William Bingham

William Bingham – the founder of God’s House, “the first secondary school training college in England”

While researching something completely different, I made the acquaintance of William Bingham (as you do).

William Bingham was an important educational innovator.  His claim to fame is that he is the “man who founded the first secondary school training college in England. What is even more remarkable, his college still exists, although discharging other educational functions as well.”[i] So this post is especially for all school teachers among our readers.

Not much is known about William Bingham’s background.[ii]  Based on later events, it can be concluded that he was born before 1398, probably around 1390 or earlier. No evidence survives that he was a graduate himself, though that does not necessarily mean that he was not.  Most writers say that he did not graduate, but Lloyd argues that he probably was a Cambridge graduate (and that’s why he founded his college there), possibly of Clare Hall.

He might have been the William Byngham who between 1408 and 1420 regularly served as a proctor of Master Henry Rumworth, one of Henry V’s chaplains and archdeacon of Canterbury.  Before entering royal service, Rumworth had been principal of St Edmund’s Hall in Oxford.[iii]  The first documented record of Bingham is a deed dated 26 August 1422, where he is referred to as “clerk”, and as he is one of the trustees, he must have been of age by that time.

On 23 June 1423, he became rector of Carlton Curlieu in Leicestershire.  According to canon law a man could only be received into priest’s orders once he was at least 25 years old.  Therefore he must have been born in 1398 or earlier.  Originally, Ware Priory (Herts.) had made presentations to the benefice of Carlton Curlieu as the representative of the Benedictine abbey of St Evroul in Normandy, to whom it had been granted before 1081.  However, in 1415 the advowson was granted to the new Sheen Priory in Surrey.[iv]  Sheen was a Carthusian monastery founded in 1414 by Henry V and endowed with possessions of suppressed alien priories, among them Ware Priory. Understandably, the abbot of St Evroul was not terribly impressed.[v]

Bingham’s predecessor at Carlton Curlieu had been William Lichfield, who had been a fellow of Peterhouse in Cambridge, before he was admitted to this rectory.  He was a famous preacher and author.  He resigned from Carlton Curlieu in 1423 to become rector of All Hallows-the-Great, London.[vi]  This church (not to be confused with All Hallows by the Tower) was at the corner of Allhallows Lane and Upper Thames Street.  It was destroyed in the great fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren.  However, it was taken down in 1876 and completely removed in 1893 to widen Upper Thames Street.[vii]

Bingham did not stay long at Carlton Curlieu either.  Not even a year after taking up the position, he exchanged it for the rectory of St John Zachary in the City of London, on 25 May 1424.  As a post in a city church was a big step for a priest and not likely to be given to someone who was very young, Lloyd thinks it is more likely that he was born in 1390 or earlier. St John Zachary was on the corner of Gresham and Noble Streets, but was also destroyed during the great fire and not rebuilt.  Today there is a park on the site[viii], the church is remembered by a blue plaque (see here). Bingham is mentioned in several property transactions connected to this parish in 1422, therefore it seems likely that his promotion to this London benefice did not come unexpected, as these transaction predate his time in Carlton Curlieu.[ix]

William Bingham

Churchyard of St John Zachary today (via Wikimedia Commons)

Bingham was part of a bigger group concerned about the lack of schools and schoolmasters. McMahon explains the function and necessity of schools.

Grammar schools in medieval England, the forerunners, to some extent, of our secondary schools, had as their major objective the preparation of boys for priestly and monastic orders, or for further education in the university for liberal arts, theology, civil and canon law, and medicine. Since Latin was the medium par excellence for all professional people, the pre vocational training of the grammar schools consisted primarily in the study of the Latin language.[x]

As parish priest in London, Bingham had the opportunity to make wealthy and influential friends, who shared his concerns.[xi]  This group included:

  • William Lichfield, his predecessor in Carlton Curlieu, then at All Hallows-the-Great, London, (see above)
  • John Brockley, a draper, Member of Parliament in 1421 and mayor of the city in 1433–4. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in London at that time.[xii] As he was a parishioner of Lichfield’s, it seems likely that he was drawn into the group through him.
  • John Neel, master of St Thomas of Acre in London, who was at the centre of educational development as well as an improvement of the liturgy.
  • John Carpenter, town clerk of London and Member of Parliament in 1437 and 1439. He built up the endowment for an almshouse and college for priests, which was administered by the Mercers’ Company after his death in 1442. He founded a choir school in the newly restored Guildhall chapel, which was probably intended to complement the library he had established there.[xiii]  His relative, another John Carpenter, was master of St Anthony’s Hospital.
  • Sir John Fray, MP for Hertfordshire in 1419 and 1420, Recorder of London and baron of the Exchequer.[xiv]
  • William Flete, “a successful merchant; a financial agent for Cardinal Beaufort; a representative for Hertfordshire in various parliaments and a land holder in Lincolnshire, London and Hertfordshire”. When he died in 1444, John Fray and Bingham were among his executors.[xv]
  • John Coote, rector of St Peter Cornhill, where there had already been a school[xvi]

