JOHN KEMP or KEMPE (1380?-1454), archbishop successively of York and Canterbury, cardinal, and chancellor, was
the son, not, as Leland says, of 'a poor husbandman'1, but of a Kentish gentleman, Thomas Kemp, and his wife
Beatrix, daughter of Sir Thomas Lewknor. He was born at his father's seat of Olanteigh or Ollantigh, situated in the
northwestern extremity of the parish of Wye, near Ashford. The estate had been in the family since the days of Edward I.
John, who was the second son, was probably born in 1380, as he was sixty-seven years old in 1447.2 His elder
brother, Thomas, was the father of Thomas Kemp, bishop of London.
In 1395 Kemp's name first appears on the books of Merton College, Oxford, of which society he subsequently became a
fellow.3 He ultimately proceeded doctor of laws, and practised as a lawyer in the ecclesiastical courts. In
1413 he was one of the assessors employed by Archbishop Arundel in the trial of
Sir John Oldcastle for heresy. In 1415 he was made dean of the court of arches, and vicar-general to Archbishop Chichele.
His early ecclesiastical preferment included the rectory of St. Michael's, Crooked Lane, London, which he resigned in
1408,4 and the rectory of Southwick in Sussex.5 In or after 1416 he became archdeacon of Durham.6
Henry V employed Kemp in several diplomatic negotiations. In July 1415 he was commissioned
with John Waterton to treat for an alliance with Ferdinand the Just, king of Aragon, and for the marriage of Henry V
to Ferdinand's daughter Mary.7 He was one of the seven former fellows of Merton who attended Henry V on
his invasion of Normandy. In February 1418 he was appointed, with two others, to hold the musters of the men-at-arms
and archers at Bayeux.8 In the same year he became keeper of the privy seal, and in November was commissioned
to treat with Yolande, queen of Sicily, and her son Louis, for a truce with Anjou and Maine.9
In January 1419
Kemp was elected bishop of Rochester, though his final appointment to that see was obtained by papal provision of
26 June.10 He remained, however, in Normandy discharging the king's business, and was probably consecrated
bishop on 3 Dec. at Rouen at the same time as Bishop Morgan of Worcester.11 On 9 Dec. he received the
temporalities and spiritualities of his see from Archbishop Chichele. In September 1419 he was one of an embassy
empowered to treat for truce or peace with France.12 He was made Chancellor of Normandy, and retained that
office until Henry V's death. On 28 Feb. 1421 he was translated to Chichester, but performed no episcopal acts in that
see, being on 17 Nov. translated to London by provision of Martin V. The dean and chapter had already elected Thomas
Polton, bishop of Hereford, but the king approved of Kemp, and they had no alternative but submission. On 20 May 1422
Kemp received the spiritualities, and on the same date in the following month the temporalities of his new bishopric.13
Kemp was made a member of the new council appointed after the accession of Henry VI, and
resigned the chancellorship of Normandy to reside in London. But in May 1423 he was sent to France with the earl-marshal
and Lord Willoughby to convey the thanks of the council to the regent Bedford, and to attend
the king's council there.14 In February 1424 he was sent on another mission to the Scottish marches to negotiate
for the release of the captive James I. Eighty pounds15 were allowed him for his expenses.16
Like most of the councillors and high officials, Kemp was no friend of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester,
the protector, and adhered to the side of Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. As early
as 1424 he was differing from Gloucester as to the treatment of a papal collector, whom he protected.17
His prudence and moderation procured him the highest preferment in 1420, when he became successively Chancellor and
Archbishop of York. In each case the appointment was the result of a compromise between the opposing parties, and Kemp
was apparently accepted by Duke Humphrey's faction, which was the weaker, as the least unpalatable nominee of the
Beaufort side. Bedford had reconciled Beaufort and
Humphrey in the parliament of Leicester, and Beaufort, as part of the agreement, cave up the chancellorship. On 16 March
the silver seal was put into Kemp's hands by the little king at St. Mary's Abbey, Leicester, and on 18 March Bedford
transferred the gold seal to him with the approval of the assembled estates.18
The see of York had been vacant since the death of Henry Bowet in October 1423. Martin V now refused to accept the
translation of Bishop Morgan of Worcester, who, after long delays, had been nominated by crown and chapter, and was
a partisan of Duke Humphrey, and provided Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln; but the council frightened Fleming, by
holding over him the penalties of praemunire, into renouncing all his claims to
the see; and Kemp, brought forward in his stead, was elected by the chapter on 8 April 1426.19 Martin
retranslated Fleming to Lincoln, and accepted Kemp on his acknowledgment of the formal validity of Fleming's
appointment. But Kemp was unwillingly received by the chapter when he came to York to be enthroned.
