Thomas de Spens – Bishop of Aberdeen – 1415-1480

Thomas de Spens, Bishop of Aberdeen, (1415?–1480), third son of John de Spens of Glen Douglas and Lathallan, and Isabel, daughter of Sir John Wemyss of Rires, ancestor of the earls of Wemyss (Douglas, Baronage), was born about 1415, and educated at Edinburgh. His great abilities, ‘rare sagacity,’ and ‘keen intellectual power, well suited for the conduct of great enterprises’ (Boece, Vit. Ep. Aberd.), soon commended him at the Scottish court. A year’s safe-conduct was granted to him by Henry VI on 16 Dec. 1439 (Rotuli Scotiæ, ii. 515) and to Andrew Meldrum, knight. As archdeacon of Moray he received an eight months’ safe-conduct from Henry VI on 26 June 1446 (ib. p. 328) for himself and sixty persons, being probably a convoy for the Scottish princesses Joanna and Annabella, who were sent to the French court after the death of the queen-mother, Joan Beaufort (Chron. Enguerrand de Monstrelet).

According to Boece, James II then promoted him to be provost of the collegiate church of Lincluden and archdeacon of Galloway. At the same time he sent him on an embassy to Charles VII of France, the letter of credence being dated at Edinburgh on 28 Dec. 1449, and delivered at Alençon on 26 March of the same year (O.S.). He is there styled one of the king’s councillors, and a prothonotary to the apostolic see (Stevenson, Letters and Papers, Rolls Ser.). The objects of this embassy were to congratulate Charles on his recent successes over the English in France, and to enlist his aid in marriages proposed for James II’s sisters. Spens was well received at the French court, and, with an allowance of 3,000l. per annum, undertook negotiations for Charles with other princes.

On returning to Scotland Spens was commissioned by the king of France to induce James II to espouse the cause of Henry VI against Richard of York. James cordially acceded, and Alexander Vaux, bishop of Galloway, having resigned in his favour, Spens was promoted to that see. He first appeared as a lord of parliament in 1451, when in July he attested the great series of charters, marking the restoration of William Douglas, eighth earl of Douglas [q. v.], to the royal favour. In July 1451 Spens was one of the commissioners for arranging a treaty of peace with England, for which he had a three months’ safe-conduct (5 July); the negotiations took place in August, at St. Nicholas Church, Newcastle, where the treaty was ratified on the 24th of that month (Rymer, Fœdera, x. 286–7).

On 1 Sept. he attested at Falkland charters of James II to the bishop and chapter of Brechin, and apparently followed the court during the winter months to Stirling and Edinburgh (cf. Reg. Mag. Sigillum Scotiæ, passim). On 29 Oct. 1451 Henry VI gave him and twelve companions a year’s safe-conduct to enable them to go on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury and other holy places in England (Rymer, x. 303). In October 1452 he witnessed a charter granted to Thomas Lauder, bishop of Dunkeld. After that date, until 30 April 1458, he was chiefly on the continent, acting in behalf of the Scottish princesses (Michel, Les Écossais en France). He was present at Gannat in the Bourbonnais, with the French king, when Annabella’s engagement to Louis, count of Geneva, was broken off. She returned to Scotland under the care of Spens, reaching Kirkcudbright in the spring of 1458.

Spens was now appointed chamberlain of Galloway (Excheq. Rolls) and keeper of the privy seal, and on the death of Ingelram de Lindsay in 1459 was translated to Aberdeen, when he resigned the keepership of the privy seal (Reg. Mag. Sig.; cf. Brady, Episc. Succession, i. 158). There is great difficulty in determining the exact date of his consecration. On 16 April 1459 he witnessed the charter granted by Mary of Gueldres founding Trinity College Church, Edinburgh (Holyrood Charters, pp. 146, &c.), and the same summer he presided over the general council held at Perth on 19 July, being ex officio conservator of the Scottish church. On 2 June 1460 he received a safe-conduct for himself and the bishop of Glasgow to go to York, Durham, Newcastle, or other convenient place on matters connected with the truce (Rymer, ix. 453, x. 453, 476).

At Aberdeen Cathedral on 3 Feb. 1461 he examined and confirmed all the donations and annexations made to the common fund of the chapter (Reg. Aberd. V. ii. 85), and on 19 March confirmed the privileges of the common churches, granting also to the canons, &c., exemption from mortuary and testamentary dues. In a safe-conduct granted by Edward IV on 24 Sept. 1461 he was included with other Scottish ambassadors on a diplomatic errand (Rymer, p. 476). On 25 June 1463 he had a year’s safe-conduct from Edward IV for himself and James Lyndsay, cantor of Moray, &c., and seems to have been absent from Scotland for some time (ib. x. 504). Boece states that after his translation to Aberdeen he had incurred the animosity of Edward IV through his efforts to aid Henry VI, and that Edward offered a reward for his capture.

