Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nicholas Cusack, Bishop of Kildare 1279-1299

Nicholas Cusack, Bishop of Kildare 1279-1299

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien
    In April 1272, Simon of Kilkenny, Bishop of Kildare, died. During the long vacancy in the diocese following his death the canons of Kildare made two attempts to hold elections for a new bishop. We are told that two different people (Stephen, Dean of Kildare and William, Treasurer of Kildare) were chosen on each occasion but because proper procedures were not followed, both elections were declared invalid.[1] By February 1279/80 the canons held a third election in which Nicholas Cusack, a Franciscan friar was chosen. The two people that were formerly so called elected, acknowledged Nicholas as the new bishop as did the church in Rome.[2]

    The early history of Nicholas Cusack is uncertain. He could have been a member of the Cusack family that settled in the Barony of Skreen in County Meath.[3] It seems that Nicholas Cusack studied at Oxford in the 1260s. While there he was possibly one of the Irish signatories to the terms of peace between the Irish and Northern scholars at Oxford on 29th November 1267.[4]

St. Brigid's Cathedral at Kildare [from]

    Before Nicholas could secure a letter from the king to confirm the election, he was called away to Rome by the Pope on some unstated business. So quickly had Nicholas left Ireland that he wrote to Edward I from Paris to accept the customary oath of fealty from his proctor, Hugh de Fraxiniis. Nicholas pledged to give the oath himself on his return. He also asked that the long withheld temporalities be restored to the diocese through Hugh.[5]

    The government had so long enjoyed the revenue from Kildare, and being displeased at a new bishop running off to Rome before giving fealty to the king, that it waited many months before jumping to Nicholas’s orders. On Christmas Eve 1280, King Edward wrote to the knights, free and other tenants of the diocese to accept the new bishop. Robert de Ufford, justiciary of Ireland, was to deliver the temporalities to Nicholas or his attorney on the production of this letter. Yet Nicholas did impress the king with his personality so much that a few days later Edward wrote to the treasurer of Ireland to allow Nicholas 100 marks from the government revenue.[6]

    The new bishop enjoyed England so much he was slow to leave it and he got letters of protection to stay there for three years in September 1281. His former proctor, Hugh de Fraxiniis was passed over as Irish attorney by Philip Shannon and John Fitz Adam. Nicholas wasn't the only Irish prelate to stay in England at this time as Stephen, Bishop of Waterford and Peter, Bishop of Connor, also had licence to remain there.[7] Of course Stephen was treasurer of Ireland at the time and so could have had government business in England. It’s hard to see what reason Nicholas had to be absent from Kildare.

    It is possible that his business there had to do with financial matters. In the Hilary term 1281-2 Nicholas received his 100 marks from the Irish treasury along with payments to many other people. Later in 1285 all these payments were disallowed in the chamberlains roll because proper procedure was not followed. Many years later, Stephen, Bishop of Waterford, and his treasury successor, Nicholas de Clere were charged with financial malpractice.[8] In May 1292, Nicholas was ordered to sell any ecclesiastical goods held by de Clere within the diocese of Kildare and remit the proceedings to the king to make good the arrears de Clere had built up. In Hilary 1300 the new bishop of Kildare remitted 40 shillings from the de Clere sales.[9]

    While he was in England, Nicholas stuck up a relationship with Ela, Countess of Warwick. On a visit to Oseney abbey in September 1282 Nicholas issued an indulgence to any who visited the abbey. While there, the pilgrim was to pray for the church and kingdom of England, before the altar of the Holy Trinity. At the same altar, further prayers were to be given for the good health of countess Ela, while she lived and for her soul after her death.[10]

    In November 1285 Nicholas paid half a mark for unjust detinue to the government via the Dublin county sheriff. A few days later Nicholas paid two and a half marks to the government, collected from four people for various breaches of the law. This money was paid via the Kildare liberty.[11] In February 1285/6 Nicholas paid another half mark for unjust detinue and paid one mark in April the following year, for the same offence.[12]

    Sometimes Nicholas was asked to help secure the release of prisoners. During the decade 1280-90 Nicholas was asked to assist in the case of Gerald Tyrell. This youth, from a noble family, fought in a battle with the Irish in which many of his comrades were killed and he lost a horse. Gerald, “grievously wounded” was taken prisoner by the Irish. They told Nicholas that they would exchange the youth for the son of an Irish noble, held in Dublin castle. Nicholas asked Robert, Bishop of Bath and Wells and chancellor of England, for his help.[13] We are not told the outcome but a successful result is likely.