Kemp remained Chancellor till 1432. All went smoothly at first, because Bedford remained in England. But on the
withdrawal of Bedford to France, and of Beaufort on crusade, Gloucester at once began to act as master, and Kemp
was hardly strong enough to keep him in check. In all the renewed quarrels which followed Beaufort's return, Kemp
seems to have supported his old associate. In the parliament of 1429, opened by Kemp with the customary sermon,
his party procured the restoration of Beaufort to the council and the ending of the protectorate. But between
April 1430 and February 1432 Henry VI was in France, and Beaufort spent most of the time
with him. Kemp was thus left to exert the chief restraining influence on Gloucester, the lieutenant of the kingdom.
Fresh disputes naturally arose between them, and Kemp fell into precarious health. In January 1431 he was unable
to open parliament in person, and was under the care of John Somerset, the king's physician. Moreover, as Henry
grew older, Gloucester's influence over him increased. The king's return was quickly followed by a change of ministry.
On 25 Feb. 1432 Kemp resigned the chancellorship on the pretence of bad health, and was succeeded by Bishop Stafford
Deprived of office, Kemp continued an active member of the council. He now became a strenuous adherent of the new
peace party, and was appointed one of the ambassadors to the council of Basel, where strenuous efforts were being
made by Eugenius IV to procure peace between France and England. On 26 Nov. 1432 Kemp received letters of protection,
a grant of a salary of one thousand marks a year,21 and the usual wages of an archiepiscopal ambassador
while he was at the council.22 But he still delayed his departure, though on 8 Feb. 1433 he again requested
a safe-conduct,23 which he received on 28 Feb., along with a license to take one thousand marks out of
the kingdom with him.24 On 1 April letters of general attorney were issued for him.25 But the
council finally resolved to keep him in England, and entrust his mission to other hands.26 In July he
refunded the sums advanced for his maintenance abroad, which were spent on the siege of Saint-Valery.27
In the same month he was prominent in conducting the negotiations with the French envoy, Lannoy, in London.28
At the end of the session he joined four other bishops in volunteering to attend the council without payment, provided
that he was not forced to attend in vacation.29
The urgency of the pope and council at last forced the English to send ambassadors to the great European congress
at Arras, and after Philip of Burgundy declined to act for England, Kemp became head of the embassy. He arrived
with his companions on 25 July, and next day delivered a great oration before the cardinals of Santa Croce and
Cyprus, the representatives respectively of pope and council.30 Minute accounts of the acts of the
congress have been preserved.31 The congress was opened on 3 Aug., and Kemp declared on 6 Aug.
'very highly and magnificently' his master's desire for peace. But his insistence on impossible terms drew on
him the merited rebuke of the legates on 10 Aug. Sickness prevented him from attending the session of 12 Aug.,
when the English proposed to secure peace by way of marrying Henry to a daughter of Charles VII. In subsequent
sessions the French made great concessions, but Kemp was hampered by his instructions and the unreasonable
state of English public opinion. The negotiations were therefore destined to fail. On 31 Aug. Kemp rejected
the offer of Normandy as a French fief, and was again rebuked by the two legates. Beaufort had now arrived,
and on 1 Sept. Kemp joined him in a long private discussion with Burgundy. Henceforth Kemp acted under Beaufort,
but on 6 Sept. the English withdrew from Arras, and returned to England. Kemp henceforth shared the unpopularity
of all the English statesmen who sought an honourable end to a hopeless conflict.
Kemp went back to his work on the council. In 1436 he joined the Bishop of Durham [Thomas Langley] and the
Earl of Northumberland in relieving Roxburgh, besieged by James I,32
and acted as one of the executors of the Duke of Bedford33. He was still closely associated with
Beaufort. In 1439 a new conference met to negotiate a peace. Beaufort and his niece, Isabella, duchess of
Burgundy, acted as mediators, and Kemp again headed the English ambassadors. At the end of January 1439 Kemp
accompanied Beaufort to Calais for a preliminary conference. He had received on 23 Nov. 1438 powers to negotiate
with Burgundy for the resumption of commercial intercourse with Flanders.34 Between 21 and 30 May 1439
he obtained his final instructions as to the negotiations with France.35 The journal of the secretary
Beckington preserves a minute account of the proceedings.36 On 26 June the ambassadors landed at
Calais for the principal meetings, which were fixed to take place near Oye, a castle not far from Gravelines.
