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





DR. JOHN FISHER, in the meantime, became successively Master of Michaelhouse (1497), Vice Chancellor and Chancellor of his University, Bishop of Rochester (1504), and President of Queens' College, Cambridge. His advancement was due to his own great merit, his learning and energy and purity of life, though there is no doubt that indirectly the favour of his royal friend helped him greatly in his career. She had a strong affection for him and was always ready to further his interests and wishes in any way that she could.

The following letter from the King shows to what extent Fisher owed to her the Bishopric of Rochester, which he accepted only after some hesitation. The initiative appears to have been entirely the King's, but there can have been no doubt as to Lady Margaret's answer and approval.

(Henry VII to the Countess of Richmond, 1504.) [1]

'Madam, an' I thought I should not offend you, which I will never do wilfully, I am well minded to promote Master Fisher, your Confessor, to a bishopric, and I assure you madam, for none other cause, but for the great and singular virtue that I know and see in him, as well in cunning (i. e. knowledge) and natural wisdom, and specially for his good and virtuous living and conversation. And by the promotion of such a man I know well it should 'courage many others to live virtuously and to take such ways as he doth, which should be a good example to many others hereafter. Howbeit, without your pleasure known I will not move him nor tempt him therein. And therefore I beseech you that I may know your mind and pleasure in that behalf, which sllall be followed as much as God will give me grace. I have in my days promoted many a man unadvisedly, and I would now make some recompense to promote some good and virtuous men, which I doubt not should best please God, who ever preserve you in good health and long life.'

It was chiefly through the influence of Dr. Fisher that Lady Margaret's beneficence was directed towards the University of Cambridge and to him was due the founding of the two colleges which have proved to be her most lasting and splendid memorial.

Her earliest connexion with Cambridge was, how ever, recorded long before she met Fisher, when in 1489 the Corporation of that City spent six shillings and eightpence on 6 lb. of sweets ('cowmfetts') to give to the King's mother. They gave her also a flagon of the spiced wine called 'ipocras' and three pike-fish, and she sent a buck to the Mayor and Burgesses, to return the compliment. Perhaps she had not at that time renounced 'ioncryes betwyxe meales' and so was able to appreciate the 'cowmfetts'.

Even before the foundation of Christ's College she was called upon to settle disputes between the University and Corporation; both sides appealed to her and she persuaded them to submit to arbitration, either her own or that of certain State officials whom she named, and in the cause of peace she reminded the disputants that 'cunning, virtue and Christian Faith were continued and increased by quiet study and learning of the laws of Almighty God'.

Her influence was sought by aspirants for promotion in both Universities; candidates for Fellowships asked for her commendatory letters; she interfered at Oxford in 1500 to obtain the election of a bedel of whom she approved, and again in 1501, [2] when she wrote to the University from the Episcopal Palace at Buckden in Huntingdonshire, where she was staying for the summer, saying that she was 'credybly enformed' that one Richard Wotton was 'a right hable and convenient person' for the office of

'gentilman bedell in Diuinite within your uniuersite. We . . . desire therefore and pray youe for to owe youre good fauores unto hyme as rather for our sake he may be proferryd to the said Rome [room = office] . Wherby ye schall not oonely do a thinge for the grete honowre and weale of youre said uniuersite, but also unto us full Singuler plesure.' [3]

In this case her influence overcame that of the Chancellor of the University himself, who had sup ported another candidate, and the electors anxiously begged that she 'who could so easily assuage anger and mollify resentment' would interpose her good of fices with the Bishop (of Lincoln) on their behalf. At the same time they wrote to the Chancellor to explain that they could not oppose the wishes of the King's mother, to whose kindness and munificence they were so much indebted. [4]

Royal patronage of the Universities was of course no new thing, and Lady Margaret only followed the traditions of her house in her benefactions to them. But for Fisher's influence, however, she would have given a far larger share of her great wealth to the Abbey of Westminster, where Henry VII was adding to the Abbey church the splendid Lady Chapel that bears his name, and which was once thought tohave been designed by their old friend Sir Reginald Bray. [5] She bestowed upon the Abbey revenues to the amount of £87 a year, and endowed the Almonry with a pension for thirteen poor women; the King did the same for thirteen poor men.

Besides many gifts offered 'for the weal of her soul', she endowed at Westminster a chantry of two priests and a converse, or server, who were to pray for her soul and for the souls of her parents, her three husbands, the King and Queen and their children, and to say Mass daily 'whilst the world should endure'. It was arranged that she should be buried in the King's chapel, and her interest at one time was centred in the Abbey.

