1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library

Frances Matthew and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library

Claire Cross (University of York)

Frances Matthew’s gift of her late husband’s books to the Dean and Chapter of York Minster in 1628 transformed the Minster Library at a single stroke into the largest and most important cathedral library in the whole of Stuart England. This ‘excellent act’, which her memorial proclaimed deserved ‘to live as long as the church itself’, was far from being an impulsive gesture. Both Toby and Frances Matthew fully appreciated the importance of the printed word for the dissemination of Protestantism, and husband and wife may have been contemplating this benefaction together for some years. Considered by her son an even more committed Protestant than his father, Frances Matthew made a positive contribution to the propagation of Protestantism in her own right, and the life of this remarkable woman and the particular circumstances leading up to her donation, form the subject of this essay (1).

Frances Matthew was quite literally a child of the Henrician Reformation. Her father  William Barlow had entered St Osyth’s Abbey in Essex around 1518, and as an Augustinian canon had then gone on to study theology at Oxford, where he seems to have come into contact with reformed ideas. A committed evangelical by the 1530s he gained the patronage of Anne Boleyn, who procured his appointment as prior of Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire in 1534. A year later he obtained the much richer priory of Bisham in Berkshire and was dispatched on three separate embassies to Scotland in 1535 and 1536 in a vain attempt to persuade James V to break with Rome. As a reward for his diplomatic work he was nominated Bishop of St Asaph and then almost immediately translated to the somewhat wealthier see of St David’s, where he was confirmed as bishop in April 1536. He opposed the Act of Six Articles in 1539, but retained his see during the conservative reaction, perhaps through the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (2).

While Prior of Bisham, which he surrendered to the crown in 1537, Barlow would almost certainly have encountered the Wellesbourne family, the chief land holders in the village, and, despite the fact that clerical celibacy remained obligatory throughout the reign of Henry VIII, at some date apparently in the 1530s he secretly married Agatha the daughter of  Humphrey Wellesbourne, a former mayor of High Wycombe, described on her monument by her daughter Frances as ‘a woman godly, wise and discrete from her youth’, and rumoured to have once been a nun. According to a tradition handed down in the Northumberland branch of the family Barlow was ‘the first English bishop that ever married’. They went on to have twelve children all it seems born before 1558, though only seven, two boys, William and John, and five girls, Margaret, Anne, Elizabeth, Frances and Anthonine, ‘came unto men and women’s state’ (3).

Conditions improved immeasurably for advanced reformers on the accession of Edward VI. As early as December 1547 convocation sanctioned clerical marriage which became legal under statute law from the beginning of 1549, and Barlow, who had been promoted to the much more important bishopric of Bath and Wells in February 1548, like Cranmer could bring his episcopal family out of the closet. This first generation of married Protestant ministers placed the utmost importance upon the spiritual and secular education of their children, and some at least believed in teaching the classics to girls as well as boys. John and William Barlow would have learnt Latin as a matter of course, and it is conceivable that their sisters did the same (4).

The restoration of Catholicism on the death of Edward VI halted all attempts at Protestant evangelisation. Dispatched to the Tower in September 1553 and forced to resign his bishopric on account of his marriage, Barlow only gained his release in January 1555 after making a formal recantation. He then fled to the continent, and eventually found refuge in Wesel where he ministered to the English church and acted as chaplain to the Duchess of Suffolk. From Wesel he migrated with the congregation to Weinheim, and finally with the help of John à Lasco procured asylum for the Duchess’s extensive household at Crozen in Poland. Agatha Barlow, as her daughter Frances stated on her monument, ‘most faithful unto her husband both in prosperity and adversity’, became ‘a companion with him for the gospel[‘s] sake’, and it is possible that the children accompanied their parents into exile (5).

