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  • William Tyler

A Tudor Story

This is the story of John Vesey, who became bishop of Exeter. He was born John Harman in c.1464 in Sutton Coldfield. The change of surname probably came about because as a boy John stayed with a relative whose surname it was. My guess is, as the whole family changed their name, that an inheritance was involved carrying with it a stipulation of the change of surname.


John was educated locally, possibly in the household of that same relative, and then at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he gained a doctorate in canon and civil law. Interesting to note that in the late 15th century in England a boy from a yeoman family, certainly not gentry let alone aristocracy, could go up to Oxford and succeed.


He entered The Church, then of course Catholic. The Church was an obvious choice for advancement in 16th century England. He took up post as Chaplain at The Manor House in Sutton Coldfield. A case of local boy makes good. His first step up the social and political ladder came when he was elevated to the Archdeaconry of Barnstaple. John was lucky to gain the patronage of Thomas Wolsey. Again a question of whom you know. As Wolsey rose in royal favour so did John Vesey. Vesey became first a Canon of Exeter Cathedral (same diocese as Barnstaple) and then its Bishop in 1519. With this appointment he earned the truly vast sum of £1,500pa.


His next appointment, held simultaneously, carried him even higher into royal circles. He was appointed President of The Court of Marches [ie Border country] of Wales, based at Ludlow. Around the same time, 1526, he was appointed tutor to Princess Mary, Henry VIII's eldest child. Mary had her own court, aged 11, in Ludlow Castle. John Vesey subsequently became a Chaplain to the King. So the lad from Sutton Coldfield was now a highly regarded and trusted courtier of Tudor England.

Around this time he used his influence, and money, in the great cause of his life - his home town of Sutton Coldfield. The town was suffering badly from a fall in trade, and John Vesey obtained from Henry a Charter of Incorporation in 1528. This was a boost to trade, and John added to this by paying for a marketplace with paved streets leading to and from it ( at a cost of £40 3/8d). The following year, 1529, Wolsey fell from power, and died before Henry could take his revenge on him. John seeing the way the wind was blowing hitched his waggon to the rising star of Thomas Cromwell. Clever man.


John was not done in becoming Sutton Coldfield's greatest benefactor. The Grammar School he founded, surviving to this day, bears his name. He had over fifty stone houses constructed, built two bridges, and established the cloth trade by importing skilled weavers from Honeybourne, near Evesham in The Cotswolds. Not quite the sort of career one might expect from a clergyman, and Bishop to boot. But this is Tudor England.


There is one question that I have not answered, namely, where did the good Bishop get his money from for all the benefactions to his home town? The contemporary answer, and probably almost certainly the true one, is by plundering the wealth of his Devon diocese. This is not to say that he wasn't genuinely religious, because all contemporary commentators make the point, but he was worldly as well. Again very Tudor. He is one of what historians call 'The New Men', ie from a non aristocratic background.


John had ridden the religious waves of change in Henry VIII's reign without losing his power and position. Things changed, however, when Edward VI became King; and in 1551 John Vesey was removed as Bishop of Exeter because of his opposition to the thorough Protestant revolution of Edward's reign. Nevertheless, he negotiated a pension of £485 pa - not an inconsiderable sum. When Edward VI died a few years later, his elder sister Mary became Queen. The same Mary as John had tutored so many years before. In this restored Catholic England of Mary, John found himself, at the grand old age of 90, returned as Bishop of Exeter. He died shortly afterwards in 1554.


A long and successful life. He managed to advance himself, and Sutton Coldfield at the same time. He managed to navigate the troubled religious waters of Tudor England and died in his own bed at 90 years of age.


PS There is one local story in Warwickshire told of John Vesey. The Bishop was hunting along with Henry VIII. A wild boar charged the King, whose life was saved by an arrow shot by a young woman. The young woman received back land from which her family had been evicted, and Sutton Coldfield gained the Tudor Rose as an emblem.


John is buried in the Parish Church of Sutton Coldfield. His 16th century wooden effigy resides on the top of his tomb dressed in the regalia of a catholic bishop. I guess Exeter was only too pleased!

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