Simon of Sudbury

Simon Reconstruction © T5Cambridge

The information about Simon of Sudbury is by Ian Copeman from material supplied by Barry Wall of Sudbury History Society and Roger Green from material from his talk, ‘Simon, the French connection’.

Simon was the eldest son of Nigel and Sarah Theobald, born in Sudbury circa 1316 – 1318, the exact date is unknown. After a good education he was sent to both Cambridge and Paris universities to study. Simon was described as; wise, learned, eloquent, merciful, wonderfully revered, and of a liberal, free and generous spirit. He appears to have been a mild and gentle person, a very competent administrator and someone who loved building to God‘s glory and between 1344 and 1347 was made Rector of Wickhambrook which was a gift from the Bishop of Norwich.

However in 1346 Simon had to escape the country because a Royal Arrest Warrant was issued. This was due to a dispute between the Bishop of Norwich and the Abbott of St. Edmundsbury which Simon became entangled with! He Left the country and went to Avignon to seek sanctuary with the Pope.

Skull of Simon © T5Cambridge

In 1348 he was made Canon at Hereford, although it is probable that he never went, as he was working for the Pope in Avignon and in 1349 took up a position in the service of the Papacy as Auditor of Causes in that town. In 1352 he became Chaplain to Pope Innocent VI and in 1356 returned to England as Papal Nuncio or Ambassador, to Edward III after the arrest warrant was rescinded!

In 1361 he became Bishop of London which was a gift from the Pope and substantial revenues of his Bishopric enabled Simon to begin his acts as a benefactor, builder and patron of the arts. In Sudbury he was responsible for starting the virtual total rebuilding of St. Gregory‘s church. He drew up the constitution for John Colney‘s St. Leonards Leper Hospital situated in Melford Road.

Simon of Sudbury

Simon was apparently appalled to discover that many of the priests in his diocese and elsewhere were ignorant of the meaning of much that they were reciting during services. He was determined that the two churches in his beloved Sudbury would be better served and so determined to set up a college there. The substantial Theobald house was ideally situated to be converted into the college.

At St. Gregory‘s, the North Aisle had been rebuilt and the chapel containing Simon‘s parents remains was joined to it. All that was needed now was for the church to be acquired and raised to Collegiate status.

The advowson of the church (the right in English ecclesiastical law of presentation to a vacant benefice) had been given to the nuns at Eaton in Warwickshire by the Earl of Gloucester in the mid-12th century and it would now be necessary to retrieve it from them. Simon had been investing in property in the city of London and used this to redeem the church. Simon was an honest and decent man and calculated that the value of four shops in London was worth more to the nuns than St. Gregory‘s: they agreed.

© T5Cambridge

Elfhun © T5Cambridge

There was a minor problem, Simon was Bishop of London and his diocese extended up to the River Stour. Sudbury was on the other side of the river in the Diocese of Norwich. So Simon sought permission from his fellow Bishop to set up the college and in 1374 an initial agreement was made.

On 21st February 1375 a Royal Charter of Edward III, created the college, the head of the college was the Warden [or Custos] and under him were five secular canons and three chaplains whose duty was to perform the Divine Office daily in the churches of St. Peter and St. Gregory. Their numbers were to increase at a later date. The first Warden being John of Chertsey, Simon‘s brother. On 9th August a second agreement signed.

Meanwhile in 1375 Simon was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and he led the funeral services of Edward, the Black Prince in 1376 and Edward III on 21st June 1377. A few weeks later on 16th July, Richard II was crowned king by Simon.

He became heavily involved with building work at Canterbury, determined to make the city and Cathedral worthy of their status. The old Norman nave [Lanfranc‘s Nave] of the Cathedral, hurriedly built just after The Conquest, was in a state of bad repair and unsafe and had been so for years.

The decision to demolish it and rebuild from scratch came at the instigation of Simon though approval had to be sought from Christchurch Priory. No doubt the fact that he was prepared to subsidise the costs by some 3,000 marks, equivalent to one and a half million pounds in our money today, helped. He was responsible for the strengthening of the city walls and the rebuilding of the great Westgate.

Simon of Sudbury © T5Cambridge

In 1380 Simon became Lord Chancellor which was to be the biggest mistake of his career. Parliament assembled at Northampton in November 1380 to hear from him the dreadful financial situation the government was in.

The French expeditions had emptied the Treasury. There were three months wages due at the garrisons of Brest, Cherbourg and Calais. The king's jewels were in pawn to the City of London as a surety for a loan of £5,000. The king needed the sum of £160,000 if they were to continue the war with France. There were troubles in Flanders that meant that exports of wool were down.

It was decided that there was no withdrawing from the war and so it was up to them to raise the money. They were given three options, a sales tax on all mercantile transactions, a wealth tax on property, or a poll tax amounting to one shilling and three groats per head on all persons over the age of fifteen. They settled on a poll tax to raise £100,000 if the Church raised the rest. There was one proviso; the richest would pay up to six groats per man and wife so that the tax would fall less heavily on the others. [A groat was the equivalent of four pence.] Parliament may have been in agreement but the nation was not!

The Peasants Revolt' © T5Cambridge

In the Peasants revolt Simon of Sudbury was decapitated by an angry mob for the Poll Tax he introduced.

The uprising, known as the Peasants Revolt was led by Wat Tyler and on Friday 14th June 1381, The crowd were calling out “Where is the traitor to the kingdom? Where is the spoiler of the commons?” Simon‘s alleged reply was “Neither a traitor nor a despoiler am I but your Archbishop.”

Simon was taken from the Tower of London and beheaded on Tower Hill by the Kentish and Essex peasants. The execution was messy and clumsy and it took eight strokes of the axe to finally cut off his head!

Skull of Simon © T5Cambridge

Simon‘s head was paraded around Westminster and then placed on a pike above the gatehouse on London Bridge the place where traitors were displayed. A few days later the pole that held Simon‘s head proudly displayed the head of Wat Tyler, the leader of the revolt.Simon‘s body was taken to Canterbury where it was buried with great pomp. But instead of a head they buried him with a cannon ball in its place because Simon‘s head had been taken and spirited off the Sudbury.

Simon Recreation © T5Cambridge

Recently a recreation of Simon’s head was undertaken by using skeletal detail taken from his part-mummified skull. Forensic artist Adrienne Barker from the University of Dundee employed state-of-the-art reconstruction techniques to recreate Sudbury’s facial features and complete a series of 3-D bronze-resin casts of his head. These casts were revealed on 15th September 2011 in St Gregory’s church, 630 years after Simon’s death.

"His Grace Simon of Sudbury"


This painting, entitled “His Grace Simon of Sudbury”,  was painted by Raden Ajeng Wahyuni, (better known as Nany Sudbury), a member of St Gregory’s congregation.  Based on the bronze head made last year, Nany has painted Simon in the robes of the Archbishop of Canterbury. She painted this mild and gentle bishop with no beard or moustache as Pope Gregory VII, in 1075, had decreed that, to distinguish them from Jews and Muslims, no clergy were to have facial hair, which was not rescinded until the 15th century.

St Gregory Church

Nany is the great, great granddaughter of Mangkunegara IV, of the Royal houses of Yogyakarta and Mangkunegara in Java.  It is from him that Nany inherited her artistic abilities.

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