Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Roger Green to the Parish Room where, on a foul night, 30 brave souls braved the weather to come along to the first event of our new season - they were not to be disappointed.
After some technical difficulties getting our projector to ‘talk to his computer', Roger began with a summary of the usual story of Simon Theobald as told by numerous historians over the years. Simply put, Simon's story is told as: Born in Sudbury; Bishop of London; Archbishop of Canterbury; Chancellor of England; Beheaded in the peasants revolt of 1381.
Roger then advised the audience that Simon was most probably not born in Sudbury; recent investigations now suggest his birthplace was East Dereham in Norfolk and that he spent 10 years from 1346 in Avignon (roughly a quarter of his adult life in France). The ‘usual story' is therefore somewhat suspect because it completely ignores Simon's substantial French connection.
Roger told us Simon was the son of a well to do merchant by the name of Nigel Thebaud, or Thibaud, subsequently Anglicized to Theobald - another French connection. Sudbury town records from 1290 indicate a William Theobald operating a Fulling Mill (which beats and cleans cloth to shrink the fibres and make a denser fabric), either owned or leased from the manor. He believes Simon went to University, probably reading Law at Cambridge as he later made gifts to the university. Roger the surmised that Simon probably continued his studies in Paris, incepting as a Doctor of Law, and that like most of his contemporaries, he would have been fairly fluent in both Latin and French.
In 1344 Simon was presented to his first benefice, at Wickhambrook near Newmarket, shortly thereafter receiving another benefice some miles north, at Herringswell. The latter was in the gift of the Abbott of Bury St Edmunds. By a macabre coincidence for a man who was himself later beheaded, Herringswell church was somewhat unusually dedicated to Saint Ethelbert, a saint beheaded in the 8th century.
Already subject to the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds through Herringswell, by 1345 Simon had entered further service to the Bishop of Norwich (William Bateman) and the stage was set for him to become embroiled in a bitter dispute between the Bishop and the Abbott. In the course of the dispute, we were told that Simon was one of a group who published an excommunication order on one of the Abbott's attorneys, which action led to a Royal Order for Simon's arrest and imprisonment. To avoid arrest Simon fled the country, probably in summer 1346, settling in Avignon where he stayed for at least 10 years, working for two resplendent and very different Popes.
Unknown to most of the audience, including your writer, the Avignon Papacy was the period from 1309 to 1377 when seven successive popes resided in Avignon: Clement V 1305-1314; John XXIII 1316-1334; Benedict XII 1334-1342; Clement VI 1342-1352; Innocent VI 1352-1362; Urban V 1362-1370; Gregory XI 1370-1378; the situation arising from the conflict between the Papacy and the French crown.
At this point Roger gleefully told us how Simon's first Pope, Clement VI, had famously proclaimed that ‘My predecessors did not know how to be Pope', proving it with a banquet for 3,000 guests so that the papal city outshone all the royal courts of Europe. Despite only lasting a few of days, the feast included: 1,023 sheep, 118 cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,440 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses and 50,000 tarts.
Unsurprisingly, Clement's Avignon Papal Court cost ten times that of the French Royal Court in Paris, with ‘scores of hopeful clerics returning in droves seeking lucrative benefices which Clement graciously handed out (apparently 100,000 during his papacy). In his turn, Simon was made a Canon of Lincoln, of Hereford, of Salisbury and of Henstridge, near Wells, although he would have found it troublesome to appear in any of these places because he was still an English outlaw with a warrant out for his arrest; it seems he stayed in Avignon receiving an income in absentia from each canonship.
Eighteen months after Simon arrived in Avignon so did the Black Death, nearly 2,000 dying in the first few days. In 3 months it seems that three quarters of the Avignon population succumbed, the plague hitting rich and poor alike, with many members of the Papal Curia struck down. Miraculously Simon and Clement both escaped infection, so these deaths from the plague most probably assisted Simon's meteoric rise in the Pope's service - by 1349 he held the highly significant role of Auditor of the Rota - his legal training clearly respected by Clement until his death in 1352. The new Pope Etienne Aubert, a professor of law and cardinal bishop took the indicative title of Innocent VI.
Innocent was a sober and prudent man who reformed the papal court, insisting that clergy return to their parishes on whose revenues they were living. He also put an end to the habitual feasting and carousing, just as Simon later did as Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1356 following the lifting of Simon's arrest and imprisonment warrant, Innocent VI sent him back to England as Papal Nuncio to the court of Edward III, to urge Edward to seek peace in the Hundred Years War with France. That year the French were again hugely defeated at the Battle of Poitiers, the French King John being captured, taken to England as a prisoner and agreeing to two crippling treaties which the French then revoked. In May 1360 the more balanced Treaty of Bretagny was agreed, which lead to a nine year truce, no doubt in large part being due to Simon's efforts.
In 1361 Simon was appointed Bishop of London, being consecrated on 20th March 1362. Edward III sent Simon on 3 royal diplomatic missions to Calais and the Low Countries, again reflecting his prestige both in Avignon and in England. Simon was then made Archbishop of Canterbury on 4th May 1375, by a Papal Bull of Gregory XI - the Pope who returned the Papacy to Rome one year later in 1376, thus finally bringing to a close Simon's French Connection.
Following this, Roger unveiled two of Simon's heads for close inspection by the audience, one being an exact copy of the original held by St Gregory's church in Sudbury, and the other a facial reconstruction completed by a forensic artist at Dundee University - we were all suitably impressed.
Roger's talk, which is likely to be the first of many such visits to LWHS, held our audience spellbound throughout, and by the end everyone had significant new found respect for Simon Theobald, who sadly appears to have gone unrecognised by the country for his many achievements.
Our next event will be on 21st October at 7.30 in The Parish Room Little Waldingfield, when George Hodgkinson of Suffolk Heritage Orchards will discuss climate & soil; give a brief history of commercial & traditional orchards, Suffolk Cyder and the greengage, as well as giving us some words looking to the future.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.
Andy Sheppard 17th September 2015