Alexander Bicknor -Archbishop and Peculator by James Lydon

Published in Anglo-Norman Ireland, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1993), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 1

On an October day in 1325, in the royal exchequer at Westminster, the accounts of the treasurer of Ireland were being audited. This was a fairly routine matter. The treasurer in question was Walter Islip, who had retired from office in September 1321. Suddenly the audit was interrupted when the routine inquiries began to reveal a series of deliberate frauds which involved the previous treasurer, Alexander Bicknor, who had left office in April 1314.

As it happened, Bicknor was in London and he was summoned to appear before the auditors for questioning under oath. At a crucial stage in the proceedings, Bicknor was faced with the fact that the account which he had rendered some years previously was ‘false and forged’. He admitted that he had not charged himself for some silverware which he had received from the confiscated goods of the Templars after they had been thrown into prison in 1308. Further inquiries revealed yet more frauds and finally Bicknor admitted that some of the documents presented during his audit had been forged ‘by his will and knowledge’ and he ‘submitted himself to the grace of the king’. The total sums involved were enormous, even if they seem quite trivial to us today. During Bicknor’s seven years as treasurer, the average income of the exchequer was just over £3,000. The sum he was accused of defrauding the king of was nearly £1 ,200, or more than one third of the lordship’s income for one year. Small wonder the English auditors were horrified. He was naturally found guilty of fraud on his own admission, all the more serious because it had been perpetrated in the king’s name,and he was held over for sentencing.

Audit in progress: Dublin Exchequer.75th Century sketch in the Red Book of the Irish Exchequer.

Audit in progress: Dublin Exchequer.
75th Century sketch in the Red Book of
the Irish Exchequer.

Benefit of clergy

At this stage, the English officials became nervous. They seem to have suddenly realised that the man accused of massive fraud and forgery was currently the archbishop of Dublin. More, he was close to the king and had been regularly employed on important royal business. Fortunately for them the king happened to be spending the night in the palace of Westminster, so that they were able to inform him immediately of the facts of the case. King Edward was told that such a grave offence ‘had not been seen in the court in modern times’ and he decided that the gravity of the situation demanded that as many members of the council as possible should be assembled to decide on an appropriate punishment. But because of his friendship with Bicknor he added a rider: ‘that if it should happen that the sentence should be that the said archbishop should be committed to prison, that it was the wish of the king himself out of devotion to Holy Church and reverence of the episcopal dignity, that the execution of the same sentence should be suspended’. After a long discussion, the council decided that because of the ‘heinousness and enormity of the aforesaid offence’, that Bicknor, his successor Islip, and two others who had been involved in the fraud should be committed to prison and their tenements, goods and chattels taken into the king’s hands. On 5 December 1325 the exchequer court finally pronounced judgement and executed sentence. All should be committed to the Fleet prison and their properties confiscated. But it was decided that ‘out of devotion to Holy Church and reverence of the Episcopal dignity’ the archbishop should be delivered from prison, where he had languished. However, it was ordered that all his goods, chattels and lands (including those of his bishopric) were to be seized in Dublin, and the sheriffs of no fewer than seven English counties received similar orders. After that the exchequer court began a long-drawn out process in an attempt to arrive at a true statement of account of Bicknor’s period in office as treasurer between 1307 and 1314.
A rising star
Who was this man Bicknor, the central figure of this great scandal? From comparative obscurity in England, he arrived in Ireland in 1302 as attorney for Reginald Russell and his wife. His rise thereafter was rapid, either because he had exceptional talents or because he was well connected, most likely a combination of the two. By 1305 he was acting as an itinerant justice in Tipperary and two years later he was appointed to the office of escheator, then the fourth ranking office in the Irish government and carrying with it a seat on the Irish council. In October of that same year, 1307, he was appointed treasurer of Ireland by the king. He also acted as deputy chancellor for a time. Much later, in 1318 and 1319, he was head of the Irish government as Justiciar of the king. By then he was occupied on important diplomatic business in England on behalf of King Edward and almost disappeared from the Irish scene. But in 1324, mainly because of his opposition to theDespencer faction in England and later his close association with Queen Isabella, he fell out of favour with the king. King Edward sought afterwards to have him demoted and excommunicated by the pope, without success. So Bicknor subsequently devoted himself to his ecclesiastical responsibilities more wholeheartedly than he had up to that time and left behind his brilliant career in the public service. Bicknor’s career in the church was no less spectacular than in the service of the king and he is typical of the way in which loyal and efficient civil servants rose to high office in both the civil and ecclesiasticaladministrations. The close connection between the chapter of St Patrick’s cathedral and the Dublin administration is well known. Not only were benefices used to attract highly qualified clerks into the royal service and support them there, but further ecclesiastical promotion was used to encourage diligence in office. At St Patrick’s, Bicknor was a colleague of Walter Islip, whom he later promoted at the exchequer and who succeeded him as treasurer. Another colleague was Walter Thornbury, who was made chancellor of the exchequer by Bicknor in 1307, became chancellor of Ireland in 1308 and acted as deputy treasurer for Bicknor for a time. It was ironical, then, that two such close associates should be rival candidates for the see of Dublin after the death of John Leche in 1313, when Bicknor was chosen by the canons of St Patrick’s and Thornbury by the canons of Christ Church. Thornbury lost no time in rushing off to have his election confirmed by Pope John XXII in Avignon. But it was to be his undoing. He and a shipload of passengers, reputedly as many as a hundred, perished in a great storm in Dublin Bay. Thus the way was left open for Bicknor and he duly became archbishop of Dublin.

