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William of Wykeham


There is an old tradition, perhaps not worthy of much credit, that upon the wall of a tower in Windsor Castle, known as the Winchester Tower, was inscribed "This made Wykeham." The great churchman raised this tower as the architect of Windsor Castle, working under the commands of his patron Edward III. It is further said, that the king being offended at this inscription, its more obvious meaning was dexterously explained away, seeing that it should be interpreted to record that the building of the castle was "the making" of the architect. There are other proud edifices still remaining upon which might be inserted "This made Wykeham" in the most complete sense. No man ever left more permanent traces of his course and character. The founder of Winchester College, and of New College, Oxford,—the builder of the noblest part of Winchester Cathedral,—had a title to be called their "maker," with no king or subject to dispute his pretensions. He was one of the very few men who, having raised themselves by their abilities and integrity to riches and honour, worked not sordidly for themselves to heap up treasure, but nobly employed their wealth in works of the highest public utility. The life of such a man is for example. William De Wykeham, or Of Wykeham, was born at Wykeham or Wickham, in Hampshire, in the year 1324, and, as his biographer Bishop Lowth has shown, some time between the 7th of July and the 27th of September. There is reason to believe that he did not take his name from his native village, the same name being borne by several of his relations living in his own day, who do not appear to have been born there. All that is certainly known about his father and mother is that their Christian names were John and Sybil: if his father bore the name of Wykeham, he appears to have also passed by that of Long or Longe, and to have had an elder brother who was called Henry Aas.

Lowth thus sensibly remarks upon this obscurity of the name of so distinguished a man:—"If we consider the uncertain state of family-names at the time of the birth of Wykeham, we shall not think it strange that there should be such doubt with regard to the surname of his family; or even if it should appear that he had properly no family-name at all. Surnames were introduced into England by the Normans at the Conquest: 'But certain it is,' says Camden, 'that as the better sort, even from the Conquest, by little and little, took surnames; so they were not settled among the common people fully until about the time of Edward the Second.'"

The parents of Wykeham are held to have been poor, but of creditable descent and reputable character. When their son became a dignitary of the church, he employed a seal with heraldic bearings and a quaint motto; but it is believed that these honours were not hereditary. Lowth holds that his relations were of the common people, and adds, "I am even inclined to think that he himself disclaimed all farther pretensions. The celebrated motto which he added to his arms (of which probably he might have received a grant when he began to rise in the world) I imagine was intended by him to intimate something of this kind: Manners makyth Man : the true meaning of which, as he designed it, I presume to be, though it has commonly been understood otherwise, that a man's real worth is to be estimated not from the outward and accidental advantages of birth, rank, and fortune, but from the endowments of his mind and his moral qualifications. In this sense it bears a proper relation to his arms, and contains a just apology for those ensigns of his newly acquired dignity. Conscious to himself that his claim to honour is unexceptionable, as founded upon truth and reason, he in a manner makes his appeal to the world; alleging that neither high birth, to which he makes no pretensions, nor high station, upon which he does not value himself, but

"'Virtue alone is true nobility.'"

He was put to school at Winchester, not by his father, who had not the means, but by some wealthy patron, who is traditionally said to have been Nicholas Uvedale, lord of the manor of Wykeham and governor of Winchester Castle. The tradition further asserts that, after leaving school, he became secretary to Uvedale; and that he was secretary to the constable of Winchester Castle is stated in a written account compiled in his own time. Afterwards he is said to have been recommended by Uvedale to Edyngton, bishop of Winchester, and then by those two friends to have been made known to King Edward III. There seems to be no reason for supposing that he ever studied at Oxford, as has been affirmed by some of the later writers of his life. It is evident, indeed, that he had not had a university education, and that he never pretended to any skill in the favourite scholastic learning of his age. His strength lay in his natural genius, in his knowledge of mankind and talent for business; and probably the only art or science he had much cultivated was architecture.

He is said in an ancient contemporary account to have been brought to court when he was no more than three or four and twenty, which would be about the year 1348; but the earliest office which there is the evidence of records for his having held, is that of clerk of all the king's works in his manors of Henle and Yesthampsted, his patent for which is dated 10th of May, 1356. On the 30th of October in the same year he was made surveyor of the king's works at the castle and in the park of Windsor. It is affirmed by a contemporary writer to have been at his instigation that King Edward pulled down and rebuilt great part of Windsor Castle. Wykeham had the sole superintendence of the work. Queenborough Castle, in the Isle of Sheppy, was also built under his direction.

