Did Elizabeth I ‘open’ the school?

1. Background

Recently we were contacted by the guardians of Rycote Chapel with an unusual request. Could we determine whether Queen Elizabeth 1 had opened the school? So we went to our history books.
2. Findings to date

2.1 Introduction

The connection between Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) , Lord Williams (c1500 – 1559), his family, and to a lesser extent, the school itself, is strong. However, the idea that Elizabeth I opened the school has never appeared documented in the past nor has it been part of the folklore.

2.2 A Brief Recap of the Connection Between Elizabeth, Lord Williams and his family.

It is well-known that Elizabeth’s first visits to Rycote was when she was a Princess put under house arrest and close confinement by Queen Mary. These occurred in 1553, 1554, 1555. Williams owned Rycote and was put in joint custody of the Princess. It is known that Williams treated her with leniency and when Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, it is generally agreed that Williams was in her favour and he was appointed Lord President of the Council of the Marches of Wales.

Williams had purchased Rycote in 1539 and Michael Beech in his biography of Williams notes that Henry VIII’s Privy Council met there on 26 August 1540 and Henry made a second visit a year later. This is further expanded on-line by the Bodleian http://rycote.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/henry-VIIIs-honeymoon, who note that ‘Henry’s visit was to be the first in a long succession of royal visits to Rycote that would stretch to 1683.’

When Elizabeth was taken to Rycote in the early 1550s it is possible that she met Williams’ younger daughter Margery, which might account for the closeness between the two in later years (see 2. below).

However, this is only conjecture not least because the age of Margery is impossible to ascertain as there are no precise dates to her birth.

With some certainty we know that Williams married Elizabeth Edmonds (nee Bledlowe) in 1524 (Beech) and Margery was one of five children.

The History of Parliament gives the date of birth for the oldest son to 1524-6 and as Margery was the youngest daughter it would appear reasonable to assume that she was born around 1530. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/williams-henry-152426-51

Margery would marry Henry Norris (1525 – 1601) and after her father’s death, Rycote passed to the two of them. The precise date of marriage is unknown although she and Henry were married by 1544. As the age of consent at that time was 12 for girls and such marriage arrangements were made for various contractural reasons, it is perfectly possible for Margery if born around 1530 to be married.


After Margery’s marriage, she and her husband lived in the family seat in Wytham AbbeyBerkshire and so at first glance it may not have been the case that she and Elizabeth met at Rycote but on the other hand there is no reason to think that no visit was made, particularly with the two being a similar age and perhaps of some comfort.

2.3. Lord Williams’s Funeral and Tomb

A year after Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, Williams died. His funeral took place on 15 November 1559 at St Mary’s Church Thame. In his book John Williams, Baron Williams of Thame, Michael J Beech (published 2008) says ‘when the embalmed body had been lowered into its final resting place in the centre of the church, a highly elaborate carved effigy of Lord Williams was laid over it.’

Francis Steer, former archivist to New College Oxford writes that the effigy was atrribited to Gerard Johnson, the elder. (In a pamphlet, Thame School and its Founder, written in 1975.) There is no source for this claim but if it were true, it would mean that the effigy would post-date 1668, which is when Johnson set up his studio in London. (Source: Oxford Dictionary of Art, Ian Chilvers, Third Edition 2004) and therefore could not have been put in place at the time of the funeral.

In the school statutes written in 1575 (see below) it notes that ‘the tombe of the said late Lorde Williams, sett in the chancell… should be maintained and keep.’

Our belief is that whoever carved the tomb’s chest, it would not have been ready for the funeral itself and most likely was a later addition.

However, what is clear is that Williams’s tomb was in St Mary’s Church and the possible significance of this is discussed in 2.

In his will the establishment of the school is noted as follows, ‘I will and bequeath the rectories and personages of Brill, Okeley, Burstall and Eastneston, to mine executors for ever, to the intent they they or the survivor or survivors of them, shall within the same erect s Free School in the town of Thame…’

2.4.Establishing when the school was opened

The official date of the school’s foundation is 1559, as this was when Williams’s made his bequest in his will. Both John Howard Brown and Gerald Clarke say that the building of the school was completed around 1569 and teaching began soon after. Howard Brown points to a MS note on one copy of the school’s statutes which records that building began in 1569, teaching in late 1570 and that the first Headmaster Edward Harris, ‘On the day before the feast of St Andrew 1570, Edward Harris who had previously been elected Master, took up his office of teaching in the newly completed school.’  In the loose leaf ‘Corrections and Additions’ pages of the History, JHB also writes that the date 1569 is inscribed on the lintel over the main door to the school. This firmly dates the building to 1569 and confirms that the school opened in 1570 as also stated in the Commissioners’ copy.

