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Reviewed by:
  • Archbishops Ralph d’Escures, William of Corbeil and Theobald of Bec: Heirs of Anselm and Ancestors of Becket by Jean Truax
  • Lindsay Diggelmann
Truax, Jean, Archbishops Ralph d’Escures, William of Corbeil and Theobald of Bec: Heirs of Anselm and Ancestors of Becket (Archbishops of Canterbury), Farnham, Ashgate, 2012; paperback; pp. 306; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9780754668367.

Jean Truax provides a thorough and authoritative account of several important but relatively obscure contributors to the development of the English church: the three Archbishops of Canterbury whose tenures spanned the gap between the towering figures of Lanfranc and Anselm, on the one hand, and the momentous ministry and martyrdom of Thomas Becket on the other. Her book is among the first of a new series, also including the work of her former supervisor Sally Vaughn on Anselm [see review below], intending to focus on the achievements of those men who have filled the office of Archbishop of Canterbury through the centuries.

One very worthwhile feature is the inclusion of a series of primary sources, all in translation and some with accompanying Latin text, in a substantial set of appendices. Many of these are not available elsewhere in modern translations and will therefore constitute an excellent resource for students of the period. The chosen texts include: a selection of the correspondence of Ralph d’Escures and Theobald of Bec (in the latter case written by his secretary, John of Salisbury); relevant excerpts from the histories of Gervase of Canterbury; and a group of letters collectively [End Page 284] referred to as the ‘Canterbury forgeries’, whose significance is considered at length in Chapter 4.

Of the three figures under consideration, there is more to say on Theobald of Bec than there is on Ralph d’Escures and William of Corbeil. Neither Ralph (whose pontificate lasted from 1114 to 1122) nor William (1123–36) could have merited a single volume and the decision to study all three together is sensible. Theobald not only lasted longer (1138–61) but also presided over the church during the difficult period of the Anglo-Norman civil war between Stephen and Matilda. His career is therefore more fully represented in the major narrative sources covering Stephen’s reign, all of which Truax draws on judiciously. Nonetheless, the issues which concerned the English church during the early and middle decades of the twelfth century – the dispute over ecclesiastical authority between Canterbury and York, increasing interference from Rome, the hammering out of the relationship between church and state – were relevant in all three cases and therefore the reader gains useful perspective from examining and comparing the experiences of the three primates.

Truax achieves a pleasing balance between a focus on the activities of the archbishops themselves and the political context that weighed on their decisions and aspirations. Ralph’s pontificate was dominated by the rivalry between himself and the younger and more energetic Thurstan of York. The period is covered from opposite perspectives in the works of Eadmer (favouring the Canterbury position) and Hugh the Chanter (an advocate of the rights of York) but even with the benefit of these sources it is difficult to learn a great deal about Ralph’s personality and effectiveness. Truax sees him as a competent mediator in his early years, until ill health reduced his capacities towards the end of his career. In the absence of greater detail, the author inevitably fills out her narrative with a consideration of the activities of Henry I and the Anglo-Norman court, but Ralph is kept as close to the centre of affairs as the surviving documents allow.

Similarly, William of Corbeil’s influence at moments of crisis, when the evidence is fuller, is carefully considered. William was an obscure compromise candidate on his elevation to the see of Canterbury. His pontificate got off to a terrible start in 1123 when his representatives were laughed out of the papal curia after trying to assert Canterbury’s primacy over York with a series of obviously forged or manipulated documents (the so-called Canterbury forgeries). Truax weighs up the varied positions of earlier scholars on the debacle and concludes that the letters were most likely the work...


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