Department of Medieval History
Alexander Bicknor was Archbishop of Dublin from 1317 to 1349. Although his career
spanned almost thirty years it was an audit of his accounts, begun in the thirteen
twenties, that affected the greater part of his career. In the years following the
audit Alexander was investigated for fraud, he was excommunicated and he was accused
of heresy. These events all stemmed directly from the routine audit ordered by Edward
II in 1319. Although the investigation was intended to uncover any corruption in
the treasury, it also served to reveal other debts accrued by Alexander. He lost
favour with the Crown initially and then with the papacy. By the time of his death
Alexander was virtually isolated within the Dublin see, almost devoid of influence
and unable to defend himself against his enemies. This situation was one that arose
from several different events, but the most significant of these was the audit of
Alexander was born sometime in the twelve sixties. Since there is very little evidence with regard to his origins it comes down to guess-work. Although there were two places by the name of Bicknor — one in Kent and the other in Gloucestershire — Alexander was most likely born in the latter. In 1291 he was named in the records as being responsible for choosing jurors in the county of Gloucestershire.(1) Then later, on 1 June 1311, he was licensed to crenellate his house at Ruardean in Gloucestershire.(2) If his place of origin was Ruardean then he was born very close to one of the Earl of Pembroke’s largest estates — Goodrich — and it is possible that it was the Earl who sponsored Alexander’s education and subsequent career. There has been much speculation as to how Alexander not only came to enter the royal administration, but how he also came to be posted to Ireland. The Earl of Pembroke could again be the link, since he owned lands in Ireland. Alexander might have been sent initially as an attorney and then become involved administratively.
Alexander graduated from Oxford University(3) with a masters degree and then entered the service of the King as a clerk responsible for paying the wages of the army. Alexander was sent to Ireland in 1305 and became Treasurer of Ireland from 1308 until 1313. During the time between Alexander leaving the post of treasurer and the audit of his accounts he became archbishop of Dublin, and it seemed that his time in the Dublin see would be a productive one. In 1320 he held his provincial council that passed the 23 statutes put forward by him. Later that year he established a university to be attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had been canon for several years prior to his election to the archbishopric. The university, by the terms of Alexander’s ordinance issued on 10 February 1321, was subject to the direct supervision and authority of the archbishop.(4) The audit of Alexander’s accounts was to have a direct bearing on the fortune of the university, for when he became embroiled in controversy he was no longer able personally to support the venture.
A routine audit ordered by Edward II in 1319 eventually uncovered the false records made by Alexander during his time as treasurer of Ireland, falsities that were covered up when his friend, Walter de Islip, took the post. The outcome of this audit was the imprisonment of Islip, the confiscation of the temporalities of the Dublin see and Alexander’s public and financial disgrace until his pardon in 1344. There were wider implications also. He was excommunicated for non-payment of his debts and remained so until his death in 1349. The effect of this upon the Dublin see was a decline in the relationship between it and the papal see, and it and the royal administration. Finally Alexander, despite acting for Edward II in a diplomatic capacity, was accused of causing the surrender of La Réole in France, and of being a personal enemy of the king’s favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger. As a result Alexander joined with the queen in declaring the king’s son Edward custodian of the realm in 1326. By 1327 Alexander was financially ruined, socially outcast and powerless to act upon the aspirations of his first years as archbishop. For a brief period in 1327 it appeared that Alexander, having sided with Isabella in forcing the succession of Edward III to the throne, had won a reprieve from the allegations of fraud. The new administration, however, opened what became the longest period of investigation into Alexander’s accounts. There are, therefore, two distinct periods during which Alexander’s accounts were scrutinised and found to be fraudulent.
