Wykeham Festal Evensong

September 27, 2018

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Homily by the Warden of New College Oxford, Miles Young at Founders Obit Service in Winchester Cathedral on Thursday 27th September, 2018.

Dawn, September 27th 1404, at Bishop’s Waltham, not far from here, in the Hamble Valley.  There must have been an atmosphere of foreboding turning to consternation.  In an upper chamber of the Palace, a great man of the realm has received communion:  tears, we are told, trickled down his cheeks.  Up until only four days previously, this supremely energetic eighty year old, though bed bound now, was still conducting business and seeing officials.

At 8am, William of Wykeham died.  His obsequies took a well-oiled course, every single detail carefully pre-ordained by him.  The crowds were thick as he was buried in front of us(?) in the chantry tomb he had designed.  A mourner was guaranteed 4 pence each, so the turnout was not perhaps surprising.

What are we to make of him?

And what is his legacy for you and us, in his twin Foundations?

The outline narrative is clear and well-rehearsed.  Born to poor parents in Hampshire; probably educated at the High School in Winchester; attracting the attention of a succession of local patrons who spotted his natural talent, and for the first of whom he learned to serve as Clerk of Works; moving into royal service; proving highly useful in the re-building of Windsor Castle – then, it was Edward III’s turn to notice the super-efficient clerk, promoting his meteoric rise.

Here was someone who could get things done!

As the Burgundian Chronicler Froissart famously remarked “This William was so high in the King’s Grace that nothing was done in any respect, whatever, without his advice”.  By 1367 he assumed the top office in the government, Lord Chancellor, and in 1368 became Bishop of Winchester.  Along the way, he gathered benefices, posts and revenues.

But what goes up, can come down.  After the death of the Black Prince – another patron – he ran foul of John of Gaunt – and ‘fell like Lucifer’.  Sacked and expropriated, he could no longer afford to look after the poor scholars in Oxford – the pre-cursors of New College students – he had gathered there and, it is recorded,  ‘they all departed in sorrow and discomfort, weeping…’.

But then he bounced back.  And, in his last decades, he kept his seat at top table – Lord Chancellor again under Richard II, where he had to control this young King’s hot-headedness and really hold everything together; and then again he was back in the Council of Henry IV.  He just wouldn’t go away, this Bishop of Bray.  And all this time – building, building, building.

If the narrative is reasonably clear, he characterisation veers wildly.  Hagiography from those close to his Foundations.  And a case for the prosecution which boils down to two counts:

First, he represented the worst side of the medieval church.  Let’s be clear and not mince words:  much of this stems from the Wycliffites, and the snide comment of John Wycliffe himself about ‘clerks wise in building castles’ and with multiple livings.  It is tempting to impose some 21st Century standards on late medieval England.  Gathering up ecclesiastical livings galore, isn’t this plain greedy – Sir Philip Green in a mitre?  But Wycliffe had an axe to grind.  In fact, Wykeham was a highly diligent Bishop, who, for instance, avoided using suffragans.  That self-same energy led him to poke and peer into every aspect of the human welfare and physical state of his diocese – and all else he was concerned with.  He rooted out abuses, not least here in Winchester at St Swithun’s.  He accumulated great wealth, but no more than expected for the roles he was playing.  Modern historiography would cast him as ‘acquisitive not an avaricious’.

The second criticism is that he was not a great statesman, that he fiddled with the details of government while England burnt.  This is the Victorian imposition of their values on the 14th Century.  Certainly there was nothing Palmerstonian about William as War Minister, the effective role he played at a critical period in the Hundred Years War.  This was a defensive game.  And the speech of his life in 1371, pleading in Parliament for financial support to save the English position in Aquitaine, contains none of the passion of Elizabeth I at Tilbury or Churchill in the Cabinet War Rooms.  But mature historiography might consider the hand he had to play with, which was weak indeed, and that, inevitably, as a minister of Edward III, he was an implementer not a creator of policy.  What, one might ask, would his critics have expected him to do?  On this, they are silent.

If it is at all helpful to use contemporary language I think he can be best characterised as a classic CEO type.  There was a helicopter view combined with exemplary follow through.  He was a consummate networker with evident charm.  He was a superb team builder who could attract the loyalty, friendship and best work of a group of creative stars:  William Wynford, the master mason; Hugh Herland, the carpenter, Thomas Glazier, the window maker.

