Early Jacobean Charitable Giving
It is a great privilege to have been asked to deliver this Thomas Sutton Lecture in the 400th anniversary year of his death and therefore of the creation, by his will, of this remarkable institution.
I am grateful for the note contributed by Stephen Porter to the programme. All lovers of the Charterhouse are greatly indebted to Stephen for his recent publications. He points out that my predecessor John King was one of the original governors, and Bishops of London, thereafter, played their part, from time to time, in saving the Charterhouse from the attentions of those who would divert its revenues into their own projects. William Laud deserves particular recognition for his role in defeating the Duke of Buckingham’s attempt to annex the endowment for military purposes. There has been a hiatus since the days of Bishop Montgomery Campbell, but now the Bishop of London is back as living proof of the motto of the Diocese “Back to the Future”.
This review of the beginnings of Sutton’s foundation in its Jacobean context may not at first sight appear to be an excessively topical subject, but in reality it prompts reflection on themes of renewed controversy in our own day.
Should the growing financial burden of supporting the elderly in our society be the responsibility of the state through the tax system, or should children support parents by foregoing their inheritance to pay for residential care? Have we reached the point where the tax system, by channelling resources from the diminishing proportion of young to the growing population of the retired, is placing unfair burdens on those who struggle to pay for a mortgage and to help their own children pay for university tuition fees? Is there a modern Sinbad syndrome? Is the balance between state and voluntary provision fair, or does a move to more devolved and voluntary provision involve an inequitable level of support, differing unfairly from place to place?
A glance at early modern strategies at a time when welfare provision is once more in the melting pot can be suggestive. The past does not teach directly applicable lessons but it does rhyme.
There was a time when the story of provision against social insecurity at various ages was seen as a progression from a pre-modern emphasis on charity to universal entitlement; to state welfare funded through the tax system, and that was the conclusion of the story. But now we are in the midst of a debate about striking a new balance.
In his History of the 20th Century A J P Taylor suggested that, “until 1914 a sensible law abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the Post Office and Policemen”.
Clearly things are different at the beginning of the 21st century and as I understand it, the Big Society is an attempt to reassess the relationship between the state, the individual citizen and the “little platoons”, whose contribution is being reassessed, and whose importance in developing the possibility of a creative and democratic society is once more being appreciated.
You will remember Burke’s dictum that, “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle, the germ as it were of publick affections”. As the Prime Minister has said, “Big Society demands a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”.
We must remember however that the massive expansion of state provision in the 20th century happened for very good reasons. Charity provision was unevenly spread, and it was gradually accepted that basic services like health could best be provided on a universal basis.
But now there is a need to re-balance the contribution of the state and civil society. It is not simply a matter of removing controls and bureaucracy but of empowering community action. The signs at present are that it is proving very difficult to put in place quickly enough, the framework which is essential to channel voluntary goodwill in the most creative and sustainable way.
But what of Thomas Sutton himself? He was a Lincolnshire man born in 1532 according to the inscription on his tomb. It was a time of profound change in England. King Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn was among the reasons why in the very year of Sutton’s birth, that pious habitue of the London Charterhouse, Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor.
Richard, Sutton’s father, was Clerk to the Sheriff of Lincoln but the family were not especially distinguished. Despite much speculation nothing certain is known of Thomas’s career until 1569. According to Holland’s Heroologia Anglica  he attached himself to the service of a great nobleman and entered the service of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk, whose resting place after his decapitation is the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower.
Sutton’s next patrons were the Dudley brothers, sons of that John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland to whom the Charterhouse had been sold in 1553.
Ambrose Dudley, the elder brother, was the 3rd Earl of Warwick. With the accession of Queen Elizabeth he received the lucrative appointment of Master General of the Ordnance. He despatched Sutton to Berwick as Master of the Ordnance in the North in 1570 at a time of crisis. The rising of the Northern Earls in 1569 which combined support for Catholicism with various social and economic grievances was the most serious domestic military threat ever faced by the Elizabethan regime. The bull of Pius V Regnans in Excelsis issued secretly in February 1570 and purporting to depose Elizabeth the “pretended queen” was too late to help the plotters but added to the atmosphere of hysteria.
