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Portrait of Richard Fox
Richard Fox (c.1448-1528)

RICHARD FOX (or Foxe), successively Bishop of Exeter, Bath and Wells, Durham, and Winchester, Lord Privy Seal, and founder of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was born about 1448 at Ropesley near Grantham, Lincolnshire. His parents belonged to the yeoman class, and there is some obscurity about Fox's early career. It is not known at what school he was educated, nor at what college, though the presumption is in favour of Magdalen, Oxford, whence he drew so many members of his subsequent foundation, Corpus Christi. He also appears to have studied at Cambridge, but nothing definite is known of the first thiry-five years of his career.

In 1484 he was in Paris, whether merely for the sake of learning or because he had rendered himself obnoxious to Richard III is a matter of speculation. At any rate he was brought into contact with the Earl of Richmond, who was then beginning his quest for the English throne, and was taken into his service. In January 1485 Richard intervened to prevent Fox's appointment to the vicarage of Stepney on the ground that he was keeping company with the "great rebel, Henry ap Tuddor." The important offices conferred on Fox immediately after the battle of Bosworth imply that he had already seen more extensive political service than can be traced in records. Doubtless Henry VII had every reason to reward his companions in exile, and to rule like Ferdinand of Aragon by means of lawyers and churchmen rather than trust nobles like those who had made the Wars of the Roses. But without an intimate knowledge of Fox's political experience and capacity he would hardly have made him his principal secretary, and soon afterwards Lord Privy Seal and Bishop of Exeter (1487).

The ecclesiastical preferment was merely intended to provide a salary not at Henry's expense; for Fox never saw either Exeter or the diocese of Bath and Wells to which he was translated in 1492. His activity was confined to political and especially diplomatic channels; so long as Archbishop Morton lived, Fox was his subordinate, but after the archbishop's death he was second to none in Henry's confidence, and he had an important share in all the diplomatic work of the reign. In 1487 he negotiated a treaty with James III of Scotland, in 1491 he baptized the future Henry VIII, in 1492 he helped to conclude the treaty of Etaples, and in 1497 he was chief commissioner in the negotiations for the famous commercial agreement with the Netherlands which Bacon seems to have been the first to call the Magnus Intercursus.

Meanwhile in 1494 Fox had been translated to Durham, not merely because it was a richer see than Bath and Wells but because of its political importance as a palatine earldom and its position with regard to the Borders and relations with Scotland. For these reasons rather than from any ecclesiastical scruples Fox visited and resided in his new diocese; and he occupied Norham Castle, which he fortified and defended against a Scottish raid in Perkin Warbeck
's interests (1497). But his energies were principally devoted to pacific purposes. In that same year he negotiated Perkin's retirement from the court of James IV, and in 1498-1499 he completed the negotiations for that treaty of marriage between the Scottish king and Henry's daughter Margaret which led ultimately to the union of the two crowns in 1603 and of the two kingdoms in 1707. The marriage itself did not take place until 1503, just a century before the accession of James I.

This consummated Fox's work in the north, and in 1501 he was once more translated to Winchester, then reputed the richest bishopric in England. In that year he brought to a conclusion marriage negotiations not less momentous in their ultimate results, when Prince Arthur was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon. His last diplomatic achievement in the reign of Henry VII was the betrothal of the king's younger daughter Mary to the future emperor Charles V. In 1500 he was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University, an office not confined to noble lords until a much more democratic age, and in 1507 master of Pembroke Hall in the same university. The Lady Margaret Beaufort made him one of her executors, and in this capacity as well as in that of chancellor, he had the chief share with Fisher in regulating the foundation of St John's College and the Lady Margaret professorships and readerships.

His financial work brought him a less enviable notoriety, though a curious freak of history has deprived him of the credit which is his due for "Morton's fork." The invention of that ingenious dilemma for extorting contributions from poor and rich alike is ascribed as a tradition to Morton by Bacon; but the story is told in greater detail of Fox by Erasmus, who says he had it from Sir Thomas More, a well-informed contemporary authority. It is in keeping with the somewhat malicious saying about Fox reported by Tyndale that he would sacrifice his father to save his king, which after all is not so damning as Wolsey's dying words.

The accession of Henry VIII made no immediate difference to Fox's position. If anything, the substitution of the careless pleasure-loving youth for Henry VII increased the power of his ministry, the personnel of which remained unaltered. The Venetian ambassador calls Fox "alter rex" and the Spanish ambassador Carroz says that Henry VIII trusted him more than any other adviser, although he also reports Henry's warning that the bishop of Winchester was, as his name implied, "a fox indeed." He was the chief of the ecclesiastical statesmen who belonged to the school of Morton, believed in frequent parliaments, and opposed the spirited foreign policy which laymen like Surrey are supposed to have advocated. His colleagues were Warham and Ruthal, but Warham and Fox differed on the question of Henry's marriage, Fox advising the completion of the match with Catherine while Warham expressed doubts as to its canonical validity. They also differed over the prerogatives of Canterbury with regard to probate and other questions of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Wolsey's rapid rise in 1511 put an end to Fox's influence. The pacific policy of the first two years of Henry VIII's reign was succeeded by an adventurous foreign policy directed mainly against France; and Fox complained that no one durst do anything in opposition to Wolsey's wishes. Gradually Warham and Fox retired from the government; the occasion of Fox's resignation of the Privy Seal was Wolsey's ill-advised attempt to drive Francis I out of Milan by financing an expedition led by the emperor Maximilian in 1516. Tunstall protested, Wolsey took Warham's place as chancellor, and Fox was succeeded by Ruthal, who, said the Venetian ambassador, "sang treble to Wolsey's bass." He bore Wolsey no ill-will, and warmly congratulated him two years later when warlike adventures were abandoned at the peace of London. But in 1522 when war was again declared he emphatically refused to bear any part of the responsibility, and in 1523 he opposed in convocation the financial demands which met with a more strenuous resistance in the House of Commons.

He now devoted himself assiduously to his long-neglected episcopal duties. He expressed himself as being as anxious for the reformation of the clergy as Simeon for the coming of the Messiah; but while he welcomed Wolsey's never-realized promises, he was too old to accomplish much himself in the way of remedying the clerical and especially the monastic depravity, licence and corruption he deplored. His sight failed during the last ten years of his life, and there is no reason to doubt Matthew Parker's story that Wolsey suggested his retirement from his bishopric on a pension. Fox replied with some warmth, and Wolsey had to wait until Fox's death before he could add Winchester to his archbishopric of York and his abbey of St Albans, and thus leave Durham vacant as he hoped for the illegitimate son on whom (aged 18) he had already conferred a deanery, four archdeaconries, five prebends and a chancellorship.

The crown of Fox's career was his foundation of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, which he established in 1515-1516. Originally he intended it as an Oxford house for the monks of St Swithin's, Winchester; but he is said to have been dissuaded by Bishop Oldham, who denounced the monks and foretold their fall. The scheme adopted breathed the spirit of the Renaissance; provision was made for the teaching of Greek, Erasmus lauded the institution and Cardinal Pole was one of its earliest fellows. The humanist Vives was brought from Italy to teach Latin, and the reader in theology was instructed to follow the Greek and Latin Fathers rather than the scholastic commentaries. Fox also built and endowed schools at Taunton and Grantham, and was a benefactor to numerous other institutions. He died at Wolvesey on the 5th of October 1528; Corpus possesses several portraits and other relics of its founder.

(A. F. Pollard)





      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XVII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 703.






Other Local Resources:




Books for further study:

Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and His Court.
           Ballantine Books, 2002.




Richard Fox on the Web:


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Images:

Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
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Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
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Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
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c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London




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