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  • Feature of the month: No.3 August 2009

Feature of the month: No.3 August 2009

Three Papal Letters concerning the Diocese of Caithness

Dr Amanda Beam, PoMS Research-Assistant

This month's entry features three papal letters written between 1198 and 1222 concerning an on-going controversy within the diocese of Caithness. The first two letters were written by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) and the third by Pope Honorius III (1216-27).

The controversy in question related to a dispute between Harald Maddadson, earl of Caithness and Orkney, and John, bishop of Caithness, over the payment of Peter's Pence – a payment of 1d. for every house paid on the feast of St Peter ad vincula (1 August). During the pontificate of Alexander III (1159-81), Earl Harald had granted to the Roman Church an annual tax modelled after Peter's Pence from every house in Caithness, which had been duly collected in the time of Bishop Andrew of Caithness (d.1184). 1

However, Bishop John refused to make this payment – resulting in the first of our three papal letters. In May 1198, Pope Innocent III commanded Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson of Orkney and Bishop Reginald of Ross to ‘compel J., bishop of Caithness, to desist from preventing the payment of 1d. on every house in the county of Caithness, granted to the Apostolic See by H[arald] earl of Caithness and Orkney in the time of Pope Alexander, and duly collected in the time of the late Bishop A[ndrew]'. 2

It is somewhat unclear how the bishop was preventing the payment. He may have been banning the collection of the tax itself, or refusing to hand over the money to the earl or an official. It has been suggested that John was standing up for the people of his diocese and that the banning of a tax which was well-known in the Scandinavian world, was ‘an attempt to impose Scottish order' in this region which had previously been under the authority of Orkney and still retained links with Scandinavia. 3

The events which followed tend to overshadow one aspect visible from this letter, that is, the piety of Earl Harald. Not only had he given the annual tax of 1d. to the Holy See, but he had also given another annual gift of one silver mark to Scone Abbey, paid by himself, his son Thorfinn, and his heirs in perpetuity, for the souls of himself, his wife and ancestors. 4 As Barbara Crawford has also pointed out in her recent biography, Harald is named in a charter (now lost) taking the monastery of ‘Benkoren' (probably Bangor, in Down) under his protection. 5

The problems and tensions which arose because of Peter's Pence were exacerbated by Earl Harald's belief that Bishop John was, according to Gesta Annalia, ‘an informer, and the instigator of the misunderstanding' between Harald and King William. 6 Harald thus sailed to Caithness to confront the bishop. The exact date for the attack on the bishop is not known; however, we know that it took place at Scrabster Castle in late 1201, before Christmas. Harald's force of men arrived and led the assault, with one man in particular cutting out the bishop's tongue. Bishop John was also partially blinded in the attack, though ‘the use of his tongue and of one eye was, in some measure, left him'. 7

The man responsible for Bishop John's mutilation is the subject of our second papal letter. Lumberd, a layman, was an otherwise unknown member of society who earned his place in Scottish history by this single act of violence. He is known only from Innocent III's letter, dated at Subiaco (22 Feb. 1202 × 21 Feb. 1203), who duly assigned a penance as stipulated below.

Lumberd had seemingly travelled in person to the papacy shortly after the attack at Scrabster to ask for penance for his actions, and in turn received the letter which he was to deliver to Bishop Bjarni of Orkney. The bishop's orders were to see that Lumberd's penance was carried out ‘for having, on an expedition with the earl of Caithness, stormed a castle in which he took the bishop of Caithness, whose tongue he was, as he says, forced by some of the earl's army to cut out'. Though Lumberd is not professing his innocence here – he was, after all, seeking penance for his role in the attack – he does appear to be shifting part of the blame on to the earl's men who forced him to commit this act. However, we do not have evidence of whether the remainder of the earl's army also received penances, while it seems that Earl Harald himself escaped religious punishment for initiating the attack on Bishop John. Lumberd's personal pilgrimage to the papal curia does not appear to have bought him any clemency with Innocent III, who still ordered the following penance:

“He shall hasten home, and, barefooted, and naked except for breeches and a short woollen vest without sleeves – having his tongue tied by a string and drawn out so as to project beyond his lips, and the ends of the string bound round his neck – with rods in his hand, in sight of all men, walk for fifteen days successively through his own native district and the neighbouring country. He is to go to the door of the church and prostrate on the earth, undergo discipline with the rods he is to carry and spend each day in silence and fasting, until evening, when he shall take bread and water only. He is to then go to Jerusalem and serve the Cross for three years, and continue a fast of bread and water every Friday for two years and never more bear arms against Christians.” 8

Most of these terms are common forms of penance in the middle ages, especially the pilgrimage, crusading and fasting. We can only assume, though, that the treatment Lumberd's tongue was to receive was a reflection of his own gruesome actions against the bishop. There is no evidence of what became of Lumberd after his journey to the papal curia.

