Sir Thomas WHITE

Lord Mayor of London

Born: 1492, Reading, Berkshire, England

Died: 12 Feb 1566/7, Gloucester Hall, Oxford University, Oxfordshire, England

Father: William WHITE of Rickmansworth


Married 1: Avice ? (d. 26 Feb 1558)

Married 2: Joan LAKE (dau. and co-heiress of John Lake of London) (w. of Sir Ralph Warren) 25 Nov 1558

Copyright of David Nash Ford.

Biography reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Berkshire History Website.

Sir Thomas White, the founder of St. John's College, Oxford, was born in Reading in 1492, the son of William White of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, clothier, and his wife Mary, daughter of John Kebblewhite of South Fawley, Berkshire. He was probably taught first at the Reading Grammar School, founded by Henry VII, to which he gave two scholarships; but he was brought up "almost from infancy" in London. He was apprenticed at the age of twelve to Hugh Acton, a prominent member of the Merchant Taylors' Company, who left him 100 upon his death in 1520. With this and his small patrimony, he began business for himself in 1523. In 1530, he was first renter warden of the Merchant Taylors' Company. From this, he passed on to the senior wardenship about 1533, and was master probably in 1535.

Thomas appears in 1533 as one of those to whom the nun of Kent made revelations. In 1535, he was assessed for the subsidy at 1,000, which shows him to have been, by this time, a prosperous clothier. He was a successful cloth merchant and made his first benevolent gift in 1542 when he made a gift (loan?) to the city of Coventry for the purchase of park land. In 1545 he gave (or lent) 2000 to the city of Bristol. He resided in the parish of St. Michael, Cornhill, and, in 1544, was elected by the court, ninth alderman for Cornhill. On his refusing "to take upon himself the weight thereof", he was committed to Newgate and the windows of his shop were ordered to be "closed so long as he should continue in his obstinacy". He was not long recalcitrant. He is included in the list of Aldermen of the City of London who, along with certain members of the Livery Companies, in 1544 lent the King 21,263 for his war against Scotland. He contributed 300 to the city's loan to the King. The amount was not enough and the King took money directly from the people of London, offering them the alternative of serving in the army. In 1547, he was Sheriff of London. In 1549-50, he aided his guild with money to purchase the obit rent charges.

In 1553 he helped to open trade across Russia with the object of finding a route to China. Of three vessels sent to north Russia only one escaped freezing to death and reached Archangel. The English merchants succeeded in attracting trade with Russia through the Baltic and drew great wealth from the furs and hemp they bought and sold.

In 1551, the trust-deed between his company and the city of Coventry was drawn up, by which large sums became available after his death for the charity loans & co. In 1553, he was one of the promoters of the Muscovy Company.

During Duke of Northumberland's attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, the Lord Mayor, Sir George Barnes, was summoned to Greenwich on 8 Jul 1553, along with 6 or 8 Aldermen, 6 Merchant Staplers and 6 Adventurers, the latter of which included 4 members of the Merchant Taylors' Company, including Richard Hilles who was thus a signatory to the plot. The Merchant Taylors' Court was split between the Roman or Marian faction and that of Lady Jane Grey, with White clearly in the former and Hilles in the latter. Lady Jane's supporters capitulated on 19 Jul and Mary succeeded to the throne.

On 2 Oct 1553, he was knighted, in the presence of the Queen Mary, by the Earl of Arundel, Lord Steward. He was elected Lord Mayor of London on 29 Oct 1553. Machyn records the splendour of his pageant.

On 13 Nov, Thomas sat on the commission for the trial of Lady Jane Grey and her adherents. On 3 Jan 1554, he received the Spanish envoys and, ten days later, restored the custom of going in procession to St. Paul's for the high mass. On the breaking out of Wyatt's rebellion, he arrested the Marquis of Northampton on 25 Jan 1564. He received Mary on 1 Feb, when she made her appeal to the loyalty of the citizens and, on the 3rd, repulsed the rebels from the bridge-gate at Southwark. His prudence and sagacity preserved London for the Queen. On 10 Feb, he presided over the commission to try the rebels. In the further suppression of tumult, he seems to have come into conflict with Gardiner in the Star Chamber. On 7 Mar 1554, in pursuance of the Queen's proclamation, he issued orders to the aldermen to admonish all residents of their wards to follow the catholic religion, which he repeated with special application in Apr. The unpopularity caused by this possibly led to an attempt to assassinate him as he was hearing a sermon at St. Paul's on 10 Jun. On 19 Aug, he received Felipe and Mary at their entry in state into the city. His mayoralty was marked by several sumptuary regulations, and by a proclamation (May 1554) against games, morris-dances and interludes.

