Servant to England: The Biography of Adam Marsh (de Marisco)
By Jason A.S. Drake
Honors BA Thesis, College of William and Mary, 2008
Introduction: The friend and confidante of Robert Grosseteste, the teacher of such academic luminaries as Thomas of York and Roger Bacon, and the spiritual advisor and counselor to great magnates such as Simon de Montfort and King Henry III, Adam Marsh has long been recognized by scholars as an important figure in England’s tumultuous thirteenth century. Still, it is only in the biographies of these other great men that he can be found; to date, there are no published studies of Adam Marsh. While Adam’s achievements have been acknowledged, they have also been overshadowed by those of his contemporaries. In regards to his character, he has often been used as a foil or indicator of these other men’s personalities. Thus R.F. Treharne might characterize Simon de Montfort as possessing an active and morally sensitive mind due to “his learned friendships with men such as [Adam] Marsh,” without any attempt to explain just who Adam Marsh was.
It is the purpose of this thesis then to elucidate the life and character of Adam Marsh on his own terms. More than just a background character, Adam himself was a complex human being with his own worldview. Late in life he abandoned the prospect of a comfortable secular career to live the ascetic life of the Franciscan, and to become the humble servant of all men. That he did so at a time when the Franciscan Order was undergoing an important period of change and transition only makes his story all the more compelling. In many ways, Adam’s career as a Franciscan reflected the significant shift in identity the Order underwent its founder’s death. Where Francis had delighted in the simplicity of his early companions, Adam was a theologian with a continental reputation. The first Franciscan to hold a chair in Theology at Oxford, the academic infrastructure of England and the reputation of the Franciscan school there owe much to his efforts. Also much unlike Francis, Adam moved and worked in the highest social circles of his day, serving kings and popes alike as advisor and ambassador. In turn, he relied on the patronage and support of these great men in the furtherance of his goals. Ultimately, however, he remained true to the Franciscan spirit and mission, embracing the physical and social formalities of poverty even as he equipped himself with sophisticated tools for the salvation of men’s souls.
In studying Adam’s life it will eventually become necessary to consider his relationships with the great men of his day. Indeed, Adam spent much of his time and energy in service to one important figure or another. This is not to suggest that we should necessarily consider Adam as being the lesser agent in these arrangements. While historians have long recognized the important role Adam played as agent and counselor to great men, they have rarely followed this to its full implication: that the respected advisor often himself wields a certain power. Thus no less a moral authority than Robert Grosseteste himself found in Adam Marsh more than just a good friend. He instead found his conscience and a trusted confidante.
In the end, Adam Marsh was very much a man of his time and place. That this place was England during the early thirteenth century is part of Adam’s appeal. This was an important formative period for the English realm. The disintegration of the Angevin Empire and the terms of Magna Carta had greatly compromised the sovereignty of the king. The barons, not normally accustomed to participating in their own government, were being forced to slowly realize a new national political identity. Meanwhile, the English Church under the leadership of men such as Robert Grosseteste and Walter de Cantilupe were fighting hard to assert ecclesiastical rights and to rid the church of abuses. Presiding over all was Henry III, by all accounts not an evil man but ineffectual as a ruler. Over the years dissatisfaction with the crown’s government swelled, until in the summer of 1258 a unified reform movement of clerics and barons seized the government apparatus. At the head of this movement was Simon de Montfort, a conscientious but severe and acquisitive man. In was in this environment that Adam plied his career as an advisor, diplomat, and teacher, one which he himself ultimately played an important role in shaping.