    In 1291 the general chapter of the Franciscans was held in Cork to facilitate the visitation of the Minister General. The occasion resulted in such violence between the English and Irish friars that sixteen were killed. A few years previously, Nicholas wrote to Edward I warning about the seditious correspondence of certain friars with the Irish rulers.[14] He reported that these Irish were holding secret meetings at which they were assuring the Irish rulers that it was perfectly lawful under both human and divine law to fight for their native land and attack the colonisers with all their strength.[15] Bishop Nicholas further argued that filling vacancies in Irish houses with “sound, hand-picked English religious” who would be in charge of the house, would remove this security risk.[16]  

    At this time, Nicholas was involved in his own religious crusade in 1291/2 when he was appointed by the pope to collect the tenth of Ireland, with the bishop of Meath. This money was directed to aid the crusades in the Holy Land.[17] In that same year of 1291 Edward I wanted to tax the Irish Church to help pay the ransom of his cousin who was held by the King of Aragon. The prelates of Ireland, including Bishop Cusack, met on 13 May to discuss the matter and then proceeded to have many more meetings to continue the discussion so that Edward got very little because the bishops were too busy at meetings.[18]

    In June 1293 Nicholas travelled to England to stay a few weeks (which was later extended into the following year), and appointed Laurence of Athy and Geoffrey Bremel as his Irish attorneys. His business may have been connected with the late dispute between William de Vescy and the Abbot of St. Thomas the Martyr, Dublin relating to the advowson of St. Moling church in the diocese. Yet it is more probable that the 40 marks Nicholas owed to John de Drokenesford made the journey more immediate.[19]

    We can safely say that Nicholas’s extended visit to England had much to do with his disputes with William de Vescy. In December 1293 the king had a detailed report sent to the Dublin government recounting the many complaints the king had received relating to the time when William de Vescy was both justiciar of Ireland and lord of Kildare. Nicholas was one of these complainants. He said that when de Vescy arrived in Ireland as justiciar, he sent the bishop a letter of prohibition in the name of the lord of Kildare and not as justiciar, which restricted the bishop’s rights to legal appeal. Nicholas further said that he received a similar letter even before de Vescy came to Ireland. The bishop made it clear that, as he held the bishopric and the diocese directly from the king that he should not be subject to any restrictions by a liberty lord. De Vescy didn't deny he sent the first letter; only the second.

    Another issue of complaint was that de Vescy had exceeded his authority as lord of the liberty by prosecuting tenants of the bishop. A jury found that the liberty seneschal, Thomas Darcy, had fined Osbert the baker, a tenant of the bishop, 40 shillings for using incorrect measurements and that this money was later used by the sheriff of Kildare for his own use. Darcy did not deny entering church land to fine Osbert but that he did so as seneschal of the justiciary and not of the liberty. This denial got Darcy in to further trouble as the 40s was not paid into the Exchequer and so the case went on to a further court where on the past experience of such matters, Bishop Cusack was successful.

    Yet on the third complaint, Nicholas was not successful. In this matter, he complained that Master Adam of Clane was prosecuted for incorrect measures at the liberty court. The jury found that Nicholas was incorrect in this complaint. They found that Master Adam was a tenant of the liberty and had brought some tenants of same before the ecclesiastical court on issues no connected with wills or marriage. Thomas Darcy fined Master Adam 100 shillings for the breach of judicial procedure and that jury found that Thomas was correct to do so.[20] 

    In April 1296 Nicholas was fined 53 shillings 4 pence for not coming to Dublin when summoned to do so.[21] The circumstances of this fine are not known. It is possible that Bishop Nicholas was in declining health. On 19 September 1299 the dean and chapter of Kildare informed the king of the recent death of Nicholas Cusack and on 20 October got licence to elect a new bishop.[22]

The Cathedral Church at Kildare [from]