The Barlows returned to England within months of Elizabeth’s accession. As one of the very few Protestant bishops to have survived the Marian persecution William Barlow participated in the consecration of Matthew Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury on 17 December 1559 and the next day was appointed Bishop of Chichester. By this date his older daughters were approaching marriageable age, and given their equivocal position—conservatives in the north of England were still referring to clergy children ‘as priests’ calves’ and ‘priests’ bastards’ at the end of the sixteenth century—it is understandable that their husbands should have come from within the Protestant ministry. Soon after the family had arrived in Chichester Margaret married one of the cathedral prebendaries William Overton. Her sister, Anne, also found a husband within the Close in the person of the cathedral treasurer and former Marian exile Augustine Bradbridge. He died in 1567 and she later became the wife of Herbert Westfaling an Oxford academic and canon of Christ Church. The union of Elizabeth Barlow and William Day, recently installed as both Provost of Eton College and Dean of Windsor, took place in 1562. Provision had yet to be made for the two youngest girls when Barlow died in August 1568, naming his wife, Agatha, as his sole executrix. In the next decade Anthonine married the Vice-provost of Eton, William Wickham, promoted Archdeacon of Surrey in 1574 and Dean of Lincoln in 1577. The most prestigious match of all, however, was reserved for the fourth daughter, Frances, who celebrated her wedding to Matthew Parker, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29 December 1569 (6).

In the event their life together was very short. Matthew Parker died aged twenty-three in December 1574. Frances, who was in the early stages of pregnancy, then moved from Lambeth to be with her sister Elizabeth and her husband William Day at Eton, where her son Matthew was born in July 1575. At his christening her mother and her two brothers-in-law, William Day and John Parker, acted as his godparents. The baby lived only until the following March (7).

At Eton Frances Parker came into contact with the rising Oxford theologian, Toby Matthew, who had favourably impressed the queen on her visit to the university in 1566 and been appointed a canon of Christ Church in 1570, a royal chaplain and prebendary of Salisbury in 1572 and Dean of Christ Church in 1576. He and Frances were married in January 1577 and for the next few years they divided their time between Oxford and Salisbury, where Matthew took up residence during university vacations. Their first son, Toby, was born at Salisbury in October 1577, their second son, John, at Christ Church three years later. Their only daughter Mary, the god daughter of Agatha Barlow and Sir Philip Sydney’s sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, died at the age of five months at Easter 1583 and was buried in Salisbury cathedral. By this date Toby Matthew, increasingly disillusioned with university life, had for some years been seeking office in the church at large. He achieved his goal on his promotion to the deanery of Durham in 1583 (8).

Toby and Frances Matthew delayed leaving Oxford until after the birth of their last child, Samuel, in February 1584. At first the north of England seemed a totally alien world, and Frances in particular wanted to up sticks and return to the south. As staunch Protestants they had every reason for regarding Northumberland and County Durham as one of the dark corners of the land. Apart from the cathedral chapter, which Matthew’s predecessor the barely conforming William Whittingham and his French Huguenot wife had turned into a bastion of advanced Protestantism, and the ‘forward’ town of Newcastle upon Tyne proselytised by none other than John Knox, the greater part of the region still remained if not explicitly Catholic lukewarm at best in its commitment to the established church. Matthew believed that only a systematic scheme of Protestant evangelisation could remedy this state of affairs, and in his eleven years as Dean of Durham he preached no fewer than seven hundred and twenty one sermons (9).

While Toby Matthew was planting Protestantism and combatting Catholicism in the north, in the south his wife’s relatives were progressing from strength to strength. William Overton, the husband of Frances Matthew’s sister Margaret, procured the see of Coventry and Lichfield in 1580, Anthonine’s husband, William Wickham, the see of Lincoln in 1584 and Anne’s husband, Herbert Westfaling, that of Hereford in the following year. Then after years of waiting on his appointment to the bishopric of Durham in March 1595 her own husband joined his three brothers-in-law on the episcopal bench, and the family swept the board a mere eight months later when Elizabeth’s husband, William Day, was elevated to the bishopric of Winchester (10).

On visits to her mother’s relatives in Berkshire or to London when her husband was preaching at court Frances Matthew may well have seen the magnificent tombs with inscriptions in both Latin and Greek which the former Elizabeth Cooke, one of the five learned daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, had erected to commemorate her first and second husbands, Sir Thomas Hoby and John, Lord Russell, in Bisham parish church and Westminster Abbey. Whether or not she drew her inspiration from this source towards the turn of the century Frances Matthew created a memorial to her mother in Easton church near Winchester, where her brother, William Barlow was rector, and where Agatha Barlow had died at the age of ninety in 1595. The English epitaph, with her name in full at its foot, listed not only her mother’s achievements but also those of her five daughters, whose husbands had all obtained bishoprics in the Elizabethan church. This remarkable feat was then repeated in Latin on a small brass tablet below the main monument (Fig. 1) (11).

