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Lady Margaret by E.M.G. Routh (pub. 1924)

 

IX

JOHN FISHER

1495 - 1503


IT was one day in 1495 that there came to the Court at Greenwich a tall, dark, extraordinarily thin young man, with a wide mouth and big jaw, and a grave and earnest manner. This was John Fisher, Fellow of Michaelhouse, Cambridge, and afterwards Bishop of Rochester, whose account of Lady Margaret has been often quoted in the foregoing pages. He was then Senior Proctor, and having occasion to go to the Court on University business during one of the visits of Lady Margaret, he attracted her favourable notice.

Fisher entered a note in his account-book that day: 'I dined with the Lady, the Mother of the King' -- and so began that firm friendship and partnership in good deeds which helped to make them both famous. Fisher said after her death that he was indebted to the countess as to his own mother. 'Though she chose me as her director, to hear her confessions and to guide her life,' he wrote, 'yet I gladly confess that I learnt more from her great virtue than ever I could teach to her.' In the years that followed their first meeting he became, with the material help of his patroness, the leading spirit in the University of Cambridge. He was a man of blameless life and great devotion, a scholar of ability, the friend of Erasmus and More, a reformer though not a fanatic. Moderation and energy combined made the foundation of the partnership which did so much to help the cause of religion and of education at a period when help was greatly needed.

There had been for some time a general feeling of exhaustion and war-weariness among the best elements in the country, and not least at Oxford and Cambridge. Fisher recorded that at his own university 'there had stolen over well-nigh all of us a weariness of learning and study'-- there were few or no helpers for men of letters; the best of the nobility, the patrons of learning, had fallen on the battle-fields or under the executioner's axe; little was taught even in the universities (so Erasmus said later) save antiquated and artificial studies.

Yet, in the midst of the general depression, fresh forces were at work. The 'New Learning', which ultimately transformed the universities and the whole intellectual life of Europe, was being brought to England by a few enthusiastic scholars. In Lady Margaret's youth classical learning was all but un known, but now the literature of ancient Greece and Rome 'woke again to life'; new ideas and precious manuscripts were brought from Italy; Greek was studied at Oxford by a small group of men, and Erasmus made friendships there in 1498 with scholar whose names became famous -- Linacre, Grocyn, Colet, and More.

Everywhere new discoveries were breaking up old ideas; men's minds were stimulated by the voyages of explorers in the New World; a new era of com merce and civilization was beginning; the printing press scattered literature over Europe; interest was re-awakened in art and science; 'Humanism' was overcoming the formalities of the 'Schoolmen'; the feudal system was disappearing; the narrow limits of life in the Middle Ages were broken down and in the light of the Renaissance fresh vistas of thought opened out in all directions.

The revival of learning, especially on its moral and religious side, was welcomed with enthusiasm, though still with moderation, by Fisher and his patroness; they wished to encourage the new learning without giving up old truths, and to bring people back to a personal and practical Christianity. Their primary interest was to promote the study of Divinity: 'We specially tender thonnoure and thincrease of lernynge in divinite', Lady Margaret once wrote to the University of Oxford, and it was to this end that she obtained licences from the King in 1496 and 1497 to endow a readership (or lectureship) in Divinity at each of the universities. [1]

Although not formally established until 1502, her Chair at Oxford was filled some time before then by Edmund Wilsford (or Wylford), B.D., on the recom mendation of Cardinal Morton, Chancellor of the University; while at Cambridge the Proctors entered in their accounts of 1498 that they 'paid to the Vice chancellor and Doctors inspecting the foundation of the Lecture of the Mother of the King-2d.' It seems a modest fee, even with money at ten times or more its present value, and one wonders how they divided it!

The salary of the Reader was the then liberal one of £13- 6s. 8d. yearly, and was intended to attract the best talent of the University. He was to read to all who would come such works in Divinity as the Chancellor with the 'College of Doctors' should judge necessary, for one hour on every accustomed day except during Lent, when he and his hearers might be occupied in preaching. The Reader was to be elected biennially by the Chancellor or Vice-Chancellor and the Doctors, Inceptors and Bachelors in Thcology, who had graduated in Arts. The Abbot and Convent of Westminster were responsible for making the necessary payments from the revenues of lands given by the foundress for that purpose.

The revival of popular preaching in the English language was one of the reforms which Fisher most wished to encourage. At the universities sermons had been almost given up, and the provincial clergy were only directed to preach once a quarter, and did not always do so much. Fisher's aim, which was shared by Lady Margaret, was to abolish from the pulpit the customary 'cavillings about words and parade of sophistry' and to encourage men who would 'preach the Word of God gravely and with an evangelical spirit, and recommend it to the minds of the learned by an effficacious eloquence'.

The Lady Margaret Preachership, founded by her at her own cost at Cambridge in 1504, was a practical attempt to carry out this design for the benefit of the laity, and anticipated the efforts of other reformers. [2] The preacher, who was to be a Doctor or Bachelor of Divinity, was to reside in Cambridge and to hold no benefice. He was to be elected triennially by the Vice-Chancellor and the Heads of Colleges, and was to preach six sermons annually -- one in two years at each of twelve places named, in London, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Lincolnshire. [3]

In the meantime family affairs still claimed part of Lady Margaret's attention. Henry VII, having originated a system of international diplomacy and a policy of foreign alliances, was for a long time engaged in negotiating a marriage for his eldest son, Prince Arthur, with Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a country with which Henry was anxious to ally himself, foreseeing its increasing power.