The audit ordered by Edward II in 1319 was a matter of routine. On 12 November 1319, Alexander was requested to present himself at the English exchequer on 20 April(5) the following year to begin his audit. Alexander claimed that he was unable to collect the records from Dublin in time for the audit to begin and he asked that it be postponed until 3 May 1321. Alexander actually succeeded in stalling the audit until 13 October 1323. This view was to include all his receipts in Ireland during his time as treasurer. When the audit did finally get under way it could only proceed slowly because Alexander was in France with Edmund, the king’s brother, attempting to settle by peaceful means tensions between the English and the French over Saint-Sardos. The final view for this first investigation was therefore not made until 9 June 1325.(6) The officials at the exchequer accused Alexander of having falsified some of the rolls which he had kept as treasurer for the years 1307 to 1313, of having failed to render a satisfactory account of his financial proceedings as justiciar in 1318 to 1319, and of keeping the tithes which he collected from the clergy in the king’s name during the early years of his archbishopric.(7)
The final view of the audit was designed to show what outstanding debts remained to be cleared up by Alexander. In a letter to the pope dated 28 May 1325 Edward II complained bitterly about Alexander. He accused the archbishop of abusing his position of trust as an ambassador by advising the Earl of Kent to surrender the castle of La Réole to the French. Edward also claimed that Alexander had wasted the revenues of Ireland and that he had publicly preached against Hugh Despenser the Younger, calling him a traitor to the crown and plotting his overthrow. Edward then, citing the reasons given, asked that Alexander be removed by the pope from the Dublin see.(8) When the forgeries and falsifications were discovered, his goods and lands were confiscated. In a letter to Edward dated October 1325, the pope asked that the king grant safe conduct to Alexander as he had been summoned to appear in the papal see. He also requested that Edward restore to Alexander the temporalities of the see. Alexander had also received a letter from the pope in October that ordered him to present himself to the pope within a month, and assuring him that Edward had been petitioned to return his goods and to grant him safe conduct.(9) This order was repeated in March 1326, when he was again summoned to appear before the pope, having failed to do so the previous year. This summons was the result of his declining favour with both royal and papal administrations, and he became the subject of financial scrutiny within the church. An examination of papal financial records uncovered a debt which Alexander’s predecessor, John Lech, had contracted in 1311, and which Alexander had acknowledged as a charge on his own revenues in 1317. In a letter dated 8 April 1322 the pope referred to money borrowed by Lech during his time as archbishop of Dublin.(10) Lech had received license from Clement V to borrow 800 marks to pay his expenses at the papal see and it was Robert Pinchbeck, a canon of York, who agreed to lend him 3,000 florins. This debt had been acknowledged by Alexander upon his accession to the see, with the additional 40 livres for expenses. All of this remained unpaid. The matter was brought before the pope several times and it was eventually agreed that Robert Pinchbeck should receive 600 florins on All Saints Day one year, a similar sum the next year and the remainder to be paid within two years following that. When the inquiry into Alexander’s accounts as treasurer revealed fraudulent returns the pope’s financial agent in England — Pinchbeck — took the extreme measure of excommunicating Alexander for non-payment of debts. This sentence of excommunication was still in place twelve years later, since Edward III had to seek an indult from the pope to hold communication with Alexander, and to take counsel on secular matters.
During Alexander’s embassy to France the enmity between Hugh Despenser and himself had grown so bitter that Alexander was credited with boasting that only his dignity and his order prevented him from bringing the matter to a duel with Despenser.(11) The reasons for the enmity between Alexander and Despenser are not documented but it can be assumed that they sprang up sometime after the negotiations that led to the treaty of Leake. Hugh Despenser became a royal favourite following the settlement at Leake in August 1318, and from 1322 to 1326 he was director of Edward II’s internal and foreign policy. Edward’s letter in May 1325 accused Alexander of conspiring to overthrow Despenser. In 1326 the pope wrote to Despenser in reference to the grievances between him and princes and prelates. The pope asked that Despenser abstain from provoking enmities and study to promote friendship. Another letter addressed to him from the pope cited the queen’s fear of Despenser as responsible for delaying her departure from France. In this he advised Despenser to retire from government, thus allowing the queen to return to England without fearing for her safety.(12) This situation, a state of civil war in England, involved Alexander at the highest level. The charges of fraud and personal enmity towards Despenser pushed Alexander into supporting the cause of the queen, in what appears to have been a political rather than a personal choice. His part in the overthrow of Edward II seemed to suggest that he would once again be in a position of royal favour.
