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The Rotherham Man who ruled England

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Before leaving the early history of the district around Sheffield, a glance must be given at the man who has a better right to be called a great man than any one ever born within twenty miles of the Parish Church. Had he lived in times of peace we should have heard more about him; but he lived during the fierce Wars of the Roses, and so we only know his history incompletely, though, as the leading statesman advising an English king, he was, for a time, in a similar position to the Prime Minister of to-day, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Lord Chancellor, all in one. He was not born in Sheffield, but in Rotherham, and his name is sometimes given as Thomas Scott and sometimes as Thomas Rotherham.

Rotherham, from the earliest times till the days of railways, had some clear advantages over Sheffield. It lay more directly on the line of travel between the north and the south, and for centuries, probably, was more of a town than Sheffield, which in those days was a little way off the main route, in the side valley of the Don among the hills. The valley of the Rother was the natural way southward, and indeed was used for the first main railway line to the south made in this neighbourhood. Though Rotherham is in the midst of Hallamshire, it has always kept a position of its own, and has prided itself on its independent history.

In the days of the Roman occupation it so closely adjoined the camp at Templeborough that the two places were practically one. In Saxon times there was a church there, long before Sheffield, as far as we know, had any arrangements for religious worship. From the earliest days when metals were worked it must have been important, for Kimberworth, close by, was the chief place in the district for the procuring of iron ores. As far back as the time of Edward the Confessor, it was an organized business centre with a market. After the Norman Conquest it was owned by the Earl of Moreton, who was the uncle of the Countess Judith of Hallam, Waltheof's Norman wife.

In the reign of Henry III it had passed to John de Vesci, who made over the manorial and market rights to the monks of Rufford Abbey in Sherwood Forest, and for two-and-a-half centuries they had the right of appointing the vicar to the Norman church which had been built on the old Saxon foundation.

When a poll tax - so much per head of the population - was levied in the year 1379, Rotherham was almost as important a place as Sheffield, for it had a population of 535, compared with 792 in Sheffield, and 238 paid the tax, compared with 354 in Sheffield, but the Rotherham inhabitants were so much wealthier, on the whole, than the people of Sheffield, that their total contribution amounted to 5 16s. 8d., compared with 6 2s. 2d. from Sheffield. Doncaster was then more important than either, for it contributed 11 13s. 6d.

Again, at a much later date (1563), when George, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, who was now the great landowner in Rotherham as well as in Sheffield, demanded gifts or "benevolences" to be bestowed on his daughter Catherine, who was marrying the Earl of Pembroke, Sheffield and Sheffield Park paid 30 12s. 2d., and Rotherham paid 26 5s. 4d. These facts show that, although Sheffield was the place where the chief family of the district lived, Rotherham was holding its own by comparison, and remained of much local importance.

Indeed, if we judge the past by what we now regard as important, that is, by the advantages offered to the great mass of the people rather than by the wealth and pomp of a few, then Rotherham led the way towards better things, in some respects, long before Sheffield started; and the pioneer was Thomas Rotherham, otherwise Thomas Scott, whose life we will now trace.

Why this great man called himself, and was called, both Scott and Rotherham has never been explained satisfactorily. He was of the family of the Scotts of Ecclesfield, but was born at Rotherham on August 24, 1423. There he was well educated by a master whom he describes as "a teacher of grammar," and he remained grateful and loyal to Rotherham throughout his life. He seems to have had some early association with Oxford University, to which he was a great benefactor later; but he was a student at King's College, Cambridge when he was twenty-one, and afterwards, apparently, a Fellow of the College. Later he had the degree of Doctor of Divinity both from Oxford and Cambridge. He seems to have had a college living bestowed on him when he was thirty-four years old.

Four years later he became chaplain to the Earl of Oxford, and it is thought that in that capacity he made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Woodville, of Groby in Leicestershire, who was married to the King, Edward IV. Rotherham's advancement was now rapid. At the age of forty-four he was Archdeacon of Canterbury, and then, in seven years, he became, successively, Keeper of the Privy Seal, Bishop of Rochester, Bishop of Lincoln, and, in 1474, Lord High Chancellor of England. Twice he was sent abroad as the King's ambassador; and in 1475 he went to France with the King, and so wisely helped to make peace between Edward and Louis XI that the French King gave him a handsome pension - a clear proof that he saw how much influence Rotherham exercised at the English Court. His management of money matters in England was so wise that he helped Edward IV to retain his popularity in days when taxation was generally the rock on which kings were wrecked. In 1480 Thomas Rotherham was created Archbishop of York.

