Britannia Biographies: William of Wykeham Part 4
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Biography of William of Wykeham (1324-1404), Bishop of Winchester

W I L L I A M
O F   W Y K E H A M
Part 4: Bishop & Chancellor

Upon the death of William of Edington, on 8th 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 10th 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 as Lord High Chancellor of England; he was confirmed in that office on 17th September 1367.

Wykeham continued as chancellor till 14th 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 connection 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 bishop 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 wethers (rams), 4777 ewes, 3521 lambs: and afterwards for dilapidations, in 'cattle, corn and other goods to the value of 1662 10s sterling."

Before his repairs were accomplished, Wykeham had disbursed twenty thousand marks (13,333 6s 8d) 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 Sparkford near Winchester, founded in 1132 by the famous Bishop Henry of Blois, brother to King Stephen, in particular, engaged much of his attention and the objects of this 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.

Part 5: Colleges for the Poor


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