At that time many wealthy Londoners began establishing grammar schools, but the demand for teachers far exceeded supply.  Compared to subjects like the arts, theology, civil and canon law, and medicine, only few students enrolled to study grammar and many schoolmasters were even not graduates.[xvii]  Bingham’s emphasis was on “the defaute and lak of Scholemaistres of Gramar”[xviii], which had forced many schools to close.  He was to claim that 70 schools between Southampton and Ripon had closed during the previous 50 years.  In the universities the teaching of grammar was not of primary importance, because their graduates did not regard a position as a school teacher as attractive as for instance that of a secretary to a great nobleman, or as a doctor, architect or lawyer, priest or civil servant for the crown.  (Nothing much has changed there!)

Bingham probably began working towards the establishment of a college in Cambridge, God’s House, in earnest in 1436. With the help of wealthy backers, a property in Milne Street in Cambridge, then one of the main roads of the town, was acquired in July 1437.  John Brockley, William Flete and Joan Buckland, a wealthy widow, acted as feoffees.[xix]  Milne Street might have appealed to Bingham, as it was not only in a central location, but also ran through the parish of St John Zachary in Cambridge.[xx]  Initially the property covered two former hostels, Tyled and Cat hostels, and more land was added later.  This land was bought by Sir John Fray, John Cowper and John Coote, all associates of Bingham.

He petitioned the king for a licence, which was granted on 13 July 1439, asking for 24 scholars in God’s House to be qualified for and take the degree of master of grammar. By the time the petition was granted, Bingham seems to have built on the site, because it talks about “a mansion ycalled Goddeshous the which he hath made and edified in your towne of Cambrigge for the free herbigage of poure scolers of Gramer”.[xxi]

It was, however, not all plain sailing for God’s House.  He experienced opposition by the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, John Langton, who, with the backing of the king, had other plans.  They had decided to incorporate the site into Henry’s new college, the King’s College of Our Lady and St Nicholas, i.e. King’s College, founded in 1441. In fact, God’s House was rased to the ground to make way for King’s College Chapel, which covers about three fourths of Bingham’s site.  It is fair to say that “In the course of creating his own college of King’s, Henry VI almost destroyed Godshouse … despite his earlier support of the project.”[xxii]

It seems likely that God’s House was vacated early in 1443 and surrendered to the king’s commissioners.  The college then moved into temporary accommodation. By 1446, Bingham found another site outside the Barnwell Gate.  It received a royal licence in 1446, which allowed the college to take students in all faculties, not only grammar.  On 16 April 1448, it received what is called the Foundation Charter.  In it the king “graciously assented”[xxiii] to found the college, but taking into account Bingham’s hard work and expense, he wishes him, his heirs and successors to be deemed the second founders and proctors.  This move brought more security to God’s House, though Henry VI was never as interested in it as he was in King’s. Nor was he as financially generous, though there are hints that he may have paid for the plot of land on which the college stands.

William Bingham

First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

The statutes of God’s House were only sealed in 1495.  According to them, the college should have a proctor, a master or keeper and 25 scholars, of which two were to be priests to serve as chaplains and say mass daily “for the king and his kin, for Byngham and for all benefactors”.[xxiv] No more than half of the members were to be from one county. Applicants from counties, where the college had property, were to be given preference.  After graduating, the scholars had to accept any post offered to them at any school built within the last 40 years, provided they were offered a salary.  Except on holidays, only Latin was to be spoken.

An interesting addition is that during the autumn term lectures should be given so that country schoolmasters could attend, while their schools were closed for harvest.

Bingham was the first proctor of God’s House and remained in that post until he died on 17 November 1451.  He was buried before the rood cross of St John Zachary, London.  Bingham and his successors were shrewd in the politically difficult times and not only secured the protection of the king, but also of the duke of York. In 1468, the college received from the king (Edward IV) letters patent, which were confirmed by Richard III in 1484 and Henry VII in 1486 and 1505.

