Robert of Chilton

During a vacancy at Battle Abbey early in Henry I’s reign, probably c. 1102, the King appointed as procurator the monk Geoffrey of St Calais—‘a man who, though unlearned, was full of pragmatism and prudence with the greatest worldly foresight’.2 Geoffrey immediately ‘showed the prudence in which he was so skilled’.3 Under his custodianship (procurationum), Battle’s cupboards are promptly restocked, the church’s rights and brothers’ honour both breathe again, and the estates’ wealth is restored.

But when he [Geoffrey] had gone to the church’s chief manor at Wye [in Kent], which a certain servant of the dead abbot [Henry], Robert, surnamed ‘of Chilton’, had been looking after, and [Geoffrey] had found it completely broken up, he sought the reasons from that manager [preposito] and demanded an account of his stewardship

[rationemque requirere uillicationis].[1] [2] [3]

Robert rejects the need to give any such account. Since ‘he had satisfied his now dead lord’ he would not summon witnesses, presumably proving how satisfied—or not—Henry had been. Geoffrey finally charged Robert in the Wye manorial court as manifestly guilty (convictum). ‘But with the force of the county [i.e. Kentish] nobility whom he had associated himself with, [Robert] completely refused to stand to justice. So the procurator of the church [i.e. Geoffrey] summoned him, and his supporters who were there [by writ] in the king’s name to appear at Battle court on a set day.’5

Four named Kentish men and ‘other barons’ duly appear at Battle, given ‘the force and terror of the king’s name’. ‘My dearest lords,’ asks Geoffrey, ‘since you have presented yourselves to the court following a summons, I ask have you come here for the seeking and receiving of justice [rectitudinis]?’6 They ‘retorted that they should be liable to all justice in their own county [court], not here’.7 After much wrangling (controuersiam) Geoffrey realizes he has an ace to play.

‘If therefore, as you say, you are not subject to legal pleas except in your own county [court], surely you would not obstruct settling the complaint were you admitted to the king’s court?’

‘In no way’, they said.

‘So on that basis,’ he said, ‘you will be unable to oppose this present court which stands for the king.’8

Left with no recourse except to reason with violence (ui ratiocinatione freti), the defendants try to break out of the court, but Geoffrey, ever skilled in prudence, locks the door. Lured up a legal dead end, the bailiff and his barons have found themselves in a physical one. With such a captive audience Geoffrey loses no time in detailing the ruin of the manor at Wye and the incapacity of a manager to give an account of his stewardship [uillicationis reddere rationem] until at last, after the spinning of many words, Robert stands guilty before the common judgement.[4]

Robert, cornered, accepts the judgement and is forgiven—at the cost of ten pounds of silver and ten measures of corn. Careful to ask (with the doors still locked) if anyone objects to the court’s judgement, Geoffrey then dissolves the court. The chronicler closes the episode by recounting that Geoffrey

committed that manor and the rest of the church’s possessions to men faithful to himself and to the church entrusted to him, to be thoroughly restored, while he himself, though closely supervising the prosperity of the servants of God in every aspect, concentrated his attention on the building and buttressing of the house and on putting up a wall around the precincts.[5]

What does the story show?[6] Robert is an early twelfth-century prepositus (in a mid-twelfth-century chronicle) entrusted with the manor of Wye. He manages Wye as a farmer of its revenues, not its direct cultivator. Geoffrey after all seems only to realize there is a problem at Wye once he visits it, after sorting out—in the Chronicle’s telling—the immediately visible problems at Battle. If the manor was failing to produce its dues and renders this would presumably have been visible earlier. If, however, it had been farmed out for cash then the abbey might not be able to see the dilapidation. It would only be when the lease was due for renewal and if its damage meant the lessee had to renegotiate its price that any alienation or dissipation might be apparent. This would make sense of how, when Geoffrey arrives at Wye (around twenty-six miles north-east of Battle), he finds the manor all distractum, presumably sub-let and split from Robert’s direct control.[7] This is also what Geoffrey remedies at the end of the episode when he removes Robert. It is not clear that Geoffrey changed the structure of how Wye was run (e.g. from lease management to direct management)—we are told only that he ‘committed it to those faithful to him’.[8] This could be contrasted with the famously hands-on management of both Samson of Bury St Edmunds and Suger of St Denis.[9]

The Battle Chronicle describes Robert as aprepositus, a reeve, literally ‘one set above’; he is also described as a ‘servant of the dead abbot’ (not necessarily denoting servile status).[10] The Gospel precept from Luke 16 that a villicus (steward) is obliged to give an account of his stewardship is explicit in the Chronicle’s Latin (see pp. 41-4). The norm appears twice in the story and in ways signalling its contribution to the episode’s structure, not simply as a biblical piety projected onto a story that could work just as well without it.[11] On the contrary. Geoffrey does not challenge Robert’s right to the manor. The legal ground on which Geoffrey chooses to fight is the question of whether Robert is prepared to give the proverbial account for his stewardship. That question is the immediate and formal prelude to Geoffrey’s attempted legal proceedings in the Wye manor court. Geoffrey’s gloating discourse on the biblical precept— once he has Robert and his baronial pleaders captive—serves to strop both its legal and its ideological edge in front of barons and brothers alike: this is what happens if stewards do not cultivate the abbey’s assets.