    Shortly after the new bishop (Walter Calf) took over he had to petition the king for payment of the rent for Kildare castle. The castle had, long ago, been built on church land but without adequate compensation. In making peace, William Marshal the younger gave Bishop Ralph de Bristol (Bishop of Kildare 1223 to 1232) ten marks per year rent out of the burgess tenements in Kildare town.[23] Nicholas Cusack had successfully reintroduced the rent from William de Vescy, yet getting the payment was another matter. An inquisition in January 1297-8 found that after de Vescy left Ireland, his officials withheld ten marks in rent due to the bishop for two years. Thus when in January 1296-7 de Vescy gave the liberty to the king, the rent was still due to Bishop Cusack.[24] If Nicholas and his successor had hopes of early settlement, they were to be disappointed. It would be another twenty years before the king paid £25 in part payment of £126 that was owed from April 1297 to June 1316.[25]

     At may be possible at a future date to expand the biography of Bishop Nicholas Cusack but for the present his life story rests just as he was laid to rest in the cathedral church at Kildare.[26]


End of post


[1] W.H. Bliss, Calendar of Papal Registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 1, 1198-1304 (H.M.S.O., London, 1893), pp. 460, 462
[2] H.S. Sweetman (ed.), Calendar of documents relating to Ireland, 1171 – 1307 (5 vols. reprint, Liechtenstein, Kraus-Thomson, 1974) [hereafter referred to as Cal. doc. Ire.], vol. II (1252-1284), no. 1643
[3] Arlene Hogan, The Priory of Llanthony Prima and Secunda in Ireland, 1172-1541 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2008), p. 52
[4] A.B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500 (3 vols. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989), Vol. 1, p. 530
[5] H.S. Sweetman (ed.), Cal. doc. Ire., vol. II (1252-1284), no. 1643
[6] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. II (1252-1284), nos. 1772, 1773
[7] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. II (1252-1284), nos. 1806, 1853
[8] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. II (1252-1284), no. 1982; vol III (1285-1292), p. 70; Philomena Connolly (ed.), Irish Exchequer Payments 1270-1446 (Dublin, 1998), pp. ix, 70
[9] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. III (1285-1292), no. 1098; ibid, vol. IV (1293-1301), no. 704
[10] Rev. H.E. Salter (ed.), Cartulary of Oseney Abbey (Oxford Historical Society, 1931), vol. III, p. 24
[11] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. III (1285-1292), pp. 57, 59
[12] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. III (1285-1292), pp. 86, 138
[13] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. III (1285-1292), no. 828
[14] A.J. Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland (London, 1980), p. 138 quoting from E.B. Fitzmaurice and A.G. Little, Materials for the History of the Franciscan Province of Ireland, pp. 52-3, 63-4
[15] J.A. Watt, ‘Gaelic polity and cultural identity’, in A new history of Ireland, volume II: medieval Ireland 1169-1534, edited by Art Cosgrove (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 346
[16] J.A. Watt, The Church and two nations in medieval Ireland (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 181-2
[17] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. III (1285-1292), no. 1055
[18] J.A. Watt, The Church and two nations in medieval Ireland, pp. 117-8
[19] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. IV (1293-1301), nos. 20, 26, 31, 61
[20] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. IV (1293-1301), pp. 55-6
[21] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. IV (1293-1301), p. 132
[22] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. IV (1293-1301), nos. 657, 666
[23] Goddard H. Orpen, Ireland under the Normans (Dublin, 2005 reprint), vol III, p. 99
[24] Sweetman, Cal. doc. Ire., vol. IV (1293-1301), nos. 365, 481
[25] G.O. Sayles (ed.), Documents on the Affairs of Ireland before the King’s Council (Dublin, 1979), no. 71; Philomena Connolly (ed.), Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 273
[26] A.B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, Vol. 1, p. 530


  1. An interesting read - anything to do with St Brigid and Kildare church and community Thanks Niall

    1. Hello Tess, - Thanks - The same place as St Brigid of Kildare but a good few centuries later. St Brigid is said to have lived around 453 to 524. The community of Kildare had changed into a recognised cathedral community of dean, chancellor, archdeacon and chapter by the time of Bishop Nicholas. Niall