessed 29/03/17

‘Memorials of Beverley Minster: The Chapter Act Book of the Collegiate Church of St. John of Beverley’, A F Leach, Surtees Society Vol 108 (1903)

‘Alexander Neville’, Dictionary of National Biography <>, accessed 29/03/17

Image: ‘Beverley Minster’ Steve Cadman, CC-BY-NC-SA, <>, accessed 29/03/17

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