Sutton joined the Earl of Sussex’s army which pursued the retreating rebels from Durham into Scotland and he appears to have distinguished himself. Sir William Drury the Marshal of Berwick attested to his despatch and efficiency in a letter to Lord Burghley, “in this town there is nothing that appertaineth to his office of the Ordnance but is in such readiness, so good a case, from time to time so well repaired, and with so little charge to Her Majesty, as since my being here I have not known the like.”
Burghley however seems to have been suspicious of Sutton and in 1573 ordered that Sutton’s clerk and not Sutton himself should accompany the army into Scotland on a fresh attempt to pursue Queen Mary’s remaining supporters. With some courage, or confident in powerful patronage Sutton ignored the order and he invaded Scotland and participated in the siege of Edinburgh, commanding one of the five artillery batteries surrounding Edinburgh Castle.
The defeat of the Northern Rising not only strengthened Elizabeth’s government but also destroyed the old economic and social order in the North and in so doing made Sutton’s fortune, which led in time to the foundation of the Charterhouse.
Sutton established his HQ in Alnwick in lodgings found for him by Sir John Forster, Warden of the Middle Marches. After an attempt to marry into Sir John’s family was rebuffed, his landlady Agnes Inskip consoled him. Agnes and Thomas had a son, Roger, but he was not his heir. Roger was schooled in Alnwick and then was sent into the army. Years later after Sutton’s death he was reported to be serving as a soldier in the now superfluous garrison of Berwick. Even King James was shocked that Sutton made no provision for his firstborn in his will.
Sutton had already, as a client of the Dudleys, been investing in property, acquiring leases with the support of his patron from the Bishop of Ely.
He passed from the service of the elder brother to that of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, patron of puritan clergy and high in the favour of Elizabeth I. Robert Dudley was not only a courtier but was also involved in countless business enterprises from tapestries to mining.
Leicester for example was a principal shareholder in the copper mine which lay under the lands of the rebel Earls whose estates were forfeit after the failure of the rising. Sutton mentions in his will that he secured a loan for his patron from a wealthy city alderman in order to finance the export of copper to Spain.
Sutton’s services must have been valuable since his reward was prodigious. In 1577 Bishop Richard Pilkington of Durham died and the see was offered to Richard Barnes Bishop of the poor Diocese of Carlisle. The usual horse trading ensued and the new bishop was induced to lease the episcopal manors of Whickham and Gateshead to the Queen for seventy nine years. The lease actually went to Leicester and he passed it on – to Thomas Sutton. It gave Sutton control of the richest coal fields in Europe.
Sutton proceeded to exploit what was called with some justification “the Grand Lease”. But to do this he needed access to the carrying trade from Newcastle to London. This was restricted to freemen of the town who had been mightily offended by the assigning of the lease to Sutton. He attempted to operate the mines outside the ring but after five years having improved the value of his property by securing a new lease, this time for ninety-nine years, he sold it to the merchant oligarchs of Newcastle and left the north for ever, riding south as his servant later testified with two horse loads of cash.
A similar process of “improvement” was at work in Sutton’s southern manors leased from the Bishop of Ely. Pressure was applied by Leicester’s former tutor at Cambridge now Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Wilson. Bishop Cox caved in, but the Dean of Ely, Andrew Perne, a tenacious defender of the economic interests of the Church and University despite being a supple conformist in doctrinal matters, opposed the very disadvantageous arrangements. It took seven letters from Wilson of steadily rising menace before Perne’s nerve broke and Sutton’s 21 year leases were converted into 79 year leases.
Sutton settled at Littlebury, one of the improved manors. Here he married a widow of the Dudley faction, the relict of John Dudley of Stoke Newington who had died in 1580. This marriage brought Sutton another fortune and in 1582 he moved into Stoke Newington and purchased a property on the Thames where he carried on for the rest of his life his business, managing his estates and most profitably lending his money on interest.