At the end of his year of office, White devoted himself to acts of benevolence outside the city. His friend, Sir Thomas Pope had recently founded Trinity College, in Oxford. White already held land in the neighbourhood of Oxford and the example of Pope turned his thoughts to the endowment of a college. He is said to have been directed by a dream to the site of the dissolved Cistercian house of St. Bernard outside the city walls. On 1 May 1555, he obtained the royal license to found a college for "the learning of the sciences of holy divinity, philosophy and good arts", dedicated to the praise and honour of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John Baptist (the patron saint of the Merchant Taylors' Company). The society was to consist of a president and thirty graduate or non-graduate scholars. In 1557, the scope and numbers of the foundation were enlarged. The endowment of the college connected it closely with the neighbourhood of Oxford, but it was not a rich foundation. The statutes given were based on those of William of Wykeham for New College. Many letters among the college manuscripts show White's constant care of the college he had founded. In 1559, he purchased Gloucester Hall, Oxford, where he is said to have resided in his later years. He was frequently entertained at Trinity College. Gloucester Hall he made into a hall for a hundred scholars. It was opened on St. John Baptist's day 1560.

Sir Thomas White's association with Cumnor is emphasised by the fact that in this hall the body of Amy Robsart lay before burial at St. Mary's. His interest in education was not confined to his own college. He took a considerable part in the foundation of the Merchant Taylors' School, for which Richard Hilles was mainly responsible. In 1560, he sent further directions and endowments to his college. But, from 1562, he suffered severely from the falling-off in the cloth trade. He was unable to fulfill the obligation of his marriage contract. He was still able, however, to settle some considerable trusts on different towns, the London livery companies, and his own kindred. These arrangements were finally completed in his will, dated 8 and 24 Nov 1566. At the beginning of the next year, on 2 Feb 1567, he made further statutes for his college, by which he ordered that forty-three scholars from the Merchant Taylor's School should be "assigned and named by continual succession" to St. John's College by the master and wardens of the company and the president and two senior fellows of the college.

On 12 Jan 1567, Sir Thomas wrote a touching letter to his college, of which he desired that every one of the fellows and scholars should have a copy, counselling brotherly love, in view doubtless of the religious differences which had already caused the cession of two, if not three, presidents. Later letters concerned the jointure of his wife and the performance of choral service in the college chapel. He died on 12 Feb 1567, either in the college or at Gloucester Hall. He was buried in the college chapel. Edmund Campion delivered a funeral oration.

White died a poor man. Much of what he had intended for his college never reached it and the provisions of his will in regard both to his property and the college would have been still less fully carried out but for the astute management ('partly by pious persuasions, and partly by judicious delays') of his executor, Sir William Cordell, Master of the Rolls. White was a man of sane judgment and genuine piety. He has rarely, if ever, been surpassed among merchants as a benefactor to education and to civic bodies. He founded the 'Thomas White charity', which originated just after his death. He had bequeathed his fortune to buy land. The profits made from renting this land were to be given to young men in Leicester, Coventry, Nottingham, Warwick and Northampton. Each year, a small number of young men, originally 4 were given a sum of money to set themselves up in business or provide education. They had nine years to pay back this money, and no interest was charged.

Sir Thomas was twice married. His first wife, Avice, whose surname is unknown, died on 26th Feb 1558 and was buried in the parish of St. Mary Aldermary. On 25 Nov of the same year, he married Joan, daughter and co-heiress of John Lake of London, and widow of Sir Ralph Warren. He had no issue.

Sir Thomas White has frequently been confused with a namesake, Sir Thomas White of South Warnborough in Hampshire, who was knighted on the same day, and whose wife's name, Agnes, is not uncommonly interchanged with Avice. The confusion is rendered the more natural from the fact that the White property at South Warnborough eventually passed into the hands of St. John's College, Oxford. But this was by the gift of Archbishop Laud, who obtained it from William Sandys in 1636.

There is a statue of Thomas White on the Clocktower in Leicester. There are various other memorials to him in London, Coventry, Oxford, Nottingham, Warwick and Northampton.

Edited from Leslie Stephens & Sidney Lee's "Dictionary of National Biography" (1891).
to Bios Page to Home Page