Absent without leave?

Robert Johnson was a Canon of Windsor from 30 July 1572 to 23 July 1625. During this time, he founded two grammar schools and two hospitals in Oakham and Uppingham, Rutland, the two schools later becoming distinguished public  schools,  and from 1574 served as Rector of North Luffenham, also in Rutland, where he is buried. He served as Archdeacon of Leicester from 1591 to his death on 23 July 1625 and was one of the eight founding fellows of Jesus College, Oxford. He also held canonries at Peterborough, Norwich and Rochester. In 1591 he obtained letters patent from Elizabeth I granting dispensation to be non-resident at Windsor and at his other three canonries without forfeiting the profits of the prebends. This led to a dispute with the Dean and Canons of Windsor involving the College Visitor.

Documents in the St George’s Chapel Archives illuminate the nature of the disagreement. They include two petitions from Robert Johnson, who described himself as ‘Prebendary of her Majesty’s Free Chapel of Windsor’, to the Right Honourable Sir Thomas Egerton , Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, Visitor of the College of St George at Windsor [SGC XI.D.32/4-5]. The first of these petitions, undated but almost certainly written in 1598, outlines Johnson’s grievance.

“Whereas at his humble suit to her highness, and for the better enabling of your said orator to perform the building, endowing, ordering  and overseeing of two free schools and two hospitals in Okeham [Oakham] and Uppingham in the County of Rutland upon special considerations it pleased her highness by her letters patents …. to grant him liberty to be absent from his said prebend and to remain at his benefice in the County of Rutland reserving unto him all the profits of his said prebend as fully as if your said orator were continually resident upon the same  …which notwithstanding the Dean and Canons of Windsor do refuse to allow pressing him to be resident there as if he had no such dispensation whereby he should greatly neglect the cure of his benefice being more than sixty miles off, and whereby his estate also in performance of his said enterprises to the furtherance of learning and maintenance of the poor should be greatly weakened his said prebend being a chief part of his living”.

He prays that the Lord Keeper will “take the hearing of the said cause into your hands and to deal in it as visitor of the said free Chapel and to command the Dean and Canons to attend your Lordship in the premises and to show cause why your Lord’s suppliant should not take the benefit of her Majesty’s said letters patents.”

The Dean and Canons had previously, in 1593, agreed in Chapter to allow Johnson to receive an annual fee of £51 22d in lieu of profits from his prebend despite his non-residence, at the request of the previous Lord Keeper, Sir John Puckering [SGC IV.B.4 p79]. However, significantly, the grant was only for five years.  In November 1597, aware that the term was due to expire, Johnson obtained letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Whitgift, to the Dean and Canons in his favour [SGC XI.C.23]. However, on 27 April 1598, Chapter refused his request for an annual stipend of £50 during his continuing absence [SGC VI.B.2 4v]. It seems that Johnson had no intention of returning to Windsor. Why, therefore, should he continue to receive an income from the Dean and Canons?  After several communications with the Lord Keeper, including a letter from the Dean and Canons appealing against Johnson’s case, Sir Thomas Egerton, as College Visitor, ordered the Windsor Chapter to take “such good order” that Johnson may have “no more just cause to make further complaint” in a letter dated 2 June 1598 [SGC XI.C.23*].   The Treasurer’s accounts from 1598 to 1625 [SGC XV.59.18-38] show that, from that date, the Dean and Canons did indeed allocate a stipend to Robert Johnson, amounting to £40 year, until his death in 1625 – the final quarterly payment of £10 being made at the Feast of the Annunciation that year – after a record fifty-three  years as Canon of Windsor.

Clare Rider (Archivist and Chapter Librarian)

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.