It is a pity that today William Bingham and his role in the creation of the college is nearly forgotten. God’s House still exists today, but you’ll look in vain for it in a town plan.

Approx. 20 years after Henry VII’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth, his mother, Margaret Beaufort, developed an interest in colleges, particularly in Cambridge.  She was probably influenced by John Fisher, her spiritual adviser, who was a fellow of Michaelhouse, Bishop of Rochester and became Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1504.

William Bingham

Chapel. Christ’s College, Cambridge

The official reason for her interest in God’s House is “that Margaret had wished to complete Henry’s [Henry VI] foundation for the increase of the Christian faith, the salvation of her soul, and the love she bore the murdered King and her confidence in his sanctity. Her personal devotion to Jesus determined the new dedication to Christ” and therefore the college is called Christ’s College today.[xxv]  However, her interest in Christ’s has also been called a “proprietary one”.  She extended the college and had her own rooms (Bishop Fisher could also use them), though it is not sure whether she ever stayed there. She revised the statutes in 1506, which ensured that the master, fellows and scholars were all her nominees.[xxvi]

Forgive me for being somewhat cynical.  Maybe Margaret renaming God’s House when she refounded it has more to do with a wish that people should remember her and her family, rather than anyone who had come before.  Just think of all the ornaments in King’s College Chapel, which today it resembles a Tudor temple, although the Tudors only finished what others (Henry VI and Richard III) had built before.

Margaret also became a patron of Queens’ College, which had originally been the College of St. Bernard, but was refounded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen, who had also renamed it.  Subsequently the queens of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, and Richard III, Anne Neville, also were patrons of the college, which is why it is called Queens’. After Richard III’s death, the college was in a difficult situation, as Henry VII had taken away all its endowments granted by Richard III and Anne Neville.[xxvii]  Margaret Beaufort arranged for the college to get other endowments so that “When she and the King [Henry VII] stayed at Queens’ college in 1506 the shadow of its Yorkist past was lifted.”[xxviii]   That might have been the case in 1506. Fortunately, today Richard III is very much remembered at the college.  The boar’s head is the college badge,[xxix] which adorns a variety of souvenirs sold at the college gift shop.

William Bingham

Plan of Christ’s College, Cambridge (via Wikimedia Commons)

However, let’s return to Christ’s College.  If you want to look for William Bingham there today, you are most likely to find him in the First Court.  These are the original buildings from the 15th and 16th century, which include the chapel, master’s lodge, hall and the Great Gate.  God’s House was a single court and the south side was probably still open.  Most of the other buildings are those added by Margaret Beaufort, having reserved the first floor and attics of the Master’s Lodge for herself and Bishop Fisher.  However, it is thought that the remains of Bingham’s God’s House were included in the north-west angle of the court.[xxx]


[i] Armytage, W. H. G. (1951), ‘William Byngham: A Medieval Protagonist of the Training of Teachers’, History of Education Journal, vol. 2, no. 4, p. 107

[ii] Information is based on the following, unless otherwise stated: Armytage, W. H. G. , pp.107-110; Dobson, R.B., ‘Bingham , William (d. 1451)’

Dobson, R.B. (2004), ‘Bingham , William (d. 1451)’, Oxford DNB (online 23 Sept. 2004)  [last accessed online 10 March 2011]; A. H. Lloyd

Lloyd, A.H. (2010), The Early History of Christ’s College, Cambridge, Derived from Contemporary Documents.  Cambridge Library Collection, 2010 (first published in 1934)

Sutton, A.F. (2008), ‘The Hospital of St Thomas of Acre of London: The Search for Patronage, Liturgical Improvement, and a School, under Master John Neel, 1420-63’, in:  The Late Medieval College and its Context, ed. C. Burgess & M. Heale. York Medieval Press, pp. 199-229

‘The colleges and halls: Christ’s’, in: A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, vol. 3: the City and University of Cambridge, ed. J.P.C. Roach. London, 1959, pp. 429-436.  British History Online URL:  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp429-436  [last accessed online 15 Nov. 2015]

[iii] ‘St. Edmund Hall’, in: A History of the County of Oxford, vol. 3: the University of Oxford, ed. H.E. Salter & M.D. Lobel. London, 1954, pp. 319-335.  British History Online URL;  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol3/pp319-335 [last accessed online 17 Nov. 2015]

