Dispensation, Privileges, and the Conferment of Graduate Status: With Special Reference to Lambeth Degrees

Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 18, 2002-2003

26 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2003


Since 1533 archbishops of Canterbury have conferred academic degrees by virtue of the power invested in them by the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533-1534, also known as the Peter's Pence Act. Legally these so-called Lambeth degrees, named after the principal residence of the archbishop, survive as an aspect of the medieval papal authority to grant dispensations. This is, in individual cases of hardship, the see of Rome might exercise the jurisdiction vested in him as patriarch of the west - though not necessarily in other patriarchs - to confer upon an appropriate recipient the academic degree which he would have received but for some impediment. But properly speaking, these degrees were not just an exercise of papal dispensation, they also sometimes had the character of a grant of a privilege. For example, the papacy might confer a degree upon a recipient to enable that person to hold an office that the canon law, or a specific institutional rule, limited to graduates. The power claimed and exercised by the papacy to confer the status of graduate to someone who had not earned it in the traditional way was never limited solely to true dispensations, but always included positive privilege as papal degrees granted for political reasons clearly illustrate.

In post-Reformation England, Lambeth degrees replaced papal degrees and degree status. Awarded to this day, Lambeth degrees are, generally speaking, lineal descendants of the medieval papal or legatine degrees. But their nature has perhaps been misunderstood: they should not be thought of as merely honorary degrees. Like the papal degrees they replaced, they are best understood as privileges rather than dispensations, though they reflect aspects of both papal powers, and more broadly, the influence of the canon law and the papacy upon medieval higher education.

Keywords: Lambeth degrees, Archbishop of Canterbury, dispensation, papacy

JEL Classification: K39

Suggested Citation

Cox, Noel S.B., Dispensation, Privileges, and the Conferment of Graduate Status: With Special Reference to Lambeth Degrees. Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 18, 2002-2003, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=420661 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.420661

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