Lady Margaret was interested in all that concerned her grandchildren, and she joined with the Queen to send a message to Princess Catherine on her betrothal, hoping that she would practise speaking French, as the English royal ladies could not speak Latin, much less Spanish; they also wished that she should accustom herself to drink wine, for the remarkable reason that 'the water in England was not drinkable, and even if it were, the climate would not allow the drinking of it'. [4] Catherine was probably used to drinking wine, but she had not learnt to speak French when she arrived, and her remarks had to be translated from Spanish into Latin and then into English, so conversation was not fluent.

When the wedding took place, in November 1501, the Queen and countess with the little princesses watched from a window the gorgeous pageants and processions with which London greeted the young bride, whom they saw riding on a mule and dressed in 'rich apparel' in the Spanish fashion; she wore 'a litill hatte fashonnyd like a cardinall's hatte with a lase of gold at this hatt to stay hit'.

After the wedding the Countess of Richmond gave a splendid dinner-party in honour of the Spanish grandees, at her town house 'Coldharbour', which was 'right royal and pleasantly beseen and addressed'. The dining-hall was hung with rich cloth of Arras and there was a great display of magnificent gold and silver plate. An English guest sat beside each Spaniard 'to make them cheer and solace'. They were 'also served after the right goodly manner both of their victuals dainties and delicates and with divers wines abundant and plenteously'. In the evening the same company went to supper with the Earl of Derby at Derby House; it does not appear if the earl and countess were present at each other's parties.

While every one rejoiced at the wedding, Lady Margaret again 'wept marvellously' (as she had done at her son's coronation) for she feared that such great joy must be followed by some calamity. Fisher seems to have been gently amused by this very feminine trait in his patroness. 'Either she was in sorrow by reason of the present adversities', he said, 'or else when she was in prosperity she was in dread of the adversity for to come.' In this case her fears were sadly fulfilled by the death of the much-loved Prince Arthur at the age of fifteen, in the spring following his marriage, and by that of his beautiful mother, Queen Elizabeth, rather less than a year later.

For the moment, however, 'all the nobility were set on pleasure and solace', and Lady Margaret was at any rate willing to put aside her fears and to be present at the 'tilts, jousts and tourneys' the 'great and goodly banquets', the pageants and fancy-dress balls at the Court, where she liked to see her grand children dancing together. The little Duke of York (Henry VIII) was at the age of ten already a remarkably good dancer, and his parents and grandmother were much amused when, at one of the Court balls, the hot, excited little boy, 'perceiving himself to be accombred with his clothes', suddenly threw off his gown and danced in his 'jaket'.

Much ingenious fancy was shown in the 'disguisings' that amused the Court after their banquets, the pret tiest of these perhaps being an enormous lantern which was 'pight before the King and Queen in Westminster Hall', the windows of it 'fenestred wt fyne Lawne' wherein were more than a hundred great lights, 'in the which lanterne were xii goodly ladies disguysid and right rychely beseen', who, emerging from the lantern, danced before the royal party. When the gala days at Westminster were over, the Court moved by water to the King's manor of Richmond, his lady-mother's barge being 'right goodly covered, painted and beseen' -- and there the festivities continued.

On Sunday the 'forenoon was expended holily and with great vertue' and 'with prikked songe and organs', but the afternoon was given up to many 'goodly and pleasant disports', and a clever Spanish rope-dancer entertained the company by showing 'on a kabill stretchid stedfastly, many wonders and de lycious poynts of tumbling and dancing'.

After this came evensong, and after that a disguising and a dance, when great merriment was caused by disguised ladies and gallants who, in a spirit of mischief, let loose doves and white rabbits in the hall 'and great laughter and disport they made', and then 'Lords and Ladies coupled together danced a long season many courtly rounds and pleasant dances'. A 'voyde' or supper of spices and wine concluded this -- as one would think -- most exhausting 'Day of Rest'.

A few weeks after this, in January 1502,, the formal betrothal of the King's eldest daughter, Margaret, was concluded with King James IV of Scotland. The Countess of Richmond, remembering her own too early marriage, had joined with the Queen in urging the delay of the wedding until the child should be at least eighteen, and owing to their persuasions it was put off for a time. [5] Henry VII, however, was anxious to put an end to the centuries-old feud with Scotland by means of a friendly alliance; he was fond of his daughter, but reasons of policy prevailed with him, and Margaret was only fourteen when, in July 1503, her father took her to say good-bye to her grandmother at Collyweston, on the way to her wedding in Scotland.

After 'certain days of solace ended' she left Lady Margaret's house on her long journey, 'very nobly accompanied' and riding on a 'faire palfrey', her saddle wrought with red roses. She had also a chariot lined with bearskins, and a very rich litter for her use when her cortege made its entry into a town on the way. The Earl of Derby and several other gentlemen accompanied her for a mile from Collyweston, and then kissed her good-bye in a final farewell.

Her mission failed to put an end to the enmity of the Scots, but it resulted, a hundred years later, in the union of the two Crowns, when her great-grandson, James VI of Scotland, ascended the throne as James I of England. The Countess of Richmond, through her grand-daughter Margaret, thus became the ancestress of all the subsequent Sovereigns of Great Britain to the present day.