Bishop Robert Pursglove of Tideswell (1504-1580)

Compiled by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 1999

“Robert Pursglove was, I understand from my old father, a big man, rather stout, with broad face, expanded nostrils, dark eyes, and contrary to the custom of the day, wore his hair lopped. He was always dressed in black with a pilgrim's hat hanging down at the back; black breeches, black hose and shoes, and although buckles had gone out of fashion a century before, he continued to wear them”.[1]

This is the image of the man I like to maintain rather than the rather pompous figure of his Memorial Brass, in Tideswell Church. A man of the people perhaps who remembered his Tideswell roots, in spite of a progressive career in the church, which spanned 4 monarchies, and a religious revolution.

Robert Pursglove was born in or about 1504, the son of Adam PURSGLOVE and Modwina née BRADSHAW. We might assume he came from a family which had been established in Tideswell parish for several generations before that, as John Pym Yeatman's The Feudal History of the County of Derby, Vol V, in Chapter 13, Bishop Pursglove, records a Richard Pursglove in 10 Henry VI (1432) holding soc. [2] in Wheston (a hamlet a mile or so to the north of Tideswell); he also confirms the William Pursglove recorded on the notice board as one of Tideswell Incumbents, was Rector from 1441.

Robert had a wealthy uncle, William BRADSHAW, who was a merchant of the Shearmen's Company in London. He arranged for, and paid for Robert to be educated at the newly-founded St Paul's School. St Paul's had been founded by John Colet, a Christian Humanist, in 1509; Robert must have been one of its first pupils.

After nine years at St Paul's, Pursglove joined the abbey of St Mary Overy's (‘St Mary Over the River’) in Southwark as a novice monk. St Mary's was just one of several old stone monasteries by the river at that time, which were swept away during the Reformation - one can only imagine now what cold, damp and cheerless places they might have been![3] From St Mary's he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where according to his epitaph he stayed fourteen years. Corpus Christi was then also quite new, being founded in 1517 by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester. Ah, Brave New Scholar! Shall we imagine young Robert with perhaps as many hopes and fears for his future as any new student in a ‘New Age’, presenting so many opportunities to study - similar to myself perhaps in the late 1960s, entering splendid new University buildings, built exclusively for scholars such as we were. Were his also “Filled with Light and Air”?[4] Perhaps not, but it would surely have been a different environment to The Monastery of St Mary's.

His period at Oxford, and his subsequent career is summarised in his entry in Alumni Oxoniensis:-

Pursglove, Robert (alias Sylvester), born at Tideswell, co. Derby; educated at St. Paul's school and St. Mary Overies, studied at Corpus Christi Coll. 14 years, prior of Guisborough, Yorks, until its dissolution 1540, provost of Rotheram [Ed: sic] college, York, archdeacon of Nottingham 1553, deprived 1554, suffragan bishop of Hull, founded a grammar school at Tideswell and Guisborough; died 2 May 1579. See Ath. ii. 820; & St. Paul's S.R. 19[5]

He left Oxford in 1534 to take up an appointment as Prior of the Monastery at Guisborough, and his name must have already been heard in the right circles, as it is said that this was a political appointment, where he would not only be administering the Priory, but preparing the ground for Henry VIII's plan for the dissolution of the Monasteries. Pursglove being young and ambitious was not expected to oppose the King, whereas the existing Prior, James Cockerill, was a die-hard, and expected be troublesome (he was later one of the many who were executed in Henry VIII's reign).

Indeed, Pursglove must have pleased the King, as he was chosen in preference to another candidate, Richard Langrigge, to be suffragan Bishop of Hull just 4 years later in 1538. A suffragan Bishop acts as assistant to the Bishop of the Diocese; the Act to allow suffragans had been passed only a year earlier, so again Pursglove was a pioneer - he was one of the first to be appointed by the King himself, being advised by Thomas Cromwell (no doubt) as to which candidates were “sound”.

Guisborough Priory[6] where Pursglove was Prior, was dissolved the following year; and Pursglove received a generous pension out of its dissolution - an income for life, as it was intended to be paid until death. Indeed, in his will he leaves:-

“all my half year's pension which was due unto me at the feast of the Annunciation last past out of the possessions of the late Monastereye of Gisborne (Guisborough) dissolved”
to his three great nieces Mary, Eleanor and Frances Eyre in Derbyshire (daughters of Thomas Eyre). After the dissolution of Guisborough Priory, he moved to what sounds like a rather splendid building in Hull, three stories high, which become known as the Bishop's palace. A letter from Thomas Johnson, a future Lord Mayor of Hull, describes it as:-
“...a grand building, which is one of much grace and beauty, called the Bishop's Palace. It is sighted at the South Walk of the Bishop's gate and High Street, and the approach is from Low Gate Street, by a long paved road with an archway at each end, with iron gateways. The road is bedecked with shrubs and trees as well as sweet smelling flowers... The mansion is three stories high... having 18 pointed windows in the front... Near the top of the house is a marble figure clutching a bible... below each window is a cluster of winged angels.” [7]

This would have been a building contemporary with Richmond Palace, Henry VIII's residence in London, but unlike Richmond, the Bishop's Palace in Hull no longer survives.

The picture therefore is of a rich and successful man - and perhaps at the same time, the ideal ‘Civil Servant’, or diplomat. In 1544 he became provost of Rotherham College; this post must have been less than arduous, as his only official duty was to preach twelve sermons a year in Rotherham parish Church! I'd like to think he spent his time there in contemplative research, or perhaps in educating his students, rather than in a slothful manner.

Alas however for Pursglove, the College was partially closed in 1548 by the Chantries' Commission in the second year of the reign of Edward VI. Pursglove was then stated to be aged 44, from which we may assume his projected year of birth, 1504, is correct.