Accordingly, when on his way to Flanders on a mission to Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, he was chased by English pirates, and only escaped to be wrecked on the Dutch coast. In miserable plight, he made his way to the Duke of Burgundy, who received him magnificently, and agreed to various concessions in favour of Scottish merchants. At Bruges he learned of an assassination conspiracy against Edward IV, in which two of his chamberlains and certain exiled nobles at Bruges were concerned. Going straight to the English court, Spens laid his information before Edward, who, completely conciliated, gave him an annual allowance of a thousand rose nobles.

The bishop returned to Bruges, where he received orders from James III to bring home his brother, the Duke of Albany, then resident in Gueldres [see Stewart, Alexander, (1454?–1485)]. Spens paid a special visit to the English court to obtain a passport for the duke to Scotland. Securing an armed escort, they sailed in two vessels, but when within twenty miles from the Scottish shores they encountered five English warships on their way south from Ultima Thule. The English at once attacked and took the Scottish ships. The bishop was thrown into chains, and, with the Duke of Albany, carried to London (Boece). Edward IV treated both prisoners with every mark of friendship, and, contrary to the advice of some of his nobles, set them at liberty, with their companions and the two ships. On Spens’s return to Scotland James III sent him back on an embassy to England, requesting that the treaty of peace between the two nations might be extended and placed on a more secure basis.

Spens had thus gained the cordial esteem of the French, English, and Scottish kings, and ‘his pre-eminent honesty, his ripe sagacity, and his marvellous general ability’ made him ‘one of the most trusted advisers of all the three.’ To him was chiefly due the meeting between Edward IV and Louis XI at the bridge of Pecquigny, near Amiens, and also the unbroken peace between James III and Edward IV. In October 1464 he was present at the parliament held by James III at Edinburgh. On 28 March of this year he was included in a year’s safe-conduct (repeated on 8 Sept.) with other ambassadors to confer as to the treaty of peace with England; the negotiations came to a close at the end of the year (Rymer, x. 541).

In 1468 he was reappointed keeper of the privy seal, and held the office to 1471. In September 1471 he was engaged at Alnwick in treating with English commissioners for a permanent peace, and the suppression of the incessant raiding on the borders (ib. x. 716, 749). Next year negotiations were resumed, and a truce was proclaimed on 25 May 1472, and on 28 Sept. 1473 a treaty was signed (ib. p. 758). When in the course of the same year Sixtus IV elevated St. Andrews into a metropolitan see, in opposition to that of York, Spens obtained, on 14 Feb. 1473–4, a papal bull exempting his diocese for his lifetime from the jurisdiction of the new metropolitan. In 1474 he was engaged in negotiating the betrothal of the infant Prince James (afterwards James IV) with the Princess Cecilia, youngest daughter of Edward IV (ib. pp. 814 seq.). The terms of the betrothal, with a treaty of peace between the two kingdoms, were solemnly agreed to in the Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, on 26 Oct. 1474. Thereupon Spens’s diplomatic career closed (cf. Rymer, x. 850).

Meanwhile the bishop did not neglect either the duties of his diocese or home politics. When in Scotland he was always sedulous in his attendance at parliament, and until 4 Oct. 1479 was almost invariably elected a ‘lord of the articles.’ As a lord of council in civil causes, he was equally attentive to his public duties. To St. Machar’s Cathedral at Aberdeen Spens was a munificent benefactor. In pursuance of the work carried on by his predecessors, he filled the windows with stained glass, set up the stalls in the choir, the bishop’s throne, and richly carved tabernacle work over the high altar, to which, besides some gifts, he presented a frontal with his effigy, arms, and title embroidered on it. He rebuilt the bishop’s palace, and founded a chaplaincy, latterly incorporated with King’s College, as well as (in 1479) St. Mary’s Hospital at Leith Wynd, Edinburgh, for twelve bedesmen. He was a wise and patriotic churchman, and the friend of peace both at home and abroad in an age of strife and civil dissension. His activity is proved by the existence of over four hundred charters under the great seal to which he was a witness; many others are lost or damaged.

Spens’s death at Edinburgh on 14 April 1480 is said to have been hastened by the threatened outbreak of hostilities he had long laboured to avert. He was interred the next day in the collegiate church of the Holy Trinity, founded by Mary of Gueldres twenty-one years previously. The last rites were attended by James III, six bishops, and a large concourse of the nobility. There is an effigy of Bishop Spens at Roslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, and an engraving is extant, representing him with crozier and mitre.

[Acta Parl. Scot.; Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot.; Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer; Exchequer Rolls; Rotuli Scotiæ; Cart. Sanctæ Crucis; Epis. Register and Inventory of Aberdeen; Rymer’s Fœdera; Boece’s Lives of the Bishops of Aberdeen; Keith’s Catalogue; Leslie’s Hist. of Scotland; Michel’s Les Ecossais en France; Chron. of Enguerrand de Monstrelet; Stevenson’s Letters and Papers illustrative of the Wars between England and France, &c.]

Source: Dictionary of National Biography, volume 53, page 382-384.