Usury had been declared illegal under the reforming regime of Edward VI but had been legalised at 10% in 1570. There were no banks to lend to small and medium sized businesses, so the late 16th and early 17th centuries were the golden age of the money lender. Capital was in short supply. Loans were short term and it was not until the 1630’s that lawyers perfected the equity of redemption which facilitated the renewal of mortgages provided that the interest payments were kept up. In the Jacobean period foreclosure was enforced and a landowner who could not pay on the specified date, often had to sell land. In these circumstances the great money lenders like Sutton acquired a legendary reputation. Ben Jonson’s Play Volpone, ‘The Fox’, was first performed at the Globe Theatre by the King’s Men in 1606, and the protagonist is claimed very plausibly to be based on Sutton.
He moved on from leasing and improving church lands to the purchase of freeholds. In 1597-1600 with the See of Ely vacant he was able to purchase from the Crown the freehold of his original leases. He had seemingly little interest in family but had decided to endow a charity. He was a Jacobean Warren Buffet.
The dissolution of the chantries under Henry VIII had also involved the ruination of associated charitable foundations. In Elizabeth’s reign the pace of founding new charities on a more secular basis gathered momentum. Leicester’s hospital at Warwick, endowed by his will, and erected by his brother between 1586 and 1590, may have influenced Sutton. In 1594 he assigned his Essex manors to trustees for the purpose of building a hospital on his land at Hallingbury Bouchers. In 1595 he drafted a will which survives leaving £3000 as an endowment, at the same time expressing the hope that his wife would renounce her right to a third of his lands in favour of the hospital. She actually died in 1602 and was laid to rest next to her first husband, John Dudley, in the handsome tomb he had commissioned, which still exists in the old church in Stoke Newington. It was at this point that Sutton migrated to Hackney, though not to Sutton House which preserves his name, but to the nearby Tan House which was demolished in the early 19th century.
He also had rooms in Fleet Street above a draper’s shop near St Dunstan’s Church, where he kept his great iron chest so heavy with gold that there were anxieties about the capacity of the floor to support the weight.
It was at this time that he acquired the simple soubriquet “rich Sutton”. He went on lending money and acquiring new manors notably Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire which became his favourite summer residence. When asked about the future of his vast fortune he claimed to be holding it in trust for the poor.
Sir John Harington proposed to the new Stuart regime that Sutton should be offered a peerage, cash for honours, in return for making the Duke of York his heir. Sutton spurned the suggestion with contumely, and had a Parliamentary bill drafted to provide a sound legal basis for the foundation of his projected hospital. Although Hallingbury was still named as the site of the hospital a loophole was left which permitted relocation.
Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk a client of Sutton in lean times was high in favour at James’s court. He was in the process of rebuilding in a grand style his country house at Audley End. Sutton offered to sell his Essex manors to enhance the Audley End estate in exchange for the Charterhouse, Suffolk’s town house. The sale went through in March 1611. Sutton paid £13,000 and obtained Letters Patent transferring the proposed hospital to the new site.
In the Parliamentary statute, Sutton’s foundation had been named the “Hospital of King James”. It was to have a powerful board of governors from the cream of the Jacobean establishment nominated by Sutton who was to be the first Master. He anticipated the difficulties of implementing his will, which did indeed arise after his death on December 12th 1611. His chosen governors proved equal to the task of seeing off a number of legal challenges not least from Francis Bacon.
As he lay dying in Tan House, Sutton called for his will, a document of 23 pages and for the great iron chest. There were bequests to the poor and for the benefit of the highways in his various manors. £300 went to his heir at law, his nephew Simon Baxter, but also a warning that legatees would lose their money if they challenged the other provisions of the will. The residue £50,000 was added to the endowment for the hospital.
Sutton’s body lay embalmed in his house in Hackney until his magnificent funeral on May 28th 1612.
