Oxford has, in part, long been shaped by philanthropy. As the University’s new fundraising campaign begins, Jill Pellew examines how a breed of Tudor benefactors made their mark.
There is much talk today about ‘new philanthropists’, who are said to work with their charities rather differently from the way their predecessors did. One noted characteristic is the use of their own professional experience to ensure that their philanthropic enterprise moves ahead effectively. A study of benefactors to Oxford and Cambridge in the post- Reformation era reveals that this might not be such a ‘new’ characteristic after all: in the sixteenth century, new sources of wealth led to changes in the behaviour of major donors. Against the background of the economic, social and educational upheavals of that period, the baton in the provision of educational facilities to the universities passed from leaders of a church that looked to Rome for leadership to Crown servants whose declared loyalty was to the monarch. Among the founders of colleges, libraries and academic posts at Oxford under the later Tudors was an interesting group of self-made men whose fortunes were linked to service to the Crown.
Crucial in this narrative was the economic outcome of the dissolution of the monasteries, from 1536 onwards, leading to a massive transfer of land and property. This went initially to the Crown. But as the King needed cash to finance his ambitious foreign policy, much former monastic property was sold off. One of the effects of this vast release of wealth onto the market – at a time when prices were rising, so that onward selling was a lucrative business – was the enrichment of professional civil servants and City merchants whose skills were needed in the management of Crown finances. A group of men who made their careers and fortunes either through the Court of Augmentations, the department that administered sequestered church property, or through other services to the Crown, became major benefactors to both Oxford and Cambridge.
At Oxford, these new benefactors included Sir Thomas Pope and Sir Thomas White, founders respectively of Trinity and St John’s in 1555; Sir William Petre, the effective re-founder of Exeter, between 1566 and 1568; and Sir Thomas Bodley, the restorer of the great library, between 1598 and 1602. Pope and Petre had made their fortunes through their work at the Court of Augmentations, which was set up by Thomas Cromwell in 1536 to administer the lands and property sequestered to the Crown as a result of legislation dissolving monastic estates. White, a senior Merchant Taylor, who became Lord Mayor of London, procured for the Crown large-scale loans and support from the mercantile community. Bodley served as Elizabeth I’s Ambassador in the United Provinces. All were knighted for their services; all amassed large personal fortunes and died substantially richer than when they were born, having secured a higher social niche than their fathers.
The lives of these men (and two Cambridge counterparts, Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII and founder of Magdalene College, and Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer and founder of Emmanuel College) were focused on the small circle of monarch and court. They crossed paths at many points as they rose to prominence. Pope had been attached to the Audley household before rising through various clerkships in the new civil service to become Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations. Audley was probably a model to Pope, whom he made the executor of his will in which he provided in 1544 for the founding of his Cambridge college. Pope and White, founders of adjacent Oxford colleges, were friends who shared Marian sympathies. Petre, at one time a young Oxford tutor to the brother of Anne Boleyn, went abroad with the Boleyn family and thus came to the attention of Henry VIII. He too was deeply involved in the activities of the Court of Augmentations in its early days, becoming Royal Secretary to a succession of Tudor monarchs. He was a London neighbour of both Audley and Mildmay. Bodley, like Petre, learned languages in his youth and became involved in affairs of state under the patronage of the Earl of Leicester before being sent on diplomatic service.
The middle years of the sixteenth century remained an age of faith, when royal servants could be executed for politicoreligious failures. Yet after the Reformation there appeared a new phenomenon of professional men who had the skills – financial understanding, languages, administrative drive – to provide the Crown with the civil service it required to develop a new more secular state. These men acquired an additional skill – that of being able to serve a variety of different political masters – which foreshadows the more modern British civil service. Pope, Petre and Mildmay, who lived and worked through the break with Rome, all managed to serve the Tudor monarchy right through the religious vicissitudes of the middle turbulent years of the century without seriously affecting the continuity of their careers. Petre, indeed, was an arch trimmer who cultivated the art of survival. Catholic by inclination, as a good official he vigorously pursued the spoliation of religious houses in 1536. As Royal Secretary in the final days of Edward VI’s reign, he drafted documents in favour of Lady Jane Grey, to whom he swore allegiance. Despite this, he swiftly changed sides when the tide turned, and became a close courtier and official of Mary’s, entertaining her at his country seat. A modern biographer has described Petre, who ‘always cultivated the art of survival’, as ‘the sole relic of Henry VIII to attend Elizabeth I’s Privy Council’; he equally entertained the new queen at his home.
How were these men able to amass sufficient fortunes substantially to benefit Oxford? The answer lay in their position in Crown service. Most of the monastic estates were sold by the Crown at a standard price, fixed by the government and universally applied to all buyers. But the Court of Augmentations provided the perfect vantage point for personal enrich- ment. Pope, who is described in the most recent history of Trinity as a ‘frenzied’ buyer and seller, acquired in 1547 a former grange of St Alban’s Abbey, Tyttenhanger in Hertfordshire, for his country estate. When he founded Trinity in 1555, he claimed to hold 27 manors in seven counties and at his death his bequests included extensive estates in Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, London and elsewhere. Petre, who was involved in monastic visitations from the start in 1536, also bought and sold on a large scale, amassing substantial landholdings in both his native West Country and around his new fiefdom in Essex. For his country seat he chose a manor formerly owned by Barking Abbey, granted to him by the Crown and renamed Ingatestone Hall.
