John Capgrave

John Capgrave – the Lynn historian, hagiographer, theologian, and church leader who saw the princess with his own eyes.

In 1406 the twelve year-old Princess Philippa set sail from Lynn (Bishop’s Lynn) for Helinsgør to marry the Scandinavian king, Eric VII. Along with the bishop of Norwich and various other knights and squires, her father, Henry IV, and her brothers Henry, Thomas, and Humphrey travelled to the port to see her off. A thirteen year-old John Capgrave was in the crowd straining to see the distinguished visitors to his home town. Later, in his 1446 biography of Henry IV, Capgrave writes: “I saw the only daughter of this most excellent king in the town of Lynn. I saw her with my own eyes.”

Capgrave was born in Bishop’s Lynn on 21 April 1393. His parents are unknown. He died in the town on 12 August 1464.

The Augustinian Priory in Lynn

On the north of the town was a large Augustinian friary founded during the late thirteenth century. In keeping with the order’s educational mission public sermons would have been preached at the convent church. Margery Kempe records a moving sermon on the Passion being delivered there to a great audience.

Its cloister and chapter house were the venue for meetings between important guild members, merchants, and citizens of the town, and the bishop of Norwich whenever he visited. One writer (Anthony Goodman) describes it as probably the biggest friary in Lynn with the best guest house and conference facilities.

In 1414 a mayoral election was held at the friary when the unrest surrounding the contest made the traditional guildhall venue dangerous. In 1421 members of the town’s ruling elite went to the friary to present the cash-strapped Henry V with a “gift” of £150.

We know that the friary hosted Henry VI in 1446 (see below). It also hosted King Henry VII, on 25th August 1498. On this occasion King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth and many great lords and nobles came to Lynn and stayed at Austin Friars, where the king was presented with ten great pikes, ten trenches, three couple of beams, twelve swans, two oxen, twenty sheep, a ton of wine, 30 dozen bread, two tons of ale, two tons of beer, and two loads of wood. The purpose of the donation, and whether the Austin Friars were the donors, is not recorded.

John Capgrave’s Training

Capgrave would have entered the Augustinian friary around 1410.

  • in 1411, after a year’s probation, he would have been sent to the Austin’s district school in Norwich to study logic and philosophy.
  • Following his ordination in 1417 by the bishop of Norwich (John Wakeryng) he was sent to the Austin school in London to begin four years training to become a lector. This would qualify him to teach in his order’s schools and enable him to pursue a baccalaureate in theology.
  • He became a lector in 1421 and enrolled in Cambridge University.
  • By 1426 Capgrave had achieved the highest academic degree, the magisterium. To have achieved this within 10 years of his ordination was a record.

“My cuntre is Nortfolk of the town of Lynne Oute of the world to my profite I cam On-to the brotherhood whiche I am inne. God gave me grace nuevere for to blynne [cease] To folwe the steppes of my faderis before Whiuche to the reule of Austyn were swore.” (St Katherine

“My country is Norfolk, of the town of Lynn Out of the world to my profit I came into the brotherhood which I am in. God gave me the grace never to cease to follow the steps of my Fathers before which to the Rule of Austin (Augustine) were sworn.”

The Cambridge that Capgrave would have known (1422-1426) was staunchly orthodox. The radical views of John Wyclif which had flourished at Oxford in the 1370s had been repressed. Coming from Lynn, Capgrave cannot have been unaware of the chaplain from St Margaret’s, William Sawtry, who was the first person to be burned alive for Lollardy in 1401.

Despite the repression, the central method of university education in Capgrave’s day was the practice of disputation, where participants were encouraged to argue for both sides of doctrinal cruxes. This inevitably encouraged a degree of independent thought. It required students to disengage, to some extent, from traditional arguments while, at the same time, paying lip service to traditional texts.

The Early Writing

Reconstructing what happens between 1426 and 1446 requires a degree of conjecture. It would not be unreasonable to assume that Capgrave engaged in a degree of academic and conventional teaching. We know for certain that he started to write. The sixteenth century bibliographer, John Bale, attributes over a dozen biblical commentaries to Capgrave, though most of these have been lost. Capgrave’s earliest works are massive commentaries on the books of Genesis, and a year later, Exodus, both dedicated to the Duke of Gloucester.

Capgrave probably wrote the Gloucester commentaries in Lynn. There is evidence that he had established himself as a person of importance in his priory by 1440. He is mentioned in a 1440 will as “magister Capgrave” and the commentaries could have been produced at a small scriptorium on the priory premises, staffed with scribes and binders. It is in 1440 that he also produced his first work in Middle English, a Life of Saint Norbert of Xanten, at the request of an abbot in West Dereham.

In 1440 and 1441 he continues to cultivate ties with the English intellectual elite and attends (with Henry VI) the foundations of Eton College and of King’s College, Cambridge.

A Middle English Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria followed a few years later after the Life of Saint Norbert. It was to be his most ambitious (five books and over eight thousand lines) and most popular of his Middle English writings. Apart from being impressive in its own right the work contains the first extended discussion in English literature of whether women are fit to rule. Capgrave’s Katherine argues that a woman can travel about her kingdom just as much as any man and that a successful sovereign need not ride at the head of an army. She argues that effective government relies not on physical strength but in the cooperation between monarch and subjects. Women can have the wisdom to implement sound policies. Such views would have been problematic to some of Capgrave’s audience.