The following are notable. First, Robert as a prepositus-farmer is a man of some local status. He is able to draw on the support of the ‘county nobles’ and his four named pleaders or ‘barons’ included Fulbert I of Dover, one of Bishop Odo’s Domesday tenants.[12] Secondly, high on the list of desirable skills forprepositus-farmers was some subtlety in the law.[13] This is worth noting. Robert accepts an accountability for Wye, but he tries at least to claim this is only personally due to the dead Abbot Henry of Battle, and says he has satisfactorily discharged it. That accountability, both Robert and Geoffrey implicitly agree, relates to the care of the Wye manor, and the conservation of its value. Their disagreement is whether Robert has satisfactorily carried out his liability to account. Robert’s assertion that he has is surely partly an attempt to try lines of defence that he thinks will, at least, delay Geoffrey. Robert’s defence that he is accountable to the individual abbot he contracted with and not some temporary procurator must have had some basic contemporary legal integrity.[14] It may also be noteworthy that Geoffrey does not challenge Robert’s assertion that Abbot Henry had been satisfied with Robert’s administration of Wye. It is possible there was some proof of that which Geoffrey knew of. The third aspect of the case worth stressing is Geoffrey’s difficulty in finding a satisfactory (to him) court in which to confront Robert. Wye’s manorial court proves ineffective, if not procedurally then politically, thick as it was with the county nobles’ latent violence (ui nobiliumprovincie). Robert on the other hand is angling to get the case heard in the county court, where, again, he and the barons will hold sway. Ultimately it is at Battle’s own court that Geoffrey triumphs, through his adroit elision of the abbey court and the king’s court, given the royal writ that had drawn the barons there.[15]

Lastly, it is not only unclear from this episode precisely what Robert was accountable for; it is also unclear precisely how he was to account. Prepositus and procurator thought about the former’s accountability quite differently. Robert thought of himself as a man free to dispose of Wye as he saw fit. Geoffrey thought of Robert—or wanted Robert to be thought of—as a delegated official on a limited leash with some duty of care for the manor’s integrity. That is the intended effect of citing the Gospel precept from Luke. The principle was shared with what would become the later legal action of account in the thirteenth century. The following features are notable here: a prepositus of some independence and legal skill; a contest between him and the landlord over appropriate jurisdiction for the holding to account; a debate about the liability to account and whether this had been satisfactorily discharged; a wrestling match between prepositus and procurator over the former’s latitude and status as an agent; the role of the writ.

  • [1] The Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Eleanor Searle, OMT (Oxford, 1980), 108. Partly excerpted inEnglish Lawsuits from William I to Richard I, ed. R. C. van Caenegem, SS, 106—7, 2 vols. (London,1990—1), i. #174; cf. Patrick Wormald, Lawyers and the State: The Varieties of Legal History, SS Lecture(London, 2006), 14.
  • [2] Chronicle of Battle, 108. 3 Chronicle of Battle, 108. 4 5 6 Chronicle of Battle, 110.
  • [3] 6 Chronicle of Battle, 110.
  • [4] Chronicle of Battle, 112. 2 Chronicle of Battle, 112, Searles trans.
  • [5] 11 On chronicles, norms, and cases, see John Hudson, ‘Court Cases and Legal Arguments in
  • [6] England, c.1066-1166’, TRHS 6th ser. 10 (2000), 91—115, esp. 107—11.
  • [7] Searle comments that Wye’s tenements were prone to this because they were discrete and ‘probably enclosed’, Chronicle of Battle, 108 n. 2. A map is in Eleanor Searle, Lordship and Community: BattleAbbey and its Banlieu, 1066—1538, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Studies and Texts 26(Toronto, 1974).
  • [8] 13 Chronicle of Battle, 112.
  • [9] 14 The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond Concerning the Acts of Samson, Abbot of the Monastery of StEdmund, ed. H. E. Butler, NMT (London, 1949), 32 (Michaelmas 1182), following an Easter visitation; Suger, Euvres, ed. Fran^oise Gasparri, Classiques de l’histoire de France au Moyen Age 37, 41,2 vols. (Paris, 1996—2008), i. 54—155, for the Gesta Suggerii abbatis (De administration).
  • [10] Chronicle of Battle, 108. On terminology, P. D. A. Harvey, Manorial Records, Archives and theUser 5, rev. edn. (London, 1999), 6.
  • [11] See Searles comments on the value and reliability of the ‘Main Chronicler’ for twelfth-centurylaw in Chronicle of Battle, 8-15.
  • [12] References for the named pleaders at Chronicle of Battle, 110-11 nn. 1-4. Searle hypothesizesthey were the tenants to whom Robert had sub-let the manor’s lands.
  • [13] Cf. Jocelin of Brakelond’s praise in the 1180s on the legal subtlety of another monastic administrator, Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds: ‘tam subtilis ingenii erat quod omnes mirabantur, et abOsberto filio Heruei subuicecomite dicebatur: “Iste abbas disputator est: si procedit sicut incipit, nosomnes execabit quotquot sumus.” ’, Chronicle of Jocelin, 34.
  • [14] 19 Robert’s specific legal arguments are not wholly clear. The chronicler however does not presentRobert’s formal argument as hingeing per se on his status; it hangs on his personal affinity withAbbot Henry.
  • [15] This seems to be as much a rhetorical as a legal move. It was certainly a political one, sinceGeoffrey was an appointee of the king ‘among the remaining leaders of the kingdom then at court’ and‘not customarily excluded from the secrets of the king’s court’ (Chronicle of Battle, 114).
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