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Bishop Stillington’s Lost Chapel

The beautiful Cathedral of Wells  is a medieval visual delight. It was, of course, the See of Bishop Robert Stillington who sought out Richard Duke of Gloucester and announced that King Edward IV had been secretly married to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, prior to wedding  Elizabeth Woodville in a second secret ceremony, thus making his second marriage bigamous and invalid. He knew the matter was true, he said, because he was the one who had officiated at the marriage of Edward and Eleanor..

Stillington was Archdeacon of Taunton when Edward might have met and married Eleanor Talbot, probably around 1461. He was, of course, not then a Bishop but the Canon Stillington. He also served in Edward’s government as Keeper of the Privy seal. He was elected to his Bishopric in 1465–at King Edward’s insistence, as the the Pope initially proposed a different candidate. He was also intermittently Lord Chancellor, though he appears to have been dismissed in 1473. A few years later, Stillington was briefly imprisoned for unspecified offences which seem to have been connected with George of Clarence’s treason charges.

After Richard III’s death at Bosworth, Henry VII immediately ordered Stillington imprisoned . Upon his release, rather than retiring somewhere far from court or bowing to the new Tudor regime, he immediately involved himself in the Lambert Simnel uprising. Once Stoke Field was fought and Tudor victorious , Stillington fled to Oxford, where for a while the University protected him. However, eventually he was captured and thrown in prison in Windsor Castle–this time for the rest of his days. He died in 1491 and was taken to Somerset for burial at Wells Cathedral.

During his lifetime, Stillington did not spend much time in Wells but he did complete building work within the cathedral and raised his own mortuary chapel there in the 1470’s, complete with huge gilded bosses bosses of suns and roses. This chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, was built on one side of the cloisters near the holy springs that give Wells its name and on  the foundations of an earlier Saxon church. During the Reformation, in the reign of Edward VI, Sir John Gates destroyed the chapel and tomb and, according to old accounts,ripped the Bishop’s remains out of his lead coffin.

Rather interestingly, Stillington’s Chapel is the ONLY part of Wells Cathedral that was severely damaged during the Reformation, the Bishop’s tomb not only being desecrated but the building itself razed to the ground – and some would have it that there’s no such thing as Tudor propaganda? Of course, the roof was later pillaged by Monmouth’s rebels to make ammunition for use at Sedgemoor.

The foundations of Stillington’s chapel have been excavated, and if you visit Wells Cathedral today, you can see scant stonework sticking out of the ground in Camery Gardens. Nearby, in the cloisters, several massive chunks of his tomb canopy are on display, decorated with symbols of the House of York.

 

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4 thoughts on “Bishop Stillington’s Lost Chapel

  1. Richard P. McArthur on said:

    . Stillington did not say he officiated at a marriage between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot Butler. Titulus Regius refers to a “troth plight”. A ceremony officiated over by an ordained priest is very different. Had Stillington officiated at a marriage, Richard would have had him so stating on the record.

    2. I am aware of no evidence that Stillington participated in the Simnel rebellion in any way. He was incarcerated because any Yorkist claim by anyone other than Edward IV’s children depended on the precontract story. Only Stillington could testify, or speak knowledgeably, to that.

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    • Yes he did. A “troth plight” is, under canon law, a legally valid marriage: either “de presenti” or “de futura”, the latter case becoming valid as soon as it was consummated. See “Eleanor” by Ashdown-Hill, or any article by Helmholz.

      Liked by 3 people

    • white lily on said:

      ‘In the end, with the assistance of the bishop of Bath, who had previously been King Edward’s Chancellor before being dismissed and imprisoned (although he still received his money), on his release the duke carried out the deed which you shall hear described in a moment. This bishop revealed to the duke of Gloucester that King Edward, being very enamoured of a certain English lady, promised to marry her, provided that he could sleep with her first, and she consented. ***The bishop said that he had married them when only he and they were present.*** He was a courtier so he did not disclose this fact but helped to keep the lady quiet and things remained like this for a while. Later King Edward fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers. She was a widow with two sons.’ Michael Jones (trans. & ed.), Philippe de Commynes “Memoirs”, 1461-83 (Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 353-54.

      It should also be noted that under the Canon laws promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, clandestine marriages like the one Edward IV had with Eleanor Talbot and Elizabeth Woodville were strictly prohibited. (So, if you want to get really picky about the legalities of Edward IV’s marriages – neither was technically legal in the eyes of the Church and all his kids were bastards. “Clandestine” in the words of the Fourth Lateran Council were those that were not pre-announced with the banns being read publicly in order to allow people to make objections to the union. This makes Elizabeth Woodville’s purported marriage to him vulnerable to legal claims. Everyone in the kingdom knew this, especially the nobility.) BUT the Fourth Lateran Council acknowledged that local practice in countries like England gave such marriages validity following long-standing Roman law. As stated by hoodedman and superblue above, all that was required in England for a valid and enforceable marriage was for two people to say “I agree to marry you”. This, aka a “de praesenti marriage contract”, was immediately binding on the two parties. A priest did not need to “officiate” or even be present at a marriage contract for it to be binding in the canon law courts. Of course, it was imperative to have witnesses to testify about observing the promise being made, otherwise the courts had no evidence upon which to base a verdict should one of the parties- or any third party for that matter- seek to enforce it.

      Elizabeth Woodville would have been unable to prove her marriage to Edward IV, as no known witnesses survived in 1483 to testify about it. (Most modern historians have rejected the legend that Jacquetta, Woodville’s mother, was at her daughter’s alleged marriage to Edward IV.) Therefore, you have a classic canon law court case of two marriages to the same man being contested. One has a witness (Stillington), the other does not. Under canon law, the marriage supported with witnesses is to be held the valid one.

      Finally, canon 51 of the Fourth Lateran Council provides for steep punishments for any priest who engages in a clandestine marriage, including excommunication and/or a 3-year suspension of their clerical privileges and rank. This could explain why Stillington did not want to come forth with evidence about the Edward IV-Talbot marriage contract, and preferred to keep silent about it, until “push came to shove” and it was no longer tenable for him to keep silence. It may also explain why Titulus Regius is silent as to Stillington’s role in presiding over that marriage (it would have put him in serious hot water with Rome, and we would say in present-day parlance that he gave testimony “with immunity” from prosecution by refusing to be named explicitly in the record). However, this did not affect the validity of the marriage itself. It was mainly done to deter priests from participating in them.

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  2. hoodedman1 on said:

    It is indeed considered a marriage and had caused problems for other royals before Richard’s time ie Eleanora, daughter of Edward I, who could not marry the man to whom she was pre-contracted due to a row with the Pope and yet could not marry anyone else due to the pre-contract. She was only able to marry elsewhere when her troth-plighted husband conveniently died.

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