CUMIN, JOHN (d. 1212) (Medieval Ireland)

John Cumin, archbishop of Dublin, was born probably in the 1130s into a minor Somerset family. He spent his early years in this county before entering into royal service at a young age. By the 1160s he had become a trusted royal official and earned the powerful patronage of King Henry II. He served the king in the judiciary, the chamber, and as a negotiator on a number of important diplomatic missions. He acquired deacon’s orders and in 1166 was appointed to the archdeaconry of Bath. He remained loyal to the king during the dispute with the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, a loyalty that resulted in his excommunication by the archbishop. After Henry II had weathered the Becket controversy, he set about rewarding those clerks who had remained faithful to him. When the strategically vital see of Dublin became vacant on the death of Lorcan Ua Tuathail (Laurence O’Toole) in 1180, the king secured the election of his trusted servant, John Cumin.

Cumin was consecrated archbishop by Pope Lucius III at the papal court in Velletri in February 1182, and then returned to join the royal court. His first securely recorded visit to his diocese was in the autumn of 1184, when he was dispatched to Ireland to prepare for the Lord John’s imminent visit. He remained in Ireland after John’s return to England to hold a provincial council in Dublin early in 1186, but soon returned to England, where he remained until after the death of Henry II in 1189 and the coronation of Richard I the following year. The death of his patron has been seen as marking a watershed in Cumin’s career—the point at which he diverted his energies away from royal politics and toward ecclesiastical administration. He returned to his diocese and maintained more or less constant residence until 1196. The realignment of his priorities had repercussions, and he became embroiled in a dispute with the Irish chief governor, Hamo de Valognes, over the temporalities of his see. This resulted in his exile from Dublin for a period of nine years. In 1205, King John, faced with the threat of papal excommunication and interdict, agreed to restore the archbishop’s full liberties and temporal possessions, and John Cumin returned to Dublin. The remaining six years of his episcopate passed without apparent incident, and he died in October, 1212, at an advanced age.

While it is clear that John Cumin’s qualifications for office were of a decidedly secular nature, he sought at the outset of his episcopacy to combine his involvement with the royal court with an active ministry. His willingness to address the particular problems of the Irish church can be seen in the nature of the legislation approved by the provincial council that he summoned to meet in Dublin in 1186. The canons promulgated by the council are believed to be largely Cumin’s own work, and they displayed a particular concern with the proper administration of the sacraments. This was also the subject of the opening sermon of the council, preached by the archbishop himself. Furthermore, the archbishop legislated to enforce clerical celibacy and regularize marriage practices, and in many ways allied himself with the aims of the native reform party in Ireland.

Cumin asserted on a number of occasions that his church was in dire need of reform and that the people he was sent to govern were in need of instruction and civilizing. His stated aim in 1192, when he raised the church of St. Patrick’s to collegiate status and instituted a group of thirteen clerks to serve there, was to improve the educational status of the people of his diocese. It is not clear whether the archbishop intended that St. Patrick’s be elevated to cathedral status, his later absence from his diocese making it difficult to assess his motives. He made no provision for officials in the college, but did grant the canons similar liberties and privileges to those enjoyed by the secular canons of Salisbury cathedral.

From the beginning of his episcopate, Cumin was concerned with the consolidation and defining of the temporal possessions of the Dublin diocese. These were extensive, and after the amalgamation with the diocese of Glendalough they included the manors of St. Sepulchre, Swords, Finglas, Clondalkin, Tallaght, Shankill, Ballymore, and Castlekevin, along with the land of Coillacht—an extensive wooded area extending from the upper Dodder to Tallaght. The archbishop exercised jurisdiction in these manors through his seneschals and bailiffs. Cumin was keen to exploit the commercial potential of his possessions. In 1193, he established an annual eight-day fair at Swords at the feast of St. Colum Cille, and at some date before 1199 he was granted a Saturday market at Ballymore, County Wicklow.

The archbishop was generous with gifts of lands and tithes, and in his benefactions he showed a particular favor for houses of nuns. He founded the priory of Grace Dieu, County Dublin, transferring nuns from nearby Lusk. He endowed the convent with several churches, including the valuable church of St. Audoen inside the walls of Dublin. He also granted a carucate of land to the nuns of Timolin, County Kildare. He was similarly generous to members of his own family, and used his position and power to assist the careers and fortunes of his three nephews—Gilbert and Walter Cumin and Geoffrey de Marisco.

It was while defending his temporal possessions that the archbishop fell foul of the justiciar Hamo de Valognes. The initial cause of the dispute is unclear, but appears to have concerned the nature of royal forest rights in lands newly acquired by the Dublin church. John Cumin excommunicated Valognes and several of his retinue, and in 1197 left for England, having placed Dublin under interdict. It is obvious that Cumin did not have the same standing with Henry II’s sons as he had had with that monarch, as he spent several years seeking redress from first Richard and then John. His cause was championed by Pope Innocent III, who eventually brokered a settlement by which the archbishop was restored to his full liberties and temporal possessions. Cumin’s biographers have noted the irony that, given his stance some decades earlier during the Becket dispute, he should find himself, like Becket, exiled from his church and dependent on Rome for help. Giraldus Cambrensis appears to make a direct reference to Cumin’s exile from Dublin when he remarks that the archbishop would have made outstanding improvements to the condition of his church had he not been prevented by the secular powers from so doing.

John Cumin played a large part in introducing the principal elements of Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical administration into the Dublin province. However, he appears to have approached the task with a certain amount of circumspection, and in many of his actions displayed a willingness to interact with Irish ecclesiastics. His diplomatic skill, honed as an advocate for Henry II, was fully manifest in 1192 in his establishment of the secular college of St. Patrick’s, an action that might have been expected to arouse both the fears of the existing cathedral chapter at the priory of Holy Trinity (Christ Church) and the hostility of the Irish. Yet, when the new college was consecrated on St. Patrick’s Day, the ecclesiastical procession set out from Holy Trinity and was led by the two most senior Irish ecclesiastics, Archbishops Mattheus of Cashel and Eugenius of Armagh.

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