The attack obviously outraged both the Catholic Church and the king, who responded by sending a royal expedition into Caithness. King William's army would see no success, though, as Earl Harald fled northwards and only returned after William's force had retreated. By the spring of 1202, when the king was planning a second departure to the north, the two men had arranged a meeting at Perth, with Harald apparently receiving a safe-conduct by Roger, bishop of St Andrews, though this document does not survive. With Bishop Roger's intercession, an agreement was reached by which Harald was restored to his earldom for a payment of £2,000 to the king. 9 Thus, while Harald seemingly escaped excommunication, he was still punished for his actions. Moreover, his son, Thorfinn, who had been in royal custody for some time, was blinded and castrated – no doubt a response to Bishop John's mutilation. 10

As for the bishop, he certainly survived the attack and may have continued to administer his diocese until 1213, when his successor is found. 11 But his successor, Adam, would suffer a worse fate after the tense situation created between Bishop John and Harald failed to improve. Making matters worse, Bishop Adam had also demanded an increase in teinds from his parishioners, which teinds had been the subject of an agreement between Adam and Earl John of Caithness (d.1231), son of Harald. This sparked resentment from the farmers in particular who led an attack against Bishop Adam in his house at Halkirk on 11 September 1222, in which the bishop and Serlo, a deacon of Newbattle, were murdered. Though apparently led by the farmers, Earl John has also been blamed by chroniclers for his role in the attack, especially the author of the annals of Dunstable, who implies that the earl – who indeed killed the monk Serlo – was the actual murderer. 12

A poetic depiction of Bishop Adam's subsequent martyrdom is given to us by the Chronicle of Melrose, where Adam had been prior, then abbot, before his consecration as bishop of Caithness. As the chronicler relates to us, the bishop was murdered ‘for the sake of justice, namely for the claim of tithes according to the use of ecclesiastical authority'. He further illustrates the horrendous ‘sufferings of many martyrs' which he endured: ‘the staves of St James, and the stones of St Stephen, and, at length, the flames of St Laurence [which] presented him as a burnt-offering to the Lord'. 13

The chronicle of Melrose itself has been recently re-examined by Professor Dauvit Broun, who identifies the author as Scribe 18. As Professor Broun notes, the quality of writing changes with this entry and it ‘was evidently [his] intention to write a large and formal script…doubtless in response to the subject matter'. The dating of the entry can also be narrowed to between early October and early November 1222, meaning that this was entered as soon as news had reached the abbey. 14 Hearing what had become of their former abbot must have been shocking to the community at Melrose and is evident in both the writing style of the scribe and his poetic words of martyrdom.

The papacy responded with yet another letter, dated 13 January 1223, and issued by Pope Honorius III, who wrote to the bishops of St Andrews, Glasgow, Dunkeld, and Dunblane, commanding that they ‘issue sentences of excommunication and interdict against the persons and lands of those who stripped, beat, stoned, mortally wounded with a fork, and burned the bishop of Caithness'. 15 Once again, we lack evidence of any excommunication or interdict being issued against those involved though we do know that Earl John was forced to submit to King Alexander II, which included the forfeiture of half of his earldom, while the king also duly punished the farmers. 16

The terms of John's submission included a promise to travel on foot to Rome – probably in the form of a penance – and to ‘obey the mandate of the chief pontiff concerning these things'. 17 Unlike the previous situation with Lumberd and Bishop John, there is no evidence of a specific penance being enacted aside from John's promise of journeying to Rome. We must conclude, however, that one would have been given due to the nature of this violent act against a bishop of the Roman church.

These three papal letters are very interesting examples of the interaction between Scotland and the Roman curia in the late-12th and early-13th centuries, especially concerning the northern dioceses. More than 800 papal documents survive for the period 1093-1286, yet only the three mentioned here relate specifically to the workings of the diocese of Caithness before 1227. Though it was a relatively new institution – Adam being only its third bishop – the diocese may have been created as early as the 1140s. We are, then, given a fascinating glimpse into its political, cultural and religious aspects and its impact throughout the kingdom.


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