William Longchamp: Upward mobility and character assassination in twelfth-century England

Date of Completion

January 1996


William Longchamp (d. 1197), bishop of Ely, papal legate for the British Isles, chief justiciar of England, and chancellor to King Richard I, faced several accusations--including tyrannical rule, low birth, and homosexuality--from many of his contemporaries. Despite being repeated by many modern scholars, these accusations are, at the very least, gross exaggerations and distortions, if not outright fabrications, and are characteristic of the stock criticisms routinely hurled at the curiales of Longchamp's time.^ While more successful than most, Longchamp was a typical twelfth-century curialis in a variety of ways. He was from an upwardly-mobile family and was ambitious for secular and ecclesiastical advancement. Like many who sought lucrative careers in the church and at the king's court, Longchamp studied civil and canon law, almost certainly at Bologna, already the most prestigious center of legal studies in Europe. His publication of the "Practica Legum," a pioneering treatise on civil and canon legal procedure, may have been designed, in part, to attract potential patrons. When Longchamp did secure a prominent position in the court of Richard and in the hierarchy of the church, he, like other successful curiales, used his influence and patronage to advance the careers of his family and other supporters.^ The failure of Longchamp's brief and tumultuous regency (1190-1) was not due primarily to his own shortcomings as an administrator, but to the scheming of the powerful Prince John, the brother of the king, who hoped to take advantage of Richard's absence on crusade to seize control of England.^ Despite his failed regency, Longchamp was a very capable and certainly loyal royal servant. Clearly, his many skills, as well as his willingness to perform unpopular tasks and thereby deflect criticism from the king, were highly valued by Richard I. In particular, Longchamp was an accomplished diplomat, as demonstrated most effectively by the leading role he played in winning the king's release from captivity in Germany in 1194. Therefore, the prevailing negative portrait of Longchamp in the primary and secondary sources must be rejected as the product of hostile partisan propaganda. ^