1902 Encyclopedia > William of Wykeham

William of Wykeham
Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England
(1320 or 1324 - 1404)

WILLIAM OF WYKEHAM (1321-1404), bishop of Winchester and chancellor of England, was born in 1321 at Wickham in Hampshire. His father was a yeoman ; his mother is said to have been of noble descent. He was educated at the priory school, Winchester, at the cost of Sir John Scures, lord of the manor of Wickham and governor of Winchester Castle, who afterwards took him into his service. When he was twenty-two years old he passed into the service of Edingdon, bishop of Winchester. In 1347 the bishop introduced him to the king as a young man likely to be useful from his skill in architecture. Edward III., who was then completing the Round Tower at Windsor, made him his chaplain. But his employment for some time was mainly secular : lie acted as guardian of several of the king's manors and as clerk of the works at Henley and elsewhere. In 1356 lie was appointed surveyor of the works at Windsor, and a little later surveyor and warden of several other castles. In 1359 he began the building of the great quadrangle to the east of the keep at Windsor, a work which occupied ten years. This building established his fame as an architect. Two years after its completion he was employed to build Queenborough Castle (Kent). Meanwhile he was also gaining experience in affairs of state. In 1360 he must have been a member of the king's council, for he appears as a witness to the ratification of the treaty of Bretigny. In 1364 lie became keeper of the privy seal. In 1365 he was one of the commissioners to treat for peace with Scotland. And, although he was not yet in holy orders, he was loaded by the king with preferments, one of which, the living of Pulham in Norfolk, involved him (about 1360) in a dispute with the pope. In fact he had attained to such eminence that Froissart says, "At this time there reigned in England a priest called Sir William de Wican, so much in favour with the king that by him everything was done."

Early in life William had received the tonsure ; but it was not till 1362 that he was ordained deacon and priest. In 1363 he became archdeacon of Northampton, and provost and prebendary of Wells. Although at this time he possessed a number of prebends, it appears, from a return which he made in 1366 on account of a papal bull against pluralities, that he only held one benefice with cure of souls. On the translation of Bishop Edingdon in this year from Winchester to Canterbury William was nominated by the king to the vacant bishopric ; but the pope withheld his confirmation for some time, and it was not till October 1:367 that William was consecrated bishop of Winchester. A month previously he had been made chancellor of England. During his first chancellorship the war with France was renewed and went against the English. The blame for this fell in great measure on the ministry, and in 1371 William resigned the great seal. But in 1373 he was one of a committee of the Lords appointed to confer with the Commons on the question of an aid. About this time he fell out with John of Gaunt, with whom he had previously been on good terms. Since the overthrow of the clerical ministry in 1371 John of Gaunt had been practically head of the government, but the conduct of his supporters caused general discontent. In the " Good Parliament" of 1376 Lord Latimer was impeached, and the bishop was active in promoting his trial and punishment. This was a great blow to John of Gaunt. The death of the Black Prince in June 1376 enabled him to take his revenge. The bishop was attacked in the council on the ground of malversation and misconduct of public affairs during his chancellorship, condemned to pay an enormous fine, and deprived of the temporalities of his see. The other bishops took his side and regarded his punishment as an insult to their order. It was not, however, till after the accession of Richard II. (1377) that William recovered his position. He then received a full pardon, and was reconciled to John of Gaunt. o During the next ten years he became more and more clearly identified with the constitutional or Lancastrian party. In 1380 and 1381 he was named on commissions for the reform of the king's household. In 1382 he took part in a conference with the Commons. Next year lie successfully opposed a demand from the lords of the Scottish marches for a share in the public funds in order to defray the expense of guarding the border, a duty on the performance of which rested their title to their lands. In 1386 he became one of the commission appointed to examine into the Exchequer and to act as a sort of council of regency. It was before this commission that the five "lords appellant " impeached Richard H.'s favourites, who next year were condemned by the "Merciless Parliament." A year later (1389) the king suddenly resumed the reins of power. In order, apparently, to conciliate the clergy, Richard at once offered the great seal to the bishop of Winchester, who after some hesitation accepted the charge. His second chancellorship lasted for two years, and was marked by efforts on his part to reform the government and place it on a more constitutional basis. After he had held office for a year be and his colleagues in the ministry resigned their appointments, and challenged a public inquiry into their conduct. This being pronounced satisfactory, they resumed their offices. The chancellor drew up rules for the conduct of business in the council; and from this time minutes of the proceedings were regularly kept. In 1391 he resigned the great seal, and thenceforward retired from public life.

It is, however, as the founder of two great colleges that William is principally known to fame. Immediately after his promotion to the bishopric of Winchester he appears to have begun to carry out his educational schemes. Between 1369 and 1379 he bought the land enclosed in the north-eastern corner of the city walls at Oxford on which New College now stands (see OXFORD, VOL xviii. p. 97). Meanwhile he was taking steps to establish the sister foundation at Winchester. In 1378 he obtained a licence from the pope to found a college there, which was confirmed by the king four years later. The ground on which Winchester College stands belonged partly to the bishop and partly to other proprietors, from whom he bought it. In 1387 be began to build, and the buildings were occupied by his scholars in 1393, though they do not appear to have been finished till 1395. When his two colleges were established and endowed, he provided them with statutes, which after several revisions took their final form in 1400. Nor does lie appear to have neglected his duties as a bishop. He visited and reformed the hospital of St Cross near Winchester ; he corrected the abuses which had crept into the priory of St Swithin ; and he rebuilt or transformed the nave of Winchester cathedral. He kept a strict watch on the clergy under his charge, endeavouring to ensure their efficiency by frequently moving them from one living to another, and he promoted the material prosperity of his diocese by repairs of bridges and roads. In the relations between England and the papacy William of Wykeham strongly supported the nationalist policy of Edward III. The Statutes of Provisors and Prannunire met with his full approval. So far he was in accord with Wycliffe, but he showed no sympathy with the doctrinal opinions of the reformer. Bishop Courtenay, who headed the attack on Wycliffe, was a lifelong friend of the bishop of Winchester, who published in 1382 the interdict condemning Wycliffe's heresies, and in 1392 sat on an episcopal commission to try his follower Henry Crumpe. William of Wykeham died at Waltham on 27th September 1404, and was buried in the cathedral of Winchester.

Authorities. - The episcopal register of William of Wykeham (preserved at Winchester); Walsingham, Historia Anglicana ; Lowth, Life of William of Wykeham, London, 1758 ; Walcott, William of Wykeham and his Colleges, 1852 ; Moberly, Life of William of WYkeham, Winchester, 1887. (G. W. P.)

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