Saturday, January 09, 2010

Medieval Irish Archbishop was corrupt, says scholar

A recent article has detailed the corruption of a 14th century Archbishop of Dublin, showing how he was caught for extensive embezzlement and forgery.

It is found in the article, "The Case Against Alexander Bicknor, Archbishop and Perculator," by James W. Lydon, which is part of a collection of essays entitled Ireland and the English World in the Late Middle Ages.

Alexander Bicknor had come to Ireland in 1302, serving Edward I and Edward II in various administrative duties, including deputy chancellor and justiciar, before being appointed by the Pope as Archbishop of Dublin in 1317.

Eight years later, an investigation carried out by the Royal Exchequer in London began turning up evidence that the Archbishop had been for years skimming money sent out by the English king, which Bicknor was in charge of distributing.

For example, a writ was sent to Bicknor ordering him to pay the earl of Ulster £2500, 15s. for wages in serving in the war in Scoltand, and Bicknor kept 500 marks for himself, while stating that he had sent the full amount to the earl.

As the investigation proceeded, the English government found that the Archbishop, along with the treasurer and other royal officials in Ireland, were routinely embezzling royal funds and then forging false records.  A clerk named John of Manchester was hired by Bicknor to commit the forgeries.

One of the illegal scams goes back to 1313, when they concocted a letter patent from the prior of the Dominicans in Dublin stating that he had received 35 marks in alms granted by the King - in reality the Dominicans only got 5 marks.

The royal court was able to get several of the archbishop's underlings to admit to the forgeries and frauds, including John of Manchester.  Bicknor was summoned to London, and when questioned, said they he did not wish to deny that he knew about or consented to them.

The court ruled that the corruption involved the sum of £1168. 6s. and ordered all those involved, including the archbishop, to be confined to the Fleet Prison and have their property seized. Besides property around Dublin, the crown seized other lands in Gloucester, Shropshire and Staffordshire from Bicknor.

The imprisonment of Alexander Bicknor did not last long. Within days, King Edward II had sent order releasing him, "because of devotion to the holy church and reverence for the episopal dignity." Lydon adds that Bicknor was an effective administrator and increased royal revenues, which may have also been reason enough for Edward to be lenient with him.

The other people imprisoned spent months or years in prison before they were able to pay large fines to obtain their release, and some were even banned from serving a royal office again. Although Bicknor was given a pardon, officials from the Royal Exchequer spent the next twenty years continuing to investigate and question the archbishop, in particular about revenues and goods confiscated from the Templars.

One question left unanswered was why Bicknor spent years defrauding the royal government. Lydon writes, "there is no apparent reasons for his actions. It can be said with some certainty that he did not need the money for personal use. He certainly did not live a life of extravagance and did not acquire wealth by the time of his death."