But whither Wither, doth my fancy flee? I ought not write in serious phrase to thee, Thou precious most pernicious prelate hater To Durhams reverend bishop thou wast cater, Or steward, where to make thy ’compts seem cleare, Thou made’st two monthes of July in one yeare, And in the totall reck'ning it was found Thou cheat’st the bishop1 of five hundred pound. John Taylor, Aquæ-Musæ (Oxford, n.d. [c.1645], 5. In the above extract from his satirical poem Aquæ-Musæ, John Taylor, the Water Poet, attacks George Wither, accusing him of having defrauded Dr John Howson, bishop of Durham 1628–32, of £500 when he was the bishop’s steward. Taylor’s poem was printed ‘in the fourth yeare of the Great Rebellion’, some twelve or thirteen years after the death of the bishop in February 1632. Taylor, a staunch Royalist, makes it clear that it was Wither’s support for the Parliamentary cause which provoked his attack. Given the explicit nature and severity of Taylor’s accusation, it is perhaps surprising that none of George Wither’s biographers have found any evidence to substantiate the charge or indeed anything to show that Wither was actually in Durham at the time alleged. For example, Robert Aris Willmott, in his Lives of the English Sacred Poets, mentions Taylor’s accusation but only to dismiss it as ‘unworthy of credit’ in the absence of any supporting evidence.2 Similarly, Stanley Hensley states that Wither ‘probably worked as secretary’ to Dr Howson when he was bishop of Durham but rejects the Water Poet’s charge as ‘more like a rival’s envy than truth’.3 And Michelle O’Callaghan, in her biography of Wither for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, likewise refers to Taylor’s attack on Wither but offers no other comment beyond the observation that Wither nowhere in his writings refers either to Dr Howson or to time spent in Durham.4 Now, however, conclusive documentary evidence of Wither’s service under Dr Howson at Durham has come to light, as described in the present note. Dr John Howson was translated to Durham from Oxford in September 1628. His enthronement took place on 16 December and the temporalities were restored to him on 25 December, after a vacancy of some eleven months, during which time the revenues of the bishopric accrued to the crown. In an unpublished M Litt thesis, P.H. Horton was the first to recognise that someone by the name of George Wither held office in bishop Howson’s episcopal administration though he did not identify this man as George Wither the poet.5 Thus, Horton found that, on 8 November 1628, Howson appointed by letters patent ‘my loving friend Mr George Wither … to survey and view all the castles and mansion howses belonging to me’ in the county of York and the county palatine of Durham and ‘to inquire and know the decaies and present ruines thereof and to what value in the severall and particuler workmanships and to survey and view all the woods in the same counties … to inquire of the waistes and spoiles thereof since the last vacancy. … And I do further authorise him to conferr with my officers touching there accompts of such rentes and perquisites as of right belong unto me. … And I doe further give him power and authoritie to receive the same monies from yow the receivors and to give yow acquittances and discharges for the same …’. The text of the letters patent was duly transcribed into one of the bishop’s lease registers.6 Then, on 24 February 1629, the appointment of George Wither to the ‘office of supervisor general of the castles, manors, lands, mills, mines and hereditaments of the bishopric’ at an annual salary of 20 marks, was confirmed by the Dean and Chapter of Durham.7 On 5 December 1628, bishop Howson sent a letter from London addressed jointly to Wither (presumably by now in Durham) and to John Richardson, the bishop’s attorney general, who was to assist Wither in his duties. The original letter is not extant but extracts from it were copied into the bishop’s lease register together with a note stating that Wither and Richardson had passed the letter on to Timothy Comyn, auditor, and Hugh Wright, receiver, on 15 December, presumably in order to gain their cooperation in carrying out the tasks that had been assigned to them.8 Amongst other things, Wither and Richardson were to review the accounts of the bishopric, distinguishing money that belonged to the bishop from that which was owed to the king’s receiver, ‘Master Wharton’, during the period of the vacancy. Additionally, they were to examine the accounts of the coroners, the bailiffs, the under-collectors and the sheriffs in order to identify money that had hitherto proved hard or impossible to collect. Likewise, fines levied on the renewals of leasehold property and on alienations were to be similarly identified. All in all, this amounted to a wide-ranging audit of the revenues of the bishopric with the aim of maximizing the income of the newly appointed bishop. As Horton has shown, at Durham Wither joined a team of highly skilled professionals with long experience of the episcopal administration of the bishopric. These included the three officials mentioned above, namely John Richardson, a lawyer who had worked his way up through the administration over a period of almost fifty years and who held other judicial and crown appointments; Timothy Comyn who had served as receiver general, auditor and steward under successive bishops since the 1590 s; and Hugh Wright who had been clerk of the great receipt for a similar period.9 Why Wither, an impoverished poet with no proven administrative ability or expertise in financial management, should have been chosen to work alongside men of such wide experience in the episcopal administration, seems at first surprising. On the other hand it was by no means unusual for incoming bishops to find appointments and emoluments for their relatives and friends, even those who do not seem to have been obviously qualified for the positions they were to occupy. In these circumstances Wither’s appointment appears less remarkable than it might seem. For the time being there is no satisfactory answer to the question of how Wither came to be connected with bishop Howson in the first place. One possible solution is that his placement came about through royal patronage, for Wither had long been working on a metrical version of the psalms in English, a project in