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Henry Murdac
(Died 1153)

Abbot of Fountains
Archbishop of York
Died: 14th October 1153


Murdac, a man of great ability and energy, was one of the most notable Abbots of Fountains Abbey. He was a native of Yorkshire, but descended from a wealthy family seated at Compton Murdac in the county of Warwickshire. He was a friend of Archbishop Thurstan of York, who gave him preferment in the Cathedral of York, which he resigned soon afterwards at the pressing invitation of St. Bernard to become a monk at Clairvaux. After remaining there some time, he was sent, by his superior, to establish a Cistercian House at Vauclair, in the diocese of Leon, of which he became the first abbot in 1131.

In 1143, at the recommendation of St. Bernard, he was appointed the successor of Abbot Richard II in the Abbacy of Fountains. Here, he maintained the rules of the order with rigid severity, enforcing his precepts by example, in living a life of great austerity and constantly wearing sackcloth next to his skin. Under his rule the abbey prospered in piety by strict discipline and in wealth by many donations and bequests, evidenced by the fact that during that period it threw out not less than seven offshoots, including Kirkstall. Lisa, Meaux, Vaudy and Woburn.

On the death of Archbishop Thurstan, in 1140, the Chapter of York elected Henry De Sully, Abbot of Fecamp; but Pope Lucius II annulled the election, as Sully declined giving up his abbacy, which he desired to hold in commendam. Thereupon, the chapter met again and chose William FitzHerbert, nephew of King Stephen, and their treasurer, instigated, it was asserted, by court influence. The Cistercians, including Murdac, protested against the appointment, as having been obtained by illegal measures, but the Archbishop elect went to his uncle at Lincoln, who invested him with the temporalities of the See.

He then went to Rome for his pall, but was followed by the Cistercians, who charged him, before the Pope, with bribery and other illicit means of procuring his election, which Fitzherbert stoutly denied. The Pope decided that, if the Dean of York (Puisnet alias Pudsey) would take an oath that he was fairly elected, he might be consecrated. On his return, therefore, he was indeed consecrated by his uncle, the Bishop of Winchester, the Archbishop of Canterbury refusing to perform the ceremony. Cardinal Hinckman was sent from Rome with his pall, but Pope Lucius died while he was on his journey and he returned without having delivered it. The archbishop hastened to Rome to demand it.

Archbishop Fitzherbert found, on his arrival, that Eugenius III, a staunch Cistercian, had ascended the Papal throne and he was again confronted by the Cistercians, headed by Murdac, who reiterated their charges, and were supported by St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. The College of Cardinals were in favour of FitzHerbert, but Eugenius declared against him and, the following year (1147), he was formally deposed by the Council of Rheims. The Cistercians returned to England with a mandate from the Pope to elect a new Archbishop within forty days.

On their arrival at York with this missive, the friends of the Archbishop were aroused to indignation and fury against the Cistercians and, vowing vengeance against Murdac in particular, went in a body, accompanied by some turbulent spirits, to Fountains, demanding to see the Abbot. The gates were closed against them, but they broke them open and rushed in, searching everywhere for the Abbot, who, however, had escaped through a secret passage. Baulked in their vengeance, their object being to murder Murdac, they consoled themselves by burning the monastery, which was entirely destroyed.

The same year, the Chapter of York met at the monastery of St. Martin, near Richmond, when, after a long debate and an examination of the characters of rival claimants to the Primacy, they elected Murdac. He immediately went on a visit to his friend, St. Bernard, at Clairvaux, who had promoted his elevation, and hence to the Papal Court, then at Treves, where Eugenius consecrated him and gave him his pall. The deprived FitzHerbert went to reside with the Bishop of Winchester, who treated him with all the honour and deference due to an Archbishop, and he remained in Hampshire until the death of Murdac, when he was re-elected to York.

On the return of Murdac to England, he found the gates of York shut against him, the citizens still favouring FitzHerbert. So he retired to Beverley. King Stephen refused to recognise him, sequestered the stalls of York and imposed a fine on the town of Beverley for harbouring him. In retaliation, Murdac excommunicated Hugh De Puisnet, Treasurer of York, and his other enemies and laid the city under interdict. Puisnet, in return, excom-municated the Archbishop and ordered the services to be conducted as usual, in which he was supported by Prince Eustace, son of Stephen. In 1150, however, the Archbishop, at the request of the Pope, absolved Puisnet and removed the interdict. The next year, the King was reconciled to him, when he was formally enthroned. About the same time he presented several valuable relics to York Minster and was sent on an embassy to Rome to procure the Pope's recognition of Eustace as the heir, of his father, to the throne of England.

In 1153, Puisnet was elected Bishop of Durham, which gave great offence to Murdac on account of his character and inexperience, but chiefly because he, as metropolitan of the province, had not been consulted. He excommunicated the Prior and Archdeacon of Durham, who came to York to implore mercy and absolution. The citizens of York, sympathizing with them, rose in insurrection against their Archbishop, who again took refuge at Beverley. The King and his son, Eustace, implored him to grant the rebels absolution, but he obstinately refused, until the culprits came to Beverley, acknowledged their fault, and submitted to scourging at the entrance to the Minster when he did absolve them. He died at Beverley in October of the same year.

Edited from Frederick Ross' "The Ruined Abbeys of Britain".

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