Bishops John Alcock and Nicholas West
John Alcock was bishop of Ely from 1485 to 1500. He began the legal steps to found Jesus College, and a second bishop of Ely, Nicholas West, completed them 20 years later.
In 1496 King Henry VII and Pope Alexander VI gave permission to John Alcock for Cambridge's derelict Benedictine nunnery to be converted into a college of graduate priests studying for degrees in theology.
However, it wasn't until 1516 that Nicholas West provided the College with a legal constitution, which (with many amendments) remained in force until 1842.
Alcock and West followed similar paths
Both bishops had long, successful academic careers culminating in higher degrees in civil and canon (church) law, Alcock probably at Cambridge, West at Bologna.
Both spent their most active years in the upper levels of government. Alcock was mostly based in England, engaged in legal administration and royal building programmes (‘the King’s Works’), and West travelled abroad on diplomatic missions for Henry VII and Henry VIII.
They were both appointed to Ely, one of England’s richest sees, as a reward for their services to the crown. As bishops of Ely both were devout, diligent, and effective managers of their diocese, aiming to raise the standards both of parish clergy and monastic observance. They also preached regularly. In February 1488 Alcock’s sermon to the University lasted for more than two hours; several of his other sermons were printed by Caxton’s former apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde, making him the first English bishop to see his sermons in this new medium.
When they died, in 1500 and 1533 respectively, each was buried in a sumptuous chantry chapel erected in the north east (Alcock) and south east (West) corners of Ely Cathedral.
John Alcock was born around 1430, the son of a merchant in Hull. He later erected a chantry chapel for his parents in Hull's Holy Trinity Church, with a grammar school attached. He himself attended the grammar school at the nearby Beverley Minster, from which he apparently came to Cambridge and stayed to obtain a doctorate in Law by 1459.
He is not known to have been a member of any College: at this time only a small minority of students were, and they were 'poor'. As a merchant's son Alcock was probably wealthy. He may have lived in Peterhouse after becoming a graduate; in 1481 he gave 55 manuscripts to its library (45 of them are still there).
From Cambridge Alcock went to work as a lawyer in London, initially in diocesan administration and the church courts, and then as a chancery clerk.
His administrative ability was soon recognised. He was appointed Keeper of the Rolls in 1462, and by 1468 he had been rewarded not only with the rectory of a London parish but also with revenue from both St Paul’s and Salisbury cathedrals. In April 1471 Alcock was appointed as Dean of St Stephen’s, the royal chapel in Westminster Palace.
Crown servant and bishop
In the same year Alcock was involved in diplomatic negotiations with Scotland and was placed in effective charge of the estates of the infant Prince Edward (the future Edward V).
Two years later, having meanwhile been appointed bishop of Rochester, he became the prince’s tutor and president of his council at Ludlow, with responsibility for overseeing the Welsh Marches and the principality.
In 1474 he was moved as bishop from Rochester to Worcester; he was appointed Lord President of Wales in 1476.
Under Henry VII
In 1483 Edward V was deposed (and possibly murdered) which might well have ended Alcock’s career in government had his successor Richard III not been defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
Alcock was shortly appointed as Lord Chancellor, and stayed in that role until Archbishop Morton returned from exile in March 1487. As Chancellor, Alcock opened (and preached to) Henry VII’s first parliament, and baptised his first son, Prince Arthur.
Rewarded with the bishopric of Ely that Morton had vacated for Canterbury, Alcock remained one of the King’s most trusted counsellors, among whose families were several of the College’s earliest benefactors, as was the King’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.
At Ely Alcock undertook substantial building works at his palace, rebuilt the episcopal manor at Downham, helped to rebuild the University church, Great St Mary’s, and of course planned the conversion of the city's priory into a new College.
John Bale wrote that John Alcock “devoted himself from childhood to learning and piety [and] made such a proficiency in virtue that no one in England had a greater reputation for sanctity”.
A 17th century church historian, Thomas Fuller, wrote that Alcock had “fared very sparingly all his life long, and… conquered the baits of his wanton flesh by his fasting, studying, watching, and such like Christian discipline”.
Nicholas West was born around 1470, and from 1478 to 1483 he was at school at Eton. He then entered King’s College, Cambridge as a scholar and became a Fellow in 1486, the year before he took his BA degree. He may have studied at Oxford as well as at Bologna, and had obtained his doctorate in Law before 1500.
In 1509 West was appointed as Dean of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The chapel’s spectacular fan vaulting was completed during West’s time as Dean.
From 1502 onwards West was increasingly occupied in diplomatic missions – before 1509 for Henry VII, afterwards for Henry VIII – to Emperor Maximilian, to Duke George of Saxony, to the Low Countries, to Spain, to Archduke Charles, to Louis XII and to James IV of Scotland.
He was still engaged as ambassador in France when he was appointed bishop of Ely in 1515, and was involved in the negotiations at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and on subsequent missions to France and to Scotland.
As Bishop of Ely
West was one of several bishops in the early decades of the 16th century who were keen to support and develop England’s two universities, increasing the number of their colleges and salaried teaching posts.
He was the protégé of two founders of Oxford colleges: Bishop Fox of Winchester (who founded Corpus Christi) and Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York (who founded Christ Church). He was also a close friend of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of Cambridge University, effectively the founder of both Christ’s and St John’s Colleges.
West was the patron of Cambridge’s first university printer, John Siberch, and its second lecturer in ancient Greek, Richard Croke. His own library contained more than 250 books, a very large number for the time.
Chaplain to the Queen
West was chaplain to Queen Katherine of Aragon, and supported her in the divorce proceedings initiated by King Henry VIII; she went to West's episcopal manor at Hatfield in Hertfordshire when she was forced to leave her London home. After this, West, Fisher and another bishop, John Clerk, appealed to Rome against the ecclesiastical legislation of the 1532 Parliament.
West died a very rich man with a reputation for charity: 200 poor people were said to have been provided with food and drink every day at his palace in Ely.