He made a triumphal entry into Dublin in October 1318 and within two years showed his character in the decrees of a provincial council which he summoned and directed. He threatened with excommunication all who defaulted in paying the obligatory tithes of income to the church. He was particularly aggressive towards the popular religious orders, denouncing especially those who persuaded the dying to seek burial in their churches, which was a great source of income. Similarly they were also forbidden to act as executors of wills. Among many other decrees was one which provided excommunication for anyone who sought to bring the archbishop, bishop, or any ecclesiastical official before a secular court. Perhaps most interestingly of all, considering that Bicknor was an Oxford-educated Englishmen, was the decree which provided for the proper celebration of the feasts of patron saints, St Brigid, St Aidan, St Canice, St Laserian, and most important of all the national saint St Patrick. The decree actually called him ‘apostle and patron of Ireland, who by God’s mercy converted the Irish people to the faith’. He showed his lack of prejudice, too, in raising the celebration of his great predecessor St Laurence O’Toole to the level of a double feast.


Claims to primacy

In other ways, too, Bicknor showed his vigour and energy, not least in the way he defended his rights as primate despite the best efforts of the archbishop of Armagh to prevent him from claiming the title. He styled himself prim as Hiberniae (,primate of Ireland’), the first to do so since Archbishop Henry of London early in the thirteenth century and left a legacy which is still followed in the archdiocese of Dublin. He successfully prosecuted the infamous Bishop Ledrede of Ossory, the man who had exposed a coven of witches in Kilkenny, forced him into exile and made a series of annual visitations to that diocese, which had not been attempted since the thirteenth century. Bicknor also proved himself an efficient administrator of the lands of the archbishopric, building a new palace at Tallaght and greatly increasing the value of the other .manors. There is some evidence that he may have been rather fastidious and even self-indulgent in his tastes. The account of a meal pro-vi~e? for him by the prior of HolyTrtmty (or Christ Church) on 17 August 1346, included paindemaine (a fine white bread, made with eggs and the best white flour which was a very rare treat) in addition to wine and pears. Bicknor was then an old man and it may be that this gourmet food was for medicinal purposes. On other recorded visits to the priory, he was given the same fare as the canons and nothing out of the ordinary. Nor is there any real evidence elsewhere that he was self-indulgent in other ways. The one record we have of a sermon preached by him in Holy Trinity suggests that the prelate was a bit austere and a believer in hard work. He condemned sloth and idleness and bitterly complained of the mischiefs arising from the stragglers and beggars who infested the city and suburbs of Dublin. So heated did he become in his discourse that he cursed, we are told, anyone who would not exercise some trade or calling every day. The mayor of Dublin was so impressed that he ‘would not suffer an idle person within his liberties, but only such, who spun or knit’ and even the begging friars were not excused.


Facsimile of original manuscriptrecording the process against Bicknor.

Facsimile of original manuscript
recording the process against Bicknor.

