Charles Sunnibank, Canon of Windsor and Rector of Great Haseley

CAROLUS SUNNIBANK S.T.D. HUJUS ECCLESIE RECTOR WINDSORIENSIS CANONICUS QUOD MORTALE HABUIT HIC DEPOSUIT 14 OCT. 1638 VENI CITO DOMINE JESU.(Charles Sunnibank D.D. Rector of this Church, Canon of Windsor, laid down here his mortal body 14 Oct 1638. Come quickly, Lord Jesus)

Charles Sunnibank succeeded John Harding (one of the translators of the Authorised King James Version of the Bible) as Rector of Haseley in 1610, and on his death in 1638 was himself succeeded by Christopher Wren, the father of the architect. Charles was baptised on 12 February 1562/63 (not 1564 as some sources erroneously report) in Ludlow, one of several children of Andrew Sonibank, Sonybank or Sonnibanck (d. 1601), a goldsmith of German extraction who had married into a Shropshire family. He matriculated in 1581 at St Mary Hall in Oxford, an academic hall of the university that was eventually incorporated into Oriel College. He transferred to Christ Church where he took his B.A. in 1586 and M.A. in 1589. He was a Student (= Fellow) of Christ Church, serving as Praelector in Dialectic in 1588 and in Rhetoric in 1592, and as Censor in 1595. His B.D. followed in 1596, after which he left Oxford, returning only to take his D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) in 1607.

In 1587 he had contributed a Latin poem to the volume of Exequiae organised by Christ Church in honour of the late poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney. A 1566 volume of Latin texts that he owned, no doubt at this period, is held in New College library. It has the handwritten inscription on the flyleaf: ‘Justificans Christi mors mihi sola salus (The justifying death of Christ the only salvation for me) Carolus Sonibanck, Oxon’. In 1596 he was a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, and was a member of his ‘panel of correctors’ who licensed the publication of books (he is recorded as having personally licensed only a handful between 1598 and 1601, including one entitled The Portraiture of the Prodigall Sonne). He held the Hastings Chaplaincy at Windsor 1600-1601. In 1597, thanks to Whitgift’s patronage, he obtained two preferments, those of Rector of Wrotham in Kent (until 1637), and Rector of Little Wittenham, Berkshire (until 1598). In the following year he also became Rector of Merstham in Surrey (until 1610). In November 1598 he was made a Canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Sunnibank considered Windsor as his place of abode, but after his appointment as Rector of Great Haseley in 1610 he evidently spent much of his time there. His will dated 1636 must have been written in Haseley, since two of the witnesses are Haseley men, Robert Greening of Little Haseley (d. 1652) and William Hinton (d. 1680?) (maybe the churchwardens that year), and he wanted to be buried in the church. That took place on 17 October 1638 (according to the burial register, though the memorial stone says 14 October).

Charles Sunnibank was a generous man, setting up a charity in Ludlow in 1635 to look after ten poor widows, and leaving money in his will to the poor of Windsor and the poor of Haseley. He owned property at Little Milton and at Sotwell, and in 1605 he bought some land in Essex: all of this was left to his wife, Joan (who lived until at least 1654), and then to his children. After his death, his widow gave two silver flagons for the communion table of the parish church of St John the Baptist, New Windsor.

Sunnibank also had a great love of the Bible, like his predecessor John Harding. When some of the old windows in Christ Church Cathedral were removed in the 1630s, they were replaced by new ones portraying Biblical stories, commissioned from the Flemish Van Linge brothers. Christ Church paid for some, but others were funded by individuals, of whom Sunnibank was one.

His window shows Jonah sitting under the gourd that shaded him, and viewing Nineveh. There is an inscription: CAROLUS SUNBANKE PRÆBENDAR. WINDSOR. S.T.P./ HUJUS ECCL. OLIM ALUM. D.D./ABRAHAM VAN LINGE fecit 1631 (Charles Sunbanke Prebendary of Windsor, Professor of Sacred Theology, formerly a student of this College, Doctor of Divinity. [Window] painted by Abraham van Linge), and his coat of arms. This is one of only four of this series of windows to have escaped destruction during the Civil War. It can still be admired just to the left of the organ.

Sunnibank’s love of the Bible also shows itself in a sermon he preached at Paul’s Cross in London (an open-air pulpit on the edge of Old St Paul’s churchyard) in February 1617, which was then printed as The Eunuche’s Conversion, ‘by Charles Sonnibank, Doctor of Divinitie, & Canon of Windsor’ (his only known published book, licensed for printing by Richard Cluett, chaplain to the Bishop of London and later Archdeacon of Middlesex). The Paul’s Cross sermons were highly regarded, well attended, well paid, and often published. Sunnibank’s takes the form of a careful exposition of the passage in the Acts of the Apostles where an Ethiopian official meets the deacon Philip on a desert road, asks him to explain to him the passage from the prophet Isaiah that he is reading, and is converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Sunnibank offers a wholehearted Protestant view of faith, maintaining that many Christians throughout the ages have in fact put their trust in Christ rather than in the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. He also attacks the fashionable interest in eloquent sermons, calling for them to be made shorter, and subordinated to the public reading of Scripture. The scholar Eric Carlson maintains that Sunnibank was following the lead of the court preacher Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in implicitly criticising James I’s sermon-centred piety.

Charles Sunnibank’s younger sister Susan married Adam Blithe, Rector of Ogbourne St George near Swindon (and formerly Charles’s curate at Merstham), and her memorial tablet gives details about their father and his family. She preferred to spell the family name Sunnybank, and a grandson of hers was indeed christened Sunnybank Veysey. Charles and Joan had the sadness of losing both their sons. John (1601-1628) matriculated at Wadham in 1618 and proceeded to become a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, but died quite young and was buried in Great Haseley, leaving a baby daughter. Another son, Charles, was baptised in Great Haseley in 1612, but lived only a few weeks. Their four daughters, on the other hand, all survived and made good marriages. Anne married Nathaniel Giles (1591-1655), son of a famous composer of the same name and organist of St George’s, Windsor, and himself a Canon of Windsor and Rector of Chinnor. One of their sons was christened Sunnibank. With the help of his friend John Hampden (whom he was to attend in his final days after the Battle of Chalgrove Field, although they were by then on opposite sides, and whose coffin he helped to carry), Nathaniel Giles built a splendid Rectory at Chinnor (eventually demolished in 1815), which for a while housed Isaac Newton’s library. Margaret Sunnibank (d. 1630) married Sir George Paule (1564-1635), MP for Bridgnorth and biographer of Whitgift, as his second wife. She had a memorial stone at St George’s, Windsor, which was recorded on a plan of the Chapel in 1789 but does not survive today. Joan (1607-1673) married John Hickmott, Gent. (d. 1657), at St George’s, Windsor, in 1631. Their daughter Joan Hickmott was baptised in Great Haseley in 1634. Elizabeth (1613-1692) married Christopher Potter, Provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford, in Great Haseley in 1632/33 (and their son Charles was baptised there in 1633), and after his death in 1646 she married his successor as Provost, Gerard Langbaine. There is a memorial tablet to her in St Peter-in-the-East, now the library of St Edmund Hall.

Toby Garfitt
Emeritus Professor of French, Magdalen College, Oxford, and LLM, St Peter’s, Great Haseley

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.