Blubery’s Children

School House, Cranbrook

James Lloyd explains why, for nearly five hundred years, the education of the children of a Wealden town has depended on the sex of an unborn child.

On the twenty-second of March 1518, five hundred and ninety-eight years ago this Tuesday, a will was proven before the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. There was nothing so very unusual in that but it was the will itself that was special. It was the will of John Blubery, described in the text as a yeoman of the King’s Armoury. Blubery had led an interesting and not always easy life and, in his final testament, he left behind him a gift, though it depended on a condition that today might be regarded as a shade sexist.

John Blubery was born during the Wars of the Roses and in the early sixteenth century, when England was supposedly at peace, the parish of Cranbrook in the Weald of Kent was still being terrorized by the goons of Lord Abergavenny, a supporter of Yorkist pretenders to Henry VII’s throne. Cranbrook was a target because its leading aristocrat at the time was Sir Richard Guildford, lord of the manors of Hemsted and High Halden and a loyal servant of the Lancastrians. In 1483, he had been attainted and his lands seized by Richard III, whereupon he joined Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and last of the Lancastrians, in exile in Brittany. While there, Henry appointed him Master of the Ordnance, a post he got to hold for real after Henry’s victory at Bosworth. Sir Richard (he was knighted on the beach at Milford Haven) organized the celebrations at Henry’s coronation and the new King returned the favour by attending his wedding.

John Blubery, in turn, was a loyal servant of Sir Richard Guildford. While Sir Richard was the titular Master of the Ordnance, it was Blubery who actually did the work, travelling to the Low Countries to survey the armour and weaponry on the market and ordering supplies. The Armoury was based in the Tower of London but in the 1500s Blubery suddenly found himself lodged in the Tower for a different reason: He was a prisoner.

It is not known what Blubery had done to upset King Henry but it is possible that he had been selling concealed commissions to supplement his meagre stipend. Sir Richard himself had lost royal favour in 1505 as a result of financial mismanagement and was briefly imprisoned in the Fleet for debt. In 1506, he saved face by leaving England for Jerusalem, never to return. It may be that Blubery shared his patron’s disgrace but, whereas Sir Richard got off relatively lightly, Blubery was still in gaol when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and he was exempted from the general pardon traditionally issued at an accession, suggesting that his offence, whatever it was, had been extremely serious.

Blubery was not alone in the Tower. A fellow prisoner was Edmund Dudley, a former Speaker who had also managed to offend the King and who made good use of the time by writing The Tree of the Commonwealth, in which he waxed lyrical about the public good to be yielded by education and encouraged the wealthy to donate their money to support scholarship for the poor. It is tempting to imagine that Blubery met Dudley and that it was that interview that inspired the provisions of Blubery’s will.

Blubery was good deal luckier than his cellmate. In 1510, the year in which Dudley was executed, Blubery was finally released and went back to his old job in the Armoury, now headed by Sir Edward Guildford, Richard’s more financially prudent son. In 1511, Henry VIII moved the Armoury to Greenwich. Blubery went with it and, indeed, became its manager. In this capacity, he built up a respectable fortune and a house to prove it, the imaginatively named “Blueberries”, back in Cranbrook.

The house was occupied by his wife, Joan and their daughter of the same name. By 1517, Joan was being courted by a young swain of the town surnamed Morris. In fact, “courted” is putting it mildly: He got her pregnant. Despite the official morals of the religion and period, this was not necessarily a scandalous situation (the main purpose of marriage was, of course, progeny and there was only one way of verifying a potential wife’s fecundity) but it did put the father in a bit of stitch. By this time, Blubery was dying and he had retired to Cranbrook to write his will. It is a very short document (only fifteen lines long), leaving gifts to the church and the silverware to his wife.

The real complication, however, was what to do about the house. Blubery suspected that he would not live to see his grandchild born (and how right he was), which meant that he did not know when he wrote his will whether it would be a boy or a girl. This mattered in Tudor times. A boy would need the house, as a base of operations from which to avoid annoying the King and in which he could eventually raise his own family. A girl, by contrast, would just live with her parents until she was married, after which she could move in with her husband and start spending his money instead. In such a case, what to do about the house? Remembering (one would like to believe) his chat with Edward Dudley between the bars of their cells, John Blubery put pen to parchment and wrote as follows:

“The chief mansion place of my land to my wife during her life and then to the child of my daughter, if it be a man child that she go withal and if it be not a man child that then this my chief place and residue of my lands at the disposition of William Lynch, to found a free school house for all the poor children of the town of Cranbrook aforesaid, after the decease of my wife and the schoolmaster to be chosen and admitted by the said William Lynch.”

John Blubery died in 1517 and the decease of his wife occurred later the same year. The child with whom Joan Morris went turned out to be a girl and so William Lynch, a wealthy cloth merchant of the town, became trustee of the Blubery house and established a school in it, as his late friend had directed. The “poor children” of the will meant, of course, boys and it is ironic that, had Blubery’s own grandchild been a boy, none of them would have benefited from his posthumous largesse.

The school barely survived its first fifty years, when William Lynch’s grasping son Simon tried to take control of the property. Conversely, it would attract the patronage of Good Queen Bess, who granted the school its charter and appointed the first Governors. Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School, as it became known, would fall into near-decay in the eighteenth century, from which the only legacy was the re-built school house. It was resuscitated spectacularly in the nineteenth century, only to be bankrupted by successive headmasters and be saved by the County Council at the cost of its independence and of its name, which in 1910 was changed to the prize-winningly insipid Cranbrook School.

It is a chequered story, five hundred years in the telling, which reflects, in its ups and downs, the character of the man who started it all. John Blubery was a nouveau riche civil servant, with sticky fingers, a criminal record and a wayward daughter but he was also the man to whom generations of Cranbrook boys (and, since the ‘seventies, girls) have owed their education. King Henry VII might not have liked him very much but to some of us he is a hero.

Photo credit: School House, Cranbrook (James Lloyd)


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