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Thomas Beckington (1390-1465)
Born: circa 1390 at Beckington, Somerset
Bishop of Bath & Wells
Died: 14th January 1465 at the Bishop's Palace, Wells, Somerset

Thomas Beckington was a native of the Somerset village from which he derived his surname. His parentage is unknown and there is no record of the date of his birth. However, from the dates of his admission, first at Winchester (1404) and afterwards to New College, Oxford (1406), it is presumed that he was born about 1390. Thomas was admitted a fellow of New College in 1408 and retained his fellowship for twelve years. He took the degree of LL.D. In 1420, when he resigned his fellowship, he entered the service of Prince Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; from which time, apparently, church preferments began to flow in upon him. The rectory of Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire, was amongst the first. He had probably coveted the fine house that accompanied the office since attending university with the son of the local lord of the manor, Thomas Brunce. Other well-known parochial appointments like the rectory of St. Leonard's, near Hastings (Sussex) were not given to him until later, 1439 in this case. It appears Thomas had become Archdeacon of Buckinghamshire before the death of King Henry V in 1422; and, in April the next year, we find him collated to the prebend of Bilton at York Minster, which he exchanged for that of Warthill in the same cathedral four months later. He was appointed to a canonry in Wells in 1439, and was also made Master of St. Katherine's Hospital, near the Tower of London.

Thomas probably only visited his ecclesiastical residences a few times a year, for early in 1423, he was already Dean of the Court of Arches, and he was kept very busy in London in this new judicial capacity. He assisted at the trial of the heretic, William Tailor; and, in November 1428, he was appointed, along with the celebrated canonist, William Lyndewood, as receiver of the subsidy granted by the lower house of convocation for the expenses of the prosecution of William Russell, another suspected heretic. He was prolocutor of convocation at least as early as 1433 and continued as such until May 1438. During the session of 1434, he was commissioned by Archbishop Chichele to draw up, along with others, certain comminatory articles to be proclaimed by the clergy in their parishes four times a year. Meanwhile, Thomas had been engaged in several public capacities. In February 1432, he had been nominated to go on an embassy to France with Langdon, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Henry Bromflete, to negotiate a peace; but the envoys do not appear to have left till the December following, when Sir John Fastolf was substituted for Sir Henry Bromflete. It has been erroneously stated that Thomas was also sent to the congress at Arras in 1435; yet it is certain that he was a member of the great embassy sent to Calais in 1439 to treat with the French ambassadors. Of this embassy, he has left a journal, in which he styles himself the 'King's Secretary' - an office probably conferred upon him just before, though he appears to have acted in that capacity, at least occasionally, for about two years previously. After his return from this embassy, he was for three or four years in close attendance upon the King and speaks of himself, at one time, as being his reader nearly every day. It was during this period that he composed the Royal charter (1441) granted to the Fraternity of the Holy Cross at Abingdon, not far from his rectory at Sutton Courtenay. He took a great interest in this brotherhood, of which he was a key member, and helped organise the erection of the famous 'Abingdon Cross' in the centre of the town.

In the Spring of 1442, an embassy was sent to England by John IV, Count of Armagnac, who desired to offer one of his daughters in marriage to young King Henry VI. They were well received and three officers of the Royal household, of whom Beckington was one, were immediately despatched in return to the Court of Armagnac, fully empowered to contract the proposed alliance. Their commission bore a date of 28th May 1442 and an interesting diary, written by William Say, one of Beckington's entourage, tells how they set out from Windsor on 5th June. Spending the first night in Henley (Oxfordshire), they rode on to Thomas' rectory at Sutton Courtenay. On the following day, they had "dinner at Abingdon with the Lord Abbot, where was [also staying] the Bishop of Salisbury. Supped at Sutton. Again at Sutton on the Friday and Saturday before riding to Bedwyn, Wiltshire, for the night". He goes on to describe their progress to the west coast - where they went aboard ship at Plymouth - the letters and messages that overtook them on the road, the voyage and arrival at Bordeaux. There they received alarming news of the progress of the French army, with whom England was at War, and the capture of Sir Thomas Rempstone, Seneschal of Bordeaux. They, nevertheless, continued for some time to prosecute the objective of their mission; but the state of the country and the severity of the season interposed such difficulties in the way that they thought it best to return in the beginning of the following year. Beckington landed again at Falmouth on 10th February, met the King ten days later, at Maidenhead, and, on the 21st, arrived in London, where he supped with the Lord Mayor. The next day, he visited Greenwich with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. On the 23rd, he heard muss at his own hospital of St. Katherine's, dined with the Lord Treasurer, and supped again with the Lord Mayor. On Sunday 20th, he rejoined the King at Shene Palace and resumed his duties as secretary; soon after which ho was appointed Lord Privy Seal.