Frances Matthew then turned her attention to her own generation. When her sister Anthonine died in 1598 she was almost certainly responsible for the wording on her tombstone in Alconbury churchyard in Huntingdonshire, which again proclaimed how she had been one of five sisters ‘whose husbands bishoprics ascended’. Next in June 1600 F.M., the initials must surely stand for Frances Matthew, placed a stone slab with a long Latin inscription over the grave in St Mary Overy’s church in Southwark of Anthonine’s widower, William Wickham, Bishop of Winchester. Finally around this date F.M and R.D., who would seem to have been Frances Matthew and her nephew Richard Day, put up a Latin plaque in Eton College chapel to commemorate yet another of her sisters, Elizabeth Day (12).

Peter Sherlock, who recently discovered the lengths to which Frances Matthew had gone to perpetuate her family’s history, assumed that she would have needed her brother William or some other university graduate to compose the Latin inscriptions for her, but this may not have been the case. She could write an italic hand, which scholars at the time commonly used when writing Latin, and, apart from a tiny manuscript book of vernacular prayers, a New Year’s gift from her first husband, Matthew Parker, the only book of hers known to have survived is in Latin, the Exoticorum, a profusely illustrated survey of flora and fauna from foreign lands published in 1605 by the famous French botanist, Carolus Clusius (13).

Reputed ‘a very gallant woman and a great housewife’ in the north of England Frances Matthew counted fine needlework among her accomplishments, and about this time ‘sewed a very stately and rich bed’ which she presented to the Queen: this may be when, according to Thoresby, Elizabeth reciprocated by giving her a fragment of a unicorn’s horn. To take advantage of her skill in bringing up young women some of the leading County Durham families were now competing to get their daughters accepted into her household (14).

Within her domestic circle, however, matters were faring far less well. Despite the pains their father had lavished on their education—he claimed in his will to have spent £14,000 on Toby and at least £2,000 on John—the two elder Matthew boys, in contrast to their more dutiful cousins, were showing no inclination to enter the Protestant ministry, and it was around this time that Toby Matthew confessed to Thomas Lord Fairfax, ‘I have great reason of sorrow with respect of my sons, one of whom has wit and no grace, another grace but no wit, and the third neither grace nor wit.’ Toby, greatly talented but unstable, who had matriculated at Christ Church at the precociously early age of twelve in 1590, graduated BA at Oxford in 1594 and MA in 1597. Provoked beyond endurance by his extravagance, the following year Dudley Carleton reported that his father had dismissed him as ‘a reprobate, a castaway, an example above example of an irreverent and disobedient child’, who had ‘impiously practised against his dear and chaste mother, whose life he tenders above seventy-seven sons.’ The second child, John, equally irresponsible with money, possessed none of his brother’s academic ability. All their hopes rested upon the last born, Samuel, who went up to Cambridge just before the turn of the century, but he died in his mother’s words ‘most Christianly’ aged eighteen in June 1601 and was buried in Peterhouse chapel. She subsequently established two scholarships at the college in his memory (15).

On Elizabeth’s death in March 1603 Toby Matthew conducted James I south to London, preaching frequently on route; he took a prominent part in the Hampton Court Conference and was regularly consulted by the King on church matters particularly in the first half of the reign, while his wife continued to find favour at court, on one occasion being given a diamond ring by Queen Anne. Matthew gained his reward when the King appointed him Archbishop of York in April 1606 (16).

Then just when his father had reached the apex of his ecclesiastical career Toby Matthew junior inflicted the most cruel blow of all. Having persuaded his parents to underwrite a continental tour on the strict understanding that he would confine himself to the countries of the north, he made straight for Florence, where in the spring of 1605 he was received into the Catholic church. On his return to London two years later his devastated mother prayed unceasingly for his reconversion while his father enlisted Archbishop Bancroft to attempt his recovery, but all in vain, and he was banished from the country for refusing to take the oath of allegiance. After years of study he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Rome in 1614, though he seems to have successfully concealed this from his parents and the King, who otherwise would have been unlikely to have knighted him for his services to Charles and Buckingham on their visit to Madrid at the time of the Spanish match (17).

