John Lowe’s presence in the Order of St Augustine fortuitously happened during period of the Order's greatest intellectual activity in the English Augustinian Province. This was the period when Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. was a leader in the post-Chaucerian use of the English language, and John Capgrave O.S.A. was one of the most learned men of his day, he was a distinguished theologian, philosopher, and historian.
On a broader scene, Lowe was a humanist at a time when his Augustinian confreres in Italy (and most particularly in Florence) were significant contributors to the movement, and during the time of the papacy of Eugene IV (1431 – 1447) who was favourable to the Augustinian Order. John Lowe was born near Droitwich on the River Salwarpe in northern Worcestershire, England, in about the year 1380. He entered the Austin Friary of that small town, and was most probably sent to undertake his theological studies at the Augustinian friary in Lincoln.
Photo (above): In the Welsh language, this is a photograph of Eglwys Gadeirol Llanelwy (St Aspath Cathedral) in the town of St Aspath, the main church in the diocese where John Lowe O.S.A. became a bishop on 11th August 1433. Construction of this cathedral began in the thirteenth century, and it is one of the smallest ancient cathedrals in Great Britain.
He was ordained an acolyte there on 18th September 1400, and a deacon on 20th December 1403. By 1420 he had obtained his magisterium (doctorate of theology) with the Augustinians in Oxford. He was then urged by two Masters (i.e., persons with what is now called a doctorate) of Theology, Richard Dodington and Frank Clerk to seek affiliation with the Austin Friars in London. (In that era, a friar usually remained in the house that he had originally joined, and which had paid for his education and training.) Lowe received the necessary permission from the Order to do so, and eventually became Prior of Austin Friary (Augustinian community) in London. One of his major achievements there was to build a significant library, both in its size and its number of books. As will be explained later, it is not known whether he did this during his time there as Prior, or later when he had become a bishop, or even during both of these periods in his life.
Of Lowe’s library-building in London, Thomas Fuller in his History of the Worthies of England (published posthumously in 1662) wrote on p.168: "He was a great book-monger, and on that score, Bale (no friend of friars) giveth him a large testimonial. He deserves well of posterity in preserving many ancient manuscripts and bestowing them on the magnificent library which he furnished at St Augustine's in London. But alas! That library at the Dissolution vanished away with the fine spire steeple of the same church (oh, the swallow of sacrilege!), one person, who shall be nameless, embezzling both books and building to his private profit...”
(Fuller was referring to the first Marquis of Winchester, who bought the Austin Friars in London from Henry VIII after the king had confiscated it from the Augustinian Order.) Dodington who had partaken in the process of heresy against Oldcastle, Lord of Cobham, saw in Lowe a kindred soul burning with desire to stamp out heresy. He was not mistaken. Throughout his life Lowe waged a vigourous battle against Lollardism and partook zealously in all convocations called for their suppression. In 1423 Lowe was a member of the panel of theologians appointed by the Convocation of Canterbury for the examination of the charge of heresy against Master (“doctor”) William Taylor, a secular priest. Taylor was found guilty, refused to recant and was, therefore, burnt at the stake in Smithfield on 2nd March 1422. Like Lowe, other learned mendicants supplied the intellectual weapons for the destruction of the Lollards, whose hatred of friars was, therefore, understandable.
On Sunday, 23rd October 1423, he was scheduled to preach at St Paul's Cross, London, which was a traditional outdoor preaching place in the grounds of St Paul's Cathedral. A canon of the cathedral, named Peter Henewyk, stopped him from entering the pulpit, and bitterly vilified him. The Acts (formal decisions) of the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral about the incident do not give the reason for Henewyk's action nor the content of his tirade, but merely reported his trial and punishment. The Chapter members seemed to insist only on keeping discipline within their own ranks; indirectly, however, their action revealed a high regard for Lowe. It is, therefore, not surprising that his own friars elected him as their Provincial in 1427. His regime must have won the full approval of his brethren because they re-elected him at Northampton in 1428 and at York in 1430. There is no record of a dispensation from the Martiniatia (the Church law that forbade more than two terms of office being held successively).
