Britannia Biographies: William of Wykeham Part 7
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Bishop & Chancellor
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Twilight Years


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 7: Twilight Years

Bishop William's 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 on 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, Wykeham entered upon another great work, which still remains a monument of his taste arid 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 occurring 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. However, 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 (later Henry IV) and a part of the army of the confederated lords at Radcote Bridge on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border, 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 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, possibly, in a great measure, 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. This occurred at his Episcopal Palace of Bishop's Waltham (Hampshire) at about eight o'clock on the morning of Saturday 27th September 1404. He was buried in Winchester Cathedral, in a fine Chantry Chapel he had prepared some years before.

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."

Edited from Lord Brougham's 'Old England's Worthies' (1857).


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