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John Thoresby
(Died 1373)

Bishop of St. Davids
Bishop of Worcester
Archbishop of York
Died: 6th November 1373 at Cawood Palace, Yorkshire West Riding


John Thoresby was one the best and most active prelates who ever filled the See of York. He was the son of Hugh of Thoresby, Lord of the Manor of the hamlet of Thoresby, in Wensleydale, who the Archbishop was probably born. Thoresby had been in the 'familia' of Archbishop Melton under whose patronage he obtained high clerical preferment and was perhaps introduced to the noticed of King Edward III. His abilities as a lawyer ensured him rapid advance in honours and position.

He was, for some time, the King's proctor in the Court of Rome. In 1341, he became Master of the Rolls, holding that office till 1346. In 1343 and 1345, he had temporary charge of the Great Seal. In 1347, Pope Clement VI appointed him Bishop of St. Davids and, in the same year, Thoresby was in attendance on the King at Calais with ninety-nine persons in his retinue. In 1349, he became Lord Chancellor of England and was translated from St. Davids to Worcester. His election to York, in 1352, was unanimous and approved by both the King and the Pope. The latter, of whom however, appointed him as of his own right, refusing to recognise the election of the Chapter. In 1355, Thoresby was one of the Wardens of the Cinque Ports and, in the same year, one of the Regents of the Kingdom during Edward's absence. He resigned the Great Seal in 1356 and thenceforth devoted himself, almost entirely, to the care of the northern province.

This was, by no means, in a satisfactory condition. The highest offices in the Cathedral of York had been, since the commencement of the fourteenth century, in the hands of the Roman Cardinals, who were, of course, non-resident. The deanery was held by them between 1343 and 1385. Order and discipline were consequently but little observed in the church and the rest of the diocese was in a state but little better. "The country had been desolated by the plague and the wars, and the spirit of irreligion had crept in and established itself too securely. The people were in a state of gross ignorance and many of the clergy, if they were disposed to work at all, were not fit to teach. Some were wandering away from their parishes in trains of knights and nobles, or haunting, in quest secular preferment, the purlieus of the Court. Many livings were held at the same time by one man, whilest others, through the system of Papal provisions, were possessed by foreigners." The power of the Roman Court, in this last respect, came greatly to an end before the death of Edward III. Thoresby set himself to remedy the main evils as best he might, beginning with ignorance - the greatest of them all. "He caused to be drawn up, in the form of a Catechism, a brief statement of what he deemed to be necessary for salvation, comprising the Articles of Belief, the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacrements, the Seven Deeds of Bodily and Ghostly Mercy, the Seven Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins; and in this we see the first faint shadowings of an English ritual." This Catechism was drawn up in Latin, for use of the clergy, and in rude English verse, translated from the Latin by John of Tavistock, a Benedictine of St. Mary's Abbey (York). Both Latin and English were issued from Cawood Palace in November 1373.

The great differences between the Sees of York and Canterbury were settled during Thoresby's Archiepiscopate. It was arranged that each primate should carry his cross erect in the Province of the other; but, as an acknowledgement of this concession, "Thoresby, within the space of two months, and each of his successors within the same period after his election, was to send a knight or a doctor of laws to offer in his name, at the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury, an image of gold to the value of 40, in the fashion of an archbishop holding a cross or some other jewel." It was, at this time also, that the Pope, Innocent VI, "to end old divisions" made, in Fuller's words, "a new distinction - primate of All England, and Primate of England: giving the former to Canterbury and the latter to York. Thus, when two children cry for the same apple, the indulgent father divides it betwixt them. Yet so that he giveth the bigger and better part to the childe that is his darling."

Archbishop Thoresby undertook much great work at his Cathedral of York. He was buried before the altar of the Virgin in the Lady Chapel, the "novum opus chori" which he had constructed. During Thoresby's Archiepiscopate, Walter Skirlaugh, afterwards Bishop of Durham, was his private chaplain and William of Wykeham was a prebendary of York. It is possible that both Skirlaugh and Wykeham, two of the greatest builders of the age, may have been greatly influenced by the works undertaken in the Minster by Archbishop Thoresby.

Edited from Richard John King's "Handbook to the Cathedrals of England: Northern Division" (1903).

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