Sir William Harpur and Dame Alice Harpur

Sir William Harpur and Dame Alice Harpur lived in the 16th century, and Sir William became Lord Mayor of London. In 1566, he created the original endowment to establish a boys' school in the town of Bedford. Bedford High School for girls was opened in 1882 and there are now four Harpur Trust Schools.Harpur's munificence places the development of education in Bedford outside the mainstream of national educational history.

The following is an extract from the book "The Harpur Trust 1552-1973" by Joyce Godber ISBN 0 95-2917 0 6.


Before 1166 there was a school in Bedford. It was connected with the canons of St. Paul's church, and the Archdeacon made it his especial care. About 1166 the canons moved outside Bedford to Newnham, where Simon de Beauchamp of Bedford castle built them a priory. By 1180 the Archdeacon decided to resign to the priory oversight of the school. Probably the school remained in Bedford; whereabouts is not known at this date; however the town was then very small, huddled round castle and bridge. In 1224 the boys must have seen exciting days, when a rebel secured the castle and the king came to besiege it, and finally ordered it to be pulled down, so that the Beauchamps had to construct a house on the site. The last Beauchamp, a likely young man, was killed at Evesham in 1265, when the property went to his sisters.


About the time of the first known mention of Bedford school there was living at Southill some miles to the south-east a modest family of the name of Harper, one of them a William. Two were benefactors of Warden Abbey nearby. Gradually the family moved north-westward to Ickwell, Cople and Renhold; and about 1500 a William is found at Bedford and other Harpers at Biddenham. They were still of modest status: the Biddenham ones were husbandmen. William of Bedford however was of sufficient standing to be churchwarden of St. Paul's church in 1510. He also acted as bailiff for Warden Abbey's property in Bedford. The Bedford property was not extensive: a few houses and four acres. In 1509 as bailiff he had to bring a case at Bedford court of pleas for arrears of rent. Though at this date the spelling of names varied, Harper seems the normal form; but as the form Harpur has become entrenched since 1764 it will be used henceforward.


It seems likely that, about the time Henry VIII came to the throne, young William Harpur attended the school in what is now Mill Street, then School Lane. Later he went to London. It may be that he was apprenticed to a tailor, but there is no certainty about this; nor is there evidence of his connection with any other trade. If he was so apprenticed, in those days of gorgeous dress, the qualities required would be manual dexterity, and (for high class trade) artistic skill in the manipulation of colours and materials - silk, velvet, jewels and gold thread. To be able to judge men and to interpret their wishes would be an advantage, when everything was individually made and dress expressed the wearer's personality; and this in the capital in an age of vitality and national confidence. But whatever Harpur's original trade, he must have shown business sense and the capacity to organise; and it is almost certain that he developed wide business interests, probably like those of his friend and contemporary Sir Thomas White, who traded in cloth, and made loans to Coventry and Bristol. The Taylors' Company's new charter in 1502 made them Merchant Taylors and allowed them to admit other persons. Harpur was admitted in 1533.

The livery companies had grown up to supersede the older craft gilds. They consisted originally of the richer members, i.e., those who could afford to wear the livery; while the smaller members of the trade set up yeomanry or bachelor gilds. They had an annual feast and chose master and wardens; these rights were confirmed to the Taylors in 1299. By 1371 they were making ordinances to regulate the trade. As a fraternity dedicated to St. John the Baptist they had a religious side, and had a special mass at his festival. The medieval crypt under their former chapel still exists, though their hall has been twice burnt in 1666 and 1940. At least from 1502 their connection with tailoring lessened. Harpur, after his admission in 1533, held the various grades of office, and in 1553 became master. The Merchant Taylors came seventh in order of precedence among the twelve great livery companies. Meanwhile on 18 November 1547 he had married (somewhat late, being then over so), a widow, Alice Chauntrell. The later association of Alice with Harpur in his deed of gift to Bedford has a legal explanation in that her right of dower would be involved, but she may also have shared his interests. Possibly she brought him an accession of income, but by this time his fortune would appear to have been made.

Harpur would come in contact with the leading London citizens of his day. In 1553 he became alderman for the ward of Bridge Without, chosen by the other aldermen. This was a new ward without electors, created in 1550, to which apparently less prestige attached; so when in i556 there was a vacancy in the older ward of Dowgate, Harpur was elected alderman for this ward in preference to three other candidates, one of whom was Thomas Gresham. He served a year as treasurer of St. Bartholomew's Hospital (after the dissolution of the monasteries aldermen were appointed as governors to the royal hospitals). He was sheriff 1556-7.