Trevor Roper summed up Sutton’s life in his judicious article in the new DNB. “A competent official in the north and valued servant of more colourful noble patrons, punctilious and exact in business he played a part in English economic history: in the transfer of the northern coal industry from clerical to mercantile control and in the lubrication of the market in lay estates. All this would have been forgotten but for his foundation of the Charterhouse; a charity so grandiose that it poses psychological questions to which the austerity and privacy of his personal life frustrate any confident answer.”
Percival Burrell the Preacher at Charterhouse made a more positive assessment in a eulogy on the founder in his sermon of 1629 – “Sutton’s synagogue”. Although not being reputed an especially religious man and although his fortune had been partly made by despoiling the church, the Preacher described Sutton as, “a Captaine worthy to lead the whole Christian world, for he loved the people of God and built a synagogue for the God of all people”. The Preacher denied that he was intending to canonise the founder but rather, “to invite an imitation of his blessed magnificence”. He had established an institution with such shrewdness that, “no cunning advocate, no greedy lord could undermine”. This was probably a reference to Bacon’s failed attempt to divert Sutton’s fortune elsewhere.
How do we persuade the rich of our own day that it is shameful to die rich without showing some care for the common good? The Americans like Bill Gates seem to be models in this respect. Why are things so different in England?
Sutton’s posthumous reputation was enhanced and some pious fables were spun in the process of his being pressed into service as an example of Protestant Charity. The controversy began with a charge made by the Jesuit Edward Knott, alias Matthew Wilson, in his “Charity Mistaken” of 1630 that the rise of Protestantism had involved the demise of the kind of charity which flourished in association with chantries, monasteries and other ruined ecclesiastical institutions. The Jesuit’s work was answered most copiously by Thomas Fuller, a chaplain with the Royalist army during the Civil War. He entered the controversy first in his Church History but more extensively in his Worthies and the Age of English Charity.
There was between the World Wars a romantic school of pseudo-history associated with the names of Chesterton and Belloc which deplored the unfortunate social effects of the Reformation, and the dissolution of the chantries and monasteries in particular. Merry England and social cohesion in their view was smitten by Protestant individualism. Fuller’s response was to compile lists of public benefactors. The reigns of Elizabeth and James were marked by an outpouring of private charity. Even the most rapacious courtier like Sutton’s patron Leicester paid his tribute to society. Colleges, grammar schools, hospitals and almshouses were founded in abundance. Livery companies still care for many institutions founded in this period. Only last Friday we were celebrating in St Paul’s the educational fruits of the John Lyon charity which include Harrow School, and now Harrow Beijing, as well.
Even the hard pressed bishops being fleeced by hard men like Sutton throughout this period mostly managed to endow something for society often in their place of origin. Modern Guildford is still adorned by Archbishop Abbot’s Hospital of the Holy Trinity founded in 1619 a few years after Charterhouse.
Between 1541 and 1599 Londoners established 37 almshouses in the capital and elsewhere, and there were 219 new grammar school foundations in England as a whole between 1558 and 1625. Indeed in the letter in which he sought to overturn Sutton’s intentions, Francis Bacon complained to James I that “more scholars” were being “bred than the state can prefer or employ”.
Sutton’s foundation combined an almshouse for 80 men and a school for 40 scholars. To combine a school and almshouse in this way was not unique, but it was unusual. Whitgift’s foundation in Croydon ministered to the needs of young and old, and indeed there is something to be said for bringing together the generations in this way, matching those who often lacked fathers with ancients who sometimes lacked the stimulus of young company.
On what basis however was the selection of beneficiaries to be made? This talk arose from this very question which was posed at an Assembly Meeting last year.
The letters patent from the King referred to “poore, aged, maimed needy or impotent People”. Impotent was a favourite Jacobean word. I have myself been a trustee for Vacher’s Endowment for Impotent Apprentices. The minutes of the first Assembly of the powerful governors developed the definition of suitable beneficiaries in a way that has created debate ever since. Yet the governors were chosen by Sutton, and many of them knew him personally, so it is a reasonable assumption that their definition reflected his thinking.
