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'County Heritage' in The Leader, September 10, 1987
Presented by Greville Watson, 2012
Mayor's son who became an Archbishop
by Ron Mears

Remains of the Archbishop's 15th century college
From last week’s feature, we know that the pleasant country town of Higham Ferrers has several medieval buildings of outstanding interest in addition to its magnificent parish church.

Most of them were erected by the fifteenth century Archbishop Henry Chichele, the patron saint of the parish and one of Northamptonshire’s greatest men of the church.

He was born in either the old Tollgate House, or a nearby cottage in Higham Ferrers in 1362 and was the son of a prosperous farmer who had himself been mayor of the borough more than once.  The two other sons rose to be sheriff and lord mayor of the City of London respectively.

Henry Chichele’s early education was spent at Winchester under the celebrated William of Wickham, going on to New College, Oxford, where he studied civil and canon law.  He made rapid progress in both subjects.

Although he didn’t enter into Holy Orders until a much later date, he was created Doctor of Laws by the Pope and just before he was thirty years old, he was made subdeacon at a parish in Wales, before being ordained as a priest.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, he was instituted to the rectory of St Stephen’s at Walbrook in London and appointed to the Court of Arches, but in the following year, he resigned to become Archdeacon of Dorset.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, he became rector of Brington in Northamptonshire (well-known for its Washington and Spencer connections).

During the ten years or so he was there, he became Chancellor of Salisbury, a canon of the cathedral and also Bishop of St Davids.

During this period, he was sent by Henry the Fourth in 1406 as an ambassador to Pope Innocent the Seventh and in the same year to the Court of France.

He repeated his visit to Rome the following year, this time as ambassador to Pope Gregory the 12th, who was so delighted with him that he consecrated him to the vacant seat at Salisbury, as bishop of the cathedral.

Because of his state duties in service of the king, it was nearly two years before he entered his diocese and in 1414, at the nomination of the king, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, a position he held until his death on April 12, 1443, at the age of 81.

He had been primate of the country for close on thirty years and during the latter part of his life, founded two colleges at Oxford – St Bernard’s, which was later dissolved becoming part of St John’s, and All Souls, where he constructed his own grave just before his death, complete with altar tomb and effigy of himself in full pontificals.

Here he was buried according to his wishes in the grave he had prepared, but he never forgot his birthplace during his lifetime and his influence and personal interest in Higham Ferrers was immense.

It was here that he founded the college in 1422 which, according to historian John Bridges, was a quadrangular building with two wings projecting westward.  One of these was still standing in his lifetime, but today almost all traces of them, the hall and chapel have completely disappeared.

Originally built on about three acres of land he had obtained, it was governed by eight chaplains (one of whom was master), four clerks and six choristers.  The chaplains and clerks were assigned to instruct and teach grammar and singing, while the choristers were there for religious instruction.

Whether Chichele built the old grammar school in the churchyard is open to discussion, but it was certainly ascribed to him, although there was a grammar school in existence in1380 when Henry Barton was the schoolmaster.

Barton died in 1399, so whether it was built or merely renovated by Chichele, it must have been one of the oldest schoolhouses in England.

It is a splendid specimen of fifteenth century perpendicular architecture standing in the shadows of the crocketed steeple of St Mary’s Church.  In addition, the stately parapets and pinnacles, the large exquisite windows and the fourteenth century graveyard cross present a perfect picture to anyone approaching from College Street.

At the other end of the churchyard you will find Bede House, which Chichele certainly erected, another treasure that Higham can be proud of.  This was founded to house a dozen poor men of the parish with a woman to wait on them.

It is another beautiful old building, constructed of alternate layers of honey-coloured ironstone and limestone, enhanced by its open timber roof.  The gable is crowned by an elaborately-decorated bellcot with openings at the side and a bell dated 1737.

It is still used frequently and the Arts and Crafts exhibition, which is usually held in early December, is well worth seeing.

Among the many beautiful stained glass windows in the church is one to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Chichele’s enthronement at Canterbury, which can be found in the lady chapel.

It is a window designed by Jesse and was erected in 1914 with figures of British saints in the lower panels and the heraldry of the various colleges associated with the archbishop in the tracery.

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