A Windsor Pension for life

We tend to think of pension provision as something essentially modern, starting with the introduction of old age pensions in 1908, then developing more widely with the coming of occupational pensions and private pension schemes. In fact, pensions have a long history going back to medieval times. Service to the king for example could be rewarded with a pension. This could be in the form of money, but might also be a land grant, or an appointment to a lucrative office. Craft guilds and the Church also provided some pensions, and later on there were specific schemes like the Chatham Chest which provided pensions for disabled seamen. Those who were lucky enough to receive a pension were a very small minority of course. The democratic ideal of pensions for all did not bear fruit until the 20th century.

Two intriguing lists of pensions granted by the Dean and Canons of Windsor in the 16th and 17th centuries are contained in the volume known as “Howell’s Register”. Evidence from the Chapter Acts indicates the pension was linked to the office of Lord High Steward of the College of St George. So, the pension was only paid to one person at any one time.

The first list contains the names of five 16th century men who each received a pension of 10 marks (we presume per annum). A mark was equivalent to 13s 4d, so the pension was worth £6 13s 8d. This was probably a decent annual amount for the time, though it’s hard to be precise about 16th century monetary values. The first recipient of the pension was Sir Thomas Lovell (d.1524), who was made Chancellor of the Exchequer for life by Henry VII in 1485. As a result he held this key office for nearly four decades. He was succeeded by Henry Courtenay (c.1498-1538), 1st Marquess of Exeter and 2nd Earl of Devon. Henry Courtenay was a grandee of the west country and was well connected too, being a grandson of Edward IV, a nephew of Elizabeth of York and a first cousin of Henry VIII. However, he had a bitter enemy in the ruthless Thomas Cromwell. In 1538, he was arrested and charged (on flimsy evidence) with involvement in a plot known as the “Exeter Conspiracy”. After a swift trial, he was beheaded on Tower Hill on 9 December 1538.

The Windsor pension then passed to the courtier and soldier, William Fitzwilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton (1490-1542), and after his death it was granted to Sir John Baker (1488-1558), who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1545 to 1558, and Speaker of the House of Commons in 1545 and 1547. Sir John was a key figure in the short reign of Queen Mary, and acquired the nickname “Bloody Baker” because of his brutal persecution of protestants. The final recipient of the 10 mark pension was Anthony Brown, who is described in the register as a knight of the Garter.

The second list comprises pensioners who received 20 marks, and it includes some famous names. So, the first entry is for “William Burghley, Treasurer of England”, who was granted the pension in 1575. Lord Burghley (1520-1598) was arguably the greatest Elizabethan after the queen herself, the man who shaped the destiny of so much of her reign, and who helped to face down the many rebellions and plots which threatened her life and throne. After his death in 1598, the pension then passed to Robert Devereux,2nd Earl of Essex (1567-1601), a brilliant, charismatic, but impetuous figure who for a time was a strong favourite of the queen. Then in February 1601 he led a half-hearted attempt to oust the ageing queen and paid for it with his life after a swift trial. So passed one of English history’s tragic failures.

After the demise of Essex, the pension then returned to the Cecil family, in the person of Robert Cecil (1563-1612), 1st Earl of Salisbury, a solid servant to both Elizabeth I and James I. The son of Lord Burghley, he played a crucial continuity role in the transition from Tudor to Stuart rule. Following his death, the pension was granted to Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk (1561-1626), who was Lord High Treasurer, 1614-1618. Back in 1588, Howard had commanded the Golden Lion in the attack on the Spanish Armada, and been rewarded with a knighthood.

Then in 1626, the pension came to another highly controversial figure, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628). The son of a minor gentleman,Villiers was a favourite of both James 1 (the two men may have been lovers) and Charles I but was deeply unpopular in the country. On 23 August 1628 he was stabbed to death in Portsmouth by a disgruntled army officer. His assassin was widely acclaimed as a hero. His replacement as pensioner was Sir Francis Windebank (1582-1646), who was Secretary of State, 1632-1640. A strong supporter of Charles I, he escaped to France during the Civil War and died in Paris.

In the turmoil of civil war and its aftermath, the pension seems to have been in abeyance, but it was revived briefly after the restoration of Charles II. So, on 13 October 1662 it was granted to the young Henry Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, who was later 2nd Earl of Clarendon (1638-1709). The son of the Restoration grandee politician, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, he was to hold office under both Charles II and James II (who happened to be his brother -in-law). There are no further entries for the pension after this date, so it is assumed it had outlived its purpose by the early 18th century.


Simon Harrison

(Archives volunteer)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.