England, until the Reformation, always had its share of clever clerics – think Cardinals Beaufort and Wolsey for example. Not only did they hold important places in the Church’s hierarchy they also held the reins of power in State matters as well. Whilst I’m at it, the other two clerics who people may immediately identify are Thomas Becket who became Henry II’s bête noire and Simon of Sudbury who managed to get himself beheaded by revolting peasants in 1381 – his head is still in Sudbury’s parish church if you’re of a ghoulish turn of mind.
So just who is Wykeham? William Wykeham is Edward III’s leading cleric and statesman and like the above named gentlemen he had the knack of irritating folk – well mainly John of Gaunt. Wykeham’s story is an interesting one in that he was not the second son of aristocracy or even a member of the gentry. Generally his family are described as poor. His father could afford for him not to labour on the land but it would have been a sacrifice as would the education that replaced manual labour. William’s natural talent was recognised and he must have had a sponsor who helped pay for his education. William was educated in Winchester and then found employment as a clerk (in minor orders) in Winchester. By 1349 (just in time for the Black Death) Wykeham was in the employ of the Bishop of Winchester. This would have brought him into the royal orbit as the bishop was Edward III’s treasurer. Winchester also has close associations with the court so it was a place of opportunity for a gifted young man.
Wykeham continued working for the bishop until the mid 1350s at which point he suddenly accrued a number of official roles at court. He was also made surveyor of the works for Windsor Castle and its park. He had arrived – the long path to overnight success had been trodden and from now on he made rapid advances in royal service. He turns up in Calais negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360.
Wykeham became more and more influential as the 1360s progressed. It did not make him very popular with the rest of Edward III’s advisors not least because having decided to undergo ordination he also squirrelled away some very lucrative livings at a point when there was peace with France and the rich pickings of earlier years were not so readily available. in 1366 on Edward III’s orders he was elected Bishop of Winchester. He also went on to become Edward’s chancellor.
It seemed as though there would be no stopping him but as ever the currents of political power eddy and swirl. Parliament ultimately petitioned the king to stop the practice of ecclesiastics having positions of power and not being liable to account for their actions, and that non-clerical laymen should replaced them. An important supporter of this action was John of Gaunt who was not keen on Wykeham – which is a bit rich coming from the man who used Edward III’s increasing infirmity as an opportunity to take control of the court and to reverse reforms made by the king.
In 1371 Gaunt had his way and Wykeham found himself transformed from one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom to being utterly reliant on the charity of his friends when he was kicked out of the See of Winchester and forced to resign the chancellorship. John of Gaunt tried to have Wykeham charged with corruption.
In 1377 when Richard II became king Wykeham received a full pardon although it should be noted that initially Wykeham was specifically excluded from the pardon and it was only after an ecclesiastical uproar that his name was added to the list. He went on to be one of the king’s councillors demonstrating that John of Gaunt did not control the regency council in the way that is often suggested given that he and Wykeham were at loggerheads with one another. Between 1389 and 1391 Wykeham was Richard II’s chancellor. In 1391 he was back on the case of the war with the French – by now the war was sixty years long on and off.
He died in 1404 having welcomed Henry of Bolingbroke to Winchester in 1400 as king.
So why is Wykeham important? Firstly he isn’t of noble birth – which no doubt caused quite a lot of resentment at the time. In an age when blood line was all important Wykeham is a role model for the self made man. He’s symptomatic of changing times. War and plague as well as some effective patronage opened up possibilities for his advancement. Second, we are used to hearing that Gaunt was all powerful. In 1377 Gaunt was unable to continue his campaign against Wykeham despite the fact that he is usually depicted as the leading member of the regency council. And thirdly, the reason usually given for Gaunt’s unrelenting campaign against Wykeham is that allegedly Wykeham spread the rumour that Gaunt was actually the son of a Ghentish butcher rather than Edward III – and well all know how history loves a good conspiracy theory.