Minster’s priest who served colleges, court and archbishops

The Archbishop’s Palace in Croydon helped to place the town at the centre of church and state affairs throughout some turbulent periods of history, as DAVID MORGAN discovers through the life and work of one medieval figure who was buried at Croydon Minster

A priest at prayer: the medieval brass memorial, all that remains of the tomb of Gabriel Sylvester

Walk along the central aisle of the nave in Croydon Minster, turn right at the sanctuary area, continue through the St Nicholas’ Chapel past the tomb of Archbishop Whitgift and step into the choir area. There, to the right of the organ console, attached to the wall, is a large fragment of medieval brass.

Look closely and you will discover an illustration of a priest.

This is all that remains of a tomb in the medieval church constructed to the memory of Gabriel Sylvester. He holds his hands together in prayer. He is wearing a cope, with the long priestly robes reaching down to his feet. His head is tonsured; that is because he follows the practice of cutting or shaving the scalp as a sign of devotion or humility.

How did this man who died more than 500 years ago come to have a memorial in Croydon?

A search into this Sylvester’s life story reveals that he was no ordinary priest.

He was, in fact, a highly respected academic and religious thinker of his day. From 1496, for 10 years, he was the Master of Clare College, Cambridge. Clare is the second oldest of the Cambridge colleges, with its first Master being appointed in 1326. Sylvester was the 13th.

His college record at Clare shows that he was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1479-1480, his Masters in 1483-1484, his Bachelor of Divinity in 1492 and his Doctor of Divinity in 1500. He was made a Fellow of Clare in 1499 and was also the Acting Vice-Chancellor in 1500-1501.

In 1503 he was listed as a member of Council of the Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond. This was a significant appointment at that time: Lady Margaret Beaufort was the mother of the King, Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. It is a sign that Sylvester will have been known at the royal court, and carried significant influence.

Sylvester clearly held an impressive academic curriculum vitae for the late 15th century.

A rare print of how Clare College looked in around 1690 – possibly little changed from the time when Sylvester was the Master

And Sylvester was appointed Master of Clare Hall, as it was known at that time, in succession to Richard Stubbs, Fellow of Pembroke Hall and Vicar of Tilney in Norfolk.

Sylvester held church appointments too, several in fact, in an age where, with every church appointment, there came an allowance, or benefice.

By the time of his death in 1512, Sylvester held four posts: he was Rector of Wyberton in Lincolnshire and Folkington (pronounced Fo’ington) in Sussex, while he was also a Prebendiary at Chichester and at Weeford, a village in Staffordshire, as a Prebendiary of Lichfield.

The Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae states that Sylvester was admitted to this last post on February 3, 1506. His other ecclesiastical appointment can be discovered from his will which he drew up on September 29 1512. Sylvester died on October 4, and the will was proved on October 20.

In this will Sylvester left legacies to “my lordis chapell”.

He mentions “his g’couse (gracious) lorde and master” twice. Being buried in Croydon, such references would more than likely mean that Sylvester was part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s household.

William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, as painted by Holbein

Another source confirms that Sylvester did indeed hold such a position. He was the Dean of the Chapel of the Archbishop. That chapel is the one that can still be seen next door to the Minster in the Old Palace School.

The Archbishop of the day was William Warham, who was in post from 1503 until his death in 1532. Warham was a significant diplomat and national figure (he was Lord Chancellor until 1515), as well as a churchman; he was present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, the peace treaty negotiations held between the King of France, Francis I, and England’s Henry VIII.

Warham was the last of the pre-Reformation archbishops.

The Warhams have their own link to Croydon as William’s brother, Hugh, lived at Haling Manor (hence Warham Road in South Croydon), and he was buried here in Croydon. Although being largely destroyed in the 1867 fire, the remains of Hugh Warham’s tomb can still be seen in the St Nicholas’ Chapel.

A more detailed look at Sylvester’s last will and testament helps to bring out details about his life. One of his first bequests, to the vicar-general, Dr Tunstall, was “my best horsse, my gown cloth of cremesyn, and my lute.”

This tells us that this priest was wealthy and a man of culture. I wonder whether Sylvester played the lute, or whether he had someone to play it for him? Perhaps it was this crimson gown which was the very one he was depicted wearing when the artist completed the memorial brass?

This bequest also shows that Gabriel was well connected in the church, as Dr Cuthbert Tunstall would go on to become Bishop of London and, later, the Bishop of Durham.

Sylvester’s second personal bequest was to Doctor Perte. To him, Sylvester left “my best sadill with the harness and doublet cloth of satten.”

His third bequest was to Thomas Hyns. He was to have his “thirde horsse with such harnesse as is mete for him.”

A priest, with three horses…

With his 38 separate individual bequests to both individuals and groups alike, you can see the spread of influence that Sylvester had during his lifetime, as well as get a real sense of loyalty, too. He must have had a close link to the Benedictine monastery at Colne Abbey, just on the Suffolk-Essex border, as he bequeathed them six silver spoons with acorns on the ends.

