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William of Wykeham (1324-1404)
Colleges for the Poor

In 1373, a school at Winchester was first opened, founded wholly by the munificence of the high-minded Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham. It remains today the oldest scholarly foundation in the country. The history of the endowment and completion of Winchester College, and of New College, Oxford, for which Winchester is preparatory, is so well told by Lowth, that we transcribe his narrative and just remarks without abridgement:

"At the same time that Wykeham was thus engaged in the reformation of these charitable institutions, he was forming the plan of a much more noble and extensive foundation of his own and taking his measures for putting it in execution. He had long resolved to dispose of the wealth which the Divine Providence had so abundantly bestowed upon him to some charitable use and for the public good; but was greatly embarrassed when he came to fix his choice upon some design that was like to prove most beneficial and least liable to abuse. He tells us himself that, upon this occasion, he diligently examined and considered the various rules of the religious orders and compared with them the lives of their several professors; but was obliged, with grief, to declare that he could not anywhere find that the ordinances of their founders, according to their true design and intention, were at present observed by any of them. This reflection affected him greatly, and inclined him to take the resolution of distributing his riches to the poor with his own hands, rather than employ them in establishing an institution which might become a snare and an occasion of guilt to those for whose benefit it should be designed. After much deliberation and devout invocation of the Divine assistance, considering how greatly the number of the clergy had been of late reduced by Continual wars and frequent pestilences, he determinded, at last, to endeavour to remedy, as far as he was able, this desolation of the church, by relieving poor scholars in their clerical education; and to establish two colleges of students, for the honour of God and increase of his worship, for the support and exaltation of the Christian Faith and for the improvement of the liberal arts and sciences; hoping an trusting that men of letters and various knowledge, and bred up in the fear of God, would see more clearly and attend more strictly to the obligation lying upon them to observe the rules and directions which he should give them. Wykeham seems to have come to this resolution and, in some measure, to have formed in his mind his general plan, as early as his becoming Bishop of Winchester; for we find that in little more than two years after he had made purchases of several parcels of ground in the City of Oxford, which make the chief part of the site of his college there. His College of Winchester, intended as a nusery for that of Oxford, was part of his original plan; for as early as the year 1373, before he proceeded any further in his design for the latter, he established a school at Winchester, of the same kind as the former, and for the same purpose. He agreed with Richard de Herton, that for ten years, beginning from Michaelmas of the year above mentioned, he should diligently instruct in grammatical learning as many poor scholars as the Bishop should send to him, and no others without his leave; that the Bishop should provide and allow him a proper assistant; and that Herton, in case of his own illness or necessary absence, should substitute a proper master to supply his place.

Wykeham's munificence proceeded always from a constant generous principle, a true spirit of liberality. It was not owing to a casual impulse or a sudden emotion, but was the effect of mature deliberation and prudent choice. His enjoyment of riches consisted in employing them in acts of beneficence and, while they were increasing upon him, he was continually devising proper means of disposing of them for the good of the public; not delaying it till the time of his death, when he could keep them no longer; nor leaving to the care of others what he could better execute himself; but forming his good designs early and, as soon as he had the ability, putting them in execution, that he might have the satisfaction of seeing the beneficial effects of them; and that by constant observation and due experience, he might, from time to time, improve and perfect them, so as to render them yet more beneficial."

Part 6: Times of Trouble


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