English history is packed with characters rather like a sardine can is stuffed with sardines. Many of these suffocating persons wore a mitre, which meant they had been made a Bishop, usually by a King, and almost always for political reasons. Some bishops went to war in armour; others (rather a lot) suffered death or torture (sometimes both) ‘for their Faith’. In the medieval centuries becoming a bishop led inevitably to vast riches and power. These men were not simple priests; some were not even properly ordained. The bishops detailed below came a cropper for the same political reasons that got them promoted within the Church in the first place.
Scrope, Archbishop of York
An ambitious young member of the extraordinary Scrope (pronounced scroop) dynastic family based in the north of England around Derby, Henry Scrope had been one of the ratpack led by Henry IV’s son Harry of Monmouth (1387 – 1422) when he was Prince of Wales. He appears in Shakespeare’s plays as one of the future Henry V’s closest friends and confidants. Harry’s father had usurped the throne from Richard II, and suffered a bad conscience for it. His nerves were not helped by Harry’s being in constant trouble with the authorities, especially the London-based Lord Chief Justice. In fact the boy was a tearaway until his prematurely aged father conveniently died and Harry the pissed ladykiller had to give up rousting and whoring round the poor districts of London and take up the mantle of a King.
Henry Scrope found himself ordained as a churchman, and handed the archbishopric of York on a golden plate. His former friendship with the newly crowned Henry V did not prevent the crafty Scrope from orchestrating a conspiracy against his old drinking mate, in association with the Earl of Northumberland and a Mowbray Duke of Norfolk. Henry the former rebel took his kingly role very seriously, and announced his intention of invading France, beating the French, as well as claiming the throne. Scrope and the others disagreed with the plan, and the young Archbishop came up with an assassination plan that would put Henry V in his grave before he could spend English money and lives in a catastrophic war against France. We all know what happened: Shakespeare recounts what the historians had already written. The conspirators (including Scrope) were all arrested on the eve of the King’s departure for Harfleur, and the King’s old mate lost his head along with Northumberland and Norfolk and most of their followers. Put not your faith – especially if it is bad faith – in Princes. But Henry the King had but a short time to suffer his bad conscience about killing an ordained and consecrated Bishop. He invaded France, succeeded, arranged the Treaty of Troyes (1420), married the French king Charles’ daughter Katharine of Valois, and died of illness 15 months later.
Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester (1485 – 1555)
Shortly after Henry VIII had broken with the Pope, Latimer received his bishopric in 1535. Pleased with the appointment, he nevertheless clashed with the King (not a wise thing to do with any Tudor) over the passage of the Act of Six Articles (1539). For this he was advised to resign and did so. Latimer was well known for the vigour of his Protestant sermons, but he also spoke out openly against all kinds of social injustice during the brief reign of Henry’s son Edward VI. As we know, this Tudor died young, and his half-sister Mary became Queen in 1553. Mary was a devout Roman Catholic, and friends advised Latimer it might be best to escape abroad while he could. He refused.
Not only did he refuse; he took a leading part in a series of theological discussions in public, along with Archbishop Cranmer (he of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), and Nicholas Ridley (1500 – 55) who was Bishop of London. All three were arrested at the orders of Mary I, who declared them heretic. A trial was convened at which the judges were Catholics, and all three bishops were sentenced to death by burning. This ritual took place in Oxford in 1555, providing the Anglican Church with three of its famous martyrs.