Toby’s betrayal of all they held most dear served only to increase his parents’ commitment to Protestantism, and in 1625 the evangelical vicar of Leeds, Alexander Cooke, approvingly noted that at the age of almost eighty the Archbishop was still delivering more sermons in a single year than all the popes from the time of Gregory the Great had ever done. By this date Matthew had to face the problem of the future of his library, which he had been systematically assembling since his Oxford days both as a preaching aid and as a weapon in his fight against Catholicism, and which he had always made available to like-minded clergy. In the normal course of events it would have descended to one of his sons, but Toby had ruled himself out by his conversion, John by his spendthrift course of life. So when he made his will in 1625 he conferred virtually his entire estate upon his ‘beloved wife, Frances Matthew... relying with all confidence upon her care and providence, of which I have had good experience for the space almost of fifty years, which time it hath pleased God of his goodness to continue us together husband and wife.’ (18).

Toby Matthew died aged eighty-two on 29 March 1628. The Latin inscription on his tomb in the Minster, which Frances Matthew may well have overseen, recorded how that ‘even in extreme old age’ there was no one who ‘preached more constantly, more successfully, or more acceptably.’ To ensure the continuance of this type of Protestantism which her family had furthered with such constancy since the Henrician Reformation, later that year she donated her husband’s library of around three thousand books to the York Dean and Chapter (19).

In her voluminous will of 9 August 1628 Frances Matthew praised God’s ‘holy name that he hath given me my being within this church of England, wherein I have learned the profession of Christian and saving doctrine,’ and declared her ‘firm resolution to pour out my last breath in the same.’ She died aged seventy-eight on 8 May 1629. Her monument below the east window of the Minster depicts her in her widow’s weeds kneeling at prayer (Fig. 2). Before it was destroyed in the fire of 1829 the inscription above the memorial extolled her as ‘a woman of exemplary wisdom, gravity, piety, bounty and indeed in other virtues not only above her sex, but the times’, and marvelled ‘that so great care to advance learning should lodge in a woman’s breast.’ It also recorded her clerical connections as she would surely  have wanted and may indeed have pre-arranged: that she was the daughter of William Barlow, Bishop of Chichester, that she had married firstly Matthew Parker, the son of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, and afterwards Toby Matthew, ‘that famous Archbishop of this see’, and that she had four sisters married to four bishops, one to William Wickham, Bishop of Winchester, another to Overton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, a third to Westfaling, Bishop of Hereford, a fourth to Day that succeeded Wickham in Winchester, so that a bishop was her father, an archbishop her father-in-law, she had four bishops her brethren, and an archbishop her husband (20).


(1) C. B. L. Barr, ‘The Minster Library’ in A History of York Minster, ed. by G. E. Aylmer and R. Cant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 487-538; Frances Mathew’s memorial is recorded in F. Drake, Eboracum (London, 1736), p. 512; A True Historical Relation of the Conversion of Sir Tobie Matthew to the Holy Catholic Faith, ed. by A. H. Mathew (London: Burns and Oates, 1904), p. 131.

(2) G. Williams, ‘Barlow [Finch], William (d. 1569), bishop of Chichester’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); P. M. Hembry, The Bishops of Bath and Wells 1540-1640: Social and Economic Problems (London: Athlone Press, 1967), pp. 79-88.

(3) Frances Matthew’s monument to Agatha Barlow in Easton church in Hampshire; E. Mackenzie, An Historical, Topographical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland..., II (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1825), p. 237; P. Sherlock, ‘Monuments, Reputation and Clerical Marriage in Reformation England: Bishop Barlow’s Daughters’, Gender and History, 16 (2004), pp. 57-82; Hembry, The Bishops of Bath and Wells, pp. 79-84.

(4) The Catechism of Thomas Becon, S.T.P., ed. by J. Ayre (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1844), p. 4.

