Peter des Roches was a very powerful figure in early 13th century England. He hitched his star to the fortunes of King John and held the highest offices of state as well as being the very rich Bishop of Winchester. Towards the end of his life he founded the abbeys at Titchfield and Netley as well as a small priory at Selborne. He also founded Hales abbey in Worcestershire (the parent house of Titchfield) and Clarté Dieu in Touraine.
He was born in Touraine, possibly at Château-du-Loir at an unknown date. We might infer that he was born between 1170 and 1175. The family was a powerful one in the region and a brother or possibly a cousin, Guillaume des Roches (d. 1222), was seneschal of Anjou and one of the leading figures in the government of Philip Augustus, king of France. Peter, as a younger son, would not inherit any land and had to chart his own path through life.
He did not initially join the church and in his youth was better known as a warrior. Roger of Wendover, the chronicler, remarked that in his youth des Roches had been better versed in how to lay siege to a castle than in preaching the word of God and it is apparent that this military reputation stayed with him throughout his career.
He first comes to notice in 1197 as a witness to a charter by Richard I. The detail of this is irrelevant but it does show that des Roches was already a significant man at court during Richard’s late reign. He was appointed prior of Loches, dean of St Martin’s at Angers and treasurer of the collegiate church of St Hilaire at Poitiers. These were all offices that would yield him income while the actual duties were performed by men at these various sites. He was clearly a capable administrator and after Richard’s death in 1199 he attached himself to King John who rewarded him handsomely.
After the loss of Normandy in 1203 Peter des Roches crossed the channel with King John and was a leading member of John’s household. was rewarded with a rich haul of benefices, including the churches of Cave, Hales, Kirby Misperton, and possibly Dartford, a prebend and the office of precentor in Lincoln Cathedral, and a perpetual vicarage at Bamburgh. In April 1204 he was granted the right to dispose of prebends and rents within the vacant see of Chichester, and following the death of Bishop Godfrey de Lucy in September 1204, was proposed as the king’s candidate for the vastly wealthy see of Winchester. His election was disputed and it took almost two years of wrangling and the intervention of the Pope before he was enthroned as Bishop in March 1206. Des Roches was now one of the most powerful figures in England.
He had skills in finance and exacting taxes that John, who was keen on administrative affairs, keenly appreciated. John also trusted him to bring up his eldest son Henry (later Henry III) from 1212. He was appointed Regent in 1214 while John made an expedition to Poitou. Naturally he supported John during the civil and for his pains lost his role as justice after the signing of Magna Carta in 1215.
After John’s death in 1216, des Roches was able to return to power as a supporter of the young king. A significant number of barons recognised Prince Louis of France as their king but the royal party prevailed and at the Battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1216, the warrior-bishop led a contingent of crossbow men who, it is said, were instrumental in winning the day. Des Roches also took many prisoners and greatly enriched himself by the ransoms.
He was now once more at the centre of government although he had to struggle against the preferences of other powerful barons, most notably Hubert de Burgh, as as de Burgh had greater support from the Council, des Roches decided to step down in 1220.
It is one of the oddities of the Middle Ages that is sometime hard for us to understand, that men who were plainly secular in their daily approach to life could still be conventionally pious. Thus des Roches took himself off on a pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela in the spring of 1221. In his absence, Hubert de Burgh and his other enemies began proceedings against some of his allies. When he returned he faced accusations of withholding revenue collected as Sheriff of Hampshire from the exchequer and was eventually assessed a large fine of £500 in 1927. He then went off on a Crusade and did not return to England until 1231.
Henry III was no longer a minor and was increasingly in charge of affairs and he brought his old mentor back into court as a baron of the exchequer. Hubert de Burgh’s position was now in decline and des Roches was able to run the tables on his old enemy and have him excluded from office in 1234. Unwilling to stop there, des Roches started proceedings against other enemies and in consequence pushed the country into a civil war that lasted almost a year. He overplayed his hand, and although the rebellion was eventually quashed, the cost to the exchequer was huge, and Henry lost confidence ins old advisor.
At the start of April 1234 des Roches was ordered to leave court and to meddle no more in political affairs. His aides were also stripped of office. Des Roches was allowed to retire relatively unscathed, and in the spring of 1235 sought relief from his problems in England by a further series of adventures abroad, joining Pope Gregory IX (r. 1227–41) and the emperor Frederick II in a campaign against the Roman commune. His relations with the emperor were soured by letters, sent by King Henry, warning Frederick against des Roches, while the pope is said to have favoured him only out of greed to obtain access to des Roches’s vast wealth. In 1236, following representations from the pope, he received licence from Henry III to return to England; he is said to have arrived back about 29 September, broken in health, and one of his first acts was to draw up his will. During the last eighteen months of his life he was appointed to preach a crusade for the rescue of the Latin empire of Constantinople, helped quell disturbances at Oxford against the papal legate Otto, and, ironically, is said to have urged the king to favour his native barons against the newly introduced alien, Simon de Montfort (d. 1265). Des Roches died at his manor of Farnham on 9 June 1238. His heart was buried at nearby Waverley Abbey, his body in Winchester Cathedral, in a tomb still marked by a black marble effigy.
Peter des Roches was a man of huge wealth and his income as bishop of Winchester rose during his tenure from £1500 to £3000 a year. These values seem paltry today but in the 13thcentury he was the equivalent of a multimillionaire. He could therefore well afford his legacy of monastic buildings. Winchester cathedral was enlarged and he founded the monasteries named at the head of this article, including of course. Titchfield. This will be discussed in another post.