Lowe did not think it necessary to seek a dispensation because canonists claimed that the papal decree had not been authentically intimated to the Prior General of the Augustinians and, therefore, it need not be followed by them. Pope Eugene IV subsequently supplied the necessary juridical form in 1453, and for the next sixty years its precepts were carried out. On 5th December 1433 the Registers of the Prior General declared that Provincial John Lowe was allowed to keep for life his chamber at Austin Friars in London with all its furniture, even if he should become bishop. If this should happen, he may have two brethren as socii (companions), one to recite the Divine Office with him, and the other as his personal servant. On 15th December of that same year the Registers of the Prior General declared that an inventory of John Lowe's possessions so that upon his death half of them would go to house in London, the other falf for Droitwich.
It was standard practice, as previously mentioned above, for a friar to remain for life in the friary that had accepted him and paid for his education. Seeing that Lowe had begun in Droitwich and had with permission moved to the London friary, when he died his possessions would be shared equally between both places. Lowe's appointment as Provincial did not stop his fight against heresy. In 1428 he spent much time as the co examiner of Ralph Mungyri, Richard Monke and William White. In his own Augustinian Province of England, however, he did nothing to stop the accelerated trend towards personal privileges. He personally followed this easy path by obtaining permission from the Prior General in Rome to secure the financial benefit of a chantry for himself. (A chantry was an often-lucrative financial endowment of a priest to celebrate or, usually, to chant the Mass for the eternal salvation of a deceased person or persons at agreed intervals over an agreed period of time. It was thus essentially, though not solely, a liturgical institution requiring as a sine qua non (a firm proviso) of its existence an agreed site where the recipient could celebrate these Masses, usually at a specific altar in a designated church.)
Photos (at left): Images of the interior and wood-lined ceiling of St Aspath’s Cathedral in North Wales, where John Lowe was the bishop.
It is unknown if Lowe availed himself of this permission, and it may have appeared hypocritical had he done so. It soon would not have been financially necessary, however, for him to have done so because on 25th February 1432 he was appointed confessor to King Henry VI with all privileges of former chaplains. As the royal confessor, he received 3s (three shillings) a day for the maintenance of himself and his servants within the king's household, and for the wages of each of four grooms to keep his four horses and one hackney cab in the household, one and a half pence a day and for small necessaries, and 116 shillings a year.
On 11th August 1433 was appointed Bishop of St Asaph, at Denbigshire in northern Wales. The choice of a mendicant friar as the bishop of an English diocese had become most unusual towards the middle of the fifteenth century. It required, therefore, not only personal competence but also the concurrence of several fortunate circumstances to make this appointment possible. They were given through the friendship and high esteem in which the Austin Friars were held by both Pope Eugene IV (pope from 1431 to 1447) and Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester and regent of England.
The official diocesan registers of Lowe's ten years at St Asaph are lost. As far as his contacts with his former confreres are concerned, it is known that his rooms at Austin Friars, London, remained reserved to him for life, and that Master (“doctor”) Henry Kirton O.S.A. of Clare Priory was called to preach in Lowe’s diocese – as Lowe wrote - “in this mountainous diocese, inhabited by rude men, whose idiom he speaks.” In these words, Lowe seems to have expressed his own feelings towards his diocese. Its people were uneducated, and his work among them was made difficult by their Welsh tongue which he probably did not speak.
Despite these sentiments he seems to have dedicated himself wholly to the affairs of his difficult diocese and reappears in the public eye only towards the end of his regime. In 1442 he was associated with the foundation of Eton College and two years later of King's College, Cambridge. He was also sent on a political mission to Frankfurt, Germany which lasted from 15th March to 14th August 1442. It has always been uncertain exactly when he paid for the new library for Austin Friars, London, but there are credible affirmations that he did so. He donated a manuscript to this London friary in 1436 but this does not necessarily indicate the date for its beginning.
