Mr Ashford gives a history lesson...

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John Saunders
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Mr Ashford gives a history lesson...

Postby John Saunders » Tue Jun 30, 2015 6:00 pm

OK, boys, settle down now - time for a history lesson. Who can tell me which year the school was founded and who founded it?

... fifteen or twenty hands go up and the teacher goes to each in turn, making a mental note of all the answers...

OK, so you've all answered "1562" and "Queen Elizabeth I". Well, I'm afraid you're all wrong. That is when the school received its royal charter. Detention for the entire class! (a loud groan is heard) During your detention you will either read the first fifteen pages of the school history or the following article, written by the late, great Mr Leslie Ashford, head of History in the 1950s, as published in the April 1954 issue of the school magazine. And at the next lesson I expect you all to be able to give the correct answers to these questions...

LJ Ashford, Wycombiensian, April 1954 wrote:A Note On The Foundation Of The School (Wycombiensian, April 1954)

In the last years of Henry VIII, a traveller through the Borough of Wycombe, passing from the broad High Street into Eastyn Town, would shortly have found his way blocked by the buildings and grounds of the ancient hospital of St. John. For upwards of three centuries this place, maintained from the revenues of modest endowments of land, and organised on monastic lines as a brotherhood, had been a refuge for the poor of Wycombe in their old age.

Now its days as a hospital were nearly over. Henry VIII and his council, having confiscated all the lands of the monasteries, prepared a measure to be set before Parliament, authorizing the seizure to the King’s use of all properties of Chantries, Colleges, Religious Gilds and Hospitals.

The death of the old king in January 1547 hindered the project, but before the year was out the advisers of the boy Edward VI had passed through Parliament a similar measure, reinforced by fulminations against the superstitious practices which they considered these numerous and ancient foundations served.

For the first time Wycombe was directly threatened by this legalised confiscation of religious endowments, and the burgesses appear to have made some move towards resisting the enforced closing down of the Hospital of St. John, with loss of its lands and those of the Gild of St. Mary. On the 13th of March, 1548, the townspeople met on the Rye and resolved that “Master Mayor and his brethren [i.e. the Mayor and Common Council] shall enter into the hospital of St. John for the use of the whole house and relief of the poor people according to the foundation thereof.” There is here a solid sense of the value of the hospital to the borough and a common interest in preserving it. To some extent this resistance appears to have been successful, for the Hospital and its lands were not immediately confiscated to the Crown. Four months later Christopher Chalfont, the Master of the Hospital, in whom, as in his predecessors, all the endowments were vested for life, made over his rights to Sir Edmund Peckham, and George Juncklyn, in return for an annual payment of £8 for 21 years.

Chalfont was in no position to do this legally, as his rights in the hospital lands were not absolute, and in any case, since the Confiscation Act of 1547 had ceased altogether. The endowments now belonged to the Crown. Of all this Sir Edmund Peckham must have been very well aware. For some thirty years he had been in the close service of the Crown and had risen from being a clerk in the Royal Counting House early in the reign of Henry VIII to the highly responsible position of the Master of the Mint in 1546; a post he was to hold until the last year of Edward’s reign, to regain early in Mary’s, and to retain for the first six years of Elizabeth’s.

Through his hands passed many thousands of pounds paid into the royal coffers by the nobles, gentry, merchants, lawyers and speculators who flocked to buy the spoils of the monasteries and chantries. No man in England could have had a more intimate knowledge of the whole picture of confiscation. And it is perhaps in the very completeness of his knowledge, not only of the law in these matters, but also of the chicaneries of those who most profited from them, that the explanation of his conduct in Wycombe is to be found. Fuller, the 17th-century historian of the English Church, makes the accusation that the chantries were suppressed in more than one sense “not only put down, but also concealed—never coming into the exchequer, but silently pocketed up by private—but potent— persons.” He also says that many “friars and convents ” on the eve of dissolution had ante-dated leases to their friends in order to save properties from confiscation, and that the Court of Augmentation which had been set up to deal with the monastery spoils “was very tender in continuing any leases upon this least legal consideration.” It seems that Peckham, a Bucks J.P. with an estate nearby, in Denham, might have possessed himself of the lands of the Hospital of St. John for nothing, and indeed he so far relented of his generosity to Christopher Chalfont as to secure from him only a fortnight after the conveyance of July, 1548, a second grant, cancelling the first, and conveying to him all the unfortunate Master’s rights “without any rent to the said Christopher or any other thing paying or doing.”

So far, Peckham seems to have had no consideration for the feelings of the Burgesses of Wycombe. But before the following Spring, George Juncklyn, his fellow purchaser of the original grant from Chalfont, had died. Juncklyn had not been mentioned in the second, and free, grant which had been to Peckham alone, but he appears to have insisted that he still had some claim to the hospital lands and to have expressed some desire in his will that the lands should go to the Borough of Wycombe. For it was as one of Juncklyn’s executors that Peckham in April of 1549 made over the hospital and all its endowments to the Borough for the sum of £30. Again Peckham’s motives can only be guessed at. Perhaps Juncklyn’s will was an embarrassment to his own absolute claim to the property, perhaps he was following the royal example of what Fuller called “greater tenderness” to the Hospitals. Perhaps he had reasons of his own for wishing to placate the Burgesses of Wycombe. A few years later the Borough elected his son Henry to be one of its representatives in Parliament. It is possible that Sir Edmund was “nursing the constituency,” placating his conscience and clearing a profit of £30 into the bargain.

The return of the Hospital to the Burgesses, alike its patrons and its beneficiaries for centuries, was, however, accompanied by a condition. Part of the thin cloak of respectability that had covered the spoliation of the Chantries had been a clause exempting those where a school “had been or ought to have been” kept. And this was Peckham’s model. The burgesses had to undertake to use the whole Hospital property “for and towards the foundation and setting up and finding of a Grammar School to be founded and kept within the said town of Chepping Wycombe,” and to do this within two years. Failing this they undertook to return all to Peckham and receive their £30 again. On 25th March, 1551, at the last moment, within a week of the expiration of the time limit, the decision was at last taken and confirmed. Again the burgesses met on the Rye and “ the whole house agrees to keep the Hospital of St. John in the whole hands of the Town.” The Mayor and his brethren were to have control of the letting of the properties. The schoolmaster was to be paid £8 a year (the exact amount of the rent Peckham and Juncklyn had originally agreed to pay to Chalfont) and was to receive real marks of welcome and goodwill from the burgesses in the shape of “the pleasure and profit of a cow or tweyn in our common according to the custom of the town and to have five loads of wood yearly.”

Towards Peckham too, all was goodwill. He was voted hearty thanks and allowed, or requested, to appoint the first schoolmaster, who took the old Hall of the Hospital for his house, and either the refectory or the chapel for his schoolroom from which, in the intervals of breaking in the first Wycombiensians to the elements of Latin, he could glance out of the window to where his one or two cows grazed with the town herd on the Rye.

Of the needs of the poor, and the original intention of the foundation, there is no mention; though the long delay between the date of Peckham’s grant to the Burgesses and that of their final acceptance may be accounted for by the resistance of a section of opinion insisting that these needs should be met. Nearly 12 years later they were to be satisfied by the terms of Queen Elizabeth’s charter. But meantime, in dubious circumstances, and at the expense of the poor, the Grammar School was first founded by Sir Edmund Peckham. It is perhaps fitting that the four hundredth anniversary of this event passed three years ago [1951] completely unnoticed.

John Saunders
RGS 1963-70 (personal website