Although the Reformation was still in the future and she had no idea that her Masses would ever be discontinued, the great days of the monasteries were already past, and Fisher suggested to his patroness that schools of learning were quite as worthy of help as the wealthy Abbey, and in far greater need, and that by founding colleges she would perform an act of true charity and piety.

Possibly she had already given some help towards the conversion of the nunnery of St. Rhadegund at Cambridge into Jesus College, in 1497,[6] as it was provided that her name should be mentioned in the prayers of the Master and Fellows and she left a small legacy to the college by her will. She was deeply interested in Fisher's proposals for another college at Cambridge, and was convinced by his arguments.

In contrast to the present custom, the 'health of the soul' was at that time much more considered and written about than the health of the body; spiritual self-interest was no doubt a strong incentive to many of the 'pious Founders and Benefactors' of that age of magnificent building, but Lady Margaret was inspired also by the higher motive which was emphasized by the Bishop of Rochester in his account of her good deeds. He said:

'She ordained two continual readers in both the Universities to teach the holy Divinity of Jesu, she ordained preachers perpetual to publish the Doctrine and Faith of Christ Jesu, she builded a College-Royal to the honour of the name of Christ Jesu and left to her executors another to be builded to maintain his faith and doctrine.'

She entrusted to the bishop the mission of explain ing her views to the King, whose leave had to be obtained to alter the royal licence which he had given her in favour of her previous project for Westminster.

Henry made no difficulty in consenting to his mother's request for permission to 'alter her mynde' from 'the ffoundations to have ben done in the mona storye at Westminster' to 'the foundacion of Cristis college' at Cambridge. His letter in reply is as follows.

(Henry VII to his mother.)

'Madam, my most entirely well-beloved Lady and Mother; I recommend me to you in the most humble and lowly wise that I can, beseeching you of your daily and continual blessings. By your confessor the bearer I have received your good and most loving writing, and by the same have heard at good leisure such credence as he would show unto me on your be half, and thereupon have sped him in every behalf without delay according to your noble petition and desire, which resteth in two principal points; the one for a general pardon for all manner [of] causes; the other is for to alter and change part of a licence which I had given unto you before for to be put into mort main at Westminster, and now to be converted into the University of Cambridge for your soul's health, &c.; all which things according to your desire and pleasure I have with all my heart and goodwill given and granted unto you. And, Madame, not only in this, but in all other things that I may know should be to your honour and pleasure and weal of your soul, I shall be as glad to please you as your heart can desire it, and I know well that I am as much bounden so to do as any creature living, for the great and singular motherly love and affection that it hath pleased you at all times to bear towards me. Wherefore, mine own most loving mother, in my most hearty manner I thank you, beseeching you of your good continuance in the same.

'And, madame, your said confessor hath moreover shown unto me on your behalf that you of your goodness and kind disposition have given and granted unto me such title and interest as you have or ought to have in such debts and duties which is owing and due to you in France by the French king and others, wherefore, madame, in my most hearty and humble wise I thank you. Howbeit I verily [think] it will be right hard to recover it....

'And verily, madame, and I might recover it at this time or any other ye[t] be sure you should have your pleasure therein, as I and all that God has given me is and shall ever [be] at your will and command ment, as I have instructed Master Fisher more largely herein, as I doubt not he will declare unto you. And I beseech you to send me your mind and pleasure in the same, which I shall be full glad to follow with God's grace, which send and give unto you the full accomplishment of all your noble and virtuous desires.

'Written at Greenwich the 17th day of July, with the hand of your most humble and loving son H. R.'

In the postscript is written:

'Madame, I have encumbered you now with this my long writings, but methink that I can do no less, considering that it is so seldom that I do write, wherefore I beseech you to pardon me, for verily, madame, my sight is nothing so perfect as it has been, and I know well it will impair daily; wherefore I trust that you will not be displeased, though I write not so often with mine own hand, for on my faith I have been three days or I could make an end of this letter.

'To my lady.' [7]

The ancient foundation of God's House, dating from the reign of Henry VI, being in great financial straits, it was decided by Lady Margaret, on Fisher's advice, to absorb the old House in the new foundation, and to raise it from the status of a grammar school to that of a 'School of Arts', with the title of Christ's College. The royal licence for its foundation was given on the 1st May 1505; the countess settled certain estates upon the college and the bishop super intended the building; together, in all probability, they drew up the statutes, which constitute an important and interesting code, 'presenting as it does the first endeavour to introduce a new element of culture'. [8]

The statutes, which were set forth at great length, provided that the Master of the College was to be a Doctor or Bachelor of Divinity, with annual stipend of £6. 13s. 4d., with 20s. for clothing and 12d. a week for commons.