Harpur must above all have been a man who learnt from life, from other men and from events. When he went to Merchant Taylors' Hall (appropriately enough in Threadneedle Street) he would see on the opposite side of the road St. Anthony's school, once attended by Sir Thomas More. Perhaps he knew that some years ago a schoolmaster had rented the Taylors' Hall for a school. Other members of his company were interested in education, such as Sir Stephen Jenyns who in i5o8 had endowed a school at Wolverhampton, and Sir Thomas White who in 1555 founded St. John's College, Oxford; and more particularly Richard Hilles whose radical religious views made it expedient for him to go abroad for a few years.

These were unsettled times in religious matters. In 1535, when he was approaching the age of 40, Harpur would have heard that, like monasteries elsewhere, Newnham Priory had been closed, the canons pensioned off; and the property confiscated. When he visited Bedford again he would find the priory site desolate, with much of the stone carried away and what was left was before long converted to a house; while at Warden Abbey, which he may have visited in earlier years with his father, the site was leased and a fine brick house in process of building. At Bedford it would seem that he found the school still existing, probably under an aged master; but it was clearly at risk, like similar schools elsewhere; for the building was up for sale with a number of other ex-monastic properties.

And now Harpur seems to have got in touch with John Williams alias Scott, perhaps once his schoolfellow in School Lane. Williams in '545 obtained a large grant of former monastic property, and with it the schoolhouse in School Lane; and probably Harpur and Williams talked the matter over. Williams gave the schoolhouse a new door (one that he had come by cheaply when the church of St. Peter Dunstable was pulled down), but did not want the responsibility of the school. Perhaps it was now that the old schoolmaster died. At all events, in 1548 Edmund Green came from New College, Oxford, to teach at Bedford. Probably Harpur arranged this and paid his stipend. But at this stage he did not commit himself further. The boy king Edward VI was delicate, and it might well be that the old ways would return if his elder sister, Mary, with quite other views, succeeded.

If indeed it was Harpur who arranged the coming of Edmund Green and in view of later events no other explanation seems tenable - he must already have given a good deal of thought to the school and to its possible future, should he endow it. When he went back to Bedford on a visit, he must have been aware that he had far out-distanced the lads with whom he used to play, though probably he courteously concealed this awareness. He could not have felt happy about leaving the school entirely to the corporation's care.

He would know of recent foundations like that of St. Paul's by Dean Colet in 1509. As a knowledgeable man of affairs, who probably numbered among his associates nobility and men of education, he would be aware of the high reputation of Winchester, which indeed on its foundation by Bishop Wykeham in 1382 marked a new era in education and was the model for the later royal foundation at Eton. Perhaps he knew that one of the earliest printed school textbooks, Vulgaria, 1519was compiled byJohn Stanbridge of Winchester and New College, and headmaster of Winchester. William Warham (d.1532), who was Archbishop of Canterbury when Harpur first came to London, had been educated at Winchester and New College. Scholars of Winchester normally proceeded to William of Wykeham's other princely foundation, that of New College, Oxford, where indeed after two years' probation they became Fellows. It was likely that, if New College appointed the master at Bedford, it would often happen that this master had been educated at Winchester. Thus Bedford would be in touch with one of the best, if not the best of the models. Further, Bedford corporation already had a link with Oxford, in that its customs were based on those of Oxford; and in fact in i556 the corporation addressed to Oxford some queries on doubtful points.

Edmund Green came from Hounslow in Middlesex and was a Fellow of New College 1542-8. There was in the village of Biddenham near Bedford a family of Green who were apparently Harpur's relatives; it is conceivable that they were connected with the Greens of Hounslow; but Green is a common name, and this is conjecture.

The coming of Edmund Green to Bedford was in the reign of Edward VI, and it was in this period that religious gilds and fraternities were suppressed. Land in St. Paul's Square which had belonged to the Trinity gild seems to have been secured by Williams, and to have been bought by Harpur from him for a school site. Here Harpur erected a sizeable building, with a large room below, and another above where the usher might lodge; for to do the thing handsomely there must be an usher or assistant to help the master. The first usher was Robert Elbone. Beside the school Harpur also built a house for the master, Green. Though these buildings preceded the endowment, it was not unusual then or later for a benefactor to administer a project himself during his life, and only in old age to make provision for what should happen subsequently. Besides, though Harpur was now in late middle age, it was conceivable that he and his wife Alice might yet have a son.

