Confirmatio of Henry de Gower

Reference: NLW MS 24068F

A Latin parchment document, dated 21 May 1328, that revealed the circumstances surrounding the election of Master Henry de Gower as Bishop of St David’s.

 

Henry de Gower (1277/9-1347)

Henry de Gower (1277/9-1347), a native of the Gower peninsula and an exceptional scholar, served as Chancellor of Oxford University from 1322-5 and as Archdeacon of St David’s from about 1323. Following the death of the previous incumbent, Bishop David Martin, in March 1328, 50-year old Gower’s election by the Cathedral Chapter on 21 April was a rare example of a Welshman being elevated to a bishopric in the late medieval period, when royal and papal influence usually resulted in the appointment of external, non-Welsh candidates.

Gower founded the hospital of Blessed David at Swansea in 1332; rebuilt many parts of the Cathedral Church at St David’s, and built the magnificent episcopal palace which can be seen at St David’s today.

NLW MS 24068F

Written in a fine and formal script, typical of the 14th century, the document confirms the election of Master Henry de Gower as Bishop of St David’s on 21 May 1328. But the exact circumstances of it being written have only now come to light as a result of research undertaken by Dr Susan J. Davies, a historian and palaeographer. The piece illustrates the meticulous way that the medieval Church ensured correct procedures were followed in unusual circumstances.

According to established process at that time, Gower’s election by the Chapter at St David’s required ratification by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This formal confirmation was essential before the new bishop could be consecrated at Canterbury and enthroned in his own cathedral.

As the previous archbishop had died, there was no archbishop at Canterbury in Spring 1328. Nevertheless, Gower (as bishop-elect) and the official representative (proctor) of the Chapter at St David’s quickly made the long journey to Canterbury where, a month later, they were formally received by the Prior of the monastic Cathedral Chapter, Henry of Eastry, who by established arrangement could exercise ‘metropolitan authority’ during a vacancy in the Archbishopric.

Dr Davies said: “This confirmation document records that the Prior was satisfied by what he was told that the bishop-elect was fully worthy, the election process was correctly and properly conducted, and no contrary views had been expressed. Following further examination of the bishop-elect in person, the Prior formally confirmed the election ‘in our name and that of our Chapter by the metropolitical authority of our Church’, therefore leaving no doubt about the validity of his own role and authority during the vacancy.

Other sources reveal that Gower was consecrated at Canterbury on 12 June by Stephen Gravesend, Bishop of London, and that the election was later confirmed by Pope John XXII in December 1328, but the timing of his enthronement at St David’s is unclear.”

Dr Davies believes that this document was probably retained by the Cathedral Priory of the Holy Trinity or Christchurch, Canterbury, and may have been lost following the upheaval of the dissolution of that Benedictine house in 1540. Its whereabouts between then and the 21st century is unknown: it may have been preserved by local antiquaries in Kent. The document was purchased by the library at a Bonham’s sale in London in March 2015.

 

Bibliography

  • 'Henry de Gower: bishop and builder', in Glanmor Williams, The Welsh and their Religion. Historical essays (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991), pp. 93-116