Robert Grosseteste

The English churchman and statesman Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) played an important role in the politics of his time. He was also a major English medieval writer and thinker.

Robert Grosseteste was born at Stradbrooke, Suffolk, of humble parents. Educated at Oxford, where he became magister, or master, in 1199, he then studied at Paris. He was back in England by 1215, where he is believed to have been at the meeting of King John and the barons at Runnymede, where the King accepted the Magna Carta.

Since he was the first English scholar who knew both Greek and Hebrew, Grosseteste soon rose within the Church. In 1224 he was made the first rector of the Franciscans at Oxford, and the next years saw him going through a series of Church positions:archdeacon of Wiltshire, then Northampton and Leicester, prebend of Lincoln, and chancellor of Oxford.

Grosseteste was one of the few medieval churchmen to be sympathetic to the Jews. Tradition has it that he first came in contact with the Jews of England through learning Hebrew from a rabbi in Oxford, and by 1231 he was writing such works as De cessatione legalium to try and gain converts. In 1232 he gave up many of his posts so that he could remain at Oxford, but in 1235 he was elevated to the bishopric of Lincoln, one of England's largest sees.

For the next years Grosseteste was active in the administration of his cathedral and from 1239 to 1245 carried out a dispute with the chapter over his rights of visitation, which he finally won after visiting the Pope in Lyons to gain his support.

Grosseteste was active in support of the papacy in England and supported the papal claims against the barons at the Council of Merton, but he was also to stand out against the papacy in matters of practical abuses, such as papal attempts to find presentations in England for Italians. In 1253 he refused to place the Pope's nephew in the canonry of Lincoln due to his lack of knowledge of English. In addition, he often stood against the King. In 1244 Grosseteste prevented the granting of a subsidy to the King, was appointed a clerical representative to discuss the financial needs of the Crown, and was one of the 12 appointed to regulate the conduct of the King and his ministers. In 1252 he opposed Henry III's demand for a tenth of the Church's revenues, nominally granted for a crusade, even though it had papal support.

A friend and adviser to Simon de Montfort, Grosseteste played an important part in the politics of his age, but his most long-lasting influence was in his writings and his fame as a scholar. Roger Bacon was one of his pupils, and Grosseteste appeared in his own time as a universal genius as his long list of publications indicates. He produced works on law, philosophy, French poems, physics, and agriculture, as well as theology, and he produced translations and commentaries on such works as Aristotle's Physics and Ethics and on the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Ignatian Epistles. His work on optics was the basis of some of his rebuilding of Lincoln Cathedral.

Taken ill during the summer of 1253 while at Buckden, Grosseteste died on October 9 and was buried in the south transept of Lincoln Cathedral. Miracles were soon reported at his tomb, but repeated attempts for his canonization failed as his public career had been spent in opposition to papal authority, and he was to be canonized informally by the people of northern England. He has been described as an example of the best influences in the public life of the 13th century.

Further Reading on Robert Grosseteste

There are many biographies of Grosseteste, including Samuel Pegge, The Life of Robert Grosseteste:The Celebrated Bishop of Lincoln (1793), and the classic study by Francis S. Stevenson, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln:A Contribution to the Religious, Political and Intellectual History of the Thirteenth Century (1899; repr. 1969). His role in English life is discussed in C. R. Cheney, English Bishops' Chanceries, 1100-1250 (1950). See also A. C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science (1953), and D. A. Callus, ed., Robert Grosseteste, Scholar and Bishop:Essays in Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Death (1955). S. Harrison Thomson, The Writings of Robert Grosseteste:Bishop of Lincoln, 1235-1253 (1940), is a scholarly bibliography.