The twelve Fellows were to be at the time of their election Masters of Arts, or at least to have taken the degree of B.A., and either to have taken Priest's Orders or to be prepared to take them within a year. They were to be chosen from the scholars if there were enough fitting candidates among them, or if not, from the whole university. Among other regulations, they were forbidden to keep dogs or rapacious birds in the college, or to play dice or cards, except in the Hall at Christmas.

The scholars were to be students of promise, able to speak and understand Latin and intending to devote themselves to the study of literature ('bonas artes') and Divinity.

Lady Margaret reserved three rooms for her own use in the college, [9] and it has been often related that while she was staying there, 'to behold it when partly built', looking out of her window one day 'she saw the Dean call a faulty scholar to correction, to whom she said, "Lente, lente!" ("Gently, gently!") as accounting it better to mitigate his punishment than procure his pardon'. It may be added that the younger undergraduates were liable to be birched by the Dean for the already recognized crime of 'cutting' a lecture; these were boys of fourteen or fifteen; their seniors had to pay for the same offence a fine of a penny -- the sum allowed them for commons for a day. These very 'short commons', so contrary to Lady Margaret's usual liberality, may be traced to Bishop Fisher's prejudice against a good dinner, for he held the idea that a low diet was necessary to mental concentration, and thought that youth, to be studious, should not be too well fed. Lady Margaret herself had a very motherly feeling for her scholars, as the above incident shows, and another instance of this was the provision in her will of a country house at Malton, to which they might resort for study during any of the frequent contagious sicknesses in Cambridge.

It was provided by the statutes that lectures were to be given on sophistry, logic, philosophy, and the works of poets and orators. Mr. Mullinger has sug gested that the latter clause was due to the influence of Erasmus, who had a very high opinion of Fisher and who attributed to him the peaceful introduction of the study of Greek in Cambridge and all that was most encouraging in the University. [10]

Erasmus, after Lady Margaret's death, became the 'Margaret Professor' of Divinity (1511-1515), and with the protection of Fisher prepared at Queens' College his edition of the New Testament, which has more than once been described as the origin of the Reformation in England.

Lady Margaret was also interested in Queens' College. It had been founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou, and was considered to be specially under the patronage of the two queens who succeeded her. After the death of Henry VII's wife, Lady Margaret appears to have assumed the responsibilities of a queen-patroness of the college, visiting it when she went to Cambridge and interesting herself in its welfare. She persuaded her ward, the young Duke of Buckingham, to bestow upon it thirty-one acres of land (for the good of his soul) and she used her influence to obtain the election of Fisher as President in 1505. [11]

It appears that after the foundation of Christ's College, a deputation of distinguished men from Oxford begged the countess to do as much for their university as she had done for Cambridge, and would have prevailed with her in their petition on behalf of St. Frideswide's Priory, but for the counter-claims made by the Bishop of Rochester.[12 ] At all events, the foundation of St. John's College, Cambridge, was the last important project in her life.

In this case the old foundation, the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, had been subject to maladministration for several years; it was decided to suppress it and to supersede it by a new and splendid college. The King's consent was obtained, but before the legal deeds could be drawn up and ratified Henry VII died at Richmond on the 21st April 1509, and two months later the life of his mother also ended.

It was left to the strenuous exertions of her executors,[13] of whom the Bishop of Rochester was the most active, to carry out her clearly expressed wishes in the face of great difficulties, caused chiefly by the rapacity of Henry VIII; the residuary legatee, and by the indifference of her stepson, Stanley, Bishop of Ely, whose consent was necessary for the dissolution of the old Hospital.

The lands which she intended should be devoted to her new foundation could not be secured against the King, although Fisher (who ' made diverse dyners to the cheff juggis and other lernede counsell' in order to get their advice concerning his lady's testament) obtained a favourable judgement from the Chancellor and Archbishop, Warham. [14]

Cardinal Wolsey was said to be hostile to Lady Margaret's plan, but at last, in July 1516, the college was opened, to become, with Christ's College, the most famous achievement of the generosity and energy of the two partners in good deeds who worked so long and harmoniously together for the promotion of religion and learning.

A few years later Erasmus wrote in praise of these two foundations and of Queens' College, all of which came specially under the influence of John Fisher and of Lady Margaret, as 'those three colleges where youth was exercised, not in dialectical wrestling matches, which serve only to chill the heart and unfit men for serious duties, but in true learning and sober arguments, and from whence they went forth to preach the Word of God with earnestness and with an evan gelical spirit and to commend it to the minds of men of learning by a weighty eloquence'. [15]

In the same spirit and at about the same time, Colet was founding St. Paul's School, with the intent to increase knowledge and true religion, and 'good Christian life and manners' in the rising generation.