Hamo de Hethe (Hythe), Bishop of Rochester 1319-1352

Rochester Cathedral from the battlements of Rochester Castle

Rochester Cathedral from the battlements of Rochester Castle

During my recent trip to Kent, I visited Rochester Cathedral where I encountered the bare tomb of the 14th century bishop, Hamo de Hethe, as well as an elaborately carved doorway erected by him. This has prompted me to do a short biography of one of the most important prelates of Edward II’s reign. Luckily, much of his life and work is detailed in a ‘biography’ written by William de Dene, one of his clerics. The Historia Roffensis offers a fascinating insight into both the man and also the politics and events of the later years of Edward ‘s reign. Sadly the Historia is not yet in print or easily available, so I have had to rely on some second-hand sources for what it says. Among the high-ranking prelates of Edward II’s reign, Hamo de Hethe, Bishop of Rochester, was one of his greatest supporters (along with William Melton the Archbishop of York). He was born around 1270 and became a monk at the age of around 32. What he was doing up until that age however, is not known. In 1307, despite some opposition, he became the prior of Rochester after a seven year stint as the chaplain to the then bishop of Rochester, Thomas Wouldham.

The door Hamo de Hethe had designed and carved during the 1340s for the entrance to the night stairs for the monks.

The door Hamo de Hethe had designed and carved during the 1340s for the entrance to the night stairs for the monks.

Controversy also attached itself to his next appointment. When Wouldham died in 1317, the monks elected Hethe to replace him. Unfortunately, at the same time, Pope John XXII had also reserved the position for Queen Isabella’s chaplain, Giovanni di Puzzuoli. In the end Hethe had to travel to the Papal Court at Avignon for the contest to be settled. It took several months for him to win the endorsement of enough Cardinals, mainly due to the fact that he did not want to use bribery to secure support, but finally he was confirmed in his See and officially consecrated as Bishop in Avignon on 26th August 1319. While the succession to the bishopric was still unconfirmed, the See of Rochester was in the custody of Walter Reynolds, Archbishop of Canterbury. However, upon Hethe’s return it appears that he felt short-changed by the Archbishop as he claimed that he had not been given the sums owed to him that had been collected in his absence. For the next year he pursued the monies, effectively causing a rift between himself and Reynolds.

The naked figure at the top of the door is said to represent Hamo de Hethe himself, rising towards Heaven.

The naked figure at the top of the door is said to represent Hamo de Hethe himself, rising towards Heaven.

During the latter years of the reign of Edward II, he showed himself to be loyal to the king. In the face of baronial opposition in 1321 and in 1326, he supported Edward and advised him. But although he was faithful in his role to the crown, it may be because he believed in the sanctity of kingship, rather than any sense of friendship. Although Isabella had opposed his election as bishop in 1317, he strongly advised Edward not to divorce her in 1326, giving Hugh Despenser a big put down at the same time. The conversation was recorded in the Historia Roffensis, and it went along the lines of this:

A charmingly detailed face from the door

A charmingly detailed face from the door

Edward, in conversation, casually dropped in a tale about a queen who was cast down from the throne because she refused to obey her king – obviously a reference to Isabella and her refusal to return from France. Hethe’s reply was to tell another story about a councillor who came between a king and his queen and was subsequently hanged for it. He commented that it would make a good sermon and one that he would have happily given in the king’s presence at Tonbridge if he had been asked to do so. Hugh Despenser the younger, who was also in the room must have been in no doubt what, or who, the bishop was referring to as he said (and here I’m paraphrasing slightly) “Well that would indeed be an amazing sermon, considering it is about me.” As Edward noted, Hethe spared no-one what he thought of them. Even to the king he was blunt and honest (and got away with it). In fact he was described as impatient and irascible, something that was probably not improved by bouts of ill health. It appears he had no time for bribery and corruption (he refused to pay for the office of treasurer in 1332), and was a man of integrity, no matter what the price may have been. Despite his high position, he tried to stay out of politics as much as possible and preferred to spend time in his diocese than on diplomatic missions or at court.

Detail of the door's carvings on the left hand side

Detail of the door’s carvings on the left hand side

Nevertheless, when Edward was deposed, Hethe was suddenly put in a terrible position. At the time of the invasion, he was in London which was rapidly becoming a lawless riot against anything and anyone who had supported Edward and Despenser. He was asked to be part of a delegation to meet Isabella but he refused, although he was persuaded to stay and consider the matter for a further day. However, upon hearing that bishop Stapledon of Exeter had been caught and beheaded by the mob, he decided it would be prudent to return home. He sent to Walter Reynolds, also in London, to tell him of this, only to find that the archbishop had already left, and taken Hethe’s horses with him! Without proper transport, Hethe was forced to escape on foot to Lesnes Abbey to the east of London and thence back to Rochester. Hethe refused to do homage to the new king Edward III in January 1327 along with William Melton, the bishop of London and the bishop of Carlisle (although Seymour Philips in his biography of Edward II says that in one manuscript, Hethe sends Reynolds to perform it by proxy. Whatever the truth, Hethe seems to have come to terms with the new regime fairly quickly as he participated at Edward II’s coronation in February, singing the liturgy at the ceremony. His acquiescence did not mean however, that he changed his ways – it seems that he did not approve of Roger Mortimer any more than he did of Hugh Despenser and opposed him whenever he could. On the other hand, he served Edward III with great loyalty, for example in 1333, while Edward was fighting in Scotland, he took charge of summoning the men of the Cinque ports in the defence of the realm. Ill health forced him to step down as bishop in 1352 – he was over 80 years old and he was granted a generous papal pension of £40. As far as the records show, he was still alive in 1357, but as he was not mentioned after that date it is safe to assume that he died not long afterwards.

Hamo de Hethe's last resting place in Rochester Cathedral

Hamo de Hethe’s last resting place in Rochester Cathedral

Sources:

Politics, Finance and the Church in the Reign of Edward II (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Third Series) – Mark Buck Edward II (English Monarchs) (Yale English Monarchs Series) – Seymour Phillips King Edward II: His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath, 1284-1330 – Roy Martin Haines Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online

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