Williams was mayor in 1551, and prepared the way for endowment, almost certainly in full consultation with Harpur. In 1552 the corporation obtained from Edward VI letters patent authorising them to accept an endowment for a free and perpetual grammar school for the education, institution and instruction of boys and youths in grammar, literature and good manners. Instruction in grammar meant in Latin and Greek grammar. Latin was still the almost universal language of learning and of business. Though the Bible had recently been translated into English, and the first and second prayerbooks appeared respectively in 1549 and 1552, works of learning or literature in English were so few that education in English would have been impracticable. The great change, speeded up by printing, that was to come in the use of English for all purposes was largely ahead. Greek had at this time almost the excitement of a new discovery. The fact that the school was called "free" did not mean that there was necessarily no payment for scholars; they did in fact, at least later, pay a few pence; but as building and teaching staff were provided, the sums were minimal. The letters patent authorised the Warden and Fellows of New College to appoint master and usher.

Should there be a balance left over from the school, it was to be used for marry-

mg poor maidens, nourishing and educating poor boys, and for alms. The whole coincides with Harpur's later deed of gift.

Then came the reign of Queen Mary, 1553-8, and reversion to older practice in religion. Where Harpur stood is not entirely clear. While some men on either side at an early date took up hard and fast positions, there were many who hesitated and who thought that these were temporary troubles which would subside. From the fact that Harpur's two decisive steps were taken respectively in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, one might hazard a guess that, though he was not doctrinaire, he inclined towards that body of opinion which was to form the Anglican church. However, in Mary's reign, when the Merchant Taylors again had their corporate mass on the festival of St. John the Baptist, he attended with the others He may well have had a kindly feeling for the Newnham canons and the Warden monks whom he would remember from his boyhood. Perhaps in 1556when his predecessor as sheriff of London had to preside at the burning of 13 Protestants, he was relieved that his term of office did not begin till Michaelmas.

Queen Mary's brief reign passed. It was the turn of the young Queen Elizabeth I, generally beloved; could it be that things were now settling down? Now came the zenith of Harpur's career. In 1561 he was Lord Mayor of London. The Lord Mayor's show represented harpers in history and legend. "The new mayor took his barge towards Westminster, my new lord mayor, Master Harper, with the aldermen in their scarlet, and all the crafts of London in their livery and their barges. . . and landed at Paul's wharf and so to Paul's churchyard, and there met them a pageant gorgeously made with children with divers instruments playing and singing, in the midst David with his story about him, on the right side Orpheus with his story." In February 1562 he was knighted by the queen.

One or two light-hearted glimpses of his mayoralty are given by a contemporary. One is of the revival of that medieval method of merrymaking by appointing a lord of misrule after Christmas. On 26 December there "came riding through London a lord of misrule, in clean complete harness (armour), gilt, with a hundred great horse and gentlemen riding gorgeously with chains of gold, and their horses goodly trapped, unto the Temple, for there was great cheer all Christmas. . . and great revels"; and again on 12 January, when Harpur and the aldermen "went to Paul's, and all the crafts in London in their livery . . . and after came into Cheapside a lord of misrule from Whitechapel with a great company".

Another such glimpse is in September 1562 when, after an inspection of the conduit heads of London's water supply, "after dinner they hunted the fox, and there was a goodly cry for a mile, and after the hounds killed the fox at the end of S. Giles', and there was a great cry at the death, and so rode through London my Lord Mayor Harper with all his company home to his place in Lombard Street".

This house in Lombard Street, said to be the largest and stateliest in the city, had been left to the Merchant Taylors' Company by a former Lord Mayor, for leasing to members. It was conveniently near the Guildhall and the Merchant Taylors' Hall.

However, there were also serious times during his mayoralty. On 12 May a disturbance caused the constables to send for the lord mayor and the sheriffs, "and they had ado to pacify the people, and divers were hurt, and certain carried to Newgate". Harpur ordered some constables to stand armed on duty all night "to see who would be so bold to come... and my lord mayor and the sheriffs did walk about Smithfield to see whether any would make any assault". This showed resolution for a man of 65. And the city in July was ordered by the Queen to provide soldiers for service in Normandy. This was done through the companies, and on 25 July Harpur had ready for service the Merchant Taylors' complement of 35 armed men, including 17 pikemen with corselet, pike, sword, dagger and cloak.