The king now began to reward him bountifully. He had probably taken deacon's orders at an early age; Lowth finds him designated 'clericus,' or clerk, in 1352. It was not, however, till the 5th of December, 1361, that he was admitted to the order of acolyte: he was ordained sub-deacon on the 12th of March, 1362, and priest on the 12th of June following. Meanwhile his first ecclesiastical preferment, the rectory of Pulham in Norfolk, had been conferred upon him by the king's presentation on the 30th of November, 1357. On the 1st of March, 1359, he was presented by the king to the prebend of Flixton, in the church of Lichfield. On the 16th of April following he had a grant of 200 l. a year from the crown, over and above all his former appointments, till he should get quiet possession of the church of Pulham, his induction into which living had been opposed by the court of Rome. On the 10th of July in the same year, he was appointed chief warden and surveyor of the king's castles of Windsor, Leeds, Dovor, and Hadham, and of the manors of Old and New Windsor, Wichemer, and sundry other castles and manors, with the parks belonging to them. On the 5th of May, 1360, he received the king's grant of the deanery of the royal free chapel or collegiate church of St. Martin-le-Grand, London. In October, 1360, he attended upon the king at Calais, probably in quality of public notary, when the treaty of Bretigny was solemnly confirmed by the oaths of Edward and King John of France. Numerous additional preferments in the church were heaped upon him in the course of the next three years. By June, 1363, moreover he had been appointed to the office of warden and justiciary of the king's forests on this side Trent. On the 14th of March, 1364, he had by royal grant an assignment of twenty shillings a-day out of the exchequer. On the 11th of May, 1364, he was made keeper of the privy seal, and soon after he is styled secretary to the king, or what we should now call principal secretary of state. In May, 1365, he was commissioned by the king, with the chancellor, the treasurer, and the Earl of Arundel, to treat of the ransom of the King of Scotland (David II., taken at the battle of Nevil's Cross in 1346), and the prolonging of the truce with the Scots. And not long after this he is designated, in a paper printed in the 'Faedera,' chief of the privy council and governor of the great council, which phrases, however, Lowth supposes do not express titles of office, but only the great influence and authority which he had in those assemblies. "There are several other preferments, both ecclesiastical and civil," adds Lowth, "which he is said to have held; but I do not mention them, because the authorities produced for them are such as I cannot entirely depend upon. And, as to his ecclesiastical benefices already mentioned, the practice of exchanging them was then so common, that 'tis hard to determine precisely which of them he held altogether at any one time." There is extant, however, an account given in by himself on occasion of the bull of Pope Urban V. against pluralities, of the entire number and value of his church benefices, as the matter stood in the year 1366; and from this statement, in which Wykeham calls himself "Sir William of Wykeham, clerk, archdeacon of Lincoln, and secretary of our lord the illustrious King of England, and keeper of his privy seal, it appears that the total produce of those which he had held when the account was demanded, was 873 l. 6 s. 8 d., and of those of which he remained in possession when it was given in, 842 l."

Froissart, speaking of the English court at this period, says, "At this time reigned a priest called William of Wykeham. This William of Wykeham was so much in favour with the King of England, that everything was done by him, and nothing was done without him."

Upon the death of William de Edyngton, on the 8th of October, 1366, Wykeham was immediately, upon the king's earnest recommendation, elected by the prior and convent of Winchester to succeed him as bishop of that see. He was not consecrated till the 10th of October in the year following; but this delay, till an adjustment was effected of the conflicting pretensions of the royal authority and the court of Rome, was evidently occasioned, as Lowth has shown, only by a contention between the king and the pope as to which of them should have the largest share in Wykeham's promotion. Meanwhile he had been appointed by the king lord high chancellor of England; he was confirmed in that office on the 17th of September, 1367.

He continued chancellor till the 14th of March, 1371, when he delivered back to the king both the great and the privy seals, on the change of ministry made in compliance with a petition presented shortly before by the Lords and Commons, complaining of the mischiefs which had resulted from the government of the kingdom having for a long time been in the hands of men of the church, and praying that secular men only might be appointed to the principal offices both in the king's courts and household. There is no appearance, however, of this complaint being specially directed against any part of the conduct of the Bishop of Winchester, who assisted at the ceremony of constituting his successor in the chancellorship, and seems to have for years after this continued to retain both the favour of the king and the goodwill of the parliament, and even to have remained in habits of intimate and confidential connexion with the Duke of Lancaster, to whose influence the removal of the clergy from the offices of state is said to have been owing.

