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William Courtenay

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Archbishop of Canterbury, born in the parish of St. Martin's, Exeter, England, c. 1342; died at Maidstone, 31 July, 1396; was the son of Hugh Courtenay, Earl of Devon, and Margaret, daughter of Humphrey Bohun, Earl of Hereford. He studied at Oxford, where he took the degree of D.C.L. In 1367 he was elected chancellor of the university. On this occasion the university successfully resisted the Bishop of Lincoln's claim to the right of confirming its choice, and later Courtenay obtained from Urban V a Bull declaring a chancellor's election valid without the confirmation of the diocesan. After holding prebends in the churches of Exeter, Wells, and York, he was elected Bishop of Hereford and consecrated, 17 March, 1370. As bishop his support was given to the Prince of Wales and Bishop Wykeham against the anti-clerical movement led by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and later his efforts to suppress the Lollards were unceasing. In the Convocation of 1373 he strongly opposed the granting of a subsidy to the king until the latter should try to remedy the evils then afflicting the Church. Courtenay was transferred to the See of London, 12 Sept., 1375. In 1377 Pope Gregory XI issued a Bull of excommunication against the Florentines, and Courtenay published it at Paul's Cross. The result was that the Florentines in London were attacked by the populace; the magistrates had to interfere, and the king extended his protection to the foreigners. Courtenay was accused of violating the law by publishing the Bull. When called upon to retract what he had published, his answer was made through an official, who declared from the pulpit that the bishop's words had been misunderstood, and there the matter ended. When the Convocation was summoned in 1377, the archbishop, in the interests of John of Gaunt, omitted to summon the Bishop of Winchester. Courtenay protested against this and succeeded in getting Wykeham's rights recognized. Then followed his attempts to repress the Lollards, and Wyclif was cited to appear before the archbishop at St. Paul's. Wyclif came accompanied by John of Gaunt, who insisted upon a seat being provided for the accused; an altercation ensued which resulted in the court breaking up in confusion. Courtenay's authority alone restrained the citizens from using violence towards Lancaster. Again, in obedience to the pope, 18 Dec., he summoned Wyclif, but nothing came of the summons, and the Lollards continued to increase in numbers and influence. Some think that about this time the pope offered to create Courtenay a cardinal ; whether this was so or not, he was never raised to that dignity, but on 30 July, 1381, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Then followed his appointment to the chancellorship of the kingdom 10 Aug., 1382, an office which he shortly afterwards resigned (18 Nov., 1382).

Urged by Parliament he again turned his attention to the Lollards, calling a council which condemned their heretical opinions. Rigge, the Chancellor of Oxford and a leading Lollard, retracted and sued for pardon on his knees, but on his return to the university continued as before. The Oxford Lollards were finally brought to submission on 18 Nov., when the recantation of their leaders was received at St. Frideswide's. The archbishop then obtained a statute commanding sheriffs and other officers of the king to imprison heretics when certified as such by a bishop. Though this law was repealed the next year, he still had the royal sanction allowing bishops to detain heretics in their own prisons. After the subjugation of Oxford he turned to Leicester (1389), placed the town under an interdict, and in the end received the recantation of the leaders. About 1382 he began a general visitation of his province and met with much opposition; his interference was appealed against by the Bishops of Exeter and Salisbury, though both finally submitted. The Benedictine abbots also organized a strong opposition to his proposed visitation of Gloucester College, Oxford (1389); on his arrival he was treated with due respect, but they so firmly refused to acknowledge his right that he abandoned his design. Though a strong defender of the rights of the Church in England, he was always true and loyal to the pope. He so fearlessly condemned the extravagance of the king that he once (1385) had to take refuge in Devonshire to escape the royal anger. When the relations between king and Parliament became so strained as almost to lead to war, it was Courtenay who acted as mediator and averted the danger. He was first buried at Maidstone, where he had founded the College of St. Mary and All Saints; afterwards his body was removed to Canterbury and buried, in the king's presence, at the feet of the Black Prince, near the shrine of St. Thomas.

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