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The College of St. Mary, Wingham, 1286-1986

Extract from Wingham: A Kentish Village reproduced by permission of the Wingham Local History Society
1986 was celebrated in the village of Wingham as the 700th anniversary of the founding of the College of St Mary the Virgin. The idea of founding a college at Wingham seems to have originated with Robert Kilwardby, Archbishop of Canterbury 1273-1279, who obtained Pope Gregory X's approval to the foundation in 1273. However, it was his successor at Canterbury, John_Peckham, who signed the foundation deed on August 2nd, 1282. John Peckham was in Rome to be appointed Archbishop when Kilwardby arrived to be made a cardinal in 1279.  

The Collegiate Church of St. Mary, Wingham. (from a print in Gentleman Magazine July 1792)  

A few words about John Peckham. He was educated at the Benedictine monastery in Lewes and joined the Franciscan order at Oxford. He was popularly known as "Brother John", by which name he is addressed in the foundation deed. On his first visitation to Wingham, dressed as a Franciscan friar, he ordered that, following the old Anglo-Saxon practice, the statue of Mary should be preserved in the chancel of the parish church of St. Mary.  
On his second visitation in1282, he founded the college for secular canons. The church was enlarged into a collegiate church church for the provost and six canons. The first provost, Peter de Geldeford, was appointed in 1287.
Traces of ruins were discovered in the garden of the Queen Anne house that was the vicarage until 1986. It is thought that the canons' private houses extended southwards from the High Street for a considerable distance. They may have been erected around a quadrangular close, of which the north side stood in the present street, and the eastern side abutted upon the high road which leads to Adisham. The buildings must have occupied a considerable distance.
Certainly two other colleges in Kent had quadrangles, Cobham and Wye. The Cobham chantry, founded in 1362, comprised a master and four chaplains who celebrated Masses in the church and prayed for the founder and his family.
The foundation deed goes on to tell us that four parishes were created, "the first and chief of all these we declare to be the Church of Wingharn", and Ash, Goodnestone and Nonington.
The names of the six canonries were: Bormington, Chilton, Pedding, Ratling, Twitham and Wyrnlingswold. These were named after the place of their endowment.  
The houses between the Old Canonry and the Red Lion are the only visible remains of the houses occupied by the canons. They were erected in the 14th Century or 15th Century as residences for the canons. Hence, in the 19th Century they were called Canon Row.  
The Provost's house, since called "The College", stood on the opposite side of the street. This became the seat of the Palmer family at the dissolution of the college until about 1850 when it was pulled down.  
The canons' houses were occupied by men who subsequently became equally eminent people. Each of the canons or prebendaries was bound by the college statutes to live in the house at least four months a year.  
The parish church of St. Mary's was partly collegiate and partly parochial. The canons used the choir and chancel, where their miserere seats are still, whilst the parishioners used the nave and two aisles.
There is a fascinating story of a niece of Edward_III, the Lady Elizabeth. In 1352 her husband, John, the Earl of Kent, died and his widow, still young and beautiful, entered a convent. At some stage, she fell for the charms of Sir Eustace de Aubrichecourt, and secretly left her convent to appear at her manor house at Wickhambreaux. She rode out from there to Wingham, and, whilst the sun was not yet up, was married to her knight in the chapel of one of the canons, Robert atte Brome. The unfortunate knight and his lady had to appear before the archbishop. Although their marriage was not dissolved, a heavy penance was imposed.  
No priest could join the college without satisfying the bishop of his moral character or without the King's permission. No married cleric was considered unless he "put away" his wife.  
The canons lived in close touch with the world but according to the rule of humility and discipline. Whilst walking to the church, there was to be no time wasting and no conversation on earthly matters. They had to stand while singing, hence the Misericords. Things prohibited included usury, pomp, show, too much secular business, a roving eye, and visits to widows and virgins. Each canon had a "prebend", i.e. the income from land or other sources.  