With reference to the complaint that men of the church filled high civil offices, Lowth observes, "The truth of the matter seems to be, that the laity in general looked with an evil eye upon the clergy, who had of late filled for the most part the great posts of honour and profit in the state; which, as it was obvious to remark, neither lay within their province nor were suitable to their function and character. The practice, however improper in itself and liable to objection, yet seems to have taken its rise from the necessity of the times: the men of abilities had for a long time been chiefly employed abroad in the wars; this was the most open road to riches and honours, and every one was pushing forward in it. Besides, it was not at any time easy to find among the laity persons properly qualified, in point of knowledge and letters, to fill with sufficiency some of the highest offices. We see the king was now obliged to have recourse to the lawyers: they gave as little satisfaction as the churchmen had done; and in a few years it was found necessary to discharge them, and to call in the churchmen again."

At the period of Wykeham's election to the see of Winchester, the bishops of that diocese had no fewer than twelve different castles or palaces, all furnished and maintained as places of residence. Wykeham's first undertaking after he found himself in possession of the see was to set about a thorough repair of these episcopal houses.

To these palaces or castles the bishops of Winchester resorted in turns, "living, according to the custom of those times, chiefly upon the produce of their own estates. So great a demand as the bishop had upon his predecessor's executors for dilapidations could not very soon or very easily be brought to an accommodation; however, the account was at last settled between them without proceeding on either side to an action at law. In the first place they delivered to him the standing stock of the bishopric due to him by right and custom: namely, 127 draught-horses, 1556 head of black cattle, 3876 weathers, 4777 ewes, 3521 lambs: and afterwards for dilapidations, in cattle, corn, and other goods, to the value of 1662 l. 10 s.sterling."

Before his repairs were accomplished, Wykeham had disbursed twenty thousand marks of his own revenue. This energetic improver also applied himself with great zeal and diligence to the reformation of abuses in the monasteries and religious houses of all sorts throughout his diocese. The ancient hospital of St. Cross, at Sparkeford, near Winchester, founded in 1132 by the famous Bishop Henry de Blois, brother to King Stephen, in particular engaged much of his attention, and the objects of the charity were indebted to his persevering exertions for the restoration of many rights and benefits which they had originally enjoyed, but of which they had been for a long time defrauded.

In 1373 a school at Winchester, founded wholly by the munificence of this high-minded prelate, was first opened. The history of the endowment and completion of Winchester College, and of New College at Oxford, for which Winchester is preparatory, is so well told by Lowth, that we transcribe his narrative and just remarks without abridgment:—

"At the same time that Wykeham was thus engaged in the reformation of these charitable institutions, he was forming the plan of a much more noble and extensive foundation of his own, and taking his measures for putting it in execution. He had long resolved to dispose of the wealth which the Divine Providence had so abundantly bestowed upon him to some charitable use and for the public good, but was greatly embarrassed when he came to fix his choice upon some design that was like to prove most beneficial, and least liable to abuse. He tells us himself that upon this occasion he diligently examined and considered the various rules of the religious orders, and compared with them the lives of their several professors; but was obliged with grief to declare that he could not anywhere find that the ordinances of their founders, according to their true design and intention, were at present observed by any of them. This reflection affected him greatly, and inclined him to take the resolution of distributing his riches to the poor with his own hands, rather than employ them in establishing an institution which might become a snare and an occasion of guilt to those for whose benefit it should be designed. After much deliberation and devout invocation of the Divine assistance, considering how greatly the number of the clergy had been of late reduced by continual wars and frequent pestilences, he determined at last to endeavour to remedy, as far as he was able, this desolation of the church, by relieving poor scholars in their clerical education; and to establish two colleges of students, for the honour of God and increase of his worship, for the support and exaltation of the Christian faith, and for the improvement of the liberal arts and sciences; hoping and trusting that men of letters and various knowledge, and bred up in the fear of God, would see more clearly and attend more strictly to the obligation lying upon them to observe the rules and directions which he should give them. Wykeham seems to have come to this resolution, and in some measure to have formed in his mind his general plan, as early as his becoming Bishop of Winchester; for we find that in little more than two years after, he had made purchases of several parcels of ground in the city of Oxford, which make the chief part of the site of his college there. His college of Winchester, intended as a nursery for that of Oxford, was part of his original plan; for as early as the year 1373, before he proceeded any further in his design for the latter, he established a school at Winchester, of the same kind with the former, and for the same purpose. He agreed with Richard de Herton, that for ten years, beginning from Michaelmas of the year above mentioned, he should diligently instruct in grammatical learning as many poor scholars as the bishop should send to him, and no others without his leave; that the bishop should provide and allow him a proper assistant; and that Herton, in case of his own illness or necessary absence, should substitute a proper master to supply his place.

