King John of England in battle with the Francs (left), Prince Louis VIII of France on the march (right).
Peter des Roches, parlayed his military activities into reaching the height of political and ecclesiastical power, serving both as a bishop and as regent for the young Henry III. He achieved these powers, and the respect of contemporaries, despite (or because of) his embrace of active fighting in battle. These men were comfortable in warfare, wore armor, bore weapons, and used them personally in battle, and yet they rose to great heights of power in the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchies, and were often praised for their devotion to God and king.
He played active roles in the campaigns against the French army of Prince Louis that invaded England in 1217, on crusade with Frederick II, and in command of a papal army towards the end of his life. Roger of Wendover wrote of Peter’s elevation in 1205 that he was `a man of the knightly order and skilled in the ways of war.’ He was chosen specifically for his knightly qualities and because of his loyalty to King John and his willingness to advance the king’s interests. His election was eventually confirmed by Innocent III, with the pope consecrating him in person, and he was soon given legatine authority in England.
Peter served John in a variety of roles, including as justiciar when the king was out of the country. One such event in 1214 has elicited the pejorative comment from W. L. Warren that John left the country `and its government to the strong, if not too clean, hands of his ablest henchmen. Peter des Roches, foreign adventurer and bishop of Winchester.’ In addition to showing Bishop Peter’s importance, Warren’s comment also demonstrates the normative bias inherent in most treatments of warrior-clerics. This attitude is also in keeping with the broader approach to Peter des Roches by modern historians. They have often seen him as `a warrior and financier first and foremost, a bishop in little more than name.’ Contemporaries, however, were much more pragmatic about the value of Peter’s actions, and the licit nature of his military activities. Peter was a trusted advisor and military commander during Richard and John’s reigns. He spent a large amount of time in the royal chamber, and was intimately involved in Richard’s wars in France, paying ransoms, overseeing the payment of crossbowmen, and in negotiations over truces, among other duties. In 1205 he was elected to the bishopric of Winchester with the support of King John, and with letters of support from Barthelemey de Vendome, archbishop of Tours. Whereas Nicholas Vincent uses this fact to reinforce his contention (probably accurate) that des Roches was not, in fact, a `Poitevin’, as his English detractors claimed, but, rather, from Touraine, it is also important in that the archbishop was willing to support his election, despite (or perhaps because of) Peter’s previous military actions. Peter had served as both the treasurer and archdeacon of Poitiers during Barthelemey’s episcopate, and the archbishop’s decision to support and endorse his candidacy speaks to the multiplicity of perceptions regarding warrior-clerics. Peter’s election was met with some scorn from observers, however, who derided him as a courtier-bishop and someone more concerned with secular, rather than spiritual affairs. Vincent argues that while `commentators have regarded him as a churchman in little more than name. the pope clearly believed that he possessed some redeeming features. Perhaps above all, Innocent [III] hoped that would serve as a channel of communication with King John.’ Such an interpretation is supported by other examples of Innocent’s political outlook, including his intercession for Philip of Dreux. It is also possible, of course, that Innocent saw in Peter the sort of prelate who could be useful leading papal armies, or functioning effectively on crusade, two things that des Roches did successfully later in his career.
Upon becoming bishop, Peter continued his active military role. He served as a commander both in a continental campaign and on a royal expedition into Wales. On the Welsh campaign he was one of the three named commanders of the army, and the annalist recorded that they established three castles against the Welsh. During his episcopate, his household earned the reputation, no doubt spurred on by his successes in war, for being more notable in its martial exploits rather than in its piety. He was the chief English prelate to stand by the king during the Interdict imposed by Innocent III over the king’s refusal to allow Stephen Langton, the pope’s choice for archbishop of Canterbury, into the country, and Peter’s decision to stay and serve the king probably did not endear him to contemporary authors (or modern historians). Tis loyalty to John earned him the ire of his episcopal colleagues. Vincent reckons, with some amusement, that `While exiled churchmen bewailed the liberties of the church, the bishop of Winchester was busy at the Exchequer or in leading a royal army into Wales.’ Peter’s loyalty to John also probably galled Innocent III, who had supported his elevation. However, with the ending of the Interdict in 1213, and John’s surrendering England to papal protection, des Roches was once again on the winning side of the political argument. He was not forced to do penance for his decision to stay at court, nor had he been suspended from office during the five-year Interdict. In fact, he enjoyed papal support in his election in 1214 to the archbishopric of York, over the strenuous objections of Langton. Langton, however, successfully organized opposition to des Roches, and managed to delay confirmation until support for his elevation collapsed.
Despite his failure to become an archbishop, Peter continued to faithfully serve John for the remainder of his reign. During the period of mounting baronial opposition to the king, Innocent III instructed Peter des Roches and his royal colleagues to support King John against the rebels, whom he termed `”worse than Saracens, for they are trying to depose a king who, would succour the Holy Land.”‘ Upon John’s death Peter oversaw the accession of Henry III in 1216 at the age of nine, and he personally crowned the young king. In fact, his most famous military achievements came on behalf of Henry III during the French invasion led by Prince Louis. The History of William Marshal provides some of the best evidence for Peter des Roches’s military actions on behalf of John and Henry III. At the siege of Torksey Peter led the fourth division of the royal army, earning praise from the author and earning the sobriquet `worthy’ (buens) from the poet. William Marshal then gave a rousing address, and in his wisdom he `entrusted his crossbowmen to Peter, the worthy bishop of Winchester, who was in charge of leading them, who had sound knowledge in that sphere, and who strove hard to perform well.’ There was no indication in the text of anything untoward about Peter’s role as a military leader, nor the fact that he was especially adept at commanding crossbowmen. This last aspect is especially interesting, since crossbowmen had been condemned by the Second Lateran Council in 1139 and clerics were specifically prohibited from commanding them, according to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. This was a prohibition that des Roches ignored without consequence or criticism. Peter’s role was presented only as laudable by the author of the Histoire. During the battle, Peter followed William Marshal `shouting loudly and many times, in all directions: “This way! God is with the Marshal!”‘ He actively led the royal troops in battle, and the author consciously linked him with the royalist hero William Marshal.