Capgrave was very aware of female spirituality and sympathised with the aspirations and frustrations of women. Although Capgrave was partially contemporary with Lynn’s Margery Kempe, it is not known whether they knew each other – though they almost certainly would have been aware of each other’s existence in the town.

Capgrave loved books and learning. He often writes of how he checks his facts, consults multiple sources, and weighs conflicting accounts of the same events to arrive at an accurate result. But he also makes clear that it’s not enough to be a passionate and conscientious scholar: learning must serve others, and thereby God. And learning is insufficient for salvation. The heroine of his most influential work, Katherine, is transmuted from a willful adolescent into a Christian heroine only when she leaves her books and uses her knowledge to challenge tyranny, to inspire, and to convert – three things that Capgrave would have aspired to.

Saint Katherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio

Prior of Lynn and Prior Provincial

At a local level it is almost inevitable that the Augustinians under Capgrave would have rubbed up against vested interests, particularly centred on the church of St Margaret’s. The mission of the Augustinians – to minister to the local townsfolk ill-served by their parishes – helped gain them both popularity with the people and the suspicion of those in power. The Benedictines of Norwich who were rectors of St Margaret’s successfully fought to maintain the growing Lynn as a single parish and prevent the establishment of a separate parish around St Nicholas. The willingness of the Austins to offer laypeople burial within their friaries instead of in the parish gave any conflict a financial dimension. An entry in St Margaret’s accounts for 1445-46 allocating 56s 5d “circa destruccionem oppinionis magistri Johannis Capgrave predicantis” (”concerning the destruction of the opinion of John Capgrave, the preacher”) suggest that the relations were not always entirely cordial.

At the time he was writing the biography of Katherine he was probably prior of the Lynn friary. He had certainly achieved that rank by the time he was host to Henry VI in 1446. The royal visit was initially anything but peaceful. Somebody used the occasion to make false accusations against the local Augustinians. However, Capgrave defended the order and the king was impressed.

At this time we know that the friary housed thirty priests and sixteen students, along with various deacons and members of minor orders. It was (or became) during Capgrave’s tenure, the largest Augustinian friary in England.

Capgrave’s administrative abilities must have impressed his fellow Austins as he was unanimously elected as Prior Provincial of England in 1453 and again two years later. As Prior Provincial he had responsibility for forty-one friaries throughout England. It has been said that Henry VII wished Capgrave to be canonized and some of this friar’s early biographers refer to him as “Beatus”, which was an allusion to Henry VII’s wish.

Although rooted in Lynn he would have established good connections within the church at large and within the English (and especially East Anglian) aristocracy. In 1450 he is in Rome celebrating a jubilee year, but also meeting with English humanists living in the city. The trip was financed by a local lord of the manor at Oxborough, Thomas Tuddenham.

As a preacher, confessor, administrator, and as a host to a constant stream of visitors to his priory, Capgrave would have come into contact with a wide cross-section of the lay population.

His Later Writing

Capgrave is reckoned to have been one of England’s most prolific medieval authors. He is known to have written over forty-five works, though only twelve survive. In addition to commentaries on many books in the bible he also wrote:

  • The Illustrious Henries. This was completed between 1446 and 1453, was a collection of lives of German emperors (918–1198), English kings (1100–1446) and other famous Henries in various parts of the world (1031–1406).
  • The Solace of Pilgrims. This combines standard guidebook information about the classical and Christian histories of Rome with Capgrave’s personal observations of the sights and customs of the city. In it he shows great sympathy for women who endure difficult marriages.
  • The Abbreviation of Chronicles. This was his final project and was a concise history of the world (with particular attention, in later sections, to England), from Creation to the 1417 Council of Constance.
  • For a long time Capgrave was claimed to be the author of the Nova Legenda Angliae  (“New Legends of England”). This was the first comprehensive collection of the lives of English saints. But this work was really complied in 1366 by John of Tynemouth (or Tinmouth), a Benedictine monk at Saint Albans. Of the 168 lives covered by Capgrave, all but about fourteen were largely copied from Tynemouth. He merely edited and re-arranged it.

From this distance it would be easy to characterize Capgrave as a dry, theological author, who championed a distant orthodoxy, communicating only with a religious elite. But Karen Winstead argues that Capgrave saw writing and scholarship as inseparable from service, and that although he kept within orthodox boundaries, he certainly pushed at the edges. He denounces heresy, but his views on how to combat it were at odds with the church’s policy of censorship and repression.

Capgrave was born into a world where there were certainly anti-intellectual currents flowing in the church. Anything beyond basic religious education for lay people was considered to be dangerous because of the heresy that it might inspire. But in this particular instance he shared the Lollards’ view that Scripture should be accessible to the laity. Capgrave celebrated saints who used their knowledge to educate others. He wrote of theological matters in English and wanted to be read beyond the cloisters.

© James Rye 2022

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  • Salih, S. (2008) John Capgrave’s Fifteenth Century (review), Studies in the Age of Chaucer (30) 417-419
  • Winstead, K.A. (2007) John Capgrave’s Fifteenth Century, University of Pennsylvania Press



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