Maisters and brethren this day I have been w[ith] maist[er] Almosn[er] / and seen the kyngs wylle wherein he entendeth to mortesse / vi C li [£600] of termp[er]all londe.
This is part of a letter written by Dean of Windsor, Nicholas West, to the Canons at St George’s, concerning business he was conducting in London [SGC XI.C.5]. He reports a meeting with the King’s Almoner – none other than Thomas (later Cardinal) Wolsey – during which he was shown a copy of the king’s will, which promised a grant of lands to the College of St George worth £600 a year. The king intended to transfer the property ‘in mortmain’, a legal arrangement in which the College, as the new corporate owner, would be barred from selling it in the future.
The letter is not dated, but Nicholas West became Dean of Windsor in 1509, and Canon John Esterfield, addressed by name in the letter, died in 1513, placing it between those dates. During this period, in addition to his role as Dean, West acted as an ambassador to the kings of Scotland and France at a time when war with both threatened. From this we know that he was a skilled diplomat and negotiator.
His skills were put to good use, as other letters reveal that there was much debate in the King’s Council about whether Henry VIII should make the grant during his lifetime or after his death. From the Dean and Canons’ perspective, the sooner they could receive the income the better, but the king’s finances would benefit from keeping it as long as possible before reaping the perceived spiritual rewards of granting money to St George’s Chapel. West’s meeting with Wolsey to see the terms of the king’s will makes it clear that the latter course was decided upon.
Lands yielding a yearly income of £600 (around £300,000 in today’s money) were conveyed to the Dean and Canons by Edward VI in 1547, following Henry VIII’s death in January of that year. This sizeable gift included property in eleven different counties, including Cambridgeshire, Cornwall and the City of London. They became known as the lands of the New Dotation.
‘Dotation’ is not a word in frequent use today. Its meaning is close to that of the more familiar ‘donation’ but the subtle differences are significant. ‘Donation’ stems from the Latin verb dono, ‘I give’. ‘Dotation’, on the other hand, originates from doto, ‘I endow’; a transaction – be it of money, property, rights – with the intention of enriching the receiver and providing them with an income.
Henry VIII’s New Dotation was a calculated gift with three specific aims: to pay for the employment of two priests to say masses for his soul, to finance four obits a year and to enable the College of St George to maintain a full complement of Poor Knights. Edward III had originally intended that there should be twenty-six, but no more than three had ever been resident at once. Henry VIII’s will stipulated that there should now be thirteen men, including a Governor, supported by the College at all times.
The New Dotation did not come entirely free of charge. On 20 December 1546 the Dean and Canons made a grant of land to Henry VIII in exchange for the promise of more properties in the latest version of his will – at least thirty years after Nicholas West first discussed it with Thomas Wolsey. This included land in Blandford, Dorset; Iver, Buckinghamshire; New Windsor itself and the City of London. It is telling that Henry VIII acquired these lands before his death, whilst still enjoying the income from the property offered in exchange after his demise.
Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist