Thame School, the Norreys family and the revenge of the Berties


The school archivist has written the piece below on the connection between the school and the Norreys family.

Lord Williams may have founded and given his name to the school but it was the family of his son-in-law Henry Norreys (or Norris) that had the closest connection with the school during its first century. This is because the 1575 statutes laid down that the final decision about appointment of a new Master lay with Henry and his heirs.

The Norreys family moved in the highest circles of the Tudor and Stuart royal court for well over a century, but even by the standards of that turbulent period, they were remarkable for their extremes of good or ill-fortune. The first notable member of the family, Henry’s father, also called Henry, was near the head of Henry VIII’s court hierarchy as ‘Groom of the Stool’ – graphically described elsewhere as ‘responsible for changing Henry’s underpants’. Though this might appear to be a menial task, it actually meant being part of the staff of the Privy Chamber: those courtiers closest to the king in his more intimate moments. But being close to Henry Tudor was a high-risk situation for the king was both volatile and ruthless. However, it was alleged intimacy of a different kind, with Queen Anne Boleyn, that cost Henry Norreys his head, a victim of Henry Tudor’s desire for a new wife and the devious machinations of his chief adviser Thomas Cromwell. At the time, John Williams, not yet a lord, was one of Cromwell’s chief aides. Though there is no evidence that he was involved in the events that would bring Henry Norreys to the executioner’s block, it is quite likely that he was party to what was going on. Norreys would almost certainly have known or known of Williams as and up and coming member of the Royal household with the as joint Keeper of the King’s Jewels, an important post shared with Cromwell himself.

Not only did Henry Norreys senior lose his head in 1536 but his considerable landed property was also forfeited, leaving his young son both landless and an orphan as his mother had died five years earlier. But in the topsy-turvy world of Tudor politics, Henry junior’s fortunes quickly recovered. Most of his family lands were restored to him after only three years and he. Shortly after the Norreys family’s rehabilitation, Cromwell fell from power and was executed; the conservative Catholics headed by the Howard family’s, Duke of Norfolk were restored to favour and the pretty teenager Catherine Howard became Henry Tudor’s new wife. The ever-flexible John Williams quickly re-aligned his loyalties and in 1540 invited Henry Tudor to spend part of his fifth honeymoon at his Rycote Park residence. Henry’s divorce settlement with his previous wife Anne of Cleves was proving very expensive so he was probably quite pleased to be offered a free stay: expensive for Williams but a sound investment. Another sound investment at some time in the early 1540s was to marry his younger daughter Margery off to the up-and-coming Henry Norreys, who in 1541 was designated the heir, jointly with Margery, of his guardian, his childless uncle Sir John, who also had extensive property. The advantage for the Williams family is clear. Why Norreys agreed to marry the daughter of a former close associate of the man who had contrived the execution of his father is much less clear, for at that moment Margery had elder brothers and her prospects of bringing significant wealth to the marriage were remote. Just possibly it was a love-match, though this was a rare occurrence in Tudor times, especially amongst the aristocracy where the prime purpose of marriage was to increase landed property.

Both Norreys and Williams survived the religious upheavals of the short reigns of the Protestant Edward VI and the Catholic Mary and continued to prosper. Unfortunately for Williams all his sons died before he did, but this only increased the fortunes of Norreys and his wife Margery, who inherited Rycote Park.  Williams in his will appointed several executors to carry out his wishes that of course included the establishment of Thame School. Norreys was not one of these executors, nor so far as we know was he directly involved in appointing the first Master, Edward Harris, almost certainly done by the executors on the advice of the Warden of New College. However, it seems probable that he and Margery took an interest in the events leading up to the opening of the school in November 1570 and almost inconceivable that that the executors and Warden would not have ensured that their choice was acceptable to the daughter of the school’s founder and to her husband. We knin the appointing a new Master in its early years. What is certain is that in those clauses of the statutes that laid down how a new Master was to be chosen, it was Henry or his heirs that had the right to choose between two candidates put forward by the Warden and Fellows of New College. In the event, Norreys had to wait over twenty years to assert that right in the person of Richard Boucher because Harris remained in office until his death in 1597. Meanwhile, Norreys became one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisers and friends, holding a series of important posts in her government and frequently providing the Queen with hospitality at Rycote Park. Legend has it that he assured her that his father was innocent of the adultery charge made against him and her mother Anne. (That legitimised her claim to the throne but privately she might have preferred to have had Henry Norreys as her father rather than the odious Henry Tudor.) Norreys was blessed with six sons but cursed by the fact that, like Williams, they all died before he did. We tend to think of Elizabeth I’s long reign as one of peace and prosperity but in fact the country was frequently at war. Five of Norreys’s sons died fighting for their country, a sombre record that probably exceeds any family mortality in World War 1.