He was, of course, a self-made man, an easy target for envy.  One can’t help thinking that he has had unfair treatment from history, compared, for example, to his blue stocking successor, Henry Beaufort, who really was greedy and arrogant, or our alumnus, Henry Chichele, who was definitely less pious.  Let’s explain it in very personal terms.  I’d be very happy to have dinner with William of Wykeham.  I’m not sure I would want to have dinner with either Cardinal Beaufort or Archbishop Chichele.

It’s the choices William of Wykeham made which help define him.  He could have persecuted Wycliffities:  but he studiously declined to do so, however much he disagreed with them.  When Richard II’s confessor was fleeing after his master’s murder, he gave him shelter.  He needn’t have done so.  He could have spent his money on personal excess, but he kept a frugal household.  He could have chosen a Latin motto like all the other great men of his time.  He chose a vernacular one, a first.

However, the greatest choice he made was the founding of his educational institutions, here and at Oxford.  Of course, a detractor might say it was a sop to his guilt.  And we were no doubt seen – in the prayers and masses he expected, let me rather say, expects, from us – as a vehicle to carry him to redemption.  It was therefore, not entirely selfless; but in the medieval world view there was nothing selfish about it.  It’s what you did.

He need not have done it.  And, indeed, he agonised about whether to do it at all.  He could – and did – consider giving his money to what we would now call a monastic Foundation.  On the other hand, he was committed to ‘access’.  He wanted to help ‘the poor and the indigent’.  But he hesitated again.  In his words, ‘he looks around him and sees the statutes of pious founders everywhere disregarded and the thought occurs that it were better to distribute his goods among the poor than to devote them to a college’.

But we were safe.  He decided our way.

Not for nothing are you called Winchester College.

What does it mean, a College?

It means a community, interdependent, and sharing both values and an experience.  And that is very much how William saw it:  in his words, the only kind of place likely to produce ‘maturity, discretion and knowledge’.

Is there any legacy, then, for us now from the collegiate vision of William of Wykeham?

I believe so.  In fact, I believe it’s never been more important than now.

For the world is suffering from a crisis of collegiality.  We are still living in the early stages of the ‘digital revolution’ but we can start to discern the effects.

Information is overwhelming:  increasing in quantity inversely to the quality of meaning.  And what is a college if not a purveyor of meaning?

Transactions are now direct: any process is susceptible to dis-intermediation.  But what is a college if not a mediator?

At its most extreme we see the ‘uber-isation’ of education.  The MOOCs (Massive Open On-Line Courses) – so seductive a few years ago – may be losing their lustre:  but behind them is a slue of forces, interests and apps which will work against collegiality.

This is not in any way a criticism of technology.  But it is a fear of the zero sum game which is presented to us:  all or nothing.  And along with that the presumption that something invested in so long ago can have no relevance now.

But it does.

It does in understanding the relationships which underpin a collegiate as opposed to a mechanical view of education.  They mattered then; they matter now.  In fact, recent advances in psychology and neuroscience suggest the importance of what is increasingly being called in the USA social and emotional learning – SEL – as the foundation for educational success.  It’s rooted in the direct and personal relationship between teacher and pupil, and the value which comes from that.  Once that goes, or indeed, if the relationship is of poor quality, so does every value Wykeham stood for.

This is not just a school:  it is a community, and the collegiality of this community cannot be taken for granted in a world where the currents run very much in the opposite direction.

The other part of the Collegiate ethos was holism.  Our foundations were holistic: integrating education via liturgy, learning and the role of chantry, mediating for the dead.  And William of Wykeham believed that both astronomy and civil law should be part of education.  But again, as the balance which so wrongly marginalised science has been re-balanced, so it has become imbalanced again.  There is a danger that as Governments increasingly view education functionally, so we are all pushed into valuing STEM exclusively – to the exclusion of the arts and the humanities.

Here then is a testimony to the power of ‘DIV’:  as a mind broadener, it is an antidote to this exclusionist game, a collegiate secret ingredient to be treasured.

Back in Bishops Waltham, in the autumn 1404, his will was being executed.  His punctilious attention to detail was still there – down to the last itemised bequest to the last page working in the last henhouse.  We in New College received his mitre, dalmatic, slippers and crozier.  The crozier and mitre are still there.  But we both also have, perhaps, something else of him.  John Chandler quotes William of Wykeham as saying:

‘there can be no true dignity where there is no real, high principle’.

In the world today, the collegiate high principle seems worth advocating:  the power of the principle of intimacy over distance, the power of the profound over the superficial, the power of empathy over mere transactions, the power of a caring community.

And so, reflectively, may we commemorate tonight our Founder, with grateful thanks to God.