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Sir John Mason

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Sir John Mason

c.1503 – 1566

Biography

(see long history)

John Mason was an important patron of Abingdon in its transition from a property of the abbey to a chartered borough under its own mayor and corporation.

He was born about 1503 to a woman supposed to be a sister of Thomas Pentecost, the last Abbot of Abingdon. Nothing is known of his father, and there were always rumours that he was an illegitimate son of the abbot himself. Certainly, it was the abbot who saw to his education. Studies in Oxford, Paris, and at Valladolid in Spain prepared him for a successful career as a diplomat. He became a member of the group of humanist intellectuals around William Cecil, the future Lord Burleigh, although older than most of them; and his achievements included a knighthood and the chancellorship of Oxford University.

Although he was never resident in Abingdon, Mason maintained his connection to the town. He acquired a life interest in the site of the abbey after its dissolution, which he afterwards sold on. When the question of a town charter was first mooted in 1551, he opposed it, but seems afterwards to have relented. In 1553, it was he who persuaded the Privy Council, of which he was by then a member, to permit the setting up of Christ’s Hospital to replace the old Holy Cross Fraternity that had been dissolved, and to grant it a charter and adequate sources of income. He was the first Master of the Hospital, and gave it its first set of rules. He must have been involved in the grant of Abingdon’s first charter as a borough, although no details of his role have come down to us, and he certainly nominated its first Member of Parliament.

Mason died in 1566, having served four Tudor monarchs, become reasonably but not excessively rich, and earned the thanks of his native town.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2013

(see short history)

Probably no other native of Abingdon has ever climbed as high up the political pole as John Mason, and since that pole in his time was perhaps more greasy than in most, the fact that he died of natural causes is evidence of a significant achievement.

His origins are remarkably cloudy. He was born about 1503. There is general agreement that his mother was the sister of a monk of Abingdon Abbey, but nothing is known of a Mr Mason beyond a vague statement that he was a cowherd. The mother would have a second family with the surname Weekes. The last abbot, Thomas Rowland or Pentecost, saw to his education. There were certainly rumours after the Dissolution that the abbot had lived in incest with his sisters and had fathered children with them.[1] The coat of arms that Mason eventually acquired is unusually uninformative on his genealogy. Whatever the truth, it is now unlikely to emerge.

The Tudor political world that Mason entered was volatile and dangerous, and required finely honed survival skills. His first patron was Henry VIII’s chancellor, Sir Thomas More, who recognised his potential as a diplomat and sent him abroad to learn languages. More fell from power and was executed in 1535, but Mason moved easily into the ambit of his supplanter, Thomas Cromwell.

What followed would be the formative period of his career. He was sent to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor as secretary to the ambassador, Sir Thomas Wyatt (now remembered chiefly as a major English poet of his age).[2] The two became close friends, with Wyatt increasingly dependent on Mason’s judgement and advice. As secretary, Mason could have contacts with individuals with whom the ambassador could not be seen; among these was the English renegade Reginald Pole, now a cardinal and by his Yorkist ancestry a likely candidate for the English throne if the Catholic powers were to succeed in overthrowing Henry VIII.[3] Wyatt’s factional enemies used these contacts to intrigue against him.[4] On a routine trip back to England in 1538, Mason was arrested. The letters he was carrying provided apparent evidence of treasonous collusion with Pole, but with Cromwell’s help he managed to clear himself and his superior of the allegations against them.[5]

Cromwell went to the block in his turn in 1540. Henry’s paranoia now had free rein, and his diplomats, operating outside his immediate control, were targets of suspicion. Several were arrested and one, Richard Pate, defected sensationally to Rome, appearing to confirm the king’s fears.[6] In January 1541, Wyatt, in London, was marched to the Tower, and Mason, who had been on his way to a new assignment in Spain, was brought back to join him there. Mason’s wife and servants were also arrested and his papers impounded and searched.[7] The old allegations of collusion with Pole were revived. They were not without substance. Few at the time risked putting their religious and political views clearly on paper, but what hints exist suggest that both Wyatt and Mason were close in both respects to the opinions that were now upheld by Pole: they accepted at least some of Luther’s doctrinal innovations, but privately denied Henry’s right to break with Rome.[8] 