When, after a long life of mixed fortunes Henry Norreys died in 1601, he was succeeded by his grandson Francis. Francis’s character was notable for its impetuosity, pride and violence. Though far from being a charming man he led a charmed life and frequently escaped from what should have been the deserved consequences of his many misdemeanors. At the age of 21 he inherited the headship of a highly regarded noble family, great wealth, extensive estates and the title of Baron Norreys. Two years before he inherited the title and the lands he had married Bridget de Vere, whose uncle was Robert Cecil the chief adviser of both the Queen and the new king James I, so he moved in the highest political circles. However, he got on badly not only with his own uncle but with his wife. In a faint echo of his great grandfather’s misfortunes, the collapse of his marriage was said to be the result of Bridget’s infidelity and miscarriage of a baby which might not have been his. Despite these marital troubles he remained in high esteem with King James, who visited Rycote five times. Even when his long-running feud with Bertie family, (which the Norreys family eventually lost), led in 1615 to his killing of a Bertie servant and conviction of manslaughter, he received a royal pardon and in 1621 he was further promoted by James to be Viscount Thame and Earl of Berkshire. But he persisted in his violence. The following year he was imprisoned for a brawl in the House with Lord Scrope, in whose castle his wife had fled on their separation, an incident all the more serious because it took place in the presence of the Prince of Wales. For this outrage he was committed, but only briefly, to the Fleet prison, but having made both a written and public apology in the Lords he was allowed to return to Rycote. There, supposedly, he tried to commit suicide with a crossbow and died of his wounds after two days, though the circumstances of how he died remain unclear. The misdemeanours of modern nobility pale into insignificance by comparison with this ‘hell-raiser’, yet this was the man charged with appointing a suitable Master for Thame School. Luckily he was not called upon to make the choice as Richard Boucher served the school for 30 years, even longer than Edward Harris, and outlived the errant Francis by five years.

The next member to choose the Master was Elizabeth, In view of her parents’ marital relations, it is hardly surprising that she was their only legitimate child, though Francis also sired an illegitimate son, which rather casts doubt on his constant assertion that it was Bridget who was entirely responsible for the marriage breakdown. As the sole heir, Elizabeth inherited the baronial title and was Baroness Norreys in her own right. So it was Elizabeth, not her husband who made the choice of Hugh Evans as Master in 1627. She gives the impression of being a spirited, strong-willed woman, a long way from the stereotypical modest and subservient and wife. Though her marital relationships were less fraught than her parents’ they were full of incident. Initially there was some talk of her marrying the brother of Robert Carr, Duke of Buckingham, a favourite and perhaps something more of James I, who seems to have been bi-sexual. (Although James had seven sons, the educated wags on his succession were fond of quoting:  Rex fuit Elizabeth, nunc est regina Jacobus (Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen). Possibly her father’s survival in royal circles despite his conviction of manslaughter and brawling in Parliament was due to his relationship with the king, whatever exactly that was.

Had she married into the Buckingham family Elizabeth would have moved in the highest level of the royal court, for the Duke of Buckingham was a leading figure in the reign of both James and his son Charles. Elizabeth, however, had other ideas. In 1622 she secretly married Edward Wray, Groom of the Bedchamber, without the King’s permission. Edward was arrested, imprisoned and dismissed from his post. Elizabeth was placed under house arrest by Lord Pembroke but managed to escape, presumably back to Rycote. Once again, however, the Norreys family quickly bounced back from disgrace. On the accession of Charles I in 1625 the Wrays were restored to royal favour. To avoid the 1625 plague raging in London, the new king stayed at Rycote while Parliament met at Oxford. So it was as Elizabeth Wray, Baroness Norreys, that Elizabeth chose the next Master Hugh Evans in 1627 but also four years later the more famous William Burt, who went on in 1647 to become Headmaster and Warden of Winchester College. As with Francis and Bridget Norreys, so with Edward and Elizabeth Wray: they had only one child, a girl, another Bridget. That Elizabeth chose her mother’s name for her own daughter strongly suggests that Elizabeth did not blame her mother for the breakdown of the marriage. After Elizabeth died in 1645, her daughter Bridget duly succeeded her as the second Norreys heiress and Baroness and so had the right to choose the next Master, William Aycliffe in 1647. But she was the last of the Norreys name to do so for the following year she married Montague Bertie, 2nd Earl of Lindsey in Rycote chapel. He was her second husband, her first having been killed in during the Civil War in 1646. Montague Bertie, by a remarkable irony, was the son of her father’s great enemy Robert Bertie, who had died at the battle of Edgehill in 1642. It was therefore Bridget Bertie who in 1655 made two appointments and consequently the only Norreys heir to appoint three Masters in all. Master Henry Beeston almost immediately followed Burt to Winchester as Headmaster, and was succeeded by Hugh Willis. Two years later, when Bridget died, Rycote passed to her four-year old son, James Bertie, the first of that name to take over the Rycote estate in his own right, a family that was to own Rycote and have the right of appointing Masters for the next 250 years or so.

However at the re-founding of the school in the 1870s the revised statutes, much to the disgust of some Thame locals at the time, changed the procedure for appointing a headmaster so that it became the sole responsibility of the governors.

Jacksons Oxford Journal, 26 October 1878

“On Thursday there was a meeting of the Governors of Thame Grammar School when five candidates for the Mastership were selected out of a number of applications to present themselves early next month before the Governors, in accordance to a resolution to that effect.”
In the end George Plummer was chosen as the new headmaster.

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