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Beckington, Thomas (DNB00)


BECKINGTON or BEKYNTON , THOMAS (1390?–1465), bishop of Bath and Wells and lord privy seal, was a native of the Somersetshire village from which he derived his surname. His parentage is unknown, and there is no record of the date of his birth, but from the dates of his admission, first at Winchester (1404) and afterwards at New College, Oxford (1406), it is presumed to have been about 1390. He was admitted a fellow of New College in 1408, and retained his fellowship twelve years. He took the degree of LL.D. In 1420, when he resigned his fellowship, he entered the service of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester; from which time, apparently, church preferments began j to flow in upon him. The rectory of St. | Leonard's, near Hastings, and the vicarage of Sutton Courtney, in Berks, were perhaps not among the first. Indeed, there are grounds for supposing the former to have been given him in 1439. He had become archdeacon of Buckinghamshire, it appears, before the death of Henry V in 1422, though a later date is given in Le Neve; and in April next year we find him collated to the prebend of Bilton in York, which he exchanged for that of Warthill in the same cathedral four months later. He was appointed to a canonry in Wells in 1439, and was also master of St. Katherine's Hospital, near the Tower of London. But early in 1423 he was already dean of the Arches, in which capacity he assisted at the trial of the heretic William Tailor; and in Nov. 1428 he was appointed, along with the celebrated canonist, William Lyndewood, receiver of the subsidy granted by the lower house of convocation for the expenses of the prosecution of William Russell, another suspected heretic. He was prolocutor of convocation at least as early as 1433, and so continued till May 1438. During the session of 1434 he was commissioned by Archbishop Chichele to draw up, along with others, certain comminatory articles to be proclaimed by the clergy in their parishes four times a year. Meanwhile he had been engaged in several public capacities. In February 1432 he had been nominated to go on embassy to France with Langdon, bishop of Rochester, and Sir Henry Bromflete, to negotiate a peace; but the envoys do not appear to have left till December following, when Sir John Fastolf was substituted for Sir Henry Bromflete. It has been erroneously stated that he was also sent to the congress at Arras in 1435; but it is certain that he was a member of the great embassy sent to Calais in 1439 to treat with the French ambassadors. Of this embassy he has left a journal, in which he styles himself the king's secretary — an office probably conferred upon him just before, though he appears to have acted in that capacity, at least occasionally, for about two years previously. After his return from this embassy he was for three or four years in close attendance upon the king, and speaks of himself at one time as being his reader nearly every day.

In the spring of 1442 an embassy was sent to England by John IV, count of Armagnac, who desired to offer one of his daughters in marriage to young King Henry VI. They were well received, and three officers of the royal household, of whom Beckington was one, were immediately despatched in return to the court of Armagnac fully empowered to contract the proposed alliance. Their commission bore date 28 May 1442, and on 5 June they set out from Windsor. An interesting diary, written by one of Beckington's suite, describes their progress to the west coast, where they took shipping at Plymouth, the letters and messages that overtook them on the road, the voyage and arrival at Bordeaux, where they received alarming news of the progress of the enemy and the capture of Sir Thomas Rempstone, seneschal of Bordeaux. They nevertheless continued for some time to prosecute the object of their mission; but the state of the country and the severity of the season interposed such difficulties in the way that they thought it best to return in the beginning of the following year. Beckington landed again at Falmouth on 10 Feb., met the king ten days later at Maidenhead, and on the 21st arrived in London, where he supped with the lord mayor. Next day he visited Greenwich with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. On the 23rd he heard mass at his own hospital of St. Katherine's, dined with the lord treasurer, and supped again with the lord mayor. On Sunday the 26th he rejoined the king at Shene, and resumed his duties as secretary; soon after which he was appointed lord privy seal.

The chief effect of this embassy and of its return was to impress upon the government at home the necessity of taking more active steps to avert — as they succeeded in doing for a few years — the threatened loss of Guienne. The marriage negotiation was a failure. Even the artist employed, according to their instructions, to take likenesses of the count of Armagnac's three daughters, that the king might choose which of them he preferred, was unable to do his work: the frost had congealed his colours when he had barely completed one portrait, and the envoys saw good reason to return home without waiting for the other two. But the result nowise tended to diminish the influence of Beckington, who not only, as we have seen, continued to receive new marks of the king's favour, but had ere this made friends at the court of Rome as well; by whose means, in that same year 1443, he was rather too precipitately nominated by the pope to the see of Salisbury, which it was supposed Bishop Ascough would vacate in order to be promoted to the see of Canterbury. But, as Ascough declined to leave Salisbury, John Stafford, bishop of Bath and Wells, was elevated to the primacy, and Beckington was made bishop of Bath in Stafford's room. His agent at Rome meanwhile had unluckily paid into the papal treasury a considerable sum for the firstfruits of Salisbury, and Beckington obtained a letter from the king himself, directing him to get it, if possible, charged to the account of the see of Bath. How the matter was settled does not appear; but on 13 Oct. Beckington was consecrated bishop of Bath and Wells by William Alnwick, bishop of Lincoln. The rite was performed in the old collegiate church at Eton, and Beckington the same day celebrated mass in pontificalibus under a tent within the new church, then not half built, and held his inaugural banquet within the college buildings. As might be expected in one who was so greatly in the confidence of the royal founder, he had taken a strong interest in the new college from the first, and one of his latest acts as archdeacon of Buckinghamshire was to exempt the provost from his own jurisdiction, placing him directly under the bishop of Lincoln as visitor and ordinary.

As bishop of Bath he had in 1445 a controversy with Nicholas Frome, abbot of Glastonbury, an old man who, tenacious of the privileges of his monastery, resented episcopal visitation, and whom Beckington, with unseemly severity, taunted with the infirmities of age. He had a much more pleasing correspondence with Thomas Chandler, who was first warden of Winchester College, then warden of New College, Oxford, and afterwards chancellor of Wells, who looked up to him as a patron. But on the whole it may be said that his personal history, after he became bishop, is uninteresting. His name occurs as trier of petitions in parliament from 1444 to 1453, but no particular act is recorded of him. On 18 June 1452 he obtained an exemption from further attendance in parliament on account of his age and infirmities — a privilege which Edward IV confirmed to him in 1461. He died at Wells on 14 Jan. 1465, and was buried in a fine tomb, built by himself in his lifetime, in the south aisle of the choir. In our own day, during some repairs of the cathedral in 1850, this tomb was opened, and the remains of his skeleton were inspected. It was that of a tall man with a well-formed skull.

Active as his life was, and interesting also in a literary point of view, from his correspondence with learned men both in England and at Home, Beckington's chief claim upon the regard of posterity is the munificence with which he adorned with fine buildings his cathedral city of Wells. Besides rebuilding the episcopal palace, he supplied the town with a public conduit and fountain, and erected the close of the vicars choral and fifteen tenements in the market place. His curious rebus, a flaming beacon (commonly spelt bekyn in those days) and a tun or barrel, is seen carved in various quarters, not only at Wells, but at Winchester and in Lincoln College, Oxford. His bequests in his will were princely, and show his strong attachment, not only to the colleges and places of education, but to all the different churches with which he had been connected.

[Memoir by Nicolas, prefixed to Journal of an Embassy to the Count of Armagnac; Official Correspondence of Bekynton, edited by G. Williams, B.D., in Rolls Series, in the introduction to which are some important corrections of Nicolas; Chandler's Life of Waynflete.]

J. G.