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William of Wykeham

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William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of England and founder of Winchester College; b. between July and September, 1324; d. September 27, 1404. A native of Wickham, in Hampshire, he was educated at Winchester Grammar School, became secretary to the constable of Winchester Castle, through whom he came under the notice first of the bishop (Edington) and then of King Edward III, into whose service he passed at the age of about twenty-three, in the capacity of architect and surveyor. He superintended much important building, including the reconstruction of Windsor Castle, and was rewarded, according to the bad custom of the times, by receiving valuable ecclesiastical preferments, although not even in minor orders. Between 1357 and 1361 rectories, prebends, canonries, an archdeaconry, and a deaconry were conferred on him, as well as the keepership of a dozen royal castles and manors. It was not, however, until December, 1361, that he received minor orders from Bishop Edington, who ordained him priest in the following year. At the same time he became warden of the royal forests in the south of England, and advanced rapidly in the favor of the king, who gave him his entire confidence, consulted him in everything, and named him, in 1364, keeper of the privy seal, an office which so increased his power and influence that, according to Froissart, he “reigned in England, and without him they did nothing”. In October, 1366, he was elected, on the king’s recommendation, to succeed Edington as Bishop of Winchester. The election was, after some delay, confirmed by Pope Urban V, and Wykeham was consecrated on October 10, 1367, having been, a month previously, appointed chancellor of the kingdom.

Raised thus in a few weeks to the richest bishopric and the highest civil office in England, Wykeham was unfortunate in the coincidence of his chancellorship with the serious reverses sustained in the war with France. A cry for the removal of the great offices of state from the hands of clerics led to Wykeham resigning the great seal in 1372, and gave him more leisure for his episcopal duties. In 1373 he personally visited every church and monastery in his diocese, reformed abuses at Selborne Priory, the hospital of St. Cross, and other religious houses, and made plans for the great educational foundations which were to be the glory of his episcopate. In 1376, however, his work was interrupted by the troubles brought on him by the hostility of John of Gaunt. He was impeached for misgovernment and for misappropriation of state funds; and though only a single minor charge was said to be proved against him, the temporalities of his see were seized, and not released until the death of Edward III. The accession of Richard II saw Wykeham restored to favor; a full pardon was granted to him both by king and parliament, his revenues were restored to him, and he was able to resume the project of founding his college at Oxford. The charter was issued, with royal and papal licence, in 1379; the foundations were laid in 1380; and six years later the college (New College, Oxford) was solemnly inaugurated, the buildings and the endowment being on a scale equally magnificent, and the total number of members on the foundation amounting to no less than a hundred. Side by side with this splendid institution, and closely connected with it, grew up the equally famous grammar school of St. Mary at Winchester, the foundation of which was authorized by papal Bull in 1378, and the charter issued in 1382, providing for the education of seventy-four scholars in preparation for their entering the founder’s college at Oxford. This union of grammar school and university was later imitated by Henry VI when founding Eton and King’s College, Cambridge; and there are other examples of it. Wykeham was the first founder of a college in which the chapel was an essential part of the design; and his statutes provided for stately and elaborate services, including the daily performance of the Divine office “with chant and note”, and the daily singing of seven Masses at the high altar. Every detail of the studies and of the scholastic discipline was regulated by himself; and probably, of all the pre-Reformation colleges of England, Winchester is the one in which (in spite of the change of religion) the original statutes are most closely observed, and the memory of the founder is most deeply venerated. Wykeham’s collegiate buildings, finished about 1375, are still in use, but there have been extensive modern additions, and the college still ranks with the greatest of English public schools.

Another important work undertaken by Wykeham was the rebuilding of the nave of his cathedral, or rather its transformation from Norman to Perpendicular. This work, begun by him in 1394, was completed by his successors Cardinal Beaufort and Wayneflete. Meanwhile the bishop, after some years of non-intervention in state affairs, had for the second time (in 1389) been appointed chancellor, and discharged the office to the satisfaction of Richard II. In little more than two years, however, he finally resigned the position, and from that date until his death took no active part in politics, although his ability and integrity caused him to be frequently included in committees of the upper house and in royal commissions. He spent the last three years of his life in retirement at his palace of South Waltham, and in 1402 found it necessary to appoint two coadjutor bishops, both fellows of New College. He made his will in July, 1403, bequeathing large sums for charitable purposes and for Masses and suffrages for his soul. Fourteen months later, after several days spent in uninterrupted prayer, he passed peacefully away. According to his own wish he was buried in the chantry built by himself on the south side of the nave of his cathedral, on the site of an altar of the Blessed Virgin. A beautiful altar-tomb, with a recumbent figure, perpetuates the memory of a prelate who, if not specially distinguished as a statesman or a man of learning, was certainly one of the most zealous, generous, and magnanimous occupants of the historic See of Winchester.


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