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Boniface de Savoie
Archbishop of Canterbury


Positions Held

Primate of England, 1243-70†[1]
Bishop of Valence, 1241[1]
Bishop of Belley, 1234[1]

Main Events

Boniface's date of his birth is uncertain, but in his early youth he was destined for an ecclesiastical career. The numerous stock of the house of Savoy had to be provided for, and Boniface seems to have accepted a clerical life as a means of political advancement. As a boy he entered the Carthusian order, and while yet a young man was elected in 1234 bishop of Belley, near Chambéry. In 1241 he was given the administration of the bishopric of Valence in Dauphiny during a vacancy. His connection with England was due to the marriage of Henry III with Eleanor, second daughter of Raymond Berengar, count of Provence, and Beatrix of Savoy, a sister of Boniface. The needy members of the house of Savoy used their relationship with the queen of Henry III as a means of seeking their fortune in England. The see of Canterbury, vacant by the death of Edmund Rich, was considered an excellent provision for Boniface. The king’s nomination was made in 1241, and the monks of Christ Church were not bold enough to resist. But there were rapid changes in the papacy and a long vacancy; and it was not till the end of 1243 that the election of Boniface was confirmed by Pope Innocent IV, soon after his accession.[1]

In 1244, Boniface visited England for the first time. He was a man of a practical turn of mind, and gave his attention first to the financial condition of his see. He found that he inherited a considerable debt from his predecessors, and that the king had still further impoverished the possessions of the archbishopric during the vacancy. He showed his discontent, and the leaders of the reforming party had hopes that he would not be a mere instrument of the king. Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln welcomed him, and begged him to prevail on the king to end a vacancy of the see of Winchester arising from the resistance of the chapter to the nomination of another of the king’s uncles. With this request Boniface complied, and brought about a reconciliation between the king and the man chosen by the chapter. Probably he wished for the help of the English bishops to repair the shattered finances of the archbishopric. He demanded that the whole province of Canterbury should aid in paying off the debt, and wished to gain the consent of the suffragans to this demand. For this purpose he joined with his suffragans in opposing the king’s nomination of Robert Passelew to the see of Chichester, on the ground that he had not sufficient theological knowledge. It was an objection which might have been urged against himself; but Boniface was not concerned with consistency. The king appealed to the pope; but Boniface carried his point, and the king’s nominee was rejected. Thus Boniface asserted his independence of the king, and showed his capacity as a man of business by organising a more economical management too the temporalities of the arch-bishopric. He contrived to raise some money in England, and at the end of 1244 set out for the council of Lyons.[1]

At Lyons he was consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. His brother Philip was archbishop of Lyons, and was a military prelate, of whose forces the pope had need. Boniface, who was young, bold, and handsome, aimed also at a military career. During the council, he commanded the pope’s guard, and obtained from the pope a grant of the first fruits of vacant benefices within the province of Canterbury for seven years. This was given on the plea of paying off the debt on the archbishopric. Having thus provided for the only duty of an arch-bishop which seemed to him important, he devoted himself to family politics, and did not return to England until the end of 1249, when he was enthroned at Canterbury in November. His main object still was to amass money, and for this purpose he copied the procedure of the great ecclesiastical reformer of the age, Bishop Grosseteste, and instituted a rigorous visitation of his diocese. What Grosseteste undertook to restore discipline, Boniface pursued to impose fines. The monks of Christ Church were made to pay for deviating from their rules, and the monks of Feversham and Rochester fared no better. But Boniface was not content with the visitation of his own diocese. He proceeded to extend it to the whole province of Canterbury. He went to London, and instead of taking possession of his palace of Lambeth, he borrowed the home of the bishop of Chichester. This was a sign that he did not intend to stay in England and the monks resolved to resist the archbishop’s claim to carry off their revenues for his own political purposes abroad. Henry III granted to Boniface the royal right of purveyance in London. The Londoners resisted, but the archbishop's Provençal troops were too strong for them. The people were subjected to the military rapine of a foreign army.[1]