On the death of Edward IV, Archbishop Rotherham remained faithful to his friend and Queen, and did his best to protect her children - the twelve-year-old King, Edward V, and his brother the Duke of York, with their sister Elizabeth. He is represented in Shakespeare's Richard III as giving the great seal of the kingdom to the Queen-Mother to keep when she fled to sanctuary at Westminster for safety. Because of this he was imprisoned, and was still shut up when the two young princes were smothered in the Tower by the order of their rascally uncle, who became King as Richard III. The Archbishop was afterwards released, and went to York to the work of his diocese, giving up public affairs. Even when Richard III was killed at Bosworth Field, and Henry VII united the two roses by marrying Elizabeth, the sister of the murdered princes, and daughter of the Archbishop's friend, the former Queen, the good man seems to have felt that he had had his full share of the duties and dangers of government, and so was content with his religious work. He only appeared now and then at Court for minor duties, without taking a leading part.

But it was not the work of Archbishop Rotherham in the King's service that gives him his greatest fame, though that work was so well done that all the opinions about it that have been preserved are favourable. It was his labours on behalf of education, in an age when rude strength was most admired and education little understood, that have preserved his name in honour. Nearly all men believe in education now; but he believed in it when few others in England understood it. Erasmus and John Colet are the two men who are generally praised as the great revivers of education in England through Grammar Schools and the Universities, but they began their work about the time when Rotherham was ending his life, and had completed his labours. Let us see what he did.

He found education flagging at Lincoln College, Oxford, when he was Bishop of Lincoln, and he built the south side of the quadrangle, and so handsomely re-endowed the college that he has been called its second founder, and his portrait hangs in the College Hall to this day. He also completed the building of the Schools at Cambridge, where he was Master of Pembroke Hall, and five times was chosen Chancellor of the University. When he was thrown into prison by Richard III, the University valued his life so highly that they petitioned for his release - an honourable act, seeing that Universities more than once have been timid and slavish flatterers of kings.

The Archbishop's interest in education was shown in the town of his birth as well as in the University towns. At Rotherham he established, in 1480, a college which he called the College of Jesus, and provided means for its maintenance. About the same time he helped to rebuild the fine Parish Church, one of the most striking of its kind in the North of England. The school and the church were so closely linked that they formed a twin institution, the clergy being the teachers in the college.

Five priests had been attached to the church, but the Archbishop did not regard their lives and work as satisfactory. He arranged, therefore, that there should be at the head of the college a Provost, who must be a Bachelor in Divinity of Oxford, and must preach in Rotherham and the neighbourhood. Under him, and living in the college, were three Fellows, one of whom must teach Latin, grammar, poetry, and rhetoric; another music, and especially singing; and a third writing and arithmetic to boys who were engaged in handicrafts and were not seeking to become priests or to devote their lives to learning. These, and all other scholars, were to be taught free. Six youths, chosen from Rotherham and Ecclesfield, were to receive teaching and maintenance, and serve as choristers; "for," said the Archbishop, "there resort to the church many rough mountain men, who may be induced to love Christianity more and to visit the church more frequently if the services are skilfully performed." The reason he gave (in his will) for teaching writing and arithmetic to boys learning a trade was that "among the people of the neighbourhood there be many that be exceedingly sharp-witted." The college stood on about two acres of ground, and, according to Leland's description, was "sumptuously builded of brick."

Here then we see, before Tudor times and the seizing of the monastery lands, a genuine attempt by this greatest of the sons of Rotherham to make the religious men of his day really useful, and to establish an education suitable for all, from which no one would be shut out by poverty. So good was the reputation gained by the college that, when, later, in the reign of Edward VI, the endowments of many schools were seized, this was one of the schools that were ordered to be continued. Much of the land set apart for the support of the school was, however, given away afterwards and passed into private hands, but some of it is still contributing to the Rotherham Grammar School that was founded at a later date.

Thomas Rotherham died near York in the year 1500, and is buried in York Minster, where there is a memorial to him that has been restored by Lincoln College, Oxford. In every department of his varied life he made his mark honourably, as one of the greatest, perhaps truly the greatest man of his age, and his fame should be for ever kept alive in Rotherham and throughout all Hallamshire.

As a statesman and adviser of his King, he was a lover of peace and justice. As a Lord Chancellor, the writer of the Lives of the Lord Chancellors, Lord Campbell, says he was "the greatest equity lawyer of his age." As an educator he was a pioneer, helping to bring education to all, centuries before his countrymen generally saw the need of it. As a religious teacher he was pious and forbearing. As a friend he was brave and faithful. Living, he adorned each office that he held, and dying, he left a will to carry on his work that has been described as "the most noble and striking will of any mediaeval English Bishop." His spirit is more nearly the spirit of the best men of modern times than that of any man who comes from the far-off past into this Story of Sheffield and its neighbourhood.

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