It is probably safe to describe John Harman, better known as Bishop Vesey, as Sutton Coldfield’s most famous son. His long life spanned huge changes in both civic and religious matters, and his vision for Sutton Coldfield in both these spheres resulted in the establishment of the Town’s first Corporation, a new school and significant additions to the church of Holy Trinity, where he is buried.
Roger Lea has written an excellent summary of his achievements as follows:
“John Harman, alias Vesey, born in Sutton Coldfield c.1451, was inducted as Bishop of Exeter in 1519. He rose to great power and wealth under King Henry VIII, and was a renaissance scholar. He turned his attention to Sutton Coldfield in 1523, finding it an impoverished manor, and began to improve it, first building himself a fine mansion, Moor Hall, in 1527, where he lived in lavish style.
The Manor of Sutton received a Royal Charter in 1528, making it the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield governed by a Corporation, the Warden and Society, the Charter being granted thanks to the influence of Bishop Vesey. He then showered benefactions on the town, the two most enduring being Sutton Park and the Grammar School. His transformation of Sutton was a unique event in the history of the town, and is rightly commemorated in the Vesey Memorial in Vesey Gardens in front of the Church.”
While received wisdom has it that Vesey was born in a house still standing in Moor Hall Drive, this is not proven, nor is his date of birth (given as 1452 on his tomb in Holy Trinity, but suggested on the bronze tablet on the memorial in the Vesey Gardens to be c.1462). Anomalies in his later career, together with his presumed very long life of over 100 years suggest there may be inaccuracies in dates.
We do know he was born John Harman to William Harman, a yeoman, and his wife Joan, that the family name was changed to Vesey, possibly because a relative of that name educated John in his childhood.
The chronicler of Warwickshire’s antiquities, Dugdale, claims that Vesey died in his 103rd year, hence the birth date of 1452. Roger Lea notes:
“Most accounts of Vesey, such as the Dictionary of National Biography and W.K.Riland Bedford’s works, prefer to give the later date of 1465 for his birth, on the basis that he is known to have entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1482, and the usual age for going to university at that time was 17. Vesey, christened John Harman, was the eldest of four children and as his father, William Harman, is known to have died in 1471, a later date than 1465 would be hard to justify.”
He certainly attended Magdalen College Oxford, gaining a doctorate in canon and civil law, and also trained as a cleric.
Apparently Vesey became a friend of Thomas Wolsey during their education at Magdalen College.
At Oxford he became Professor of Civil Law, but not long after, in 1489, became part of the court of Elizabeth of York, Queen to Henry VII.
His clerical career began in 1495 when he became a chaplain to the chapel of St Blaize at the Manor House in Sutton, succeeding a relative. Clerical appointments were many over subsequent years. At some point until 1508 Vesey served as Archdeacon of Barnstaple, The day-to-day work of parishes and even dioceses was usually conducted by curates or other clergy!
In 1509, Wolsey became a Canon of Winchester Cathedral and Chaplain to Henry VIII. Vesey was appointed a Canon of Exeter Cathedral and became Bishop of Exeter in 1519 receiving from the King “the temporalities of the see”, worth about £1,500 a year.
Roger Lea notes:
“In 1526, when Princess Mary was 11, a household was established for her at Ludlow under the tutelage of Bishop Vesey, who had just been appointed President of the Court of the Marches of Wales, based at Ludlow Castle (in the Diocese of Worcester). Vesey was described by Thomas More as “a man of deep learning and of a wide reputation for holiness”, and was reputed to be the most accomplished courtier of his age.”
Return to Sutton
Bishop Vesey turned his attention to his home town in 1527, establishing further services at the church, giving a pair of organs and adding side aisles in 1530 and also adding bells from the demolished priory at Canwell.
WK Riland Bedford in his history of the town suggests he had lost influence at court and was looking to return to his home town as a period of retirement. This also coincided with the death of his mother.
He was apparently moved by reading Thomas More’s Utopia to seek to develop in his native town a robust civic structure, and so was instrumental in the Royal Charter being granted by Henry VIII to the town in 1528, conferring the status of Royal Town and establishing a Warden and Society of 23 men.
He set up the grammar school which still bears his name and secured Sutton Park for the people of the Town.