It seems more probable that the regulations which the Prior General gave for the London library on 3rd February 1456 mark the date for its completion. Lowe enriched it with many books, of which only three can presently be identified today. Two other manuscripts given by him to the Austin Friars of Oxford are now kept at Cambridge. Lowe called on his Augustinian confreres for special work and took a lively interest in their literary activity, as mentioned in relation to John Bury O.S.A. on the next page. John Capgrave O.S.A., who became the most prolific of the English Augustinians, dedicated to his Commentary on Books II and IV of Kings. Lowe was a humanist. John Capgrave O.S.A. and also Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. have been regarded as early humanists because of their cultivation of their English mother tongue, but the first evidence of the new humanist learning among English Augustinians is given in early authoritative praise of John Lowe, “who had not paid so close attention to the Scriptures as to occasion a suspicion of his having neglected the studies of humanity nor was he so deeply engaged in the pursuit of human literature as not to render it subservient to divine learning.”
This well-balanced judgment reflects the aim of the Augustinian school of Santo Spirito in Florence, which drew the leading proponents of humanism in Italy into its circle and tried to teach them, that a revival of the classics should consist in imitating a truly Latin style and the absorption of their great ideals without imbibing their pagan spirit. On 22nd April 1444 Lowe was transferred by Pope Eugene IV to the Diocese of Rochester, England. Once again this Pope was granting an honour to the Augustinians, who had supported papal authority challenged by some European monarchs and princes, and who had arranged to bring the Order of St Augustine to the Church of St Peter in Pavia, where the tomb of St Augustine is located. Lowe’s still extant register of the Rochester Diocese shows him a strict disciplinarian whenever infractions of moral or canon law occurred. He also showed a firm hand with pastors and curates who refused to make their annual payments; his rebuilding of the episcopal palace probably demanded such firmness.
Throughout his life Lowe made the preservation of true faith his principal concern. His efforts reached their climax in the condemnation of Reginald Pecock, Bishop of Chichester. The rationalistic tendencies and extreme criticism of this bishop had done much harm, and had to be stopped. The case was difficult because bishops do not easily proceed against their equals and Pecock was a highly intelligent man. Lowe proceeded, therefore, with great care. He engaged his former confrere, Master (“doctor”) John Bury O.S.A. of Clare Priory, to write a detailed refutation of Pecock's errors and assisted in the composition of this book to such an extent that he might be called its co-author. Bury entitled it Gladius Solomonis (“The Sword of Solomon”).
In the Introduction to his work Bury states that Lowe tells us that the Augustinian Bishop, John was the councillor of the Primate in dealing with the heresies of Pecock, and acknowledges the assistance which Lowe gave him in the composition of the work. It contributed essentially to Pecock's condemnation. Pecock recanted on 4th December 1457 before Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, John Kemp, Bishop of London, and Lowe. His books were burnt and he was deprived of his diocese. Medieval men did not know modern tolerance. Believing in an eternal destiny they regarded the loss of true faith worse than death, hence a heretic was thought a greater criminal than a murderer. Lowe was an ecclesiastic of his time, and did his duty as he was bound to do it. Political matters interested him as little in Rochester as they had in St Asaph but his position as member of Parliament and his duties as bishop did not allow a complete separation from public affairs.
This was the period of English history known as the War of the Roses. Like most of the Austin Friars, Lowe favoured the Yorkist cause and joined Richard of York, the Earl of Warwick, whose forces had gathered at Rochester. He was sent from Dunstable as an emissary to the mentally unstable Henry VI at Northampton, where he had an unsatisfactory interview with the king's delegate, the Duke of Buckingham. After the Battle of St Albans on 17th February 1461 Lowe was a member of a delegation of the citizens of London to ask Edward, the Duke of York and the cousin of the king who had lost the battle, what his political intentions were; three weeks later Edward took the throne as King Edward IV.
By this time Lowe had passed his eightieth year and the infirmities of old age pressed heavily upon him. In 1465 therefore, he asked King Edward IV to ask the Pope for his resignation, but was dead before the Pope's answer to the king's letter arrived. He died on 3rd September 1467 at Halling at about eleven in the morning.
“All night he had laboured in prayer and watching. Then rising and sitting in his chair, as it were made new for the occasion, and placed before the chimney of his parlour, in the midst of his chaplains, servants and officers who were praying for and in attendance upon him, he expired as if sleeping and without a groan yielded upon, his spirit most purely to his Creator, whose soul the same God may receive in his glory. Amen.” He was buried in the north east transept of the Rochester Cathedral. His episcopal register is still preserved at Rochester, but has not yet been edited.
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