Archive of the Month
Archbishop John Alen (c. 1476–1534) and his Register
By Julia McCarthy
John Alen (Alan, Allen), Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough, 1530–34, was born in Norfolk c. 1476. He studied first at Cambridge for a Bachelors degree in 1495, and completed his Masters in Oxford in 1498, becoming ordained on 23 February 1499. Admired for his sharp mind in both ecclesiastical and civil law, he rose quickly through the ranks of the clergy and in 1503 he was sent to Rome by the Archbishop of Canterbury as an emissary for the English clergy. Despite having spent time in the Vatican or perhaps because of it he became a supporter of Cardinal Wolsey and his aims to reforms the Church. As Wolsey’s chaplain, he became a close advisor and he also acted as Wolsey’s agent for the Crown in the dissolution of 40 small monasteries, the funds from which became endowments for colleges in Oxford and Ipswich. After Wolsey fell out of political favour and his subsequent death, Alen remained influential enough to be appointed as archbishop of Dublin and bishop of Glendalough, due to his support of Thomas Cromwell’s reforms favoured by Henry VIII, in 1530.
After his consecration in the diocesan cathedral of Christ Church Dublin, Alen immediately began compiling documents for what would become known as “Alen’s Register”, also known as the Liber Niger Alani, early after his arrival in Dublin. He wanted a record of all the lands and properties held by the dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough which had been united as diocese since 1216. The earliest records he accounted for reached back as far as the conquest of Ireland in the 12th century and continue up to his own administrative era in the 1530s. Alen’s intention seems to have been to use the records to aid his reforms. He found that previous archbishops had lowered rents for several properties, and he was able to refer to an edict of Henry VII to redress this in court, thus upping the diocesan rental income, improving the revenue stream so as to aid his reforms for the diocese. Thus these court cases were very important to him. Indeed as his handwritten notes in the margins of his register show, many were focused on minute details related to the legal cases he was pursuing. Alen set about implementing reforms which threatened the position of established powerful families in Ireland like the Fitzgeralds. Between increasing taxes, reforming power structures and an obvious lack of support from the King of England who had levied a massive fine on Alen in 1531 he became a focus for the ire of the Irish nobles. His position was very precarious.
Archbishop Alen was murdered on 28 July 1534, his death being one of the opening acts of the Silken Thomas rebellion. On the evening of 26 July, the archbishop had fled the capital boarding a ship at Dame Gate to escape the rebellion. Unfortunately he didn’t make it past Clontarf where the ship ran aground. He retreated to allies in Artane but was betrayed and captured there by Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord of Offaly and several dozen of his men. Alen’s execution was ordered and the items he had with him were seized. Silken Thomas claimed that he had given an order to his men in Gaelic for the archbishop to be simply detained, rather than executed, but this claim is unproveable. Even in the midst of rebellion no one wished to take responsibility for the death of a man of the church so it is quite possible that Silken Thomas simply did not want to take ownership of the crime. Considering that the principal archbishop’s legacy is captured by his register, it is most fortunate that he did not have it with him when he was captured, and neither was it seized when Cromwell ordered that Alen’s remaining valuables be seized as a tax for the crown. Instead it seems to have remained safely housed along with the diocesan records at the archbishop’s palace, and is now secure with many of those records in the custody of the RCB Library, accessioned as D6/3. Now, some 485 years after Alen’s death, it has been digitized and made available for a worldwide audience for the first time.
Archbishop Alen was unpopular with the Irish lords, the clergy in Dublin, and even the king whose supremacy he had been advocating for. Following his death, Cromwell seized his surviving unplundered belongings as a tax owed by Alen to the crown. The clergy in Dublin prayed for God to strike Silken Thomas and his men down but paid less than five pounds for the archbishop’s funeral and memorial service a month after his death. Unlike many of his predecessors, no monuments were erected in Christ Church Cathedral or elsewhere. Instead, Alen was buried quietly in a pauper’s grave. If it was not for the text of the Liber Niger Alani together with his complimentary document the Repertorium Viride containing a 1530s–roll of Dublin churches, it is likely that Alen might be no more than a forgotten footnote in the account of the Fitzgerald Revolt. Instead, his records show how this reforming prelate might have changed the contemporary political and religious landscape – had he survived.
The Liber Niger Alani
The Liber Niger Alani –Alen’s Register– contains his compendium of copied and original documents spanning the period from after the conquest of Henry II in the 13th–century, up to Alen’s own time as archbishop during the 1530s. Bound in leather, it consists of 167 folios hand scribed on vellum. Vellum was the most common material used in the creation of these manuscripts but it was not without challenges. Preparing vellum was time consuming, labour intensive and the material was costly for the patrons of volumes like Alen’s Register. This lead to eccentricities in the physical presentation of the book such as a hole on folio 95, this hole was present on the vellum before any writing was entered onto the page; we know this because the writing weaves its way around the hole on both sides of the folio.
