From rags to riches: The rise and fall of Simon de Langham
Local history by Bryan Waites
Langham is a large village situated in the Vale of Catmose, about two miles north of Oakham, the county town of Rutland. It has an extensive and interesting churchyard with some important people buried there – and, perhaps, many who could have been great.
One villager escaped ending up in this churchyard as a nonentity. Instead, he became famous and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His name was Simon de Langham.
How could this happen? We live in the Celebrity Age when nobody can become somebody by entering Big Brother. In medieval times, subservient to the lord of the manor, you would not even be able to leave your village without his permission. There was little or no chance of being noticed let alone becoming great. So how did Simon achieve this?
The answer lies not in Langham but in Westminster Abbey, London. Just before his death in 1066, King Edward the Confessor, left all Rutland to his wife, Queen Edith, for her lifetime. This custom of giving Rutland to the Queen had been a tradition in the Saxon royal dynasty for many years.
When Queen Edith died in 1075, Rutland reverted to the king, William the Conqueror. Near the end of his reign he granted all churches, their lands and tithes in Rutland to Westminster Abbey. From this time until the late 19th century Westminster Abbey held great power in Rutland. Indeed, Oakham was divided into Lordshold (belonging to the Lord of the Manor) and Deanshold (belonging to the Abbey).
Since the Abbey was so dominant in Oakham and its various dependencies (which included the chapel of Langham), it is highly likely that Simon was educated by the monks and showing talent was brought on by them – but there are no documents to prove this. Perhaps his father, Thomas, was a steward of the Abbey grange. It is interesting to note that some years later Thomas died at the Abbey in London and was buried there, indicating that he might have been a man of some importance.
Simon may have been born about 1310, the exact date is not known. He became a monk of St Peter’s, Westminster, sometime before 1339. By 1346 he had become important enough to be the Abbey’s representative at the Benedictine Chapter meeting at Northampton. In the same year he became a student at Oxford University but with the onset of the Black Death he was recalled to the Abbey and did not complete his studies.
However, in April, 1349, at the height of the epidemic, he was appointed Prior and only six weeks later he was elected Abbot of Westminster Abbey. The challenges presented by the plague were enough but in addition the Abbey faced several severe problems.
One was the crushing debt left by his predecessor. Another was the lax discipline in the monastery and a third problem was the mismanagement of the widespread estates which were scattered throughout England.
Simon worked hard to rectify these problems, managing the estates shrewdly, reviving the policy of purchase and exchange of lands and paying off the debts. In his time as Abbot from 1349 to 1362 he introduced a period of prosperity with new building projects such as the completion of the cloisters and establishing chantries, that is chapels and altars endowed and dedicated to rich people for the repose of their souls. Indeed, Simon himself donated from his own wealth towards these.
He has rightly been called the second founder of Westminster Abbey.
These achievements are remarkable enough for anyone, but for someone from a humble background who was still only in his early 40s it is earth-shattering. More was still to come in the career of this remarkable man.
Little is known of his character but one historian of the time called him ‘a reformer of the first rank, a wise counsellor and an eloquent preacher’. Another described him as ‘overbearing and ambitious’ but there is little doubt that he was an able administrator with sound judgement and the ability to direct a large corporation in a business-like manner.
His success had been noted from on high. King Edward III (1312-77) who was of a similar age, effectively began his reign in 1330 when only 18 years old. At this time Simon was probably still in Langham. King Edward was courteous, accomplished, popular and the embodiment of chivalry. During his reign commerce expanded, the constitution developed but war, however successful, was a drain on the nation’s finances.
Hence, Edward needed a trusty financier. The obvious choice was Simon who was appointed Treasurer of England in 1360 - the first clergyman to occupy this position for 100 years. Even though Simon continued as Abbot with all the duties involved, he managed to reduce the King’s considerable war debt.
Rewards continued to fall on him. In 1361 he was elected Bishop of Ely and in 1363 the King made him Chancellor of England a position he held for four years until September, 1367. In this role he promoted royal policy seeing it through to legislation. He also opened Parliament regularly and in 1363 delivered the Chancellor’s Speech in English, a break with tradition.
Pleased with Simon’s achievements, the King appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1366. He was the last monk to hold this office and his impact was great even though he had many state duties.
He was busy with administration and pastoral care in difficult times. He found time to write hymns and issue articles on faith and salvation He curbed religious dissent and abuses and enforced the Pope’s rules as they applied to his benefices.
Perhaps he impressed the Pope too much for in 1368 Simon was created a Cardinal, an offer he unwisely accepted. This meant the end of his short term as Archbishop of Canterbury. More damaging, he had not consulted the King who immediately showed his displeasure by seizing Simon’s Canterbury wealth leaving him in relative poverty. Simon had made the worst decision of his life.
He went to Avignon, France (a residence of the Popes between 1309 and 1378) and attempted to negotiate some diplomatic missions on behalf of the King, arranging a peace treaty in 1372. However, in England he was mainly unrecognised and regarded as too pro-Papal.
Lacking appreciation in all quarters, he decided to retire to England but before he could do so he died in 1376, possibly of a stroke. He was buried near Avignon but in 1379 his remains were brought to a splendid tomb built for him in St. Benedict’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey – the only Archbishop of Canterbury buried in the Abbey.
Simon left a chantry for his soul and the souls of his family also his estate worth £1,000, a valuable library, vestments, plate and £400 for the fabric of the Abbey. To Langham church he left vestments and it is believed that the Trinity Chapel, All Saints’, Oakham, was rebuilt due to his benefaction.
As we travel between Oakham and Langham few realise the greatness of this villager. Ordinary people know little or nothing about him for there are few clues locally to tell of his achievements. In Langham church there is an information board about him. Perhaps this stimulated some supporters who decided that in 2010 there should be a celebration of his life – the 700th anniversary of his birth.