On June 30th 1613 all the sixteen governors were present, and they decreed as follows, “It is constituted and ordained by the consent of all the said governors that there shall no rogues or common beggars be placed in the said hospital but such poor persons as can bring good testimony and certificate of their good behaviour and soundness in religion and such as have been servants of the King’s Majesty either decrepit or old captains either at sea or land, soldiers maimed or impotent, decayed merchants, men fallen into decay by shipwreck, casualty or fire or such evil accident; those that have been captives under the Turks”.
We ought to remember that the early seventeenth century was the high point of the slave trade in which Christian Europeans were sold in vast numbers in the slave markets of North Africa. Charities which still survive, like Smith’s Charity, had as one of their principal objects ransoming such captives taken in raids like the one which decimated the population of Ilfracombe in the mid 1620’s – but this is to digress.
The very first Brother of Charterhouse was George Fenner a decayed captain and hero of the actions against the Spanish Armada.
At the same time it was decided that, “no children be placed there whose parents have any estate of lands to leave unto them but only the children of poor men that want means to bring them up”. The first gownboy was James Mullens, son of a Bart’s surgeon, a profession which did not stand so high in public esteem then as it does now.
These arrangements should be seen in the context of the nature of social insecurity in England in the early modern period, and the characteristic English response to the contrasting phenomena of urban and rural poverty.
It is instructive to contrast the English situation with that which obtained in France and other parts of Europe. The poor rate was a notable English institution which did not have exact parallels elsewhere. This was a compulsory tax, raised after 1572 on a parochial basis. The proceeds were distributed as cash in outdoor relief supporting the poor as far as possible in their own homes. In France the most characteristic embodiment of formal poor relief at this period was the large urban institution supported by voluntary contributions.
Rate supported parish relief in England antedated the reformation and sprang from the demise of the peasantry, and the loss of property rights, which necessitated a response to a population of landless labourers. There were, however, also attempts, which have echoes in contemporary debates, to enforce obligations on relatives to care for their own.
The Poor Law Act of 1601 43 Elizabeth I. c. 2 stated that, “the father and grandfather, mother and grandmother, and children of every poor, old blind, lame and impotent person or other poor person not able to work being of sufficient ability, shall at their own charges relieve and maintain every such poor person, in that manner and according to that rate, as by the justices .. in their sessions shall be assessed.”
The work of Peter Laslett, inventor of the Third Age, and my tutor when I was an undergraduate, explains why such injunctions were necessary in “the good old days” of extended families. Laslett’s theory questioned the reality of these “extended families”. His careful statistical work suggested that nuclear families were always the norm in England and that the bonds of mutual intergenerational obligation and assistance tended downwards and not upwards. Once children had left for service or marriage they rarely returned for extended periods to the home of their parents. Despite this “intimacy at a distance” survived and a picture of alienation between the generations cannot be sustained. It is worth remembering that Plato’s Republic begins with a discussion between Socrates and an old man about whether the young were more disrespectful and neglectful of the old than in times of yore.
Now through the tax system, and with the vastly different demographic profile of our own society, there is a considerable transfer of resources between the young and the old which may yet prove highly controversial.
Another feature of provision in highly centralised England was the rigour and precision of the “settlement laws” which were unparalleled in Europe. The situation had similarities with the efforts of contemporary Chinese governments to control migration from rural to urban areas by means of internal passports. In Jacobean England the statutes against vagrancy betrayed an acute fear of the wanderer.
Thirdly, small endowed charities existed elsewhere in Europe but not in such great abundance as in England, where they were often protected by Parliamentary statute.
On the whole the English system served the rural poor better than urban dwellers. In France it was the other way round.
London was unique in the scale and complexity of the challenges it faced and only in London were institutions of the kind familiar on the Continent to be found. The capital faced rapid population growth in Sutton’s lifetime, and also the consequences of inflation. In addition there were particular crises during years of bad harvests, notably 1596-97.
