Archbishop Thomas Godwyn Born in poverty in Wokingham in 1517

Wokingham in the early part of the sixteenth century was a busy medieval town. All Saints Church had been recently refurbished and remodelled, having been enlarged from the earlier Norman chapel. The tower and clerestory were built, and the white chalk pillars were put in place. The chantry of St Mary had been erected in 1443 on the north side chancel aisle under the supervision of Adam Moyens, Dean of Salisbury. 

It would have looked very much like the church we know today.

The tracks that are now etched into the Wiltshire and London Roads led to Warfield in one direction and in the other to the hunting lodge at Easthampstead Park. And in front of the church was Rose Street. This was the location of the weekly market held each Tuesday. Today there are twenty houses in Rose Street that date from or before this period. And in one of these lived Thomas Godwyn.

Thomas had been born of poor parents in 1517 most likely in one of the cottages in Rose Street. Unlike many of his background in that period Thomas received an education.

John Norreys, who owned the estate to the north-west of the church, and John Westende another wealthy inhabitant of Wokingham had provided the endowment to the chantry. They had also provided for a school ‘within the said chantry’ where twenty-eight-year-old Robert Ayres was both priest and teacher.

The young Thomas must have been an outstanding pupil for he came to the attention of a certain Dr Richard Layton. Layton was Archdeacon of Buckingham and saw that Thomas was bright and capable. The Archdeacon effectively adopted the young man and sponsored his education and progression to the extent that in 1538 Thomas entered Magdalen College, Oxford. Thomas was twenty-one years old. 

Thomas Godwyn, the pauper child from Wokingham, was a student at Magdalen College in 1538, having been adopted by Richard Layton subsequently Dean of York. Thomas graduated in 1543, became a Fellow and then earned his Masters in 1547. His reformist leanings caused a breach with his colleagues, and he resigned his Fellowship and took up a post as a teacher at Brackley School in Northampton. While at Brackley he married Isabella Purefoy and with her subsequently had nine children. 

The reason he left Brackley is open to speculation. Some commentators suggest that with the arrival of Queen Mary on the English throne in 1553, Thomas decided that he should find a more secure haven. ‘Bloody Mary’ wanted to reverse the Reformation that her father Henry VII had started. Alternatively, it could have been that Thomas fell out of favour with the college and left before Mary ascended the throne; in the negotiations for his successor’s appointment the post is described as “being now voide through ye neglygens of him that lately occupied it”. But what this negligence could have been we do not know.

Either which way he returned to Oxford and qualified to practice medicine in 1555. The Counter-Reformation ended in 1558 with the death of Mary and ascension of Elizabeth. Thomas decided that now was the time to follow his true vocation and returned to divinity.

Thomas was a remarkable preacher and soon came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth. The Queen pleased with his “good parts” and “goodly person”, made him one of her Lent preachers in 1565. He held this post for eighteen years. Thomas’ career progressed swiftly. In June 1565 he was appointed Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1567 to Dean of Canterbury.

He stayed at Canterbury until 1584 when the Queen appointed him Bishop of Bath and Wells. His episcopate in Bath and Wells (1584-1590) was short and troubled. Sir Walter Raleigh the sailor and for a time royal favourite wanted to extort from him the lease for a hundred years of the manor of Barnwell, some church lands. Thomas refused. The two men quarrelled. Raleigh bided his time. When Godwin remarried, Raleigh told the Queen that his new wife was a twenty-year-old girl, whom Thomas had married for her money. She is believed in fact to have been a widow. Despite the Earl of Bedford coming to the defence of Godwin, saying that the widow had a son aged about forty, Elizabeth took Raleigh’s part and Godwin fell from favour.

It had been a long journey from the small charity school in Wokingham. He was suffering with gout and recurrent bouts of malaria. Thomas returned to the town of his birth in 1590 and succumbed to his illness.

In the choir vestry, there is a plaque erected by his son. In translation it reads:

In sacred memory of a very dear parent, and truly reverend father, Thomas Godwyn, Doctor of Divinity of Christ Church Oxford first, and then Dean of Canterbury; afterwards Bishop of Bath and Wells; who was born in this town, and here also (whither he returned on the advice of his doctors to regain his health) was consumed by the quartan fever and died on the 19th day of November 1590, in the 7th year of his consecration; and lies here awaiting the coming of the great God. Erected by his son Francis Godwyn, Sub Dean of Exeter.

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