William of Wykeham (1366-1404)

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William of Wykeham (1366-1404)

An able manager and a builder, William of Wykeham rose from humble beginnings to power and great wealth. He used his wealth and influence to the benefit of English education.

Early Years

He began in the office of the Constable of Winchester Castle, then moved into royal service as a clerk. In his early twenties, with “no other advantages than his skill in architecture”, he came to the attention of Edward III. During the next 21 years he rose rapidly.

In 1356, he became overseer of building works at Windsor Castle. By 1359, he was chief warden and overseer of other royal palaces, parks, and manors. He built the Round Tower and Eastern Ward of Windsor Castle for the king. He probably also rebuilt five other castles – Winchester, Portchester, Wolvesey, Ledes and Dover. Others are believed to have been rebuilt or enlarged by him.

The king paid for these services with the incomes of various churches, a common practise. Perhaps it bothered Wykeham for in 1362 he was ordained.

In 1364, he was made Keeper of the Privy Seal and in 1367 Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England.

Bishop of Winchester

Wykeham was not as good at politics as he was at building castles. King Edward aged prematurely and his third son, John of Gaunt, assumed power. In 1371, Wykeham was charged with abuse of official power and embezzling royal revenues. Ordered to pay an enormous fine, the revenues of his See were confiscated. He was forbidden to go within twenty miles of Court.

He found a home in the Abbeys of Merton and Waverley (near Farnham). When the other bishops declined to act in Convocation without his presence, his estates were restored. King Richard II granted Wykeham full pardon, declaring him “wholly innocent of all the charges”.

Wykeham took little part in politics after this period. He was Chancellor again briefly from 1389 until he resigned in 1391. Instead, he concentrated on his Episcopal duties and devoted his vast wealth to the promotion of learning.

In 1379, Wykeham founded New College, Oxford. He based it on a completely new collegiate system. This served as a model for future endowments and had a revolutionary effect on university education.

In 1382, he founded a College at Winchester for seventy “poor” scholars (to be recruited from the least wealthy of the middle class). This took elementary education from the hands of the monks. It established education on an entirely different plan that had an influence far beyond his own times.

In Wykeham, the “splendid, munificent prelate, blameless in character,” (Milman, History of Latin Christianity) we see the medieval bishop at his best. He chose his motto, “Manners Makyth Man”, when he became Bishop of Winchester. Generally taken to mean that virtue alone is truly noble, it could be a reference to court etiquette and Wykeham’s origins. In his own times, the secular arts Wykeham practised did not meet with universal approval. With no striking powers as statesman, orator or divine, he left his enduring mark on his own and future ages.