Looking at Alen’s Register it is not hard to imagine people actually creating it by hand, for it contains various doodles and illustrations reminding us today of those clerks employed by Alen to transcribe his voluminous records. To these texts, Alen would later make his own notes and annotations. But those clerks worked long and hard on it left their own indelible marks on the manuscript, as the examples of particularly artistic letters demonstrate below:
The volume commences with confirmation from Pope Alexander III of the possessions of the diocese of Dublin to Archbishop Laurence O’Toole. Arranged after this are the multitude of significant records about the diocese which Alen ordered to be transcribed and bound into one reference volume. At one point in its existence, the volume had been influential enough to provide evidence for court with no question to its accuracy but subsequently it lost its significance and was looked upon as nothing more than the result of one archbishop’s administration.
Today this manuscript’s survival and remarkable content opens a unique window to pre–Reformation Tudor Dublin. While the main body of text was written by several scribes there are many notes in the margins that were likely written in Alen’s own hand. A consistent phrase he uses is: Animadverte huius, ut panem lucretur et honorem augeat which means “note this for winning bread and increasing honour”, frequently inserted alongside records that Alen priorised for increasing diocesan revenue.
The most in–depth account of the Alen Register to date had been that by Dr Charles McNeill who produced a calendar of the manuscript, published by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, in 1950. McNeill concluded that Alen did not actually gather together all the parts of the register but this has since been disputed by more recent historians such as Dr Jim Murray who believes the importance of the text had been overlooked. There is also evidence of the storied journey it has been through, and it is incredibly good condition and very legible. The manuscript also seems broken into two parts with the initial section focusing on records about land in the diocese and ending with the succession list of archbishops to Alen’s time.
Archbishop Alen’s Register contains a trove of information about Dublin through a tumultuous and rapidly changing time, providing insight into the history and development in a diocesan administrative context. It also gives unique evidence of Dublin as part of a wider medieval world. This is particularly true of one document which accounts for the circumstances of how the diocese of Glendalough was officially linked to that of Dublin by papal decree of Pope Innocent III in 1216, within a significant pan–European context of pilgrimage and hospitality.
Before 1216, the diocese of Dublin had been largely confined to within the city walls with that of Glendalough designated to outlying lands. The scholarly paper by Dr Jim Murray made publically available here for the first time, explains in detail how Alen’s transcription of Pope Innocent III’s decree that the union of the bishopric of Glendalough and the archbishopric of Dublin dateable to c. 1216, was conditional on the foundation of a hospital by Archbishop Henry de Loundres (Archbishop of Dublin 1213–28). It was ordered that this place of refuge was for the use of the poor and pilgrims, especially those intending to travel to the shrine of St James the Apostle in Compostela on the European mainland. In time, as Dr Murray’s paper further shows, it was intended that this religious hospice might become a community for those wishing to take pilgrimage along the Camino da Santiago through France and Spain.
Ordered to be dedicated to St James and built ‘without Dublin on the seashore which is called Steyn’ (extra Dublin quod in littore maris quod dicitur Steyn), the place designated for the hospital provided a suitable embarkation place for pilgrims waiting for suitable sea conditions and weather to begin their journey to the shrine of St James. The Steyn was an area outside the walls of the medieval city in what now forms the area between the Pearse Street–side of Trinity College Dublin down to the river Liffey, including such streets as Townsend and Poolbeg) and thus in close proximity to the sea.
Alen’s transcript further reveals how Archbishop Henry made provision for the appointment of ten chaplains or brothers to look after the needs of the poor and pilgrims ‘both in necessary victuals and beds’ (tam in victualium necesariis quam in cubilibus). The brothers were to wear: ‘black cloaks … with a white cross on the breast’ (cappas … nigras cum cruce alba in pectore), and the chaplains ‘white surplices’ (suppellicia alba). Various properties were assigned by the archbishop to the hospital for its maintenance, including the rectory of Delgany, and he also granted an indulgence of 30 days, relaxing imposed penances, for those who would bestow alms on the hospital.
The story of the Hospital of St James in the Steyn represents just one tiny piece of an extraordinary medieval history revealed by this source – all the more significant in the context of 800 years of united diocesan history, which in its current context has organised an annual Camino de Glendalough through the beautiful Wicklow Mountains, taking in many ancient pilgrim routes to the monastic city of Glendalough along its route. For further information see this link
To view the digitized version of the Register of Archbishop John Alen (c. 1476–1534) including the muniments of the diocese of Dublin & Glendalough from c. 1172–1534, © RCB Library Dublin, D6/3 click here
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Librarian and Archivist
Dr Susan Hood
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(If you would like to contribute to the RCB Library Conservation Fund, please click here.)
Librarian and Archivist