In 1327 it indeed appeared that the new government would pardon Alexander and that any debts he might have to clear would be dealt with leniently. Dated 28 February there is a quittance to Alexander for his good service, from debts and any trespasses against the king for which he had been convicted. This entry in the records, whilst referring to Alexander’s inclusion of writs of false liberate and false acquittances in his treasury accounts, ordered the restitution of his temporalities, lands and goods with their issue since seizure.(13) Then on 8 July was a certiori as to the restitution of temporalities to Alexander, notwithstanding falsities in his account as treasurer of Ireland. This, in the form of a privy seal writ to the treasurer and barons of the exchequer, did contain both a pardon and an order for the restitution of temporalities to the archbishop. However, attached to this was a certificate enclosing the transcript of the quittance given to Alexander on 28 February for good service. This claimed that, by pretext of that transcript, writs were sent on 4 March to the exchequer and the sheriffs of Salop and Staffs, Gloucestershire and Middlesex, ordering the restitution of Alexander’s temporalities.(14)
The question, then, is did Alexander receive both the restoration of the temporalities and the pardon? He must have hoped that the prominent part played by him in the overthrow of Edward II and Despenser would win him a full pardon from the new king of England. However, Edward III had been warned by his counsellors at the exchequer that a free pardon for offences of this kind was a dangerous precedent. The new administration compelled Alexander to acknowledge his fault and make payment of arrears. In 1327 he was ordered to account for his expenditure during his embassy to France in the company of Edmund, the Earl of Kent. This audit was to include the sums received by him, from and for which the wardrobe wished him to make restitution. In 1331 Alexander responded by asking that he be allowed to account and receive allowances for the expenses that he had incurred during his time in France, claiming that Hugh Despenser and Robert Bladock had prevented him from receiving any moneys at that time.(15)
Later in 1327 there was a second inquisition into Alexander’s accounts. This investigation was to look at the incomplete account rendered by Alexander of the lands and goods of the Templars in Ireland, and of the lands of John de Boneville that were then in the king’s hands. This writ was returned with a note that the command, enclosing a copy of the first inquisition, had never been received. A second investigation was ordered on the strength of the first audit being found insufficient. This audit found that Alexander owed the treasury £1,271 and 6 shillings. The initial sum had been £1,335 and 8 shillings but moneys submitted by Alexander were subtracted. This included £9 and 1 shilling from Templar goods that had been delivered by Alexander, £41 and 12 shillings that Walter Thornbury, as Alexander’s lieutenant, had borrowed from the treasury and never repaid, and £5 and 8 shillings that had been found in the treasury by Walter Thornbury from Alexander’s time.(16)
A letter from Alexander dated to this year asked that he be charged in his account at the Dublin exchequer as a collector of the tenth with the new valuation of benefices made in the reign of Edward I, and not with the old valuation, since many of the benefices were wholly or partly destroyed. In 1307 William de Rivere and Richard de Bereford, collectors of the tenth in Ireland, were ordered to deliver 1,000 marks out of the receipts to Alexander for the king’s use. Two years later this had become 2,500 marks and a request was made to Alexander for a receipt of such a sum.(17) In 1318 Alexander was himself appointed collector of the tenth, to ensure more convenient collection within Ireland and so that Alexander could account in full to the exchequer. He was ordered in August 1321 to use the tenth collected by him to rebuild ecclesiastical benefices and temporalities destroyed in the Bruce invasion of Ireland, and these were to be levied according to a new taxation introduced by the king. In 1322, following the previous year’s order to use the tenth for the benefit of the destroyed benefices, there was an order for Alexander to pay into the Dublin exchequer, immediately, all the money collected by him from arrears of the tenth for use in an expedition to Scotland. In a letter to the treasurer and barons of the Dublin exchequer, Edward informed them that Alexander was not only compelled to come before them to make a view of his accounts but that he had also been commanded to deliver into the hands of the treasurer all the money collected from the arrears of the tenth in Ireland.(18) Alexander may have accounted for the tenth during his first audit under the direction of Edward II, but the matter was raised once again in 1327 when Alexander was described as having come and been granted time to account for his collection of the tenth. This record also shows an adjournment of the accounts of his treasureship. The matter relating to the tenth was closed in 1340, when Edward III wrote that Alexander had been requested to come before him to render his account the previous Easter, and that Alexander had at that time informed him that he had accounted for the tenth before the treasurer and barons at the exchequer. The king was satisfied that the arrears had been paid.(19)
In a long letter sent in 1327 and addressed to the treasurer and barons of the exchequer, Edward III enquired about the newly opened investigation of Alexander’s accounts. In this letter he referred to the previous investigation instigated by Edward II that caused the temporalities, goods, chattels and debts to be taken into his hands. He stated that Alexander had, despite this, entered into the temporalities and occupied the goods and chattels. Edward ordered a search once again of the rolls and memoranda of the exchequer to discover whether they had been restored by order of the previous king or if the order had come from himself under the exchequer seal. The king also asked that the treasurer and barons would take into consideration events taking place at the exchequer before the king and his council, based upon the premise that any judgement already passed in relation to this matter would not be weakened in any way without consulting with Edward himself.(20) There was a complaint from an unknown petitioner who stated that Alexander had procured, without the king’s knowledge and consent, a warrant for the grant of a charter of pardon in respect of forgery of evidence relating to his account.(21) This complaint appears in a slightly different form elsewhere, as a petition to the king for the prevention of a pardon being granted to Alexander for forging his accounts.
