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Sir Thomas White (1492-1567)
Born: 1492 at Reading, Berkshire
Lord Mayor of London
Died: 12th February 1567
at Gloucester Hall, Oxford University, Oxfordshire

Sir Thomas White, the founder of St. John's College, Oxford, was born in Reading in 1492, the son of William White of Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, clothier, and his wife Mary, daughter of John Kibblewhite of South Fawley in Berkshire. He was probably taught first at the Reading Grammar School, founded by Henry VII, to which he gave two scholarships; but he was brought up "almost from infancy" in London. He was apprenticed at the age of twelve to Hugh Acton, a prominent member of the Merchant Taylors' Company, who left him 100 upon his death in 1520. With this and his small patrimony, he began business for himself in 1523. In 1530, he was first renter warden of the Merchant Taylors' Company. From this, he passed on to the senior wardenship about 1533, and was master probably in 1535.

Thomas appears in 1533 as one of those to whom the nun of Kent made revelations. In 1535, he was assessed for the subsidy at 1,000, which shows him to have been, by this time, a prosperous clothier. In 1542 and 1545, he made large loans to the cities of Coventry and Bristol. He resided in the parish of St. Michael, Cornhill, and, in 1544, was elected by the court, ninth alderman for Cornhill. On his refusing "to take upon himself the weight thereof," he was committed to Newgate and the windows of his shop were ordered to be "closed so long as he should continue in his obstinacy". He was not long recalcitrant. In the same year, being then alderman, he contributed 300 to the city's loan to the King. In 1547, he was sheriff. In 1549-50, he aided his guild with money to purchase the obit rent charges. In 1561, the trust-deed between his company and the city of Coventry was drawn up, by which large sums became available after his death for the charity loans & co. In 1553, he was one of the promoters of the Muscovy Company. On 2nd October 1553, he was knighted, in the presence of the Queen Mary, by the Earl of Arundel, Lord Steward. He was elected Lord Mayor of London on 29th October 1553. Machyn records the splendour of his pageant.

On 13th November, Thomas sat on the commission for the trial of Lady Jane Grey and her adherents. On 3rd January 1554, he received the Spanish envoys and, ten days later, restored the custom of going in procession to St. Paul's for the high mass. On the breaking out of Wyatt's Rebellion, he arrested the Marquis of Northampton on 25th January 1554. He received Mary on 1st February, when she made her appeal to the loyalty of the citizens and, on the 3rd, repulsed the rebels from the bridge-gate at Southwark. His prudence and sagacity preserved London for the Queen. On 10th February, he presided over the commission to try the rebels. In the further suppression of tumult, he seems to have come into conflict with Gardiner in the Star Chamber. On 7th March 1554, in pursuance of the Queen's proclamation, he issued orders to the aldermen to admonish all residents of their wards to follow the catholic religion, which he repeated with special application in April. The unpopularity caused by this possibly led to an attempt to assassinate him as he was hearing a sermon at St. Paul's on 10th June. On 19th August, he received Philip and Mary at their entry in state into the city. His mayoralty was marked by several sumptuary regulations, and by a proclamation (May 1554) against games, morris-dances and interludes.

At the end of his year of office, White devoted himself to acts of benevolence outside the city. His friend, Sir Thomas Pope (1507-1559), had recently founded Trinity College, in Oxford. White already held land in the neighbourhood of Oxford and the example of Pope turned his thoughts to the endowment of a college. He is said to have been directed by a dream to the site of the dissolved Cistercian house of St. Bernard outside the city walls. On 1st May 1555, he obtained the royal license to found a college for "the learning of the sciences of holy divinity, philosophy and good arts," dedicated to the praise and honour of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John Baptist (the patron saint of the Merchant Taylors' Company). The society was to consist of a president and thirty graduate or non-graduate scholars. In 1557, the scope and numbers of the foundation were enlarged. The endowment of the college connected it closely with the neighbourhood of Oxford, but it was not a rich foundation. The statutes given were based on those of William of Wykeham for New College. Many letters among the college manuscripts show White's constant care of the college he had founded. In 1559, he purchased Gloucester Hall, Oxford, where he is said to have resided in his later years. He was frequently entertained at Trinity College. Gloucester Hall he made into a hall for a hundred scholars. It was opened on St. John Baptist's day 1560. Sir Thomas White's association with Cumnor is emphasised by the fact that in this hall the body of Amy Robsart lay before burial at St. Mary's. His interest in education was not confined to his own college. He took a considerable part in the foundation of the Merchant Taylors' School, for which Richard Hilles was mainly responsible. In 1560, he sent further directions and endowments to his college. But, from 1562, he suffered severely from the falling-off in the cloth trade. He was unable to fulfill the obligation of his marriage contract. He was still able, however, to settle some considerable trusts on different towns, the London livery companies, and his own kindred. These arrangements were finally completed in his will, dated 8th and 24th November 1566. At the beginning of the next year, on 2nd February 1567, he made further statutes for his college, by which he ordered that forty-three scholars from the Merchant Taylor's School should be "assigned and named by continual succession" to St. John's College by the master and wardens of the company and the president and two senior fellows of the college.

On 12th January 1567, Sir Thomas wrote a touching letter to his college, of which he desired that every one of the fellows and scholars should have a copy, counselling brotherly love, in view doubtless of the religious differences which had already caused the cession of two, if not three, presidents. Later letters concerned the jointure of his wife and the performance of choral service in the college chapel. He died on 12th February 1567, either in the college or at Gloucester Hall. He was buried in the college chapel. Edmund Campion delivered a funeral oration.

White died a poor man. Much of what he had intended for his college never reached it and the provisions of his will in regard both to his property and the college would have been still less fully carried out but for the astute management ('partly by pious persuasions, and partly by judicious delays') of his executor, Sir William Cordell, Master of the Rolls. White was a man of sane judgment and genuine piety. He has rarely, if ever, been surpassed among merchants as a benefactor to education and to civic bodies.

Sir Thomas was twice married. His first wife, Avice, whose surname is unknown, died on 26th February 1558 and was buried in the parish of St. Mary Aldermary. On 25th November of the same year, he married Joan, daughter and co-heiress of John Lake of London, and widow of Sir Ralph Warren. He had no issue.

Sir Thomas White has frequently been confused with a namesake, Sir Thomas White of South Warnborough in Hampshire, who was knighted on the same day, and whose wife's name, Agnes, is not uncommonly interchanged with Avice. The confusion is rendered the more natural from the fact that the White property at South Warnborough eventually passed into the hands of St. John's College, Oxford. But this was by the gift of Archbishop Laud, who obtained it from William Sandys in 1636.

Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1900)


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