The Catholic University of America




by Stephen K. Wright

With the exception of the confused events surrounding his execution in June 1405, the outlines of Richard le Scrope's biography are relatively clear. The fifteenth-century monastic chronicles in which accounts of his life survive agree on all but a few minor points.1 Richard le Scrope was born into a prominent Yorkshire family in about 1350, the fourth son of Henry, first Baron Scrope of Masham. He took an arts degree at Oxford, and by 1379 Cambridge had conferred on him doctorates in both canon and civil law.2 Scrope's ascent through the Church hierarchy was steady if somewhat unspectacular. By 1376 he was in deacon's orders and warden of John of Gaunt's chapel at Tickhill Castle. He was ordained into the priesthood in March 1377, at which time he was a canon at York, and the next year he became chancellor of the University of Cambridge. By 1382 he was protonotary to the papal curia. A bull of 1385 provided Scrope to the see of Chichester, but Richard II promoted instead his personal confessor, Thomas Rushhook. The following year Urban VI named Scrope bishop of Conventry and Lichfield. Scrope's service to Richard II on various diplomatic missions earned him a royal request that he be translated to the see of York, where he was consecrated archbishop on 2 June 1398.

The forces which transformed this quiet churchman into a rebel can be traced back to the revolution of 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II. Bolingbroke owed much of his success to the support of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Because of a financial crisis early in his reign, however, Henry IV either could not or would not reimburse Northumberland for the costly border wars being waged on his behalf. Relations between Henry and Northumberland were finally strained to the breaking point in 1403 when the King refused to ransom back Edmund Mortimer, Percy's son-in-law, who had been captured while leading royal forces against Owen Glendower's Welsh rebels. Northumberland and his son, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, withdrew their allegiance from Henry IV and rose against him in open insurrection. In July, 1403, Hotspur was killed at the battle of Shrewsbury and the rising was temporarily quelled. Two years later, however, Northumberland fomented a second rebellion. This time, perhaps in hope of lending the affair an aura of righteousness, Percy persuaded Archbishop Scrope to join him.

Up until this time, Scrope was evidently a placid royalist with little interest in national politics. He appears to have remained neutral during the precarious days of the revolution of 1399. After the coup, however, Scrope served in the delegation which relieved the imprisoned Richard II of his crown, and he presided with Archbishop Thomas Arundel at Henry's hastily arranged coronation. Furthermore, in 1400 Scrope secured loans to help finance Henry's expedition against the Scots, and he seems to have remained on good terms with the new King as late as August 1403, when he celebrated a special mass for him during a royal visit to York.3

In 1404, however, for reasons which are not entirely clear, the amiable relationship between the King and the Archbishop deteriorated rapidly. The Scrope family made several lucrative marriage alliances with the fractious Percies, while at about the same time the powerful Northumberland clan also became generous patrons of Scrope's cathedral. Moreover, the Archbishop understandably objected to the taxation of Church lands which was proposed by the so-called "Unlearned Parliament"of 1404. Finally, it is not unlikely that Scrope, along with Thomas Mowbray, the nineteen year-old Earl Marshal, was unwittingly manipulated by the Earl of Northumberland, who used the highly respected but politically naive Archbishop to legitimize his private campaign of revenge and self-aggrandizement.

At any rate, in the spring of 1405 Scrope composed a manifesto indicting the King on several charges of willful misrule, a synopsis of which was included by Clement Maidstone as a preface to his Martyrium Ricardi Archiepiscopi. This propaganda campaign was evidently something of a success, for, having raised three knights and an armed mob of some eight thousand men, Scrope set out with Mowbray on 27 May to join forces with Henry Percy and Thomas Bardolf. Before they could meet, however, Percy found himself hopelessly outmaneuvered and delayed. As a result, Percy decided to abandon the motley expedition led by Scrope and Mowbray, leaving his inexperienced allies to face a large loyalist army led by Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, and Prince John of Lancaster.

After a three-day stalemate on Shipton Moor, Scrope agreed to parley with Westmorland, but as soon as the Archbishop disbanded his followers in accordance with the terms of the truce, he was arrested and imprisoned at Pontefract.4 Henry arrived soon thereafter, transferred Scrope to the Archbishop's own residence at Bishopthorpe, three miles south of York, and set the trial for Monday, June 8. Archbishop Arundel, fearing gross violations of ecclesiastical law, arrived early that morning to urge the King to submit the matter to either Parliament or the Pope, but his pleas for caution were ignored. The details of Scrope's trial and his execution in a field just outside York's Skeldergate Postern are the subject of Clement Maidstone's Martyrium Ricardi Archiepiscopi.

Henry, after lying ill at Ripon for nearly a week, marched against Bardolf and Percy and pursued them to Scotland. Eventually, after Percy's death at Bramham Moor in 1408, the northern rising was crushed altogether. Henry thus survived the gravest crisis of his reign, but only at the cost of killing a popular archbishop, a deed which provoked such universal outrage that Henry narrowly escaped excommunication. In fact, Henry probably only remained within the pale of the Church because of Gregory XII's fear that the English king might shift his allegiance to the rival pope at Avignon. Meanwhile, Richard Scrope was quietly buried in the northeast corner of York Minster, where he was venerated by generations of Yorkshiremen, both the devout and the discontented.



1 Major sources for Scrope's biography include the following:

  • Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana and Ypodigma Neustriae, ed. H. T. Riley, Rolls Series 28 (London 1864, 1876), II, 269-271; VII, 412-415.
  • The second continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum, ed. F. S. Haydon, Rolls Series 9 (London 1863), III, 405-408.
  • The Annales Ricardi Secundi et Henrici Quarti Regum Angliae, ed. T. T. Riley, Rolls Series 28 (London 1866), III, 403-410.
  • The continuation of Thomas Stubbs' Chronica Pontificum Ecclesiae Eboracensis, in Historians of the Church of York, ed. James Raine, Rolls Series 71 (London 1886), II, 428-433.

Recent accounts include the following:

  • William Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England (Oxford 1880), pp. 51-55.
  • James Hamilton Wylie, History of England Under Henry the Fourth (London 1898), II, 192-244.
  • E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century: 1399-1485 (Oxford 1961), pp. 30-66.
  • J. L. Kirkby, Henry IV of England (London 1970), pp. 185-190.
  • J. W. McKenna, "Popular Canonization as Political Propaganda: The Cult of Archbishop Scrope," Speculum, 45 (1970), pp. 608-623.
  • Peter N. McNiven, "The Betrayal of Archbishop Scrope," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 54 (1971), pp. 173-213.

2 A. B. Emden, Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500 (Oxford 1959), II, 1659-60, and Biographical register of the University of Cambridge to 1500 (Cambridge 1963), pp. 513-514.

3 Wylie, I, 135; I, 210.

4 "A Notice of the Coming of Henry IV to York Minster," in Historians of the Church of York, ed. Raine, III, 287.