"Wykeham's munificence proceeded always from a constant generous principle, a true spirit of liberality. It was not owing to a casual impulse or a sudden emotion, but was the effect of mature deliberation and prudent choice. His enjoyment of riches consisted in employing them in acts of beneficence, and while they were increasing upon him, he was continually devising proper means of disposing of them for the good of the public, not delaying it till the time of his death, when he could keep them no longer, nor leaving to the care of others what he could better execute himself; but forming his good designs early, and, as soon as he had the ability, putting them in execution, that he might have the satisfaction of seeing the beneficial effects of them, and that by constant observation and due experience he might from time to time improve and perfect them, so as to render them yet more beneficial."

The pious and patriotic exertions of the good bishop were interrupted for a time by a political storm which rose against him in 1376, the last year of the reign of Edward III. He had been appointed one of the council established to superintend the conduct of affairs on the petition of the parliament which met in April of that year; and in consequence became a principal object of the resentment of the Duke of Lancaster and his party, who, after the death of the Black Prince in June, and the rise of the parliament in July, took possession of the superannuated and dying king, and proceeded to overthrow all the reforms that had been lately made in the government, and to effect, as far as they could, the ruin of all concerned in them. By the duke's contrivance eight articles were exhibited against the bishop at the beginning of the next Michaelmas term, charging him with various acts of pecuniary defalcation, oppression, and other sorts of misgovernment while he had been in office many years before as keeper of the privy seal and lord chancellor. He was heard in his defence, before a commission of bishops, peers, and privy councillors, about the middle of November, when judgment was given against him upon one of the articles, involving at the utmost a mere irregularity; and upon this, under the influence that then prevailed at court, an order was immediately issued for the sequestration of the revenues of his bishopric, and he was at the same time forbidden, in the king's name, to come within twenty miles of the court. The next parliament, which met on the 27th of January, 1377, was wholly devoted to Lancaster; and when, soon after, on the petition of the Commons, an act of general pardon was issued by the king, in consideration of its being the year of his jubilee, the Bishop of Winchester alone was specially excepted out of its provisions. All this, in the circumstances of the time, may be taken as the best attestation to Wykeham's patriotism and integrity. His brethren of the clergy, however, assembled in convocation, now took up his cause with great zeal; and, whether in consequence of their bold representations on the subject to the king, or for some other reason, it was soon deemed expedient to drop the proceedings against him, and on the 18th of June his temporalities were restored to him, on condition of his fitting out three ships of war for the defence of the kingdom and maintaining them at sea for a quarter of a year. And even from this mulct he was released on the accession of Richard II., a few days after. But the loss nevertheless to which he had been subjected by his prosecution is said to have amounted to ten thousand marks.

The instrument by which, on the accession of the young king, Wykeham was relieved from the pains and penalties which a dominant party had imposed upon him, is very full and explicit. It sets forth "that the king, reflecting upon the great damages and hardships that the Bishop of Winchester hath sustained on occasion of the said impeachment, and revolving in his mind the many acceptable, useful, and laudable services which the said bishop with great labour and expense hath long performed for his grandfather, the many high offices which he hath held under his grandfather and father, and the special affection and sincere love which his father while he lived always bore towards the said bishop, out of his special favour and with his certain knowledge, and also by advice and consent of his uncle the Duke of Lancaster and other prelates and lords of his council, remits and pardons all the aforesaid articles, and all other crimes and offences whatsoever in the amplest terms, and in the fullest manner, the exception of the said bishop in the Act of Grace passed in the last parliament of the late king, and all other statutes to the contrary notwithstanding; concluding with a clause to this effect: 'Willing that all men should know that, although we have granted to the Bishop of Winchester the said pardons and graces, nevertheless we do not think the said bishop to be in anywise chargeable, in the sight of God, with any of the matters thus by us pardoned, remitted, or released unto him, but do hold him to be, as to all and every of them, wholly innocent and guiltless.'"

His pardon was immediately followed by his employment in offices of trust and authority, where his great abilities and force of character gave assurance of a just and wise administration. As soon as Wykeham was released from his troubles he hastened to apply himself anew to the carrying forward and completion of his two colleges. The business of teaching appears to have commenced both at Winchester and at Oxford in 1373; Pope Urban VI.'s bull of licence for founding Winchester College was granted 1st June, 1378; the building of the College at Oxford, which he called "St. Mary College of Winchester in Oxford," was begun in 1380, and was finished in 1386; that of the College at Winchester was begun in 1387, and was finished in 1393. The papal bull confirming the statutes of the college at Oxford is dated 19th July, 1398. As soon as his two colleges were erected, he entered upon another great work, which still remains a monument of his taste and munificence: he resolved to rebuild his cathedral in the greater part of its extent. This undertaking he commenced in 1395, and he just lived to see it brought to a close in about ten years after.