If there is any doubt about this date, it is only because the school’s statutes – which lay out at some length how the school should be run and governed – were only written in August 1675 (‘seventeenth were of the riagne of our sovereign layde Elizabeth).

However within the Statutes it is stated that the School House had already been ‘newlye buylded in Olde Thame’ and Brown writes that is is clear that the Executors having seen to the successful establishment of the school wished now to hand over control to those who could ensure its continued success.

Looking at a transcript of a document relating to the school (Some Account of Lord Williams of Thame, published in 1872 in Thame) it is clear that when the Statutes were drawn up the school was already in existence ‘though it is still young and in its infancy’ and ‘such a tender offspring scarcely yet come to manhood’.

It is worth noting at this point that after the death of Lord Wiliams’s second wife all ‘lorships, manors, lands, tenements and hereditaments’ would be passed on to Henry and Margery Norris. She died in 1588

2.5.Elizabeth I’s visits to Rycote

After she became Queen, Rycote became a regular halt on her royal progresses through her Kingdom.


The dates of her visit to Rycote are 1566 (when she knighted Henry Norris) 1568, 1570, 1575 and 1592.

Progresses had a number of purposes: they allowed the Queen to be seen by her people, they were for leisure (albeit the Queen only stayed in most locations for a few days before moving on), and during the summer they were a way of escaping London, its heat the increased incidence of disease. All the dates of her visits to Rycote were in the summer and usually towards the end of August.

Progresses were made up of much of the Court and servants, and were large affairs and when they arrived at anyone place they had a significant impact locally not least as they consumed vast amount of food, beer and ale. This in part explains why they keptt moving as they soon consumed all available produce locally.

2.5.1: 1566 Visit

Prior to her visit to Rycote she had spent several days on Oxford, and left by the East Gate and rode to Rycote via the London Road over Shotover

On 6 September 1566 Elizabeth arrived at Rycote following her progress to (in fact it was from) the University of Oxford. On the same day she knighted Henry Norris (Source: Bodleian Library and Nichols, Elizabeth, vol. 1, p. 250).

It would not have been possible to visit the school as it did not exist at this time.

She stayed until 7 September and then continued on to Brabenham near High Wycombe.

2.5.2: 1568 Visit

A letter in the Bodleian records the preparations for Elizabeths visit in August 1568 when she stayed for several days. She had come from Bicester and possibly had followed the route from Bicester that went through Long Crendon and then down to Thame. On the other hand some cast doubt that Elizabeth travelled from Bicester to Rycote via Thame. There is a shorter and at that time better established route via Brill, a royal manor, Ickford, Tiddington, or rather North Weston at that time, and either up Sandy Lane to Milton Common or possibly a now lost road from North Weston direct to Rycote, The former importance of this route is signalled by the fine double bridge over the Thame river and flood plain between Ickford and Tiddington and a late 17th century county boundary stone, unique in Oxon and rare for that period anywhere.

2.5.3 1570 Visit

Her visit in 1570 was in August and early September. The diary of William Cecil records that ‘the Queen’s maiesty Aug 30 at Rycotte.’ (Source: John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. Edited By Elizabeth Goldring, Jayne Elisabeth Archer, Oxford, 2014.)
Mary Hill Cole’s book, The Portable Queen says she stayed at Rycote August 30 and Sept 2, 6 and 7

Before she arrived at Rycote, she stayed at Wing and Eythrope. Almost certainly to travel from these locations to Rycote she would have passed through Thame on the road that ran from Aylesbury. This road at the time follows the course of the current road but when it entered Thame swung right to run through Lashlake, the rectory and then past the church to Priest End.

It could be possible that she made the short journey to Thame to see the school – whether teaching had started then or the building was still a work-in-progress we will not know.
2.5.4 Visit in 1575

Mary Cope says that Elizabeth also visited Rycote in October 1575, coming from Holton and before going on to Brabenham near High Wycombe.

This year of course coincides with the issuing of Elizabeth’s Letters Patent that granted permission for the Executors of Williams’s will to assign their school duties to New College.

I have found an index note to one record of this progress in the National Arcvines

http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C2583381 Ref: T38/500

At this time, we do not know where and when the Letters Patent was issued. Was this during her visit to Rycote? However, it should be noted that usually Letters Patent were not signed by the Monarch but by clerks in Westminster. However, that does not preclude the LP being issued when the Court was in Rycote only that it should be thought as a possibility.

