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Dr Paul Webster 

The Piety of King John: Royal faith in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries

Medieval writers and later historians have condemned King John as a tyrant, arguing that his long-running dispute with the church (1207-1214) is evidence that this was a king who showed no regard for his faith. This project subjects this view to closer scrutiny. Evidence suggests that John shared the medieval belief in the need to provide for the soul: maintaining chapels and chaplains, praying at the shrines of the saints, maintaining a collection of holy relics, endowing masses, founding and supporting religious houses, and feeding the poor. Were it not for his reputation for failure and misgovernment, his would rank alongside other medieval kings as a ruler who recognised the importance of his faith. Religion was an important part of his kingship, a means of display and emphasis of the aura surrounding authority, and of providing for individual needs on a personal level.

The primary outcome of the project will be a monograph on the piety of King John and its place in the history of his rule. This will consider the devotional activity in which John was involved, with chapters on religious services, the cult of the saints, institutions commissioned to pray for John, family tradition, and royal charity. It will conclude with a major reassessment of the king’s dispute with the church, when England was subject to a general interdict, and the king was excommunicate, the severest sanctions the medieval church could impose. Here, the book will reveal the surprising extent to which royal religious activity continued unabated during these years. The study will argue against historians’ conclusion that this was an irreligious king, and make an important contribution to knowledge of factors that influenced medieval rule.

After Becket: The Reaction of the Plantagenet World

On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his own cathedral by four knights who believed they were acting on the wishes of King Henry II. A controversial figure in life, news of the circumstances of Becket’s death shocked Europe, and by 1173 he had been officially recognised as a saint. By the end of 1174 Henry II had twice performed public penance for his part in what was popularly deemed to be martyrdom. Thomas Becket is undoubtedly one of the best known and most written about figures from the Middle Ages. Yet many of the repercussions of his murder and subsequent canonisation on the political, religious and cultural life of medieval Europe in the centuries after his death remain to be explored in detail.

The aim of this project is to produce a volume of essays arising from a series of highly successful sessions organised at the Leeds International Medieval Congress between 2006 and 2010. It seeks to explore aspects of the reaction that Becket provoked, as archbishop, martyr and saint, bringing together the work of established and emerging scholars based in eight countries in Europe, North America, and South America. The essays explore the beginnings of the Becket cult, from its origins at Canterbury to its impact across Europe, the reputation of Henry II in the post-Becket world, and the wider context and long-term legacy of St Thomas Becket. The collection ranges in its coverage from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, from England across Europe, and from miracle collections and chronicles to charters and pipe rolls to stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts. The volume will adopt a thematic and broadly chronological plan, in order to emphasise both the wide-ranging impact of the murder in its immediate aftermath and its lasting consequences and repercussions throughout the second half of the Middle Ages.