|The principle elements of the hierarchy of the English church were,
(in descending order):
Generally members of the clergy came from diverse backgrounds and many
social areas and, especially in the parish level, could be either well
educated or those who had worked under a senior member of the church and
worked their way up the hierarchy. To look at one section as an example,
one will examine the bishops and their background as they have the most
information readily available for study and deeply investigated by historians.
The bishops: 2 archbishops and varying numbers of bishops.
Cathedral Chapters, these were the members who lived in and within
the area of Cathedral, firstly those who ran the cathedral, the dean, the
percenter, the treasurer, and the chancellor, secondly a body of canons
and lastly the archdeacons of the parishes covered by the cathedral.
The Parish level, the rector, who was the head of the parish, the
vicar, who carried out many activities the Rector was unavailable to do
such as holding services and saying mass, and lastly at the bottom of the
scale was the curates, who acted as a hired assistant in the areas a vicar
could not be, hearing confessions and administering last sacrament.
Bishops, like most of the English clergy came from a variety of backgrounds
from the 11th to the fourteenth century. The origins can be classed into
four main classes, but it was still true that many did come from more than
These were the four main types of background of the medieval English bishops
but there was also a few others who originated from different background.
There was those who were created from papal officials, both foreign and
English who had gone to the pope, and those who were promoted form the
Diocesan officials, though these types were very rare through out the whole
period. The origins of bishops does show the diversity of background within
the English church , and it is true even though there was an increase of
patronage of noble bishops, others could still come from the knightly classes,
even up to the sixteenth century were one can see two prominent examples
under Henry VIII of Wolsey and Cranmer, who came from relatively poor backgrounds.
This was very different from European bishops who from an early date tended
to be of noble origins.
Religious origins - This type of bishop began were men who had formerly
occupied minor sees. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the greatest percentage
of English bishops were from this class. This type began to gradually decrease
across the period as bishops were appointed from outside the hierarchy
of the church, but bishops of this type still existed throughout the medieval
Graduate origins - This type of bishops began to appear in the thirteenth
century and rose to prominence as the religious bishops began to decline.
It can be seen that this time of bishops first began to be appointed as
the universities were formally established. Graduate bishops peaked in
numbers in the early fourteenth century, with 27 of Edward II's 45 bishops
all having graduate origins. Graduates became the key holders of key dioceses
for example, archbishop Winchestsley who was made the archbishop of Canterbury.
In the early fourteenth century the percentage of graduate bishops began
to decrease in importance with the rise of civil service bishops, generally
delegated to minor sees such as Chichester and Armagh.
Civil service origins - The increase of this type of bishop appeared
to have coincided with the increase of the importance of the civil service
in the government and the church. This included not only those who held
their merits from experience in the civil service, but also those who were
graduates and some of religious origins. Therefore it can be presumed that
the percentage of the former two types could have been still quite high
proportion, only they used other methods, namely the civil service, to
gain advancement. These type of bishops also show officials begin awarded
their post for their good work and achievement as a patronage, instead
have being placed solely on ability. Civil servant bishops became most
numerous in the mid fourteenth century but began to lose importance around
the Hundred years war as the English Kings rewarded noble supporters an
their families with bishoprics.
Noble origins - There had always been elements elements of noble
blood within the bishops, such as Henry of Blois in the twelfth century
who was of royal blood, but generally they had come from the knights classes.
Increase occurred firstly in Edward III's reign and later use widely in
richard II's reign to reward supporters and retainers, increasing the percentage
of noble blood within the church.
There was also a tendency to place bishops within their relatively locality,
for example many of the Welsh bishops were or could speak Welsh and therefore
could relate to the parishioners, and this practice carried on till the
fifteenth century, even after Edward I's domination of Wales. Another feature
of the backgrounds of English bishops was as the monarchy became more settled
so did the nationality of the bishops, who became prominently English,
rather than alien, which can be seen as England began to develop into a
The duties of the bishops were formally to act as a spiritual guide
to those below him, but more than often bishops acted as judges, a role
for which his spiritual duties could be neglected for. Though these were
the bishops main duties he could also be called upon to to act as an ambassador,
kings advisor, regent and a sheriff.
It seems that the background of the English church was very much like
the bishops and socially they could come from many different origins.