It was while Harpur was Lord Mayor that the Merchant Taylors' School was founded on the urgency of his contemporary, Richard Hilles, master of the company in that year. A site was available for £565; Hilles contributed £500 towards this; and the masters' salaries were to be a charge on the common box or funds. This foundation was a notable instance of cooperation; for Hilles and White were of differing views in church matters, yet White arranged a connection from the school to his college at Oxford (St. John's). Statutes, modelled on those of Colet for St. Paul's School, were adopted 24 September i56i by thirteen members of the court of assistants (i.e. committee or council) of the company, and second among the recorded names of those present is that of Harpur.s As Lord Mayor he, with Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London, held the first visitation of the school on 21 August 1562. Incidentally, once at least on 19 March 1563 the members paid a surprise visit to the school "this present afternoon to see if the scholars are there or no".

Now Harpur arranged Bedford's endowment. He bought on 30 September 1564 for £180 13 acres and 3 roods of meadow outside the city at Holborn. It was ex-monastic land and had formerly belonged to Charterhouse, but had passed through several hands before he acquired it. Country land was cheaper to buy; yet if not too far from London there was a chance that it would grow in value; this was the kind of thing one or two London contemporaries were doing in the same neighbourhood; Sir Andrew Judd of the Skinners' Company had already done it for Tonbridge; and Laurence Sheriff of the Grocers' Company was about to do so for Rugby. On 22 April 1566 he and Dame Alice conveyed the purchase to Bedford corporation on terms similar to those in the letters patent.

Harpur's purchase was not in one compact block but in four separate parcels, only two of which adjoined for a short distance. The two larger blocks (7 a. 1 r. 20 p. and 3 a. 3 r.) were in Lyon Field, slightly to the north of the road running through Holborn village, along which road stood a few houses with their gardens or crofts. These houses had also belonged to Charterhouse, but since had come to various owners. The two smaller blocks of land (1 a. 2 r. and 1 a. 0 r. 20 p.) were further to the north in Little Conduit shot. There was also a right of way from Holborn. Interspersed among Harpur's four plots were four plots belonging to a certain Micklow.

Harpur continued his active life till he was over 70. In 1565 he was a contributor to the purchase of a site for Gresham's Exchange. The Merchant Taylors' minutes usually record his attendance among the first three names, other two being Sir Thomas White and Sir Thomas Offley (Offley had been one of the first pupils at St. Paul's School). White and Harpur seem to have been old friends, for when White died in i566 he left to both Harpur and Dame Alice black hats and gowns. There appears to be in the minutes at this date nothing relating to tailoring; but there is administration of property, purchase of armour, admissions to the school, and often financial transactions in connection with the corporation of London, especially in connection with corn in times of scarcity, or royal loans, for such matters were often levied by the city through the companies as the easiest way to reach the most substantial citizens. Harpur's last recorded attendance was 11 July 1569. His wife Alice died on 10 October of that year.

He had now only a few years to live, but he married Margaret Lethers in September 1570. He died 27 February 1574 at the age of 77. He expressed a wish to be buried in St. Paul's church, Bedford; and directed that several of his friends, if they would be at the trouble of going to Bedford for his funeral, should be provided with black gowns. Presumably the funeral was a stately affair. The chamberlains of Bedford provided 3 gallons of Gascon wine and one of sack. By an oversight which seems almost incredible his burial was not recorded in the register. Yet it seems certain that he was buried in St. Paul's church; for Margaret, now widowed, and incidentally reluctant to leave the Lombard Street house though the lease had fallen in, put up a brass to him with the inscription: "Hereunder lieth buried the body of Sir William Harper, knight, alderman and late Lord Mayor of the city of London, with Dame Margaret, his last wife"; and also one of herself in readiness for her own time. Though she remarried twice, she was in fact buried at Bedford 3 November 1596.

A lad from a country town who was shrewd and became a successful man of business; of repute in matters relating to the city of London; with a wide interest in education; in religious matters not doctrinaire, but tending towards that body of opinion which came to be Anglican; a co-operative man who could work with others of differing views; one not averse to pageantry and sport; resolute when need required; a hale man, active until after the age of 70; such are the shadowy indications that have come down to us of Harpur.