5. Chichele College
Henry Chichele was born in Higham Ferrers in about 1362. His father was a substantial landowner in Higham and had been Mayor of Higham in 1380 and 1381. Following his election to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1414, Henry had the opportunity and resources to set up three institutions in Higham, the grammar school supporting the young, the Bede House supporting the old, and Chichele College.
Permission sought for the College
In 1422 Henry Chichele petitioned the Pope, (Martin V) and the King (Henry V) for permission to build the college. The land he chose already had buildings on it, owned by John Warin to the north, and John Stanfelde, Stephen Marshall and John Chaundelrye on the south. Chichele held a public meeting for the mayor and the free tenants of the Borough asking if they approved of his proposal. A loud cheer went up as those present unanimously agreed with the idea, although the aforementioned landowners might not have been as enthusiastic. The consent being given by the Pope, the King and some of the people of Higham meant that Chichele could build his College, and he was granted four acres of land on which to construct his enterprise.
Preparations went ahead. Fishponds were dug to enable fish to be farmed. These structures, locally known as The Cup and Saucer, can still be seen today. By 1425 sufficient building had been completed for the Archbishop to attend the public laying of the foundation stone, on August 28th. At this ceremony the Archbishop cursed anyone who should assail his foundation, a warning that did not seem to hamper Henry Vlll a hundred or more years later.
The College: saints and sinners
The purpose of the College was to pray for the souls of the Lancastrian dynasty, the family of the Archbishop, and to support the education of boys and youths of the town. Henry Chichele funded the college through the rents of his various properties in Essex, London and Higham, including revenue from The Swan. The college staff was meant to include a warden, a school master, fellows, choristers and clerks, but the finances were never sufficient to cover all the commitments and there were continual complaints about late payment of salaries.
The term ‘college’ was used at the time to describe a community of priests who shared a communal life that was less strictly controlled than that within a monastery. It certainly seemed that some of the activities undertaken were less than law abiding. In 1433 the fellows of the college were in trouble at the Duchy Court for poaching fish in the River Nene with “Angleroddes”. In 1509 the warden (who was also the rector at St Mary’s Church) was fined for seeking to grind the College corn privately and not at the King’s mill. Henry Chichele had set out very clear rules when setting up the Bede House, but there seems to have been less clarity over the rules for living in the college. During the existence of the College there were numerous complaints about the lax attitudes of the inhabitants. These included the fellows being far too fashion conscious and wearing their gowns cut very short, and allowing the wife of the cook to eat with them at meal times. Robert Ireland, the chaplain, was charged with “haunting suspect places”, particularly the houses of Elizabeth Bere and Margery Chamberlayne, ladies of ill repute.
How much were the officials paid?
The salaries of the officials running the college in 1535 were recorded as follows1 .
Robert Goldson (Master) £30.0.0 (approx £13,500 pa)
Thomas Frear (Vice-warden) £16 19s 2d (approx (£7,500 pa)
Nicholas Stere (Grammar school master) £21 11s 3d (approx £9,700 pa)
Thomas Gamon (Chaplin) £14 17s 11d (approx £6,700 pa)
Thomas Pykkell (Chaplin) £14 17s 11d (approx £6,700 pa)
Roger Browne (Chaplin) £13 11s 3d (approx £6,000 pa)
Hugo Garfett £13 11s 3d (approx £6,000 pa)
As a comparison other occupations salaries were broadly2 :
A master carpenter £5 0 0 (approx £3,500 pa)
A mason £8 0 0 (approx £5,500 pa)
Chief armourer £16 0 0 (approx £10,500 pa )
The impact of the dissolution of the monasteries
The college survived in its original purpose for just over 100 years. In 1543 the building was taken into the King’s hands with the dissolution of the monasteries. When the dissolution process was enacted the value of the institutions was calculated, and Chichele College was valued at £856 2s 7d. The repossessed sites were then offered for sale and Robert Dacres bought the College, but certain obligations were entailed. He had to maintain two chaplains whose salaries were £10 and £8 per annum, and these clergy were to have care of the souls of the King and the parishioners of Higham Ferrers. He had to maintain the schoolmaster whose salary was £10 per annum, and the Bede House and 12 Bedesmen and 1 Bedeswoman. The cost of this was £24 per annum. The dispossessed clergy were frequently given pensions following the closure of their religious houses, and the Duchy of Lancaster paid Johannis Celyre3 £2 0s 0d per annum following the closure of the College.
The closure of “alien” monasteries
The process of closing monasteries was not new. A significant number of monasteries had been founded by the French, following the success of the Norman invasion in 1066. The Cistercians, Trappists, Carthusians and Dominicans all had major land holdings in England. As time passed and England became immersed in a fairly regular state of war with France, these “alien” monasteries were a constant irritation to a succession of English Kings, who did not want money going overseas, and in particular to the French. The first sequestration of assets happened in 1295–1303 under Edward I and this was repeated continuously over the course of the 14th century, particularly under Edward III. When Henry Chichele became archbishop, he lent authority to the crown’s systematic suppression and appropriation of priories founded by French monasteries, and during his term in office no fewer than 50 were swept away.
The collapse of the buildings4
The College remained in the family of Robert Dacres until 1734. A long running dispute with the Borough of Higham Ferrers over who should pay for what, led Thomas Dacres to sell the property. It had been in a ruinous state for some time, as parts of the walls collapsed and were not repaired. This was evident in the drawing by Buck in 1729.
The architecture has been much altered over the intervening centuries since Chichele built his college, as has its function. It has been used as a farm building and as a public house, known as The Saracen's Head5. The barn built to store farm produce can be seen to the right in the 1951 photograph.
The college was first listed as a scheduled monument in October 1981. It is now in the care of English Heritage but managed by Higham Ferrers Tourism and Business Partnership on a day-to-day basis.
2. National Archives currency website
3. The Dissolution of the Monasteries James Clark 2021
4. History, Topography and Directory. Frances Whellan and Co. 1874
5. Notes and Queries. Editor Rev. Sweeting. 1886