In a later battle, probably the great royalist victory at Lincoln, Peter was described as playing an even greater and more personal role. The author praised his knightly feats, writing,
The worthy bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, who was in charge that day of advising our side, was not slow or slothful, and he knew how to make use of his arms. In the company of his fine troop of men he gave chase, and in the course of that pursuit he did very well indeed, capturing knights as he went.
Far from being condemned, Peter’s active embrace of violence and his essentially chivalric feats of arms were cause for praise and fame. The Histoire had a highly royalist perspective, and it assessed Peter’s actions on that basis. His support of the royal cause (the same cause as that of the hero, William Marshal) was what mattered for his reputation. His support of William Marshal and the cause of Henry III made his behavior laudable. For the author of the Histoire, his clerical status played little or no role in assessing the acceptability of his military actions. Nicholas Vincent argues that his training in Richard I’s army probably gave him good strategic insights, and `It was largely to the credit of des Roches that the combat developed along far different, far more advantageous lines than those envisaged by the army’s veteran commander [William Marshal].’86 Furthermore, he `was very much the hero of the day’ and even the chroniclers who were `generally most hostile to des Roches, Wendover and the author of the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, bury their enmity to marvel at his martial prowess.’ The battle was described by some chroniclers in explicitly crusader terms, with John’s forces taking on the role of the holy defenders. Peter absolved the Angevin army before the battle, and his soldiers donned white crosses to signify their favor in God’s eyes. Their victory went a long way towards proving that claim.
Other sources were a little more circumspect about Peter’s enthusiasm for military combat. The bishop came in for criticism in contemporary chronicles and songs for being worldly, but it was often for his devotion to the king’s finances and his role at the Exchequer. That being said, one source did call him `the arms bearer of Winchester’ (Wintoniensis armiger), but went on to criticize his monetary policy, rather than his embrace of military action. Vincent argues that Peter was a conundrum for contemporaries, `Even at the height of his triumph, at the battle of Lincoln in 1217, the chroniclers mingle respect for his military prowess with a suggestion that he was involved in the seamier professional side of army life: the command of the king’s highly unrespectable crossbowmen.’ This example represents a crucial distinction in the treatment of warrior-clerics. His actual fighting on behalf of the king was not as much of a problem as his embrace of, as Vincent puts it, `the seamier professional side of army life’. Fighting in a licit cause was often seen as permissible, but transgressing normative boundaries between clerics and knights was cause for greater concern.
During des Roches’ years in power after John’s death, he worked closely with the papal legates to bring the English church into line with several of the reforms adopted at the Lateran Council of 1215. He promulgated moral reforms, including laws against clerical drunkenness, and was zealous in carrying them out on his own estates, though less so at the Exchequer. Politically, des Roches was an important member of the regency government for young Henry III, in which he oversaw royal affairs alongside his rival Hubert de Burgh and William Marshal (until his death in 1219), and subsequently Pandulf de Masca, bishop of Norwich (and papal legate). His political machinations made him many enemies, and he was alternately in and out of favor over the next several years. He took the cross in 1221 after being accused of treason, but returned in 1223 and joined the anti-de Burgh faction. He continued his military activities, including the leading of a `significant contingent of the army’ against the Welsh that year. His return was reasonably short lived, as he was forced from power by his political opponents, and so he took up a military command and joined the crusade of Frederick II in 1227. He led, along with Bishop William Brewer of Exeter, the English contingent in Frederick’s army, despite Frederick’s being excommunicated. Peter placed the success of the crusade over the `political designs of the papacy’ and refused to shun contact with Frederick. Frederick succeeded in reoccupying Jerusalem, by treaty rather than combat, and in March of 1229 des Roches accompanied him into the city, where the emperor was crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While the nature of the retaking of Jerusalem caused some controversy, it largely enhanced des Roches’ reputation back in England. As Vincent notes, des Roches `returned to England feted as warrior and statesman’ and as a hero, though it also served to reinforce his image as an outsider and cosmopolitan in an England rapidly becoming more xenophobic. Des Roches became embroiled in a number of political squabbles upon his return, and by 1234 he was driven again from high political office. He was rescued from obscurity by his overseas interests, and he `accepted an invitation from the papacy to assist in Gregory IX’s campaign against the rebellious citizens of Rome.’ He was a confidant of the pope, who was a celebrated canonist. While the pope did not give des Roches unqualified support, his endorsement, especially of des Roches’s military abilities, demonstrates the importance and relative acceptability of warrior-clerics. The noted chronicler Matthew Paris makes explicit that the pope summoned him because of his great wealth, and his noted military reputation. Peter ended his career as he had begun it, serving two lords on the battlefield.