The chief effect of this embassy and of its return was to impress upon the government at home the necessity of taking more active steps to avert - as they succeeded in doing for a few years - the threatened loss of Guienne. The marriage negotiation was a failure. Even the artist employed to take likenesses of the Count of Armagnac's three daughters, that the King might choose which of them he preferred, was unable to do his work. The frost had congealed his colours when he had barely completed one portrait and the envoys saw good reason to return home without waiting for the other two. The result in no way diminished the influence of Beckington, who not only, as we have seen, continued to receive new marks of the King's favour, but had now made friends at the Court of Rome as well. By the latter's means, in that same year, 1443, he was rather too precipitately nominated by the Pope to the See of Salisbury, which it was supposed Bishop Ascough would vacate in order to be promoted to the Archiepiscopal See of Canterbury. But, as Ascough declined to leave Salisbury, John Stafford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was elevated to the primacy and Beckington was made the Somerset Bishop in Stafford's place. His agent at Rome, meanwhile, had unluckily paid into the Papal Treasury a considerable sum for the 'first-fruits' of Salisbury and Beckington obtained a letter from the King himself, directing him to get it, if possible, charged to the account of the See of Bath & Wells. How the matter was settled does not appear; but, on 13th October, Beckington was consecrated Bishop of Bath & Wells by William Alnwick, Bishop of Lincoln. The rite was performed in the old Collegiate Church at Eton (Buckinghamshire) and Beckington, the same day, celebrated mass in pontificalibus under a tent within the new church, then not half built, and held his inaugural banquet within the college buildings. As might be expected in one who was so greatly in the confidence of the Royal founder, he had taken a strong interest in the new college from the first and one of his latest acts as Archdeacon of Buckinghamshire was to exempt the provost from his own jurisdiction, placing him directly under the Bishop of Lincoln as visitor and ordinary.

As Bishop of Bath & Wells, Thomas had, in 1445, a controversy with Nicholas Frome, the Abbot of Glastonbury, an old man who, tenacious of the privileges of his monastery, resented episcopal visitations and whom Beckington, with unseemly severity, taunted over the infirmities of age. He had a much more pleasing correspondence with Thomas Chandler, who was first Warden of Winchester College, then Warden of New College, Oxford, and, afterwards, Chancellor of Wells, who looked up to him as a patron. But on the whole, it may be said that his personal history, after he became Bishop, was uninteresting. His name occurs as trier of petitions in Parliament from 1444 to 1453, but no particular act is recorded of him. On 18th June 1452, he obtained an exemption from further attendance in Parliament on account of his age and infirmities - a privilege which Edward IV confirmed to him in 1461.

Thomas died at Wells on 14th January 1465, and was buried in a fine tomb, built by himself in his lifetime, in the south aisle of the choir. During some repairs to the cathedral in 1850, this tomb was opened and the remains of his skeleton were inspected. It was that of a tall man with a well-formed skull. Active as his life was, and interesting also in a literary point of view, from his correspondence with learned men both in England and Rome, Beckington's chief claim upon the regard of posterity is the munificence with which he adorned, with fine buildings, his cathedral city of Wells. Besides rebuilding the episcopal palace, he supplied the town with a public conduit and fountain, and erected the close of the vicars choral and fifteen tenements in the market place. His curious rebus, a flaming beacon and a tun or barrel, is seen carved in various quarters, not only at Wells, but at Sutton Courtenay, Winchester and in Lincoln College, Oxford. His bequests in his will were princely, and show his strong attachment, not only to the colleges and places of education, but to all the different churches with which he had been connected. However, at Sutton Courtenay, money he left to the poor was appropriated for the building of a new church porch!

Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1886)


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