William Waynflete (1447-1486)

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William Waynflete (1447-1486)

William Waynflete was one of the great educationalists of late medieval England. Personally loyal to Henry VI, he survived as Bishop of Winchester through a period of great political strife.

Early Years

A schoolmaster without church or governmental connections, Waynflete’s election to the richest and one of the most influential sees of England was unusual and unexpected. Nothing suggested that he would be the one to replace a skilled politician of royal blood.

From minor Lincolnshire gentry, Waynflete was ordained and probably took a theology degree at Oxford. In 1430 he was made ‘headmaster’ at Winchester College. This was not really a very senior position. He was the grammar master who taught the boys assisted by an usher.

He remained at Winchester for eleven years. But during this time, he seems to have attracted the attention of Cardinal Beaufort and later that of Henry VI. In 1441 Waynflete became the first provost of Eton. This brought him into regular contact with the king.

Bishop of Winchester

His election as Bishop of Winchester was surprising and swift. Less than a week passed from the death of Cardinal Beaufort to Waynflete becoming bishop. He was the king’s choice: “pure right trusty and welbeloved clerc and concelloure “. The speed seems to have been to out-manoeuvre the king’s council who in the past had blocked the king’s choices.

In bowing to the king’s wishes, the prior of St. Swithin’s recommended Waynflete to the pope as a “man whose discretion, knowledge and blameless way of life are to be commended”.

With no experience of diocesan or royal administration, Waynflete proved to be a conscientious bishop committed to his diocese and his cathedral. Winchester had an administrative structure that could operate with minimal participation by the bishop. But records show his personal involvement in the most routine of matters. His residence within the boundaries of his see was almost uninterrupted and he tried to visit even the most remote of his parishes.

Though not his driving interest, Waynflete also applied himself conscientiously to the political duties expected of him. His relationship with Henry VI was primarily personal. His only real period of active political power was while he was Chancellor from 1456 to 1460. This made him head of the Privy Council and the king’s foremost advisor, a man of potentially great political influence. He used his position to act as mediator in a period of increasing political polarisation and to further his educational interests.

Education had begun to change in the previous century. Wykeham’s foundation of New College Oxford had introduced the beginnings of the collegiate system. Some teaching texts had been translated into English.

The fifteenth century saw far greater changes;
• the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge increased in both number and size
• European humanists were making an impact on English thought and learning
• Greek began to be taught and new grammar textbooks were written
• the introduction of printing provided a faster and cheaper way of reproducing the new learning

In all these developments Waynflete had an interest or played a central role. Winchester gave him the resources to indulge his interests in education. He used his position and considerable financial resources to become an educational patron and founder of Magdalen College, Oxford.

In 1461, Edward IV deposed Henry VI. Because of his close association with the House of Lancaster, Waynflete fell out of favour. He withdrew from politics apart from regular attendance at parliament.

The next nine years were spent safeguarding his position as bishop. His educational projects had to wait for a time, but he made careful use of patronage to gain allies. His foundation of Magdalen College dominated the last decade of his life.

Waynflete was bishop of a rich and potentially powerful see for almost forty years. He ploughed its resources – financial, political and administrative – into in the promotion of education in England. He also invested extensively in the construction of a number of magnificent early Renaissance style brick buildings, including a grand entrance tower at Farnham Castle.

A conscientious man who excelled as an administrator, Waynflete was a man of energy, enthusiasm and personal loyalty.

Davis, V., 1993. William Waynflete: Bishop and Educationalist. The Boydell Press, Rochester.