Rector was the first to go to university

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In January 1311-12, the Bishop of Durham Richard Kellaw collated Master William de Bereford to the rectory of the church of Morpeth.

Just over a year later, in February 1312-13, he granted him licence to attend the Schools, provided the cure of souls was not neglected, and that someone suitable ‘resided’ at the church in person.

The entry in the bishop’s register does not say ‘university’, nor do we know where William was to study. But it had to be ‘in loco ubi Generale viget Studium’ — a place offering the full range of studies, not just elementary ones.

He was to attend a ‘Studium’. It means ‘a place of study’, and while this could be a college, it could equally be a hall, a house maintained by a religious body for its students, or an inn, which was much the same thing, but owned or managed by a private individual. The only places in England where such studies could be pursued were Oxford and Cambridge, though he could possibly have gone to Paris, or to a place in Italy or Spain.

William is the first person from Morpeth that we know of who went to a university. That said, he probably didn't come from here, but from Barford in Warwickshire.

William Woodman, normally a reliable historian, stated that Adam Rose, who in 1310 was chaplain and schoolmaster in the bridge chapel of All Saints, came here “with all the knowledge of the Arabs, which he acquired at Cordova”. But he gave no reference, and none has ever been found.

Beginning about 200 years after the Norman Conquest, there was a renaissance throughout Europe that was in its way quite as radical as the better known Renaissance of the 16th century.

William de Bereford remains, therefore, the earliest known person in Morpeth who, as far as we can tell, went to a university.

Later in 1313, Master Reginald de Morpeth, chaplain, paid six marks (£4 0s 0d) towards the tax liability of the church of Morpeth so it is clear that William had left for university and had appointed him to look after St Mary’s in his absence.

Reginald was well placed to do so, being the chaplain of the Chantry of Our Lady in the Chapel of All Saints next to the bridge, and he was “of Morpeth” so would have been better known to the parishioners than the lawful rector, who had only been among them for just over a year.

He would certainly have had to celebrate Mass at St Mary’s at least once a day. But a lot of the parishioners would find it more convenient to visit him at the Chantry, and on the whole it should not have been too difficult for him to divide his time between the Chantry and St Mary's, and to fulfil the requirements of both.

Thirty years later, the same thing happened again. On March 19, 1341-2, another Bishop of Durham, Richard de Bury, instituted John de Hastngs to the rectory of Morpeth.

Like William before him, he lost no time in leaving for university. Only five months later, he got leave of absence for two years ‘in loco idoneo, ubi viget Studium Generale infra regnum Angliae’.

This expression is similar to the one in William de Bereford’s licence, including the use of capital letters. The gist of it is that he should go to a suitable place where general studies thrive (viget), except this time it was to be a place “under the sovereignty of England”, so it had to be either Oxford or Cambridge.

Joseph Goering, The Thirteenth-Century English Parish, in John Van Engen (Ed.), Educating People of Faith, 2004, gives us the background to these events.

Beginning about 200 years after the Norman Conquest, there was a renaissance throughout Europe that was in its way quite as radical as the better known Renaissance of the 16th century.

It showed itself in England, and in Morpeth in particular, first in church building — St Mary’s was rebuilt in the 13th century and again in the 14th — and secondly in the clergy.

In 1300, the typical parish priest was only slightly more learned than his flock. It was enough for him to celebrate the Mass and to perform the traditional ceremonies relating to birth, marriage, death and the seasons of the year.

But by the end of the century, says Goering: “In addition to his traditional activities in the parish, he was expected to exercise new forms of pastoral care: to teach his flock, by word and by example, the doctrines of the schools and the disciplinary decrees of the councils; to preach to them regularly; and to transmit to them, especially through the sacrament of penance, the intricate details of the law and moral theology as understood in the schools.”

So a parish priest had to be well educated. Even priests who could not attend the Schools were expected to meet every month under the supervision of the rural dean to study or be taught.

But there was another way.

Goering says: “Once installed in a parish, but before being ordained to the priesthood, a few clerics went off to the schools and universities, using the fruits of their benefice to support higher studies, and appointing a vicar to fulfil most of the pastoral duties in their stead.

“But of those who took advantage of the opportunity for higher education, few returned to serve as simple parish priests; most would find employment in the higher reaches of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.”

This puts Morpeth in an interesting light. First, the rector of a parish must already have been a priest, otherwise he could not celebrate the Mass. Secondly, having two rectors in the space of 30 years go off to university soon after they came suggests that Morpeth saw more of this practice than most other parishes.

But thirdly, William de Bereford died in 1335, or a year or two earlier, and so must have served the parish for some 20 years. And John de Hastings, who died in or before 1377, must have served for over 30 years.

Morpeth was probably as good a place as any for a man of education to live. If it didn’t take him into the upper reaches of the hierarchy, at least he had a house and glebe right next to the King’s Highway, where Rectory Park is now, where travellers passed to and fro every day, including from time to time, no doubt, some of his university friends.

And with a thriving market town less than a mile away, who could want more?