Robert Chapman and his plea to the bishop of Durham

Simona Martorana is one of a small group of intrepid Durham University students wrestling with medieval handwriting. They are guided by Michael Stansfield, Senior Manager of Archives and Special Collections, normally in person, but over the last few months online. During these palaeography sessions, students catch a glimpse of a past world through the many stories that surface in our archival sources. Simona discusses a document from the Durham Cathedral Archive, which our staff look after at 5 The College.

Imagine you are currently living in the North East of England. Imagine that your house has just been burnt down. And, imagine that you don’t have enough money to rebuild it. Who would you ask for help? Would you try to get a loan from a close friend? Or, perhaps, an allowance from your bank?  

What about asking your bishop?  

This is what happened to a certain Robert Chapman, a quarryman, about 600 hundred years ago. Presumably hired by the Chapter of Durham to work on the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral, Robert Chapman shows up in some medieval records of the Durham Cathedral Archive from “the year of the lord” (anno domini) 1429. In the accounts of the expenses compiled by Henry Feriby, the sacrist of Durham Cathedral at that time, he is listed among the “quarrarii”, who were those working in the stone quarries (cf. Misc. Ch. 5713-5715; 5717-5718; 5721). Beyond attesting the payment to the various masons, wallers, labourers, stone carriers, etc., one of these documents (Misc. Ch. 5713) states that Chapman had received “6 shillings and 8 pennies as alms from the bishop of Durham (at that time, Thomas Langley) for the (re)construction of his house, which was burnt out” (Item eidem Roberto ex elemosina domini episcopi pro constructione domus sue combuste 6 solidos 8 denarios).  

Durham Cathedral Archive, Misc. Ch. 5713. – Works account, 1429, front sheet. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

This reference to a donation to Robert by the bishop makes us speculate about the relationship between the bishop and the people working in the cathedral, as well as the citizens of Durham and the nearby area. As a bishop in the 15th century, your duties were not limited to the religious sphere: in fact, bishops were highly influential in their area at a political and social level. Not only were they in charge of dealing with other bishops, political officers and institutions, but, in some cases, they could have also intervened in the lives of local people.  

Although we cannot fully reconstruct Robert’s entire story from the extant medieval sources we’ve got, we can imagine that he might have needed some sort of financial assistance to rebuild his house. And, since he was working on behalf of the Chapter of Durham, why not ask them for help? It is unlikely that Chapman was able to meet the bishop in person, so he would have perhaps got in contact with an intermediary, maybe the sacrist, Henry Feriby himself.


Detail of a medieval work account showing a payment to Robert Chapment from the bishop of Durham
Detail of Durham Cathedral Archive Misc. Ch. 5713 showing the payment to Robert (fourth line from the top). Image reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

This is not very different from what happens nowadays: if you need a loan, you cannot always talk to the head of the bank but have to go through the staff members, who might agree to forward your request. Robert Chapman was fairly lucky. His request went through and somehow made its way to the bishop. Perhaps moved by the difficult situation in which Chapman and his family happened to be, the bishop decided to donate him a certain amount of money towards the reconstruction of his house.  

This is not how the story necessarily went, but how it might have possibly gone: we cannot know if Robert managed to rebuild his house in the end. Medieval witnesses of this sort can only give us a glance at how everyday life was conducted in those times. Beyond enriching our knowledge, however, these documents also give us a chance to (re)invent and (re)imagine certain narratives and lives. 

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