Nevertheless Pursglove continued in his post as Bishop during Edward VI's reign (1547-53). In 1550 he took the oath renouncing the authority of the Pope, apparently putting his original Catholicism behind him; however he continued to serve as Bishop when Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic, became Queen, during which time he was appointed prebend of Southwell Cathedral - ever the perfect 'Civil Servant'!

However when Mary died, Elizabeth I came to the throne, opening the gates for protestants once again. In an attempt to impose order, she required her Bishops and clergy to swear their allegiance to her religion - the Oath of Supremacy - which decreed that the Queen was “Governor of things spiritual as well as temporal”. What Pursglove has become ‘famous’ for is for refusing to swear this oath, and there has been much speculation amongst scholars as to why. Perhaps he was tired of being required to believe first one thing, and then another; or else he may have found it difficult to take Elizabeth as seriously as he would someone his own generation. He would, presumably have known her as a child - one can imagine, perhaps the scenario - “don't get smart with me, young lady - think yourself Queen of England, eh?”

Alternatively, of course, at aged 55 or thereabouts he may have reached a time when he wanted to retire, and it was a convenient means of getting CER (“Compulsory Early Retirement”)! As indicated earlier, he already had a generous pension from Guisborough, and presumably could afford it, and to return to his roots, perhaps also hoping to lend support to his catholic friends and relatives back home in Derbyshire. The EYRE family into whom his sister Alice married, his mother's family the BRADSHAWs, and the FITZHERBERTs remained staunch Catholics throughout those troublesome years, and as a consequence, suffered for their beliefs during Elizabeth's reign, some imprisoned in the Tower, or beheaded, or otherwise put to death. One of the Padley Martyrs, Nicholas GARLICK, a Catholic, who trained as a priest at Rheims (France), and who was hung, drawn and quartered at Derby in 1588, had been one of Pursglove's associates. He sold Pursglove the land on which the Tideswell Grammar School was built; and at one time he was himself schoolmaster in Tideswell, of a free school, which predated Pursglove's own Grammar School.

There was apparently no personal rift between Pursglove and his Queen, as he did nevertheless obtain her permission to found his Grammar School in Tideswell in 1559, and a year later, he founded one at Guisborough.[8] Guisborough received a larger proportion of his charity than Tideswell, as only right and proper, perhaps, when his income was derived from Guisborough Abbey! He retired to Tideswell to live in 1564, where he is believed to have stayed for most of the rest of his life.

Bishop Pursglove died on 2nd May, according to his memorial brass in 1579, but his will is dated the last day of March 1580, and his burial is recorded in Chesterfield parish register on 4th May 1580 as having taken place at Tideswell - “Doctor Pursglove late Bishop of Hull”. His sister Alice had married Edward EYRE, a grandson of Robert EYRE and Joan, née PADLEY, and lived at Dunston, near Chesterfield, so perhaps he was staying with her when he died, or with her son Thomas (who was the executor of Pursglove's Will), as otherwise it is not clear why his burial would have been recorded at Chesterfield. At any rate, with two manuscripts pointing to his death taking place in 1580, it may be supposed that the date on the Brass is inaccurate.

Bishop Pursglove's Memorial Brass, in Tideswell Church, shows him in Bishop's regalia appropriate for his time as Bishop. The symbolism in his image has given rise to much speculation. Such vestments were exclusive to the Catholic priesthood, and their wearing had been expressly forbidden by the Queen, in her attempts to stamp out the Catholic faith. Was this a last indulgence for a dying man? Or was the brass prepared a long time prior to his death? Or perhaps in the sleepy little backwater that Tideswell must have been, his regalia remained a closely guarded secret from the world at large, and Elizabeth and her advisors would never have known of it. Alas, I fear we will never know!

There is a full transcription of the inscription on the Brass in “The Feudal History of the County of Derby” by John Pym Yeatman, Vol V, Chapter 13, pp 394-395. [q.v]

[1] GUNNELL, William A - Sketches of Hull Celebrities, 1876.
[2] Soc, or Soccage - ‘A tenure of lands and tenements by a certain or determinate service; a tenure distinct from chivalry or knight's service, in which the obligations were uncertain. The service must be certain, in order to be denominated socage, as to hold by fealty and twenty shillings rent’. [ www.hyperdictionary.com ]
[3] I wish I had the gift which so many writers of historical fiction have, to visualise the London of those days. I was particularly moved by descriptions in Barbara Hambly's book Those Who Hunt The Night, where she describes “an ancient London - a thick gagle of half-timbered houses, tiny churches, old stone monasteries near the river, and a dozen conflicting legal jurisdictions... with its cheap theatres, where Shakespeare was learning his trade as an actor and cobbler-up of plays, and taverns where men who sailed with Francis Drake could be found drinking to the health of the red-haired queen...” [p.70]
[4] ‘The Free Electric Band’, words and music by Albert Hammond, 1974.
[5] Foster, Joseph - Alumni Oxoniensis, The Members of the University of Oxford 1500-1714. Their parentage, birthplace and year of birth, with a record of their degrees.
[6] For further information about Guisborough Abbey, see the GENUKI pages for Yorkshire:
Guisborough History and GUISBOROUGH: Geographical and Historical information from the year 1890.
[7] Hulbert, Martin F H - Bishop Pursglove of Tideswell, published by The Parochial Church Council of Tideswell, ISBN 0 90523305 0 4. Copies are available for sale in Tideswell Church.
[8] Unlike the Grammar School in Tideswell, the school which Purslove founded in Guisborough still survives, now Prior Pursglove College. It celebrated its 450th Anniversary in February 2011. Bishop Pursglove would surely have been proud.

Information provided by Rosemary Lockie.

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