First university in Dublin

Though he is supposed to have had some reputation as a scholar, a fact which Edward II emphasised to Pope John XXII when urging him to provide Bicknor to the see of Dublin, it is a strange fact that no books were listed among the goods which were confiscated at the time of his disgrace, compared with his colleague Walter of Islip who possessed three – a bible some romance of the Holy Grail, and the well-known Romance of the Rose. But Bicknor does have one spectacular academic achievement to his credit and that is the foundation of the first university in Dublin. It was his predecessor, Archbishop Leche, who had first procured a papal bull setting up a university which would educate men who would thus ‘be able by wholesome doctrines to sprinkle the said land like a watered garden’. Not until 1321 under Bicknor, however, was an ordinance issued establishing the university, with Oxford as ~he model, but with the archbishop  In control of its government. Its ~a~ee.r thereafter is uncertain, though It IS hkely that its very existence was threatened when Bicknor fell into disgrace and it more or less fades from view thereafter. The impression we get of Bicknor, then, is that while he may have been ambitious and thrusting, he was also efficient and vigorous; he does not display any signs of that worldliness and self-indulgence we would look for in a royal official who abused his office in order to amass personal wealth and worldly goods. As treasurer he presided over the great reforms in the Irish exchequer in 13H~11 and even managed to marginally Increase the Irish revenues while in office. He was lucky enough to get out before the calamity of the Bruce invasion in 1315. By then he was on his way to higher things with every reason to believe that the Irish chapter in his life had closed. How wrong he was. The storm that burst in 1325 was to engulf him for most of the rest of his life.
A victim of circumstances?
While Bicknor admitted his guilt and was condemned accordingly, there are indications that to some extent at least he was the victim of circumstances. For example, after he fell out of favour with Edward II, but before the forgeries were discovered, he was denied various allowances which the records clearly indicate were genuine. For example, when he claimed about £2,000, which we know he had advanced to the earl of Ulster and others who were preparing to join the king in his war against the Scots and produced an order for this payment by Piers Gaveston, the infamous friend of the king, the auditors asked him if he also had a warrant from the king. When Bicknor said that he had to obey the instructions of Gaveston, the king’s chief governor in Ireland, the auditors refused to budge. Gaveston, long since murdered and in disgrace, was an object of hate in England and Bicknor was told, rather cynically, ‘that he might proceed against the king himself in this matter, if it seemed expedient to him to do so’. Examples such as this show that the archbishop was the victim of his auditors’ spite, after he fell from favour. But the revelations of the forgeries and tamperings with the books destroyed him. It was proved in the exchequer court that when faced with the fact that he owed a huge sum of money to the king, the archbishop sought the help of the chamberlain of the exchequer and promised to reward him handsomely with a benefice if he helped him out of the mess. Bicknor found a competent forger, John of Manchester, and it was he who altered the records under the expert guidance of the chamberlain. It was the testimony of both these men, above all, which ultimately ruined the archbishop and he made no attempt to deny the evidence presented to the court. His ecclesiastical rank saved him from long imprisonment, though not from disgrace. It was political change in England, with the advent to power of Queen Isabella, which rescued him. The exchequer process itself continued, in fits and starts, with Bicknor regularly required to face the auditors and their questions. Eventually on 1 July 1344 the court accepted a letter from the king, pardoning all his offences and ordering that Bicknor be acquitted and molested no more. And so the record of the process against him ends: ‘Therefore it is agreed that the aforesaid archbishop should recede acquitted of each and every article in the said record, according to the tenor of the mandate of the king’.
No ready explanation
It had been a long and hard road for the archbishop, stretching from 1325 when the discrepancy in his accounts was first discovered at Westminster to July 1344 when he was finally acquitted by the barons of the English exchequer. In between he had suffered excommunication, the temporary loss of all his personal property, and the confiscation of the temporalities of his see. He had been subjected to constant (if often unsuccessful) harassment by Westminster and been forced to make many, and doubtless often unpleasant, voyages across the Irish sea. Overall, one naturally feels some sympathy, particularly at the end when the English exchequer seems to have been unnecessarily vigorous and relentless in prosecuting an old man. But the fact remains that Bicknor had been responsible for malpractice of the worst kind at the Dublin exchequer – what the English council rightly called crimes ‘unknown in modern times’. There can be no doubt of his guilt in the matter of forgery and tampering with records and for that alone any minister of the crown would expect to pay dearly. As to misappropriation of revenue, the evidence is not so clear. It does not seem to square with what we know of Bicknor that he abused his office to enrich himself. Certainly, if that were his purpose he did not succeed to any spectacular degree. We have a complete account of the goods and chattels which he left on his death in 1349. The list of silverware, the only item of real value, is not especially long and does not suggest a man of wealth. It is difficult, in fact, to find a ready explanation for what Bicknor did. It may be that money had gone astray – even with the most careful of treasurers that always happened – and that Bicknor knew full well that when the day of reckoning came he would be pursued relentlessly by his auditors until every last penny had been accounted for. A discussion with one of the chamberlains revealed an easy and seemingly foolproof way out, and he took it. But whatever the reason, the archbishop had to admit to the crime of forgery and therefore to embezzlement of the king’s money. He may have been an archbishop, but he was a peculator as well.



James Lydon is Leeky Professor of History at Trinity College, Dublin.


Further reading: Dictionary of National Biography. A. Gwynn, Anglo-Irish church life: fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Dublin 1968). H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles, The administration of Ireland 1172-1377 (Dublin 1963).


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