[iv] Lee, J.M. & R.A. McKinley (1964), ‘Carlton Curlieu’, in: A History of the County of Leicestershire, vol. 5: Gartree Hundred. London, pp. 77-81.  British History Online URL:  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/leics/vol5/pp77-81 [last accessed online 21 Nov. 2015]

[v] ‘House of Carthusian monks: Priory of Sheen’, in: A History of the County of Surrey, vol. 2, ed. H.E. Malden. London, 1967, pp. 89-94.  British History Online URL:  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/surrey/vol2/pp89-94 [last accessed online 24 Nov. 2015]

[vi] Biographical details on William Lichfield are based on: Ball, R.M. (2014), ‘Lichefeld, William (d. 1448)’, Oxford DNB (online Sept. 2014) [last accessed online 21 Nov. 2015]

[vii] Harben, H.A. (1918), ‘All Hallows in Parva Roperia – All Hallows Within the Gate of Bishopsgate’, in: A Dictionary of London. London. British History Online URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/dictionary-of-london/all-hallows-parva-roperia  [last accessed online 21 Nov. 2015]

[viii] ‘St John Zachary Garden (Goldsmiths’ Garden)’, London Gardens Online.  URL:  http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.asp?ID=COL075 [last accessed 21 Nov. 2015]

[ix] Sutton, A.F., pp. 220-221

[x] McMahon, C.P. (1950), ‘Teacher Education in the Fifteenth Century’, The Journal of Educational Research, vol. 44, no. 2, p. 134

[xi] For this group see Sutton, A.F. and Armytage, W.H.G.

[xii] Rawcliffe, C. (1993), ‘Brockley, John (d.1444/5), of London’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe. Boydell and Brewer.  Online URL:  http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1386-1421/member/brockley-john-14445 [last accessed online 14 Nov. 2015]

[xiii] Davies, M. (2004), ‘Carpenter, John (d. 1442)’, Oxford DNB (online 23 Sept. 2004) [last accessed online 13 Nov. 2015]

[xiv] Rawcliffe, C. (1993), ‘Fray, John (d.1461), of London and Munden Furnival, Herts.’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe. Boydell and Brewer.  Online URL:  http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1386-1421/member/fray-john-1461 [last accessed online 13 Nov. 2015]

[xv] Falvey, H. (1994), ‘William Flete:  More than just a Castle Builder’, The Ricardian, vol. X, no.124, pp. 2-15

[xvi] Sutton, A.F., p.219

[xvii] McMahon, C.P., p.135

[xviii] ‘Petition to the King, 1438’, quoted in Armytage, W.H.G., p.108

[xix] Stratford, J. (1994), ‘Joan Buckland’, in: Medieval London Widows, 1300-1500, ed. C. Barron & A.F. Sutton. The Hambledon Press, p. 122

[xx] ‘The city of Cambridge: The growth of the city’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, ed. J.P.C. Roach. London, 1959, pp. 109-111. British History Online URL:   http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp109-111  [last accessed online 25 Nov. 2015]

[xxi] Quoted in Lloyd, A.H., p.24

[xxii] Sutton, A.F. & Visser-Fuchs, L. (2010), ‘’As dear to him as the Trojans were to Hector:’ Richard III and the University of Cambridge’, in: Richard III and East Anglia:  Magnates, Gilds and Learned Men, ed. L. Visser-Fuchs. Richard III Society, p. 109

[xxiii] Summary of the charter, in:  Lloyd, p.90

[xxiv] ‘The colleges and halls: Christ’s’

[xxv] Jones, M. (1985), ‘Lady Margaret Beaufort’, History Today, vol. 35, issue 8.  URL:  http://www.historytoday.com/michael-jones/lady-margaret-beaufort [last accessed online 29 Nov. 2015]

[xxvi] Jones, M.

[xxvii] ‘Chronology’, Queens’ College Cambridge. URL:  http://www.queens.cam.ac.uk/life-at-queens/about-the-college/college-facts/chronology [last accessed 30 Nov. 2015]

[xxviii] Jones, M.

[xxix] ‘The Heraldic Arms’, Queens’ College Cambridge.  URL:  http://www.queens.cam.ac.uk/life-at-queens/about-the-college/college-facts/the-heraldic-arms [last accessed 30 Nov. 2015]

[xxx] ‘The colleges and halls: Christ’s’; see also: ‘Christs College’, PastScape.  URL:  http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=371265&sort=4&search=all&criteria=First%20Court%20Christs%20College&rational=q&recordsperpage=10 [last accessed 1 Dec. 2015]

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