Monday, 11 February 2013

The alchemist: Bishop John Thornborough, 1551-1641

The monument at the West end of the cathedral.  Image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.) 

In the west end of the cathedral is a large striking monument. It commemorates one of the more unusual bishops of Worcester. Bishop Thornborough wrote a book on alchemy published in 1621. Alchemy was the study of turning base metals into gold and was a term for chemistry from the middle ages to the early modern period. Some of the wording and numbers on his monument often intrigue visitors as it appears to be a code. It is believed one half translates as: “In Him, who is the source, the beginning, the middle, and the end of all existence and perfection, though I breathe no more, yet shall I hope.”  The other part of the inscription is believed to read: “While I live I hope for the perfection of wise men”. The first part was worked out by John Noake in 1856 and published in his Notes and Queries on Worcestershire, and the second part was quoted by Dean Moore Ede in his 1925 book on the cathedral’s monuments.
 The bishop's effigy. Image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

John Thornborough was born at Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1551 and was educated at Magdalen College Oxford. It was recorded that whilst there, his fastness of living took over from his diligence of study. After university he was ordained in the Church. In 1580 after holding several livings he was appointed one of Queen Elizabeth’s chaplains. In 1589, he was appointed Dean of York, to which was added a Prebend and later two rich Yorkshire livings: all of which he held until arriving at Worcester as bishop in 1617.
A document in the cathedral archives. The Bishop appointed a  keeper of Hartlebury Castle.  Image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.) 

In 1593, Thornborough was appointed Bishop of Limerick where as an active supporter of the crown he made his next move in 1602 as Bishop of Bristol: but still was Dean of York. At this time James I became King of England and the Bishop showed his loyalty by publishing two books praising the king’s wisdom in visiting the kingdoms of England and Scotland.
Another document in which the Bishop appointed a keeper of Hartlebury Park. Image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

January 1617 saw Thornborough elected Bishop of Worcester and whatever traits of his early character had surfaced prior to this appointment; he now fully displayed them until his death in 1641. He decided to appoint to the two best benefices in his diocese Hartlebury and Upton-upon-Severn his son-in-law and chaplain; but the king wished to appoint two friends and therefore the Bishop was forced to withdraw his nominations.

Thornborough’s twenty-five years in office was a period when a breach developed between the people and the Crown. There was popular sympathy with the ideas of the Puritans on theology and on church ceremonies. The bishop was much in sympathy with the popular view, but the Dean Dr. Mainwaring was strongly in support of the arbitrary power of the king. Perhaps this is one reason why the cathedral library does not have a copy of Thornborough's book or any books belonging to him. 

In 1626 the forty year lease on the Carnary Chapel to the Chapter Clerk expired and Bishop Thornborough took this over at the same rent 6/8d per annum and used the chapel as a hay barn. In 1635, Dean Mainwaring was ordered by the Archbishop to restore the Carnary Chapel to its proper use. A new Dean Christopher Potter was appointed in 1636 and decided, faced with an expanding library, to move it to the schoolhouse (Refectory) and move the school into the chapel. The bishop complained to the archbishop that whilst he had complied with his instruction to remove his hay and restore the chapel, it was now to be used by schoolboys. This would create noise and in his opinion this would be worse than filling the chapel with hay as the school boys would swear and lie! The furious mayor and leading citizens, whose relatives were educated there, lodged a complaint with the Archbishop of Canterbury over the location of the school. In 1637 Thornborough had the tomb of a noble lady translated from the chapel to the north aisle of the Lady Chapel. The school remained in the Carnary chapel for five years until 1643, returning to the College Hall.
Heraldry on the Thornborough monument. Image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

Bishop Thornborough had a very determined attitude to life for a man in his eighties. He had lost a son unable to cope with debts, who committed suicide. Another son was forced to marry an heiress, with whom he was living, but he spent her fortune and she was left penniless to beg from her father-in-law. The Bishop gave her a very small allowance to live on. He died at Hartlebury Castle in July 1641. To read more about this time in Worcester's past, read Pat Hughes and Annette Leech’s The Story of Worcester, Logaston Press 2011 or William Moore Ede's Worcester Cathedral, Its Monuments and their stories, (Worcester, 1925).

Ian Clargo                                 

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