Hugh Oldham bigraphy, stories - Bishop of Exeter and a patron of education

Hugh Oldham : biography

c. 1452 - 25 June 1519

Hugh Oldham (c.1452 – 25 June 1519) was a Bishop of Exeter and a notable patron of education. Born in Lancashire to a family of minor gentry, he probably attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities, following which he was a clerk at Durham, then a rector in Cornwall before being employed by Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of King Henry VII), rising to be the chancellor of her household by 1503. During this time he was preferred with many religious posts all over the country, being made archdeacon of Exeter in 1502 and finally bishop of that city in 1505, a decision that most likely was influenced by Lady Margaret.

He was a conscientious bishop who ensured that only educated people were appointed to ecclesiastical posts. His patronage of educational establishments included the foundation of Manchester Grammar School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford for which he donated £4,000. After his death he was buried in Exeter Cathedral in a chantry chapel that he had caused to be built for that purpose. The chapel is decorated with numerous carvings of owls, which were his personal device.

Bishop of Exeter

Possibly with some influence from Lady Margaret Beaufort (who was the mother of the then reigning king, Henry VII), Oldham was appointed as Bishop of Exeter on 24 November 1504, and was consecrated in the post on 12 January 1505. He evidently took his duties as bishop seriously and ensured that only educated people, such as university graduates, were raised to most of the important roles under his control. He also instigated examinations to select the best candidates for ordination.

Bishop Oldham's coat of arms, shown here, is described as "Sable, a chevron or, between three Owls proper; on a chief of the second, three Roses gules."Oliver (1861), p. 120. Oldham adopted the owl as his personal device. It was a play on words or rebus based on his surname, which would probably have been pronounced at the time as owl-dom.

From 1510 to 1513 he was one of a group of bishops who resisted, largely successfully, what they considered were undue claims made by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, regarding the probate courts. In 1511 he regulated many cathedral matters by the issue of statutes, and he was not shy in confronting other religious houses when he thought it appropriate. He successfully annexed Warland Hospital in Totnes from the Trinitarian Order in 1509. This was done, as was the similar annexation of Clyst Gabriel at Sowton, to help finance the provision of regular meals for the twenty vicars choral at his Cathedral.

He was initially successful in his litigation against Richard Banham, the abbot of Tavistock Abbey, who in 1513 had declared his abbey exempt from the bishop's right of episcopal visitation. Oldham quickly excommunicated him, but after Banham's personal appeal that he be "absolved from his censures", Oldham reinstated him, on payment of five pounds. However, soon afterwards Banham appealed to Archbishop William Warham and Richard FitzJames, Bishop of London, who decided early in 1514 that since he had not produced any evidence of papal exemption, he had to submit to the bishop. Still not satisfied, Banham appealed directly to Rome and eventually received a papal bull, dated 14 September 1517, that exempted him totally from episcopal jurisdiction and took the Abbey under the sole protection of the Holy See, on payment of twenty shillings annually.Pickerill (2001), pp. 46, 49. These events are in direct contrast to what was written in 1601 by Francis Godwin in his Catalogue of the Bishops of England where he stated that it was Oldham who was excommunicated by the pope as a result of this dispute. Godwin's version of events was followed by several later historians,For instance, Thomas Fuller's The Worthies of England (1644) and the but Mumford (1936) flatly stated that "there is no record of any such excommunication".Pickerill (2001), p. 49.

Hugh Oldham had a brother, Bernard, who also followed a religious career. At Hugh's request, Lady Margaret Beaufort had seen that he was installed as rector in Crewkerne, Somerset, in around 1495. While there, Bernard helped John Combe, a lawyer and precentor of Exeter Cathedral, who came from Crewkerne, establish a free grammar school in the town. After Lady Margaret's death in 1509, Hugh spent a long time with his brother in Crewkerne,Pickerill (2001), p. 47. and arranged for him to be Archdeacon of Cornwall, a post which he held from 1509 to 1515. On 5 April 1515 Bernard was made treasurer of Exeter Cathedral, but he died within a month of taking up the post.

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