The expectation was that Mason would agree to save his own skin by incriminating his friend. To his credit, he did not. However, no trial took place. Somehow, Henry’s new teenaged queen, Katherine Howard, was prevailed upon to intercede with her besotted husband. Wyatt was restored to royal favour and his confiscated property returned. He showed his gratitude by leasing to Mason and his wife a London house next to his own, for a rent of five artichokes a year.[9]

Mason’s career continued. In September 1551 he was promoted to the clerkship of the Privy Council.[10] He now became an associate and friend of the influential secretary of the council, William Paget, and shared with him the lucrative office of Master of the Posts, responsible for the government’s postal and courier services. In 1550, as French Secretary to the council, he was one of the commissioners negotiating a peace with France, and was afterwards named ambassador to that country.[11]

Mason had been knighted at the accession of the boy-king Edward VI in 1547, and in 1550, to add to his weight in diplomatic negotiations, he was made a member of the Privy Council in his own right. This was the arena where factional conflicts were played out, and he was now in a position of real power. He played a part in the downfall of the regent, Protector Somerset, earning the favour of his successor, the Duke of Northumberland. His opposition to Somerset was principled. Somerset had repealed Henry VIII’s ‘Act of Words’ whereby any questioning of government policy, even over a drink in an alehouse, could lead to a charge of treason and a death sentence. In spite of his personal experiences, Mason thought such a law essential for maintaining political stability.[12] Also, Somerset’s prescription for fighting inflation was strict control of prices. Mason predicted that if this worked at all it could only lead to dearth as producers kept food and goods off the market.[13] In this, at least, he was proved right.

When Edward VI died in 1553, there was a struggle for supremacy between Northumberland and the Princess Mary. Northumberland sent Mason to negotiate with Mary, but he quickly deserted to her camp. She became queen; Northumberland, his son, and the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey all finished on the scaffold. Mary made Mason comptroller of her household, a post in which he continued under Elizabeth. Throughout the period, he was frequently abroad on diplomatic embassies. He died in 1566.[14]

Mason was never resident in Abingdon, but maintained his links with it. By the early 1550s, he had acquired a rent-free life tenancy of the Abbey site and described himself as the steward of the town.[15] He paid spies to keep him abreast of opinion and events. When a demonstration was planned in support of Somerset, he had the organisers arrested and sent to London to meet a fate of which no record survives.[16] In early 1551, abroad on an embassy, he wrote to the Privy Council to oppose an attempt to get a charter of incorporation for Abingdon:

‘I am advertised that the town of Abingdon sueth unto your Lordships for a corporation and for the farm also of the house and domain of the late Abbey whereof during my time I have the keeping and am steward of the town wherein I was also born.  … I beseech your Lordships so to pass the thing as respect may be had to the continuation of my poor interest.’[17]

In other words, he feared that a charter would deprive him of his rights in the Abbey site. The Privy Council seems to have sympathised, and the application was shelved.

Two years later, after a further diplomatic absence abroad, he began to work seriously on behalf of Abingdon. The first priority was to find some way of filling the void left by the abolition of the Holy Cross guild and the expropriation by the government of its funds and properties. At a meeting on 1 March 1553, he got the Privy Council to agree that the Abingdon rents that had been intended for maintenance of the bridges and the local charities should never have been impounded ‘upon coullor that the same were within the compasse of th’act of chauntries’. It was certainly the case that the act for the dissolution of the guilds had specified that only funds used for purposes connected with the old Catholic religion should be taken over, but that proviso had been universally ignored.[18] Now the Abingdon rents were to be restored to the townsmen.[19] Letters patent issued on 18 May 1553 set up the charity of Christ’s Hospital to take on the non-religious functions of the dissolved fraternity.[20]

Legal possession of the charity’s endowment was initially given to Mason and Roger Amyce together on behalf of the townsmen.[21]  Amyce was the official who had been responsible to the Crown for the properties being handed over. He had established their value and ensured that it would be sufficient to meet the charity’s needs.[22] The decision of the Privy Council meant that they were given outright, free of encumbrances. Mason had justified his earlier conduct by getting a more advantageous deal for the town than it could reasonably have hoped for.