Then came the Reformation. State papers provide some information about what happened in Wingham at this time. It was reported to Thomas Cromwell, who was later to mastermind the dissolution of the religious houses, that most of Kent had taken the oath of supremacy which acknowledged the king to be the head of the church -  "except two of our observants at Canterbury named Father Mychelson and Father Gam, and the vicar of Sittingbourne". All who persistently refused to take the oath were executed. A canon of Wingham, John Haile, was martyred in 1535 at Tyburn.
Thomas Cranmer reporting to Thomas Cromwell in 1535 concerning Dr. Benger, one of the college canons, declared that "Dr. Benger, affirmed the authority of the bishop of Rome". Evidence was given against Dr. Benger by Thomas Shellmore, curate of Wingham, and others, but there is no evidence as to what happened to him.  
The Answers to the Articles of Enquiry relating to the chantries and hospitals of Canterbury under Henry VIII's  Act have been reprinted in "Canterbury Chantries" in 1934. These include an inventory of the profits and tithes, and list the large number of vestments of the canons of Wingham College. It is clear from the inventory that many people left lands and other gifts to the college
In 1547, the first year of Edward VI's reign, it was the turn of the colleges, chantries and hospitals to be dissolved. Other colleges to be dissolved in Kent were at Wye, Cobham, Maidstone and Bredgar. Their members were given life pensions. In addition the canons' houses were sold.  
Then followed the destruction of many of the goods of the parish churches. An inventory was first drawn up of all the silver crosses, candlesticks, cruets, spoons, sanctus bells and rich and varied vestments. Archbishop Cranmer exhorted the clergy to "throw out all the Papish trash which was not yet cast out". Whitewash erased wall paintings and plain glass replaced the old medieval stained glass windows.  
As J.M. Neale said:  
"No more the Matin songs of praise, Nor Holy Vespers rise; Humbled is the voice of Compline, ceas'd The Daily Sacrifice"
The destruction ceased when Mary became queen. She invited her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, to return to England to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Shortly after his consecration, Pole began a visitation of the parishes in his diocese. He at once ordered the restoration and replacement made necessary by Edward Vl's excesses. In St. Mary's, Wingham, the rood beam across the chancel, with its crucifix and statues of St. Mary and St. John, were restored.  
In Mary's reign, another unfortunate canon of Wingham, and vicar of Adisham, John Blande, was executed for his beliefs. So that, with John Halle, who died in 1535, Wingham has a Protestant and a Catholic martyr, both canons of the college, possibly a unique situation.  
During Mary's reign Archdeacon Harpsfield made a visitation to Wingham. The curate at this time was Robert Charles (or Searles), very much a supporter of Catholicism and probably the last Catholic incumbent. Sir Henry Palmer was in attendace.  
The first recommendation was  
"to take down the grave-stone now upon the altar... and that there be another provided and an altar erected of full length".
Generally, altars and stained glass windows had been destroyed during the reign of Edward VI.
Finally, it is particularly interesting to note that it was ordered that there be provided "a convenient book for christenings, weddings, and buryings"  
The church register of baptisms dates from 1568 - 1712, that of marriages from 1569 - 1713, and that of burials from 1569 - 1713 and 1719 - 1720.  
During Elizabeth I's reign, it was reported to Archbishop Parker on his 1573 visitation that the church yard was not "sufficiently repayred, the walles thereof being downe". There was a dispute between Mr. Palmer and the parish as to who should carry out the repairs.  
Four Catholic recusants (i.e. one who refused to attend the Protestant service and/or refused communion) were also reported as having refused communion, an offence punishable with a large fine, and later land requisition. Later in 1583, a taylor of Wingharn was prosecuted for recusancy.  
If we may now jump four hundred years, we are happy to see the sharing of the parish church of St. Mary's by Protestants and Catholics, a fitting note upon which to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the foundation of the College of St. Mary, Wingham.