Six other individuals received spoons as part of his legacy. Sir Henry Glover, a silver spoon with an image on the end, Master John Perys, a gilt spoon with a short handle, Master Doctor Wellis, a gilt spoon, the Archbishop of Dublin ( who in 1512 was William Rokeby) a gilt spoon, Doctor Sapton, a gilt spoon, and finally Sir William Ffynderne, a gilt spoon.

Another group of people were bequeathed items from Gabriel’s wardrobe. Alice Alcetor was to have “my better tawny gowne furred with boge and the hoode”. Boge is sometimes referred to as budge, which was lambskin with the wool dressed outwards and which was usually found on the edges of gowns and capes. This lady was also left “my best chamblet dowblet.” Chamblet means woollen.

To the Prior of Hertford, Thomas Hampton, he bequeathed “my puke gowne furrid with shank and the hoode.” This entry probably means a long puke gown, with the colour puke being between russet and black. Shank is fur from the shank of a kind of kid, a lamb. To Thomas Hore he bequeathed a “chamblet doublet and a pair of hose.”

Towards the end of his will he bequeaths a “tache” to named individuals. A tache is a kind of brooch or clasp. There is a biblical reference to a tache in Exodus Chapter 26, where it states “you shall make 50 taches of gold and couple the curtains together with the taches.”

The recipients of these were the Quenys Elimosinor, who was to receive the tache of gold with the sapphire, Master Whitehead, a tache of gold with the V wounds together with the Master of Clare Hall and Mr Chaundeler, who were both to receive a gold tache with the salutation.

One interesting further bequest to the Prior at Hertford was the gift of two volumes of the sermons of St Austeyn, or St Augustine as we would better know him.

Croydon Minster, where Gabriel Sylvester was buried in 1512

Sylvester seemed to leave very few of his personal circle out of his will. He remembered his servants and in providing wages for each of them up to Christmas, as well as allowing them to keep their livery, he seemed to be providing for them until they could find a new position.

The Croydon Palace and Chapel staffs were remembered, too. Every priest who worked at the Chapel was bequeathed six shillings and eight pence, every person employed in a secular job there was to receive three shillings and fourpence, while each child of the chapel got 12 pennies.

Finally, the church where he was to be buried, that is Croydon Parish Church, was gifted the sum of 20 shillings. The word which is used to describe his burial in the will is “Crystenmannys”, of Christian manner.

After taking out all these bequests, Sylvester’s remaining goods were to be sold. Half the amount raised from this sale was to be given to the priests at Clare Hall. The other half was to be divided equally, with one portion going to “the poor” and the other going to ensure that priests continued to pray for his soul. His servant, Thomas Hyns, was the executor charged with carrying out Sylvester’s wishes.

The original position of the brass plaque was at the entrance of the altar rails. With the brass there was inscribed a Latin verse. Its translation read:

Sylvester Gabriel, whose ev’ry bone
Lies buried here, the priesthood’s glory shone;
No words more plain than his breath’d Holy Writ
No life more virtuous could illustrate it.
Now blest, he sees the Godhead face to face
Whom distant in his bible, he could trace

We cannot know whether Sylvester was taken ill on his journey to Croydon or whether he was staying here at the Archbishop’s Palace when his final decline took hold. As was the custom of the time, the will was drawn up when the person had become physically weak but still able to dictate how any bequests were to be made.

Sylvester had thought through all the aspects of his life to achieve this while his strength ebbed away. Given that he was at Clare College being awarded a first degree in 1479, our priest was probably in his early 50s as he drew up his final testament.

If you have never seen his brass before, then take a little time to locate it in Croydon Minster and spend a moment or two in quiet remembrance for Gabriel Sylvester. I think his pleasure and surprise at being remembered and prayed for after 500 years might add a wry smile to that brass effigy.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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2 Responses to Minster’s priest who served colleges, court and archbishops

  1. Lewis White says:

    Thanks to David Morgan for this very interesting and informative article. I must go and see the memorial brass.

    What a pity that the Great and the Good, like Sylvester and his generation, or Archbishop John Whitgift, did not set up a university at Croydon !

    We have a wonderful Medieval heritage in Croydon, with the beautiful Minster , Old Palace and Whitgift Almshouses, mostly in the Old Town area, now surrounded with Victorian densely-packed streets, dominated by Roman Way and the Flyover, with hardly a tree or a garden.

    We also used to have market gardens in the Old Town area, all now built on. Also, the lovely Wandle springs, complete with trout and minnows, as late as the early 19th century, in spite of noxious trades like tanning in the lower town area too. Now culverted, polluted by the filthy run-off from every road from Caterham to S. Croydon, , and so devoid of fishes and frogs.

    Sadly, once the green spaces are built on, you hardly ever get them back.
    Fresh water is even harder to get back.

    Had someone then founded a University of Croydon, we might now have a wonderful range of medieval buildings on the ridge where stands the Whitgift Centre, and a chain of colleges running down the Crown Hill area to the Minster, standing on its green island surrrounded by the sparkling springs of Wandle.

  2. hilary chelminski says:

    Yes, more please on the history of Croydon, Palace, Minster etc. – so rich & extraordinary &, it seems, so little known or acknowledged, frequently neglected & little spoken or written of. Great work from David Morgan.

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