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Dr. John London (1486-1543)
Born: 1486
at Hambleden, Buckinghamshire
Royal Commissioner
Died: 1543 at Farringdon, Middlesex

John London was a native of Hambleden in South Buckinghamshire. He was born about 1486 and admitted in 1497, at the age of eleven, as a scholar of Winchester College, whence he proceeded to New College, Oxford. Of that society, he was a fellow from 1505 to 1518, taking the degrees BCL (1513) and DCL (1519). 

London was instituted to the living of Ewelme in Oxfordshire in 1502, held the living of Stockbury on the presentation of the prior and convent of Leeds in Kent, before 1511, and was also Vicar of Adderbury in Oxfordshire. In 1519, he was installed a Prebendary of York, in 1522 a Prebendary of Lincoln and was appointed Treasurer of the Cathedral. He was elected warden of New College, Oxford in 1526 and was Dean of both Osney Abbey and Wallingford Priory. He was active in persecuting the Lutherans at Oxford from about 1528 onwards, three or more of whom were members of his own college. One of them, Quinby, he imprisoned “very straitly” in the steeple, where he died “half-starved with cold and lack of food”. On the news of the escape of a prominent Lutheran, he was seen in St. Frideswide's Priory, Oxford, “puffing, blustering and blowing like a hungry and greedy lion seeking his prey”. Probably in 1534, his nephew, Edward, confessed, on examination, that his uncle had reproved him for writing against the Pope, telling him that he trusted that “though the King had conceived a little malice against the Bishop of Rome, he would yet wear harness on his back to fight against heretics”. This confession having presumably placed him in the power of Thomas Cromwell, London was anxious to please the minister and became one of his most active and subservient agents. He invoked Cromwell's help in the government of his college, complaining that the fellows desired too much liberty. In 1535, he was appointed one of the Commissioners for the Visitation during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and was busily engaged in that work for some three years. He speaks contemptuously of the religious, but his letters prove him to be more anxious to gather spoil for the King than to collect scandal. When he obtained the surrender of a religious house, he stripped it of everything that had a pecuniary value and sent the spoils to London, seized all relics and defaced and destroyed whatever he could not remove, so that the bare walls of buildings were alone left. He was, indeed, the “most terrible of all the monastic spoilers”.

In spite of the energy that he showed in the work of spoliation, his position was insecure and, in 1536, Cromwell heard something to his discredit. For, in July, London, who was visiting religious houses in Northamptonshire, wrote to him to beg him not to believe those who said that he was promoting the Bishop of Rome, purgatory and pilgrimage, and declared that he would always conform to the will of the King's Council and submit to Cromwell and Bishop Latimer. Thomas Beadle also wrote to Cromwell, saying that London had heard that Cromwell had withdrawn his favour from him and meant to put him out of the wardenship of New College, though London had, according to his own account, done more for the reformation of ignorance and superstition than any of the other monastic visitors. It is possible that the cause of Cromwell's displeasure may have been other than rumours as to London's doctrines, and that to this date may be referred the story that London was put to “open penance with two smocks on his shoulders”. Supposed complaints that London used his position as a visitor to procure nuns for prostitution appear, however, to be unfounded. In August 1537, he wrote to beg Beadle to speak well of him to Cromwell, who suspected him of being a “Papist and a hinderer of good learning”. On the contrary, he declared, no man had spoken more openly against Papistical abuses, and he should not be blamed for the troublesome youths of his college who were given to liberty and “because Duns and such barbarous dreamers are set apart, object to meddle with Archyrople, Faber and Melancthon's Logic, and with Aristotle in the Greek”. The report of Cromwell's displeasure had, he said, nearly killed him.

However, despite such concerns, London continued to act on Cromwell’s behalf, especially at his more local monasteries. At Caversham ‘Priory,’ he destroyed the popular Shrine of Our Lady, sending her (presumably wooden) statue “plated over with silver” to the Capital, nailed up in a box, “by the next barge that cometh from Reading”. He then “pulled down the place she stood in, with all other ceremonies, as lights, shrouds, [jewels] and images of wax, hanging about the chapel, and defaced the same thoroughly in [preventing] of any further resort there”. Across the Thames, in Reading he stripped the Greyfriars’ Church of “parclose [screen]s, images and altars”. He further recommended that the place be converted into a new town hall, since proceedings at the existing ‘Yield Hall’ were constantly interrupted by the hullabaloo made by the washerwomen outside.

In the Autumn of 1538, London visited the nunnery of Godstow, just across the county boundary, near Oxford; and, being unable to persuade the abbess, Katherine Bulkeley, to surrender the house, he stayed there some time. The abbess wrote to Cromwell, on 5th November, complaining of London’s conduct, saying that she refused to surrender the house to him because he was her “ancient enemy,” having opposed her promotion, and that he tried to coerce her sisters “one by one” to influence her in this. She further expressed a fear that London would lay false information against her. However, coarse and vile as he was, London does not seem to have been ill-natured, his harshness in various cases proceeding rather from a desire to promote his own interests than from spite. As a Wykehamist, he disgraced himself by furnishing John Leland the antiquary with some false and slanderous notes, now in the Bodleian Library, concerning William of Wykeham.

On the death of Cromwell in 1540, London attached himself to Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, for whom he acted as agent, persecuting those considered extreme Protestants under the Act of Six Articles. He took part in fresh proceedings against the Oxford Lutherans, though he chiefly busied himself at Windsor in Berkshire where he was appointed a Canon at St. George’s Chapel. There were three men burnt at Windsor through his contrivance. He employed spies to gather information against others, and at his suggestion bills were preferred before the justices at sessions against Cranmer's chaplains and preachers. He also procured information and prepared a case against the Archbishop, but the King, hearing of these practices, bade Cranmer himself, and such others as he pleased, examine the truth of the accusations. Among papers of the conspirators that were seized and sent to the King were certain letters from London. This ‘stout and filthy prebendary,’ as Parker called him, was examined with two of his associates before the Council and, being convicted of perjury was stripped of his dignities, he was ordered to ride with his face to a horse's tail through Windsor, Reading and Newbury, and to stand in the pillory in each town with a paper declaring his offence on his forehead. This was done, and he was then committed to the Fleet prison, where he died soon afterwards in 1543.

Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1893).

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