The Bishop of Winchester was one of the fourteen persons appointed in 1386, on the petition of the parliament, instigated by the king's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, to be a council to the king for one year, and in fact for that term to exercise all the powers of government. As soon as the parliament was dismissed. Richard made an attempt to break from the yoke thus imposed upon him; the commission and statute appointing the council were declared by the judges, on the royal command, to be illegal and null, and to have involved all who had been concerned in procuring them in the guilt of treason. Upon this the Duke of Gloucester and his friends raised an army of forty thousand men. Having encamped before London, they sent a deputation, of which the Bishop of Winchester was a member, to the king; the deputies were graciously received, and returned with proposals for an accommodation; but in the mean time a body of forces which had been raised for the king in Wales and Cheshire, under the command of his minion the Duke of Ireland, was encountered by the Earl of Derby and a part of the army of the confederated lords at Radcott Bridge in Oxfordshire, and entirely defeated. This blow compelled Richard to yield for the present. But in May, 1389, another revolution in the government was effected by the king suddenly declaring himself to be of age, and removing the Duke of Gloucester and his friends from the council-board. He did not, however, dispense with the services of the Bishop of Winchester, but, on the contrary, forced him again to accept the great seal. Wykeham remained chancellor till the 27th of September, 1391, when he retired from office, Gloucester having by this time been restored to his place in the council, and all parties having been for the present again reconciled, in a great measure, it is probable, through the bishop's mediation. From this date Wykeham appears to have taken little or no share in public affairs. In 1397, when the Duke of Gloucester was put to death, and several of those who had joined him in taking arms in 1386 were attainted for that treason, the Bishop of Winchester and others were, at the intercession of the Commons, declared by the king from the throne in parliament not to have been implicated in what their fellow-commissioners had done. Wykeham was present in the parliament held 30th September, 1399, when Richard was deposed, and also in the first parliament of Henry IV., summoned a few days after; but this was the last which he attended. He continued, however, in the active discharge of his episcopal duties for two or three years longer, and was able to transact business till within four days of his death, which took place at South Waltham, about eight o'clock on the morning of Saturday the 27th of September, 1404.

We conclude with Lowth's just eulogium upon the high-minded munificence of this remarkable man:—"We frequently hear of men who, by the force of their genius, by their industry, or by their good fortune, have raised themselves from the lowest stations to the highest degrees of honour, power, and wealth; but how seldom do we meet with those who have made a proper use of the advantages which they have thus happily acquired, and considered them as deposited in their hands by Providence for the general benefit of mankind? In this respect Wykeham stands an uncommon and almost singular example of generosity and public spirit. By the time that he had reached the meridian of life, he had acquired great wealth; and the remainder of his days he employed not in increasing it to no reasonable end, but in bestowing it in every way that piety, charity, and liberality could devise. The latter half of a long life he spent in one continued series of generous actions and great designs, for the good of his friends, of the poor, and of his country. His beneficence was ever vigilant, active, and persevering: it was not only ready to answer when opportunity called, but sought it out when it did not offer itself. No man seems to have tasted more sensibly the pleasure of doing good; and no man had ever a greater share of this exquisite enjoyment. The foundation of his colleges, the principal monuments of his munificence, was as well calculated for the real use of the public, and as judiciously planned as it was nobly and generously executed. Whatever Wykeham's attainments in letters were, he had at least the good sense to see that the clergy, though they had almost engrossed the whole learning of that age, yet were very deficient in real and useful knowledge; besides that by the particular distresses of the times, and the havoc that several successive plagues had made in all ranks of the people, but especially among the clergy, the church was at a loss for a proper supply of such as were tolerably qualified for the performance of the common service. It was not vanity and ostentation that suggested this design to him; he was prompted to it by the notorious exigence of the times and the real demands of the public. The deliberation with which he entered upon it, and the constant attention with which he pursued it for above thirty years, shows how much he set his heart upon the success of his undertaking, and how earnestly he endeavoured to secure the effectual attainment of the end proposed, the promotion of true piety and learning. In a word, as he was in his own time a general blessing to his country, in which his bounty was freely imparted to every object that could come within the reach of his influence, so the memory of this great man merits the universal regard of posterity, as of one whose pious and munificent designs were directed to the general good of mankind, and were extended to the latest ages."