It is worth noting that most grammar schools had Letters Patent so those for Thame don’t signify any special royal connection. Also the title ‘royal’ does not necessarily imply a royal foundation, nor do genuine royal foundations necessarily have royal in their title, so the fact that it’s not the Royal Thame School does not rule out a close connection to the monarch.
2.6 No records of the Queen’s passage through Thame.

What is surprising is that Thame has no mention of the Queen and her vast party passing through the town. Her cortege was large and records where they do exist from visits elsewhere show – not surprisingly – much merry-making and celebration. The Queen too was not adverse to visiting market towns as it was a means to meet the people. However the most likely place for a written record to be kept is in the Churchwarden’s accounts for the parish church of St Mary’s. However, while these record earlier visits by Henry VIII, the pages for the years that Elizabeth might have passed through are incomplete. (NB: there are records of Henry VIII passing through Thame twice for example.)


2.7 Relationship with Margery Norris.

The Bodleian holds a copy of a letter that Elizabeth wrote to Margery on the death of one of her sons, Sir John Norris.

Elizabeth’s letter is affectionately addressed “myne owne Crowe”, a nickname given to Lady Norris by the Queen in respect of her dark complexion. Sir John Norris died at Norris Castle, Mallow, Ireland, on 3 September 1597, having spent the preceding two years leading English forces against the Earl of Tyrone’s rebellion (van Meteren, Discovrse Historicall, p. 154; Nolan, Sir John Norreys, pp. 237-9). Worn down by this service, earlier that summer both Sir John and Lady Norris had unsuccessfully sought his recall to England (Calendar of Hatfield Mss., pt. 7, pp. 230-1; CSP Ireland 1596-7, pp. 349-50). In this letter, the Queen consoles Lady Norris that “nature can have stirred no more dolorious affection in you as a mother for a deare sonne then gratefullnes and memory of his services paste hath wrought in us his soverougine.”

In fact Crowe was also the nickname used by Norrey’s for his wife – and an earlier occurrence comes from 1592, when Norrey’s addressed the Queen on her last visit to Rycote when he told the Queen of their worries for their sons, ‘…Their deaths, the rumour of which hath so often affrighted the Crowe my wife, that her hart hath been as black as her feathers. I know not whether it be affection or fondness, but the Crowe thinketh her own birds the fairest, because they are the dearest.’ (Source: Department of the Environment Official Guidebook Rycote Chapel, 1973.)

Clarke records that Elizabeth wrote a note to Margery on her husband’s death in 1597. “let these lines from your gracious and loving Sovereign serve to assure you that there shall ever appear the lively characters of you and your that are left, in valuing all their faithful and honest endeavours.’

There may have been a rather more scandalous connection: Henry Norris’s father (also Henry Norris) had been beheaded for supposedly carrying out an adulterous relationship with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. Is it possible that Elizabeth was the love child of the first Henry Norris?

According to Sir Robert Naunton, Queen Elizabeth I always honoured his memory, believing that he died “in a noble cause and in the justification of her mother’s innocence.”Naunton, Robert; Caulfield, James (1814). Memoirs of Sir Robert Naunton, Knt., Author of “The Fragmenta Regalia”; With Some of His Posthumous Writings, With Manuscripts in his own Hand, Never Before Printed. [Compiled by James Caulfield]. London: G. Smeeton; J. Caulfield.

3. Some concluding thoughts.

Rycote was one of the more frequent stops on the Royal Progress, clearly indicating that it was a favoured place for Elizabeth to visit. She was particularly close to the Norris family and Margery, and she would have had favourable memories of Lord Williams.

We know that she passed through Thame on possibly two occasions: in 1568 and 1570. On her other visits, if she did not pass through Thame, she was no more than a thirty minute horse-ride away.

With her affection for Margery and her late father, it could have been possible that she visited Thame Church to pray at Williams’s tomb. Other records show that she did visit parish churches usually to take divine service. An argument against this, is that she could have prayed for Williams’s soul in the chapel at Rycote.

In 1570, she could have both prayed at Williams’s tomb and seen the work-in-progress of the school’s construction. At that time it would have been almost complete (and so something to see) although it would appear unlikely that teaching had started in late August. (It is said that teaching began in late November.)

It is possible that she approved the Letters Patent in 1575 while staying at Rycote and this in itself could have prompted a visit to the school where teaching would now be in progress.

Thus far, no records have been found (contemporary or more recent) that either record or indeed suggest that Elizabeth visited the school let alone performed some form of ‘opening’ ceremony. At best, it can be argued that circumstantial evidence suggests that it is possible (not probable) Elizabeth visited the school during one of her Progresses, when visiting the Norris family at their seat at Rycote.

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