which King James was also keenly interested. So, when Wither published his The Hymnes and Songs of the Church in 1623, James signalled his royal approval by granting Wither a patent giving him copyright in the work for a period of fifty years.10 This marked a welcome upturn in Wither’s fortunes coming as it did after periods of financial difficulty, not to mention three short spells of imprisonment for offending against the authorities in his published writings. As O’Callaghan suggests, Wither may have owed the patent to the influence of Prince Charles who, in an undated verse petition, is thanked by Wither for his release from prison in 1621 and asked for ‘a second favour’ to help him restore his finances.11 Perhaps his Durham appointment was the fulfilment of that request. Whatever the circumstances of his appointment, there is no doubt that Wither was actually present in Durham by the end of April 1629, for both he and John Richardson signed a letter about customs duties at the port of Sunderland which was sent from Durham on the twenty-third of that month.12 In addition to the post of ‘supervisor general’, Wither was given another appointment, evidence of which escaped Horton’s notice: on 24 February 1629, bishop Howson granted ‘George Wither of the city of London esquire’ a patent for life of the office of ‘moormaster’ of the bishop’s lead mines in Weardale. The appointment was duly confirmed by the Dean and Chapter and the text of the patent copied into the appropriate lease register.13 As moormaster, Wither was technically responsible for granting leases (or ‘tacks’) of the bishop’s mines in Weardale and for collecting the ‘lot’ ore due to the bishop, amounting to one tenth of all the lead ore produced. However, it was common practice for moormasters to delegate their responsibilities to a deputy and, in the case of Wither, who had absolutely no experience of lead mining, the day to day work of managing the mines was actually carried out by Humphrey Wharton, a Yorkshire gentleman who had acquired a crown lease of the lead mines at Grinton, in Swaledale, one year previously, in 1628. In that same year Humphrey Wharton’s father, Thomas Wharton, had been appointed receiver of crown rents in the archdeaconry of Richmond and the counties of Durham and Northumberland, though it seems to have been Humphrey who exercised the office and submitted accounts to the auditors of the exchequer at Westminster.14 In other words this Thomas Wharton was the ‘master Wharton’ to whom Richardson and Wither had to account for money outstanding to the crown over the period of vacancy that preceded Howson’s translation to Durham. Further details about Wither’s time in Durham have emerged in the records of a case brought before the court of chancery in London in 1633.15 On that occasion Thomas and Humphrey Wharton were defendants in an action brought by one Edmund Nicholson of Westminster, a ‘projector’ who claimed to have taken a lease of a lead mine at Bollihope, in Weardale, in 1625 from which his miners had recently been ejected by the Whartons. In their joint answer to Nicholson’s bill, the Whartons refer to George Wither’s appointment as moormaster in February 1629, and to Humphrey Wharton who had acted as his deputy. They also say that Thomas Wharton succeeded George Wither as moormaster and that he had been appointed by king Charles on 29 November 1632, eleven months after bishop Howson’s death, and five months after bishop Thomas Morton’s translation to Durham in June 1632. Why it was the king, and not bishop Morton, who made this appointment is not apparent; nor are the circumstances of Wither’s departure explained beyond the fact that ‘the patent of the sayed George Wyther was not confirmed by the Dean and Chapter’. This is the only hint that Wither may have ended his term at Durham under some sort of cloud. On the other hand it may simply be that he chose to give up his appointments (and presumably his salary) at Durham after his patron’s death. If he went to London in the spring or early summer of 1632, he evidently didn’t linger there for long as he seems to have been in the Netherlands before the end of the year where his Psalmes of David was published in November 1632.16 This flight overseas does indeed look suspicious but, in the absence of any evidence of financial impropriety on Wither’s part, it could perhaps be explained as a move designed to take advantage of an opportunity to publish his new work. While this account of George Wither’s somewhat improbable four-year stint as an administrator of the episcopal estates of the bishop of Durham does nothing to deepen our understanding of his career as a poet, it does fill what has previously been a significant gap in our knowledge of his biography. While confirming John Taylor’s assertion that Wither spent time in Durham as bishop Howson’s steward, no evidence has been forthcoming to substantiate his claim that Wither acted improperly in that role. Footnotes 1 A marginal gloss identifies ‘the bishop’ as ‘Dr Howson’. 2 R. A. Willmott, Lives of the English Poets, 2nd edn (London, 1834), I, 46. 3 C. S. Hensley, ‘The Later Career of George Wither’, Studies in English Literature, xliii (1969), 41. 4 Michelle O’Callaghan, ‘Wither, George (1588–1667)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29804>, accessed 15 July 2017. 5 P. H. Horton, The Administration, Social and Economic Structure of the Durham Bishopric Estates, 1500–1640 (Durham, 1975), 23, 372–3. Unpublished M. Litt. thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: <http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/9790/>. 6 Durham University Library Special Collections (DULSC), CCB V/1/5, f. 444-5. Horton, The Administration, Social and Economic Structure, 373. 7 DULSC, DCD/B/BA/10, f. 578–9. 8 DULSC, CCB V/1/5, f. 445–7. 9 Horton, The Administration, Social and Economic Structure, 369–71. 10 George Wither, The hymnes and songs of the church (London, 1623). 11 ODNB, online edn, May 2014; accessed 3 July 2017. 12 DULSC, Mickleton Spearman MS 98, f. 86r–v. 13 DULSC, DCD B/BA/10, f. 579–81. 14 London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/044/03/003/008. 15 The National Archives, C2/ChasI/N28/47. 16 ODNB, online edn, May 2014; accessed 3 July 2017. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 6, 2018
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