Mason would serve Christ’s Hospital until his death as its first Master, and would draw up its first set of rules.[23] By 1556, he had sold on his financial interest in the Abbey site, and had no further reason to oppose the grant to Abingdon of a charter of incorporation. He must have played an important part in the negotiations that preceded this, but no records have survived.

In spite of his doubtful origins, Mason enjoyed a successful career, which he owed to a fortunate combination of intellectual and social skills. He frequented the humanist circles that were a feature of the intellectual life of the time, notably that around William Cecil, the future Lord Burleigh. A diplomat and negotiator to his finger tips, his conversation was always witty and pleasing, although rarely exposing his true opinions; his motto was said to be ‘Do, and say nothing’. He knew when to surrender gracefully, as when he had to relinquish his chancellorship of the University of Oxford first, under Mary, to Cardinal Pole and later, having recovered it under Elizabeth, to the Earl of Leicester. He feathered his nest as was appropriate, but was not so shamelessly avaricious as a Lord Williams or a Sir Richard Rich. He was competent and honest in financial matters, or he would not have retained his household function under Mary into Elizabeth’s reign. The sound strategic sense evident in his diplomatic dispatches, and his linguistic abilities, made him all but indispensable in matters of foreign policy. And, most important of all, he never showed any ambition to rise to the top echelon of government, challenging those already there and staking his head on a throw of the political dice. The Tudor political world was not one for tender consciences, but Mason was among the less unsavoury members of the ruling élite of his day.

The picture of Mason that hangs in the hall of the Long Alley almshouse was painted, almost certainly by Sampson Strong, some forty years after his death. It was probably a copy of an existing portrait.

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2014

 

[1] British Library, Richards Collection, Ms Add 28666 Vol 7 Fo 17.

[2] The English fear was that the Emperor, Charles V, might make peace with Francis I of France on the basis of a joint invasion to unseat Henry VIII and reverse his religious innovations. Wyatt’s job was to give early warning of any such rapprochement and try to prevent it.

[3] Susan Brigden, Thomas Wyatt; the heart’s forest (Oxford, 2012), pp. 319-331.

[4] Brigden, Wyatt, p. 382.

[5] Brigden, Wyatt, p. 399.

[6] Brigden, Wyatt, p. 531

[7] Brigden, Wyatt, p. 531-4.

[8] Brigden, Wyatt, pp. 464-5 and passim;  Eamon Duffy, Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition (London, 2012), p. 180

[9] Brigden, Wyatt, pp. 535, 545-50.

[10]  Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 16: 1540-1541 (1898), pp. 560-577. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=76259 Date accessed: 29 September 2014. Item 1211.

[11] Samuel Rhea Gammon, Statesman and Schemer: William Paget (Newton Abbot, 1973), pp. 59, 80, 169 and passim.

[12]   Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Mary, p. 119, (18 Sept 1554).

[13]  P F Tytler, England under the Reigns of Edward VI and Mary Vol I (1839), p. 341.

[14]  P R N Carter, ‘Mason, Sir John (c.1503–1566)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18278, accessed 18 May 2013]; T F T Baker, ‘Sir John Mason’ in S T Bindoff (ed), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, Vol II, (1982), pp.  582-3; Alan Harding, ‘Sir John Mason’ in P W Hasler (ed), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603 (1981), pp. 28-9; D G E Hurd, Sir John Mason, 1503–1566 (Abingdon, 1975).

[15]  The National Archives, Amyce Survey. LR 2/187/211.

[16]  Acts of the Privy Council, 1550-1552, pp. 421, 423, 443.

[17]  Tytler, England under the Reigns of Edward VI and Mary, I,  pp. 361-2.

[18]  J R Tanner, Tudor Constitutional Documents 1485-1603 (Cambridge, 1951), p. 103.

[19]  Acts of the Privy Council, 1552-1554, pp. 226-7

[20]  Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1553, pp. 142-3.

[21]  The National Archives, Particulars for grants, E 318/31/1776

[22]  Roger Amyce would later claim that setting up Christ’s Hospital had been his idea. Berks Record Office, Letter, Amyce to Governors of Christ’s Hospital, 12 Dec 1566, D/EP7 94.

[23]  Christ’s Hospital, Abingdon, Minute Book I, fos 8-12.

 

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