There appears to be, therefore, some misunderstanding in relation to Alexander’s pardon. Edward III was unaware of any such pardon being granted to Alexander, either by a previous administration or upon his acceding to the throne, and the petition in 1328 points to yet another forgery on the part of Alexander. His behaviour during those years certainly seemed to imply that he believed himself pardoned, or at the very least thought that every one else believed him to be so. In 1327 he petitioned the king for an allowance of £28 owed to him from when the temporalities of the Dublin see were in the king’s hands for the offences relating to his account as treasurer of Ireland, and for which Alexander claimed he had been pardoned.(22) If Alexander had not felt himself to be acquitted by then, this request was a huge error in judgement — drawing to the attention of the new administration a forged pardon and then requesting compensation for the loss of his temporalities during the years of investigation.
In 1307 Edward II had issued a writ for the suppression of the Knights Templar in Ireland. Templars in all parts of the country had been arrested, conducted to Dublin and secured in the castle to await trial. The treasury was ordered by Edward II to compensate the Templars for the loss of all their possessions and it was Alexander, recently appointed as treasurer of Ireland, who supervised the disposal of their goods and the supposed compensation the Templars were entitled to. Edward viewed the sale of the Templar lands as much needed income for the war against Scotland and, on 19 June 1308, the justiciar and treasurer were ordered to make provisions for the war out of the money made from the Templars.(23) Although Alexander must have complied with this request for provisions, later evidence, such as petitions brought before Edward III in 1333,(24) would seem to suggest that the Templars were never compensated for the loss of their goods, lands or chattels and that Alexander had falsified the treasury rolls to disguise this fact. He was replaced as treasurer by his friend Walter Islip who continued to cover up the fraudulent entries made in the records by Alexander. When the final view for the first audit was made in 1325, both men were found guilty of forgery: Alexander had falsified writs and forged letters of receipt but Walter had falsified the treasury accounts to incorporate them in the records. Islip’s role in the affair was seen as secondary to Alexander’s and thus he received less severe censure.
Walter Islip became embroiled in Alexander’s problems in a much more serious fashion following the audit of Alexander’s accounts. It was found that Walter, having replaced him as treasurer, had falsified the records taken during Alexander’s administration. On 23 July 1326 there was a mainprise by several men from Middlesex corpus pro corpore or for the sum of £1,300 for Walter who had been committed to Flete prison for what this entry called certain ‘concealements’.(25) The previous year, in December, the treasurer and barons of the exchequer had been ordered to deliver Walter from the prison of the Marshalsea of the exchequer and to have him brought before the king. The records for 1326 also show a pardon to Walter for the fine of 500 marks. This stated that he paid the wardrobe 100 livres and 15 shillings and ordered that he pay the rest by 1 August. The crime listed for this fine was sealing with the seal of the Irish exchequer the rolls of Alexander’s accounts when there were falsities found within upon examination. This entry also shows that Alexander had been prosecuted by this date — 14 March — and convicted before the treasurer and barons of the exchequer. This was not the end of Walter’s involvement, however.(26) On 26 May there was a mainprise from both him and Edmund Maubank, corpus pro corpore for Robert de Cotegrave, a former chamberlain of the Dublin exchequer, who was convicted of including falsities in Alexander’s accounts and committed to Flete prison. He was accordingly released. Then in July there was an order permitting Walter to pay 28 livres for the arrears of his account at 100 shillings a year. The following year the treasurer and barons of the Dublin exchequer were asked to send Walter’s accounts rolls from the time when Roger Outlaw was his lieutenant. Outlaw was ordered to deliver to the exchequer all rolls and memoranda relating to Walter’s accounts speedily and without alteration or retention.(27)
On 18 January 1331 the king wrote to the Dublin exchequer. Alexander had come before the king and his council, and shown that he was owed £628 and 17 shillings for his wages during his time in Gascony, and that he was in debt to the king for £1,272 and 6 shillings. The king ordered a search of the rolls to discover any record of this money being owed to Alexander and, upon doing so, to allow it to his account.(28) Also in 1331 Alexander wrote to the king and council asking to be given allowance in his accounts as treasurer for payments that he had made, and for goods belonging to him in England that had been taken into the king’s hands.(29) A letter directed to the exchequer, and most probably in response to Alexander’s request, ordered the treasurer and barons to allow the sum of £81 and 3 shillings owed to Alexander from the time of Edward I, and that £20 from Edward II’s time be allowed in the sums of money owed for the arrears of his account.