On 28 June the French ambassadors joined them at Calais, and next day were entertained by Kemp at dinner. The
conference opened on 6 July, but the French protested against the English allowing to their master no other
style than Charles of Valois. Kemp went back to Calais and corrected the commissions, and did not scruple to
insert in the new commissions the same date as in the original ones.
On 10 July Kemp began the proceedings by a sort of sermon in Latin on a text from the revelations of St. Bridget,
and the fruitless and unmeaning negotiations continued, with occasional interruptions, till 29 Aug. As the
English were unable to accept the renewed French offer of Normandy in satisfaction at their claims, an adjournment
was made to secure fresh instructions, and on 5 Sept. Kemp returned to England. He came back on 9 Sept., with
instructions dated 30 Aug. that Henry would be content with Normandy and Guienne in full sovereignty, and without
abandoning his claim to the French crown. Kemp afterwards incurred much ill-will by striving hard to persuade the
king and council to give up the title of King of France. The French ambassadors had not returned, and a final
conference on 15 Sept. ended the abortive negotiations. Kemp delayed, however, at Calais, and signed on 29 Sept.
a treaty of commerce with Flanders. Bad winds kept him at Calais till 2 Oct., and after a rough passage he left
his ship, which could not make Dover, in the Downs, and landed in a small boat near Sandwich. On 7 Oct. Kemp
reached London with the cardinal, and on 9 Oct. had an interview with the king.
He laboured to no purpose to procure new conferences in the spring, but succeeded in effecting the release of
Orleans, who pledged himself to use his best efforts to further a peace. Gloucester took advantage of Orleans's
release to issue a sort of manifesto against Beaufort and Kemp, in which he unscrupulously denounced their policy
At his third creation of cardinals, in December 1439, Eugenius IV appointed Kemp cardinal priest of Santa
Balbina.38 Mindful of Beaufort's difficulties, Kemp hesitated to accept the position, but he was
persuaded to do so by the king, who confirmed him in the possession of his English preferment and dignities,
and hoped that his exalted position would make him more influential in future negotiations for peace.39
No worse trouble befell the new cardinal than a sharp contest with Archbishop Chichele, over whom he claimed
precedence. The matter was referred to the pope, who decided that even in his own province an archbishop
should go after a cardinal, 'the first degree in the church next to the papacy.'40
During the next ten years Kemp's political attitude became somewhat ambiguous. He was a regular attendant at
council, but took no very prominent part in affairs. In 1441 he was one of the judges of Eleanor Cobham.41
His adhesion to Beaufort seems to have hecome less complete. In February 1443
he joined with Gloucester in very lame recommendations as to the conduct of the
French war.42 He was, however, a zealous supporter of the Anjou marriage,
and in July 1445 was closely associated with Suffolk in receiving the important
embassy of the Count of Vendome and the Archbishop of Rheims. It is plain from the French relation of the
proceedings that he was one of the king's chief confidants, and that, though anxious for peace, he did not
neglect English interests.43 In 1447 he was repaid a loan of five hundred marks which he had lent
the king.44 He was one of Cardinal Beaufort's executors.
After the death of Gloucester and Beaufort his political attitude seems to have altered still further. In 1448
he was in sharp opposition to Suffolk. Kemp's nephew, Thomas Kemp, and Suffolk's friend, the treasurer, Marmaduke
Lumley, were rival candidates for the bishopric of London, and Pope Eugenius IV appointed Thomas Kemp.45
Relations between Suffolk and the cardinal seem to have remained strained. Yet, when the unpopularity of the
duke had become extreme and Stafford [John Stafford, Archbishop of Canterbury]
gave up the chancellorship, Kemp was again entrusted with the seals on 31 Jan. 1450. His appointment was the
prelude to Suffolk's fall. It is not impossible that he was more or less on an understanding with enemies of
Suffolk on the council, such as Lord Cromwell [Ralph de Cromwell, 3rd Baron], who, like him, was an old
partisan of Beaufort and enemy of Gloucester.
On 7 Feb. 1450 Kemp as Chancellor was sent by the king to the Commons to hear the charges brought against
Suffolk, which were largely based on his peace policy with France, for which Kemp
was almost equally responsible. On 17 March Kemp pronounced the final sentence, which removed Suffolk without
the risks involved in a regular trial. The result made Kemp by far the most important of the king's ministers.
But Kemp was old and infirm, and hardly equal to so great a charge. He showed, however, plenty of energy in
the crisis of the Kentish rebellion. After Henry VI had
fled from London to Kenilworth, the Chancellor remained in the Tower with Bishop Waynflete. By sending pardons
to the captain and his followers Kemp broke up the insurrection.46 In September he went on a
commission of oyer and terminer to Kent to try the leaders of the revolt.47
While at Rochester he sealed the patent which appointed Somerset Constable
of England.48 This brought the controversy between Somerset and York
to a crisis. Parliament met in November. Kemp as Chancellor urged the necessity of putting down riots and
defending the coasts from France. But attacks on Somerset occupied the whole session. As the controversy grew
fiercer and threatened civil war, Kemp became somewhat helpless. Yet he was the mainstay of the king's party.