In this state of popular irritation, Boniface proceeded to the visitation of St Paul’s Cathedral. The dean and chapter refused him admission, on the ground that they were subject to their bishop only as visitor. Boniface ordered the doors of the cathedral to be forced open. When he could not gain admission to the chapterhouse, he excommunicated the disobedient prebendaries. The next day, he visited the priory of St Bartholomew. All London was in uproar, and the archbishop thought it wise to don armour beneath his vestments, and go with an armed retinue. At St Bartholomew, he was received with all honour as the primate; but the canons were in their stalls, ready for service, not in the chapter-house, to receive their visitor. Furious at the jeers of the mob on the way, the archbishop rushed into the choir and ordered the canons to go to the chapter-house. When the subprior protested, Boniface felled him with his fist, and beat him unmercifully, crying out, 'This is the way to deal with English traitors'. A tumult ensued. The archbishop’s vestments were torn, and his armour was exposed to view. The rage of the Londoners was furious, and Boniface had to flee in a boat to Lambeth. He retired to his manor at Harrow, and announced his intention of visiting the abbey of St Albans. This was felt to be too much. The sulfragan bishops met at Dunstable, and agreed to join in resistance to the primate. Boniface on this showed considerable good sense in retiring from a position which had become untenable. He suspended his visitation, and set out for the papal court, where, by 1250, he invited the discontented bishops to send their proctors. He admitted that he had been hasty, and practically withdrew his claims to visit outside his diocese contrary to previous custom. When his fit of passion was over, and he had time for reflection, Boniface showed a conciliatory spirit.

He did not return to England until the end of 1252, when he heard that his official had been imprisoned by the order of the bishop elect of Winchester, Aymer de Lusignan, the king's half-brother. He proceed with dignity to investigate this matter, and pronounced sentence of excommunication of Aymer, who declared it to be null and void. Boniface went to Oxford and laid his case before the university, a step which announced his adherence to the national party, which was growing strong against Henry III's feeble misgovernment. The pressure of this national party forced Henry III to make some pretence of amendment, and in May 1253, he swore with unusual solemnity, in Westminster Hall, to observe the provisions of the great charter. Boniface pronounced excommunication against all who should violate the liberties of England. Henry III showed some sense of humour by suggesting that his own amendment must he followed by that of others. Hs urged Boniface and some other prelates to prove their repentance by resigning the preferment which they had obtained contrary to the laws of the church. Boniface answered that they had agreed to bury the past and provide for the future.

At this time, Boniface seems to have wished to do his duty. He was conscious of his own unfitness for the post of archbishop, and listened to the counsels of Grosseteste and the learned Franciscan, Adam de Marisco. But his good resolutions did not last long. In 1255, he went to the help of his brother Thomas, who was imprisoned for his tyranny by the people of Turin. Boniface brought money and troops for the siege of Turin, and succeeded in procuring his brother’s release. During his absence, he summoned a newly elected bishop of Ely to Belley for consecration. This was an unheard-of proceeding which led to a protest from the suffragans of the province of Canterbury. In 1256, Boniface returned to England, and again behaved as though the air of England inspired him with a fictitious patriotism. He made common cause with the English bishops in withstanding the exactions of the pope and king. During 1257 and 1258, several meetings were held under his presidency to devise measures for opposing the claims of the papal nuncio. When the parliament of Oxford devised its 'Provisions' for the purpose of controlling the king, Boniface seems to have been one of the twenty-four commissioners, and, if so, was nominated by the king, and not by the barons. He certainly was one of the council of fifteen which was entrusted by the commissioners with the supervision of government. He was not, however, a politician capable of influencing English affairs, and his name is scarcely mentioned in the period during which the hostility between the king and the barons became more pronounced. He seems gradually to have drifted more and more to the king’s side, until he became a scheming partisan, and found it safe to retire to France at the end of 1262. He was at Boulogne in 1263, and joined the papal legate in excommunicating the rebellious barons. He summoned his suffragans to Boulogne, and gave them the excommunication to be published. The bishops obeyed the primate so far as to meet him at Boulogne, but took care that their papers were confiscated at Dover.

In the beginning of 1261, Boniface was at Amiens pleading the king's cause in the arbitration which had been referred to Louis IX. When war broke out, Boniface was one of the foremost members of the party of exiles who raised forces in France and intrigued against the barons. On the triumph of the royalists in 1265, Boniface returned to England. It would seem that he was not considered strong enough to conduct the reactionary policy by which Henry III proposed to reduce the rebellious party in the church. His reputation suffered through the activity of the papal legate, Cardinal Ottobone, who left his mark on the history of the English church by the constitutions enacted under his guidance in the council of London in 1268. In this legislative work, Boniface was incapable of taking any share. When Edward set out for a crusade in 1269, Boniface offered to accompany him. He does not, however, seem to have gone further than Savoy, where he died.

Place of birth and death: Château de Sainte-Hélène du Lac
Place of death: Château de Sainte-Hélène-des-Millières
Place of burial: Abbey of Hautecombe





1. L. Stephen, ed. Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 5. New York; London: Macmillan and Co., 1886.

2. C. Cawley. Medieval Lands - A prosopography of medieval European noble and royal families. The Foundation for Medieval Genealogy. ©2018.

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