As late as 1333 the exchequer was still investigating Alexander’s accounts. A letter written by him in this year asked that a writ be issued ordering the justiciar, treasurer and barons of Dublin to certify to the English exchequer the number of Templars in Ireland, the amount agreed for their maintenance and the sums of money spent on them and by whom, in order that he might have allowance in his account as treasurer. Another petition from Alexander requested repayment of the money disbursed by him as treasurer for the sustenance of the Templars in Ireland during their seizure.(30) He also asked that a writ be issued ordering the same inquiry into the value of the goods of Walter Thornbury, the former deputy treasurer, and for which Alexander was now being charged. On 18 June 1333 there was another letter from the king to the exchequer. This letter referred to the petition brought before the king and his council by Alexander at his prosecution. Edward wrote that Alexander had besought him to cause allowance to be made to him for the money spent by him and then ordered the treasurer and barons to cause due allowance to be made to Alexander for these sums of money, after ascertaining that they had indeed been paid by him. Another petition was then brought by Alexander for allowance to be made for payments made by him as treasurer.(31)
One historian(32) claims that Alexander was pardoned in 1338 but according to the sources he was not finally pardoned until 1344.(33) However, Alexander was guaranteed by Edward III in 1338 that he would not be impeached at any time in the future by the king’s progenitors or the king, and that after his death the executors of Alexander’s will would have free administration of his goods. The pardon, granted to Alexander in 1344, finally closed this chapter in his life, one that had spanned over twenty years.
Alexander appears to have made no effort to repay his debts to the papal treasury, or to free himself from the sentence of excommunication and suspension he had incurred in 1325. This debt caused him the least trouble, and the sentence of excommunication interfered very little with his position in the Dublin see. The debts discovered by the royal administration, in contrast, led to years of conflict. The lengthy investigation ordered by Edward III was a source of irritation to Alexander as he was constantly being summoned to account for his debts, and forced to review all payments made by him and to him. The routine audit ordered by Edward II uncovered falsities in the rolls and memoranda of the exchequer in Dublin, the initial forgery committed by Alexander and then compounded by Walter Islip during his time as treasurer. The second audit investigated these further and discovered falsities, not only from Alexander’s time as treasurer, but also from his time as a collector of the tenth in Ireland, and his appointment as Lord Justice from 1318 to 1319.
By the end of his life Alexander was still widely supported by the citizens and ecclesiastics of Dublin. They aided Alexander in his struggle to uphold the Primacy of Ireland, and were even involved in scuffles with Richard Fitzralph when he attempted to enter the city with his primatial cross carried before him. However, any power or influence he might once have wielded outside the confines of the see had vanished. Alexander had started his career in the best of circumstances, elected to the archbishopric with the full support of the papal see and Edward II, as well as the support of the Dublin chapters. His role as an envoy of the king served only to heighten his influence and standing both in Ireland and across Europe. But by the middle years of the thirteen twenties, Alexander was already losing all that he had achieved.
Alexander’s career was not a total failure. The university established by him, although it never thrived, lasted for almost two hundred years and paved the way for later, more successful ventures. He was not the first treasurer of Ireland to have falsified treasury records — that had been discovered in two previous administrations during the reign of Edward I — but when the forgeries were uncovered they appear to have provided the catalyst for every subsequent failure. The audit effectively halted Alexander’s career, as it ultimately lost him the support of both crown and papacy. In losing this support he lost power, and thus was forced to withdraw into the confines of Dublin where he continued to maintain some semblance of influence. That he could no longer depend on either papal or royal favour seriously undermined everything he strove to achieve. The beginnings of his career had heralded a new and dynamic chapter in Dublin’s history. Not only had the Dublin chapters unanimously elected an archbishop, they had also chosen one that was well respected and widely known. Alexander offered a cosmopolitan approach to the Archbishopric of Dublin, one that would involve it more in international affairs. All this was ended when the audit revealed Alexander’s forgeries. By the end of his life Alexander was an embittered man, battling Bishop Ledred against allegations of heresy and attempting to pursue Dublin’s claim to the Primacy. In short, in a career that should have been one of triumph, the events of the years 1323 to 1327 can be seen as a crucial watershed.
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