In 1452 he was translated from York to Canterbury as the successor of Archbishop Stafford.
He was duly elected by the monks of Christ Church, but the final appointment was by papal provision, dated
21 July.49 He obtained restitution of his temporalities on 6 Sept., and on 24 Sept. received the
pallium from Nicholas V. He was enthroned on 11 Dec.50 Kemp also received a peculiar distinction
from Pope Nicholas, who created in his favour an extraordinary cardinal bishopric, by separating the see of
Porto from that of Selva Candida, or Santa Rufina, to which it had been annexed since 1138. Porto remained
occupied by Francis Condulmer, nephew of Eugenius IV, while Kemp was transferred from the cardinal priesthood
of Santa Balbina to the bishopric of Santa Rufina.51 The two sees were reunited after Kemp's death.
Kemp's appointment to Canterbury was a great triumph of Somerset's influence. The parliament which met at
Reading in March 1453 was also decidedly on the Lancastrian side. But ill-health kept Kemp in London, so that
the Bishop of Lincoln [John Chadworth] had to open the estates in his stead.52 He was, however,
present before Easter to convey to the Commons the thanks of the king for their liberal grants, and duly
presided at the later session in Westminster. In August Henry VI went mad. On 14
Oct. Kemp stood godfather to the king's son, Edward.53 But the crisis was becoming too severe
for the aged chancellor. Suitors denounced him as the 'cursed cardinal.'54
On 14 Jan. 1454 a tumultuous deputation of London and Calais merchants, headed by the mayors, visited him
at Lambeth to complain of Lord Bonville. 'The Chancellor gave them none answer to their liking; wherefore
the substance of them with one voice cried aloud "Justice, justice!" whereof the Chancellor was so dismayed
that he could no more say to them for fear.'55 All the nobles were now arming, and on 19 Jan.
'the cardinal commanded his servants to be ready with bow and arrows, sword and buckler, and all habiliments
of war: to await upon the safeguard of his person.'56 When the Yorkist lords, headed by
Norfolk, threatened his position, he clung bravely to his post. On 19 March
he promised a 'good and comfortable answer' to the Commons' request for a 'sad and wise council.' He died
three days after, on 22 March. He was buried at Canterbury, in the south aisle of the choir, 'in a high tomb
of marble, but no image engrossed on it.'57 There is a portrait of Kemp in a stained-glass window
at the east end of Bolton Percy Church, near York.58
Kemp was a thoroughly political ecclesiastic. Henry VI declared that he was one of
the wisest lords of the land,59 and in thanking the pope for making him a cardinal, commended him
for his 'holiness, purity of life, abundance of knowledge, ripeness of counsel, experience in business, wisdom,
eloquence, gravity, and dignity of person.'60 He was not much of a bishop, and was very unpopular
in Yorkshire, which he seldom visited. In 1441 a great conflict 'broke out between Kemp's tenants and servants
at Ripon and the king's tenants of the Forest of Knaresborough as to certain rights of toll at fairs. Kemp
kept 'his town of Ripon like a town of war with hired soldiers.' Three hundred mercenaries in the archbishop's
pay sought to coerce the Knaresborough men, and seem in the end to have succeeded in making them pay the
disputed toll. The whole story illustrates the extreme anarchy of the period.61
In March 1443 bands of rioters, angered at his proceedings against some of the laity for spiritual offences,
and instigated by the Earl of Northumberland, pulled down his house, assaulted
his servants, and threatened his palace at Southwell.62 After long debates in council the earl was
ordered to pay all damages. In May 1443 a royal order to the custodes pacis of the three ridings of
Yorkshire was issued to prevent further attacks on the archbishop.63 In 1444 he held a provincial
council at York, and issued a constitution which sought to prevent the smaller monasteries from alienating
their property. Kemp restored Southwell and other manor houses of the see of York.64 He paid for
painting the vaulting of the nave of York Cathedral in white and gold.65 The Canterbury historians,
though with less reason, also accuse Kemp of neglecting the interests of that see.
