Robert Stillington, Bishop and Lord Chancellor

Robert Stillington served as Bishop of bath and Welles and held the position of Lord Chancellor for a period of time. He is best known for his association with King Edward IV’s marriage pre-contract to Lady Eleanor Butler and the reasoning behind Titulus Regius. Stillington’s work as a cleric and administrator saw him heavily involved in national politics. He participated in embassies that aimed at bringing Henry Tudor to England from his exile but also fell foul of Edward IV at times. This included being imprisoned in 1478 for saying things that were prejudicial to the king and state: words which are not recorded. He remained a Yorkist into the early years of the Tudor regime, being arrested on Tudor’s accession and later implicated in the uprising alongside the Lambert Simnel invasion of 1487. For that act, he was imprisoned at Windsor, where he died in custody in 1491. 

Robert Stillington, biography from the Dictionary of National Biography

Note: the Dictionary of National Biography is Public Domain in the United Kingdom. A more recent version is available that takes into account research from the past hundred years. It can be found here.

STILLINGTON, ROBERT (d. 1491), bishop of Bath and Wells, and lord chancellor, was son of John Stillington, who held property at Nether Acaster, near York (Rot. Parl. vi. 256). Stillington was educated at Oxford, and is sometimes alleged to have been a fellow of All Souls’ College; but the latter statement seems to be an error, which originated from Stillington having resided at the college during his disgrace (Wood, Colleges and Halls, p. 273). He graduated as doctor of the civil and canon law, and was principal of Deep Hall in 1442 (Anstey, Munimenta Academica, p. 528). On 2 Aug. 1445 he became canon of Wells, was chancellor of that church on 6 June 1447, and archdeacon of Taunton on 20 April 1450. Stillington had already entered on an official career, having been one of the commissioners to treat with Burgundy on 25 Oct. 1448 (Fœdera, xi. 218). Other ecclesiastical preferments quickly followed. He received the prebend of Fenton, York, on 21 March 1450, which he exchanged for that of Wetwang on 28 May 1459; at Southwell he held the prebend of Oxton and Cropwell from 9 July 1457 to 28 May 1459; he became dean of St. Martin’s, London, in 1458, archdeacon of Colchester in 1460, of Berkshire on 9 March 1464, and of Wells on 28 Feb. 1465. He had attached himself to the Yorkist party, and through their influence was made keeper of the privy seal on 28 July 1460 (ib. xi. 458). After the death of John Phreas or Free [q. v.] in 1465, he was elected bishop of Bath and Wells; his election was confirmed on 11 Jan. 1466, the temporalities were restored on 29 Jan., and on 16 March he was consecrated at Westminster by George Neville [q. v.], archbishop of York (ib. xi. 559; Anglia Sacra, i. 574).

On 20 June 1467 Stillington was made lord chancellor. The seal was in the king’s hands for a short time in March–May 1470 (Fœdera, xi. 651). On the Lancastrian restoration Stillington was deprived of his office, but was again made chancellor on the return of Edward IV, receiving a pardon for any past offences on 25 Feb. 1472 (ib. xi. 736). He was absent from the parliament of October 1472 through illness, and during 1473 temporary keepers of the seal were appointed to act for him (cf. Cont. Croyland Chron. ap. Gale, Scriptores, i. 557). Stillington resigned the chancellorship on 25 July 1475. Later in the year he was employed in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the surrender of Henry of Richmond from the Duke of Brittany. About March 1478 Stillington was imprisoned in the Tower (Bentley, Excerpta Historica, p. 354), and on 20 June following received a pardon for some words which he had uttered prejudicial to the king and his state, of which he afterwards cleared himself before the council (Fœdera, xii. 66). Commines (v. ch. 18, vi. ch. 9) relates that for some offence Stillington was imprisoned by Edward IV, and had to pay a round sum for his ransom. The same author relates that the bishop had married Edward to a lady before the marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, and afterwards revealed the secret to Richard, duke of Gloucester. Buck, in his ‘History of Richard III,’ relates the same story, and gives the lady’s name as Eleanor Talbot, stating that the bishop, under pressure from the lady’s family, informed Gloucester, and hence fell into disgrace with the king (Kennett, Hist. of England, i. 562, 565). There is probably some truth in the story, and Stillington’s action may have been due to enmity for the Woodvilles (Gairdner, Richard III, pp. 113–16).

After the death of Edward IV, Stillington gave his support to Richard of Gloucester, and drew up the bill declaring the invalidity of the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville [see Elizabeth, (1437?–1492)]. It is possible that this circumstance is the basis of Commines’ story that Stillington had himself celebrated the previous marriage (Ramsay, ii. 488). Stillington took part in Richard’s coronation, when he performed the ceremony of hallowing the king and queen. On the accession of Henry VII he naturally fell into disgrace, and on 22 Aug. 1485 a warrant was issued for his arrest. Five days later he was already in prison at York, ‘sore crased by reason of his trouble and carying’ (Drake, Eboracum, p. 122). He, however, obtained a full pardon on 22 Nov. (Campbell, Materials for Hist. of Henry VII, i. 172), and when the act declaring Edward IV’s children bastards was repealed, the king refused to call him to account for his share in its composition. Nevertheless, he was deprived of the deanery of St. Martin, mention being made in the act of the ‘horrible and haneous offences ymagined and donne’ by him against the king (Rot. Parl. vi. 292). Stillington took part in the rebellion of Lambert Simnel [q. v.], and on its failure sought refuge at Oxford. At first the university refused to surrender him, but on pressure yielded to the king (Maxwell-Lyte, Hist. Univ. Oxford, pp. 369–71). Stillington was taken to Windsor in October 1487, and kept prisoner there till his death early in May 1491. He was buried at Wells Cathedral in a chapel which he had built there. During the reign of Edward IV he had founded the college of St. Andrew, Nether Acaster, on property which belonged to his father (Rot. Parl. vi. 256). Commines relates that Stillington had a son whom Richard III designed to marry to his niece Elizabeth, afterwards queen of Henry VII; but the young man, being captured off the coast of Normandy by the French, died in prison at Paris (Memoires, vi. ch. 9).

[Wharton’s Anglia Sacra, i. 574–5; William of Worcester, pp. 783, 787, 792, ap. Letters and Papers illustrative of reign of Henry VI; Le Neve’s Fasti Eccl. Angl. i. 141, 160, 167, ii. 340, 635, iii. 185, 223, 451; Foss’s Judges of England; Cussans’s Lives of Bishops of Bath and Wells; other authorities quoted.]

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54
Stillington, Robert by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford

Further Reading

Richard III Society – entry on Robert Stillington including source material on his role in Richard III’s life.

Erenow – entry on Robert Stillington from Peter Hancock’s book on Richard III and the Murder of the Princes in the Tower.

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