September 2012

Wykeham – September 2012

The first talk of the 2012/13 Season given by Christine Tulk, a voluntary guide at both Winchester Cathedral and Winchester College, was entitled ‘Bishop William of Wykeham’ This absorbing and informative talk covered the life, work and influence of one of England’s greatest medieval clerics.

William was born in or near Wickham in about 1324 of poor parents, but patrons provided for his education in Winchester. As a young man, William worked as an Administration Assistant employed by the Constable of Winchester Castle. He was evidently very skilful and quickly became noticed by the King, Edward III, and was soon appointed by him, as Clerk of Works at Henley and East Hampstead. In 1344, as a consequence of his skill in mathematics and his understanding of building construction William entered the service of William Edington, Bishop of Winchester from 1346 to 1366. His career then progressed rapidly and, at the age of 32, William of Wykeham was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works at Windsor Castle where major buildings were under construction.

The speaker continued the talk by outlining Wykeham’s public career and saying that by this time he had become very rich. He was influential not only in state affairs but was able to demonstrate his ability and vision on many fronts. However, it came at a cost. He made enemies particularly with John of Gaunt (a younger son of Edward III) but also with other influential statesmen and this enmity eventually led to him being banished from the King’s Court. However in 1377 he was reinstated.

In spite of resentment and unpopularity in some quarters Wykeham achieved much. Particularly as a result of his own upbringing he was very aware of the unsatisfactory educational facilities for training church clerics and this situation had been exacerbated in the aftermath of the Black Death. To improve this position, and also the standards and behaviour of clergy, in 1380 he founded New College in Oxford. Then in 1394 he founded in Winchester St Mary’s College as a ‘feeder’ college for the university. Here provision was made for 70 poor students to be taught ‘free of charge’ with the object of going on to New College Oxford to be trained for the priesthood. To this day 70 students are trained ‘free of charge’ at the College. These places are now awarded by way of competitive examination and are also available to international students.

When Bishop Edington died in 1366 he had just started a major reordering of the nave at Winchester Cathedral so as to convert it from the old Romanesque to the new Gothic Perpendicular style of architecture. Wykeham, on succeeding him, redrew these plans and partly funded the cost of this transformation and his work is still evident today.

Bishop William of Wykeham died in 1404 and is buried in his own chantry chapel in Winchester Cathedral. When one looks at his life and achievements whether as a cleric, a statesman, an architect or an educationalist, high praise is well deserved.

This excellent talk was thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated by over 70 members and visitors.

The next meeting of the Society is on Friday 26 October 2012 and will be given by Geraldine Beech entitled ‘Mapping the New Forest’; the talk will be preceded by a short AGM.