Kemp was commemorated as a benefactor of the university of Oxford,66 though the story of Wood,
that he contributed five hundred marks to the completion of the divinity school, seems to rest partly on a
confusion between him and his nephew, who contributed one thousand marks, and partly on the fact that he was
an executor of Cardinal Beaufort, who gave that sum.67 His arms are still to be seen in the groined
roof of the divinity school. But Kemp's chief act of beneficence was the erection of a college of secular
priests, or 'perpetual chantry,' in the parish church of Wye, his native place, for which he always showed
a strong affection. He obtained a royal license for this object in February 1432, and permission to add
largely to its endowment in March 1439. But it was not until 1447 that the plans were finally completed.
Kemp drew up elaborate statutes for the government of the master or provost and fellows of his college. He
gave a preference to Merton men for the provostship. A grammar school was established in connection with
the college, and one of the fellows was to act as curate of Wye. Kemp built a fine new cruciform church
and buildings for the college adjacent. He put the college under the care of Battle Abbey, to which the
manor of Wye belonged. It was suppressed under
1. Leland, Itinerary, vi. f. 2.
2. Edward Hasted, History of Kent, iii. 170-3.
3. Brodrick, Memorials of Merton, p. 221, Oxford Hist. Soc.
4. Newcourt, Repertorium Ecclesiasticum Lond. i. 22.
5. Dallaway, Western Sussex; ii. 68.
6. Le Neve, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 303-304, ed. Hardy.
7. Rymer, Foedera, ix. 293-5.
8. ib. ix. 543.
9. ib. ix. 649.
10. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i. 379.
11. Stubbs, Registrum Sacrum Anglicanum, p. 64.
12. Foedera, ix. 796.
13. ib. x. 218.
14. Ordinances of Privy Council, iii. 70, 72.
15. £80 in 1423 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £52,600 in 2010.
Source: Measuring Worth.
16. Ordinances of Privy Council, iii. 137.
17. Beckington Correspondence, i. 281.
18. Foedera, x. 353; Rotuli Parliamentorum iv. 299.
19. Le Neve, Fasti Eccles. Angl. iii. 110, ed. Hardy.
20. Foedera, x. 500.
21. 1,000 marks in 1432 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £439,000 in 2010.
Source: Measuring Worth.
22. ib. x. 525, 526.
23. ib. x. 536.
24. ib. x. 539.
25. ib. x. 547.
26. ib. x. 589, 595.
27. Ord. P. C. iv. 168.
28. Stevenson, Wars of the English in France, ii. 226-9.
29. Rot. Parl. iv. 446.
30. Plancher, Histoire de Bourgogne, iv. preuves, pp.cxlviii-li.
31. cf. a French account by A de la Taverne, 1651; a Latin relation by the English ambassadors
in Harleian MS. 4763; and De Beaucourt, Histoire de Charles VII, ii. 505-59.
32. Three Fifteenth-century Chronicles, ed. Gairdner, Camden Soc., 1880, p. 166.
33. Stevenson, i. 493.
34. Foedera, x. 718.
36. Ord. P. C. v. 885-407.
37. Stevenson, ii. 440-51.
38. Mas Latrie, Trésor de Chronologie, p. 1206.
39. Beckington Correspondence, ii. 38-47.
40. Duck, Life of Chichele.
41. English Chronicle, 1377-1461, Camden Soc, p. 58.
42. Ord. P. C. v. 223.
43. Stevenson, i. 104-157.
44. Foedera, xi. 174.
45. Beckington Correspondence, i. 165159.
46. Three Fifteenth-century Chronicles, p. 68; Gregory's Chronicle, p. 193.
47. Paston Letters, i. 139, ed. Gairdner.
48. Foedera, xi. 276.
49. Anglia Sacra, i. 123.
50. ib. i. 123.
51. Mas Latrie, p. 1157.
52. Rot. Parl. v. 227.
53. English Chronicle, 1377-1461, p. 70.
54. Paston Letters, i. 275.
55. ib. i. 267-8.
56. ib. i. 268.
57. Leland; Gough, Sepulchral Monuments, iii. 170.
58. Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 419, vii. 321.
59. Paston Letters, i. 315.
60. Beckington Correspondence, i. 40.
61. Plumpton Correspondence, liv-lxii., Camden Soc.
62. Ord. P. C. v. cxxi. 273, 275, 276, 309.
63. Foedera, xi. 27.
64. Weever, Funerall Monuments, p. 229.
65. Raine, Historians of Church of York, ii. 435.
66. Munimenta Academica, Rolls Ser., pp. 351, 352, 354.
67. Lyte, History of the University of Oxford, p. 318.
68. Dugdale, Monasticon, iii. 254, vi. 1430-2; Hasted, Kent, iii. 170-3.
Tout, T. F. "John Kemp."
The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol X. Sidney Lee, Ed.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1908. 1272-1276.
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