The English population as a whole increased from about 2.3 million in 1527 to 5.3 million in 1656, a figure which was not surpassed until the second decade of the eighteenth century. In 1581 35% of the population was under 15, not unlike North Africa today, and only 8% was over 60. There was an imbalance of male and female. The former were in short supply. Within this general picture, London grew explosively during the period from 1580 when there were 100,000 in the capital, to 1700 when the figure of 575,000 is well attested.
London was also a magnet for the poor from all corners of England. John Howes, the chronicler of the London hospitals said in 1580 that “it is not the poor of London that pestereth the city but the poor of England”. Founded or re-founded between 1544 and 1557, the hospitals were all stretched to the limit by 1600. Christ’s Hospital never satisfied the demand for its services as a refuge for orphans and foundling children despite a melancholy death rate. Between 1565 and 1575, 850 children were admitted and the death rate was 52% before they were old enough to go out into service.
By 1600 there were 1200 people resident in the hospitals or dependent on them excluding those confined in Bedlam. To judge from the data on admissions to these institutions the problems of the capital were growing rapidly in the fifty years before Sutton’s Foundation. This was of course only the tip of the ice berg and there were hundreds of families of what are described as “miserable poor” in parishes like St Bride’s and St Giles, Cripplegate.
Sutton’s foundation, however, from the beginning, addressed the needs of the genteel and isolated poor rather than the clientele of the older hospitals.
Brothers, Scholars and Staff moved into their new accommodation in October 1614. The appointment of the first schoolmaster was left to my predecessor Bishop King.
The atmosphere of the Charterhouse in the early 1620’s seems to have been sufficiently lively to induce the Governors to decree that, “none of the brothers shall wear any weapons, long hair, coloured boots, spurs or any coloured shoes, feathers or any Ruffian like or unseemly apparel but such as becomes Hospital men to wear”.
A fresh set of statutes for the charity was promulged in 1627, and these specified that no member of the foundation was to be a married man and those admitted as brothers were to be “gentlemen by descent”, but were not to have an income of more than £24 p.a. or an estate worth more than £200 – a generous definition of poverty in the context of the age.
With Parliament in the ascendant in London in 1642 the limitations were set aside in favour of the plain language of James’s letters patent.
The elite of Jacobean England viewed old age with dread. “My glass shall not persuade me I am old”, wrote Shakespeare in Sonnet 22. The figures of Justice Shallow, King Lear and the melancholy Jacques give us a vivid picture of the fate which could so easily befall even those who had filled significant positions in the social hierarchy. The lean and slippered pantaloon gives way to mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
The fluctuations of trade and personal misfortune in an age which lacked any insurance system made a rapid descent into penury an ever present peril for ageing people of Sutton’s own class in his own day, and his foundation was intended to offer a refuge for such unfortunates.
What of our own time? It seems to me that the rich and the very poor often find themselves in old age in a more secure situation than the prudent and those who have spent their lives in some respectable but relatively un-remunerative employment. Savings very often seem to benefit no one more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a point where clearly some people have decided that it is hardly rational to save for their old age. One of the things to dread now is isolation and loss of dignity. It is among the considerable virtues of Charterhouse, this institution raised on the foundation of Sutton’s fortune, that it has had the flexibility to respond to changing needs, and this is remains true now at a time when we are perforce having to revisit questions that many people in a previous generation thought had been settled for ever.
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Originally an almshouse and school, the school moved to Godalming in Surrey in 1872. Now a community of 45 or so single elderly men live at Sutton’s Hospital.
The site was a burial Ground for victims of the Black Death from 1349 and the site of The London Charterhouse, a Carthusian Priory from 1371 until Dissolution in 1538. This period in the history was marred by Henry VIII cruelty in martyring sixteen of the choir monks between 1535 and 1540 – The Carthusian Martyrs, protomartyrs of the reformation Period. From 1545 to 1611 it was a Tudor Mansion owned by Sir Edward North and then the 4th Duke of Norfolk.
For more information about Charterhouse, visit www.thecharterhouse.org.