March marks the 500th anniversary of Christopher Urswick’s death. Urswick was appointed a Canon at Windsor in 1492, was installed as Dean in 1496, and resigned his position in 1505. During his time at Windsor, he added a new west range to the Deanery and repaired the choristers’ house.
In contrast to most of the other Deans, who may have around ten other positions listed in their biography, Urswick has 34, giving the impression that he was an extraordinarily busy man. Even this list is not complete, and does not begin to take into account his other, unofficial roles.
Admittedly, he did not hold all of these roles for long, and not all concurrently. However, in 1493 he certainly held at least 12 positions, one of them being a Windsor Canon. 1493 was a particularly busy year for Urswick: he also spent time in Scotland negotiating a peace treaty, visited Rome twice, and may have visited Sicily.
Urswick’s posts were not all ecclesiastical. This article gives an idea of the political importance of the man who corresponded with Erasmus (giving him a horse), acted as an executor of Henry VII’s will, and helped to negotiate the marriage between Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon. His most senior role was as Royal Almoner, which he held from 1485 to 1495. Although the almoner had a charitable function, distributing alms, he also had a central political and fiscal role. However, many of Urswick’s appointments were to church positions.
Some of the titles Urswick held would have required little work of him, for example as rector of Easingwold, Puttenham, Fridaythorpe, and Felpham. These rectories were sinecures, meaning that the rector had no pastoral responsibilities, and did not even have to visit his parish. The daily running of the parishes was left to a vicar, a word originally meaning ‘deputy’. Such sinecures were common in mediaeval England. The patron with the advowson of the parish (the right to present, i.e. choose, the rector) was able to give the position as a favour, as the position of rector would come with the right to collect the tithes, or payments, due to the church from the people of the parish. Meanwhile the vicar would be in residence and administer the parish, receiving a smaller share of the tithes.
Urswick also held many positions as a prebendary (a position similar to a canon) and some archdeaconries. Sometimes such positions required the holder to be in residence at the church for a specified number of days a year, as was the rule for canons at Windsor. However, Urswick’s archdeaconries did not have such rules, and few of his prebendaries did either.
In Urswick’s time, canons at Windsor were allowed to be absent from Windsor for 56 days each year without financial penalty, as long as they were in continuous residence for at least 21 days a year. The Dean was allowed 60 days not in residence. However, Urswick seems to have been excused these residency requirements, and those of his other positions which had them, due to his post as Royal Almoner. Urswick was certainly a very busy man – but not quite as busy as the list of his positions suggests.
Anne Courtney, Assistant Archivist