It is the 3rd of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1311.
Until I was 17, I had never flown on a plane. I had been to Nevada once and Tijuana twice. I think about this when I consider how closely Medieval people lived to the place where they were born. Whole generations of families that barely left the village they came from were the rule, not the exception. Travel was fraught with difficulty. A mountain range wasn't something to go over or around- it was something that said, "you will go no farther."
And so today, as we examine the life of a notorious Medieval bishop. The first thing I'd like to note is how far this High Medieval character traveled.
And before I introduce you to him, I should probably clear up that comment that he was a "notorious Medieval bishop." Today we remember Antony Bek, the Bishop of Durham. He was notorious for his gaudy displays of wealth, his collection of church benefices made him a wealthy man, and he was, for a time, something like King Edward I's "fixer."
Bek came from a family that marked its English roots with William the Conqueror. The Bek family would hold prestigious positions for centuries on account of their name. And perhaps that wealth and prestige made Antony Bek less than ideal for ministry.
Today we often lament the "secular/sacred" distinction, noting that we often ignore the sacred for the secular. The complaint is that these two things are too compartmentalized. But perhaps in an earlier age, having no distinction could be just as dangerous. This seems to have been part of Bek's notoriety. A 19th-century biography of the 13th century Bek recorded the following:
"Antony Bek was a prelate of the secular and political type. He was one of the most magnificent lords in England and outdid his peers in profuse expenditure. His ordinary retinue consisted of a hundred and forty knights, and he treated barons and earls with haughty superiority. Besides the revenues of his bishopric, he had a large private fortune; and though he spent money profusely, he died rich. He delighted in displaying his wealth… hearing that a piece of cloth was spoken of as 'too dear even for the Bishop of Durham,' he bought it and had it cut up for horsecloths. At the translation of the relics of St. William of York, he was the only prelate who felt himself pure enough to touch the saint's bones."
The biography goes on and goes to great pains to paint Antony as a celibate and chaste man. It is said he wouldn't even look at a woman in the face.
Playing the role of the Bishop with an outsized personality endeared Antony Bek to King Edward I (you might remember this is Edward "Longshanks," the main bad guy in the Braveheart movie.) Antony and his brother both served in the king's house and held positions of esteem. Antony had been to the Middle East on a crusade with Edward and had traveled in an official capacity to Wales, Scotland, France, Germany, Spain, and Jerusalem. In fact, before his death, he was named the patriarch of Jerusalem. He was responsible for placing John Balliol on the Scottish crown and fought at Falkirk. He was sent to the continent to secure allies in the case of an English War with France, and in France, he tried to arrange a dynastic marriage for the crown.
As is often the case with bigger-than-life personalities, the King and Antony clashed. Antony would appeal to the Pope, which further angered Edward. Edward's death in 1307 marked the end of the beef with the Royal family as Edward II had Antony preach the funeral service for the former king.
Perhaps humbled, Bek was reinstated to his old position and vowed not to cause trouble. And he didn't. But partially because in the year 1311 Antony Bek, notorious Medieval bishop, Crusader, and Courtier, died on this, the 3rd of March
The reading for today comes from N.T. Wright on the centrality of Jesus.
"If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what grief is, look at Jesus. And go on looking until you're not just a spectator, but you're actually part of the drama which has him as the central character."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who, upon hearing that a piece of cloth was spoken of as 'too dear even for the Bishop of Random Lake, Wisconsin,' bought it and had it cut up for burp rags. He is Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.