(5) Hembry, The Bishops of Bath and Wells, pp. 80-89; M. Franklin Harkrider, Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy 1519-1580 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), pp. 101-103, 107-111; Agatha Barlow’s memorial in Easton church.

(6) J. C. H. Aveling, Catholic Recusancy in the City of York 1558-1791 (London: Catholic Record Society, 1970), p. 222; Sherlock, ‘Monuments, Reputation and Clerical Marriage’, pp. 62, 65-66, 66-67; Hembry, The Bishops of Bath and Wells, pp. 80-89;  The Correspondence of Matthew Parker, ed. by T. T. Perowne (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1853), pp. x, 484.

(7) J. Strype, The Life and Acts of Matthew Parker, II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1821), pp. 386-389; York Minster, MS Add. 322 (Frances Matthew, ‘The birth of all my children’).

(8) MS Add. 322; W. J. Sheils, ‘Matthew, Tobie (1544?-1628), archbishop of York’, ODNB; N.  H. Nicolas, Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton (London, 1847), pp. 204-206.

(9) MS Add. 322; Nicolas, Memoirs of ... Sir Christopher Hatton, p. 249; P. Collinson, Religion of Protestants (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 46 quoting London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus B II fol. 284; W. J. Sheils, ‘An Archbishop in the Pulpit: Tobie Matthew’s Preaching Diary, 1606-1622', in Life and Thought in the Northern Church c. 1100-c. 1700, ed. by D. Wood, Studies in Church History, Subsidia 12 (1999), p. 382.

(10) Sherlock, ‘Monuments, Reputation and Clerical Marriage’, p. 68 quoting London, British Library, MS Add. 4274, fol. 178.

(11) The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599-1605, ed. by D. M. Meads (London: Routledge, 1930), pp. 12-14; G. Allen, The Cooke Sisters: Education, Piety and Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 73-76; Agatha Barlow’s memorial, Easton church; Sherlock, ‘Monuments, Reputation and Clerical Marriage’, p. 71.

(12) Sherlock, ‘Monuments, Reputation and Clerical Marriage’, pp. 72-73.

(13) Sherlock, ‘Monuments, Reputation and Clerical Marriage’, p. 70; Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 542 (I owe this reference to Professor N. Morgan); MS Add. 322; Frances Matthew has written her name on the title page of the Minster library copy of C. Clusius, Exoticorum (Leyden: Ex Officina Plantiniana Raphelengii, 1605).      

(14) Durham, University Library, Mickleton and Spearman MS 23 fol. 125r (I owe this reference to Dr R. Oates); R. Thoresby, Vicaria Leodiensis (London: Joseph Smith, 1724), pp. 156-161, 175.

(15) ODNB, XXXVII, pp. 60-63 quoting Matthew’s confession to Lord Fairfax; Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1598-1601, p. 4; MS Add. 322; York, Borthwick Institute for Archives, Prob. Reg. 40, fols 195r (will of Toby Matthew), 397r-398v (will of Frances Matthew).

(16) Prob. Reg. 40, fols 397r-398v (Frances Matthew’s will).

(17) A. H. Mathew and A. Calthrop, The Life of Sir Tobie Matthew, Bacon’s Alter Ego, (London: Elkin Mathews, 1907), p. 101;  A True Historical Relation of the Conversion of Sir Tobie Matthew, pp. v-xiv.

(18) Thoresby, Vicaria Leodiensis, pp. 156-161; Collinson, Religion of Protestants, pp. 48-49; Sheils, ‘An Archbishop in the Pulpit’, p. 382; Prob. Reg. 40, fol. 195r (Toby Matthew’s will).

(19) Drake, Eboracum, p.  459; I. R. Pattison and H. Murray, Monuments in York Minster (York: Friends of York Minster, 2001), p. 49; Barr, ‘The Minster Library’, pp. 487-538.

(20) Borthwick Institute for Archives, Prob. Reg. 40, fols 397r-398v (Frances Matthew’s will); inscription formerly on Frances Mathew’s memorial in the Minster in Drake, Eboracum, p. 512.

How to cite

Claire Cross, 'Frances Matthew and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library', in Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young (eds), 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, June 2015, https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=52, accessed 22 November 2017