In addition to these property transactions, public servants earned good salaries if fees and perquisites are included. Petre received an annuity simply for being in attendance on Queen Mary when Philip of Spain arrived. His steward’s figures of his annual accounts show that his income from salaries, fees and perquisites rose steadily from £109 in 1540 to £2,719 in 1570. Bodley acquired wealth from his diplomatic role in the United Provinces, inherited some family money and – like several of the others – married a rich widow who had inherited from a merchant. A more direct benefit from trade was White’s fortune – accumulated through risking investment in overseas trading ventures.
What of their motives? Pope, White and Petre all had Catholic sympathies. The Trinity statutes show a strong leaning towards the purgatorial aspect of prayers for the founder. Petre, too, though not seemingly pious, may have had a conscience about his part in the destruction of so strong a cultural aspect of his family’s faith. Piety apart, a wider aspect of religion with its commitment to social duty, including the promotion of education, probably accounted for the provision of opportunities for those coming from a founder’s locality. In Pope’s case, his intention that the twelve Fellows of Trinity should come from counties where he owned land (and preferably born in his own manors) posed some difficulty for the first President.
One indicator of motive is a benefactor’s vision and the manner in which the benefaction is pursued. This can be observed in the formulation of their college statutes, intended to provide for the size, structure and discipline of the institution for generations to come. Petre, the lawyer and administrator, was closely involved in working out the detail of new statutes for Exeter. These were designed to restore discipline and raise standards while expanding the breadth of the curriculum, so as to include the study of civil law. Pope, the financier, laid down specific details about management of the revenue at Trinity. The intense personal involvement of Pope, White and Bodley with their foundations gives a clue as to motive. Unlike other benefactors, they were less involved in the business of creating a dynasty – indeed none left any children of their own. Rather, they committed a large part of their fortunes, and much of their later lives, to the projects with which they were engaged.
For Thomas White, imbued as he was with the philanthropic traditions of the London guilds, the founding of a new Oxford college was part not only of a religious endeavour but also of a wider educational vision, designed to improve the lot of young apprentices. Acutely aware of industrial, social and economic problems affecting his trade, this creative benefactor used his wealth to fund a series of schemes, culminating in one, centred on Bristol but involving 22 other urban cloth-making towns, administered by the city leaders, and designed to provide long-term interest-free loans to young apprentices, preferably in the clothing industry. The founding of St John’s was part of this scheme, which was administered jointly by the collect, the Merchant Taylors’ Company and Bristol burgesses. White worked on this complex benefaction for 25 years, establishing working relationships over the financial details, particularly with civic leaders and involving his colleagues in the Merchant Taylors’ Company. Right up until the moment of his death in 1567, he was actively engaged in the college’s finances and statutes.
Thomas Bodley was equally passionate about building his great library and equally zealous in his fundraising activity. An Oxford scholar and teacher, while also an international, Renaissance man, he had built up his own collection of valuable books and manuscripts from friends, printers and publishers all over Europe. He was desolate about the decayed state of his old university library. As he stated in his autobiography: ‘I could not busy myselfe to better purpose, then [sic] by reducing that place (which then in every place lay ruined and wast) to the publique use of Students.’ In 1598, disillusioned by public and diplomatic life, from which he withdrew, he approached the eagerly receptive Vice-Chancellor about the realisation of his project to restore the library using his own book collection as the core. He worked incessantly and obsessively on it. He badgered family, friends, colleagues and literary contacts of all kinds for contributions in money or kind. He understood the importance of public relations, making his library a fashionable charity; and he knew about publicly thanking donors, establishing a visible Benefactors’ Register. For, as his first draft of the Statutes put it, ‘few are so careles of a publique good opinion but where they know they have deserved, they would be noted for desert’. As well as seeing to the fundraising, Bodley oversaw the minutest detail. He took personal care not only over details such as the chaining of the books, but also saw to the cataloguing and preservation of the collection. The apogee of the project was the importance of monarchical blessing of the new library, shortly after its opening, by James I. These servants of the monarch who became major benefactors to Oxford and Cambridge may not have fully realised it at the time, but their foundations formed part of a significant transformation of the universities into national, incorporated collegiate institutions, recognised by statute in 1571. Oxford brought some order to the registration of students by formalising matriculation in 1565. In the longer run, this period began a great expansion of the student body, which increasingly included fee-paying commoners alongside poorer scholars on the endowment. While creating a two-tier system, this development furthered the educational opportunities for students who were planning careers not only in the Church but also as secular administrators, merchants, financiers or medics. Thus these new secular philanthropists, through their benefactions, greatly augmented educational opportunities for laymen in their own professional mould.
Perhaps, then, there is nothing new about today’s ‘new philanthropists’. The sixteenth- century benefactors to Oxford and Cambridge were part of an emerging class of men who prospered in a secular world outside the Church, as government officials and merchants. As much of any of their counterparts today, they applied their own professional skills and brought a deep personal commitment to their philanthropic ventures.
Jill Pellew (St Hilda’s 1961) was Director of the University of Oxford Development Office from August 1994 to September 1999 and a Fellow of Trinity College. She is currently a Trustee and member of the Advisory Council of the Institute of Historical Research and is working on a book on the history of benefactors to higher education.