Vesey also built the new Moot Hall (for a law court and meeting place) with a prison beneath, and the marketplace which in turn helped to revive the fortunes of the Town. He built two stone bridges at Curdworth and Water Orton – the latter still stands – and 51 stone houses, four of which survive today. Many of these were in strategic places on the outskirts so that some sense of order could be imposed against ‘marauders’ on the two major routes across England that were at the very edges of the Town.
During the reign of Edward VI, Vesey was removed from the See of Exeter, with a pension of £485 a year. During her brief reign, Mary I, a Roman Catholic, must have remembered her former tutor kindly, as she restored him to the post in 1553. This creates a neat link with the history of the woodwork from Worcester Cathedral now in Holy Trinity and believed to date from Mary’s reign.
Historians have inevitably been moved to write about Vesey, the man, in terms of his attitude to his home See of Exeter. Dugdale accuses him of plundering Exeter to endow Sutton Coldfield, but records show that the plundering had already started with the dissolution of the monasteries, and that a lot of dismantling of structures and selling of land was happening, with agents along the way receiving ‘cuts’ so that the ultimate loser was indeed the once rich diocese of Exeter.
WK Riland Bedford refers to the eight concurrent church posts held by Vesey (for which he was paid) as evidence of the “corrupt condition of the church before the Reformation” (p14), but this was the regular state of affairs at the time, right or wrong.
Roger Lea writes:
“As to his character, Francis Godwin (Catalogue of the Bishops of England, 1601) says that his erudition, prudence and diplomatic skills commended Vesey to Henry VII and VIII, while Saint Thomas More wrote in a letter to his daughter ‘I happened this evening to be in the company of his lordship John Veysey, a man of deep learning and of a wide reputation for holiness’. Vesey was a prime mover in the collection made by the Bishops to support More’s family when he was in prison for opposing the break with Rome (£1,000 was raised), but when the reformed Church of England was decreed, he was one of the consecrators of Thomas Cranmer as the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury in 1534.”
Bishop Vesey’s Tomb
Vesey certainly died in 1554, either at the implied age of 103 or at least in his nineties!
Roger Lea writes:
“Proving the date of birth seems impossible, but there is one indication of his great age, given by Hugh Latimer, the first Anglican martyr. In 1532 Latimer was tried in convocation for heresy, facing “the full array of staunch conservatives”, not only the Bishop of London, but Warham Lee Gardiner Fisher and Vesey took turns to interrogate him. He wrote “an aged man (Vesey) put forth one question, a very subtle and crafty one”. Warham at the time was 82, while the Bishop of Chichester, Bishop Sherbourne, was 92, so for Vesey to be described as an “aged man” in such company he must surely have been aged 80 rather than 67.”
The Bishop’s tomb is in the North-East corner of the Vesey Chapel, and is probably the most well-known memorial in the church.
The vault is underneath, and originally had a smaller slab on which was placed an effigy of the Bishop, constructed during his lifetime, so likely to be a reasonable representation of the man.
It is thought this effigy was damaged and then renovated in the seventeenth century (1687), and in 1748 it was placed in a niche on the North wall and surrounded by iron railings to protect it.
When the clergy vestry and north porch were built in 1874, the opportunity was taken to open Vesey’s vault and examine the remains. These were carefully re-interred in 1875, sealed with an arch, and the tomb moved out onto the main floor.
This meant the railings were no longer necessary, so these were used as outer gates on the South porch and are still in place today.
The monument, “which survived the Civil War unscathed, is the only monumental effigy of a bishop in Warwickshire.
It depicts him in a bishop’s robes, said to be of pre-reformation form, symbolising his spiritual journey from Catholicism to Protestanism and back while retaining his reputation for holiness.” (Roger Lea).
Church developments during Bishop Vesey’s time
The Bishop made extensive changes to the church. The tower had been added towards the end of the fifteenth century as had the north and south aisles (though not the chapel ends). Having sought changes to the civic development of the town, he turned his attention to the church itself.
Bells were added from the recently dissolved Canwell Priory (one of the many religious houses closed by Henry VIII, in this case in 1525). There would have been one bell before this, known as the ‘sanctus’ bell. It would have summoned people to church and been tolled to alert to news or a death. The term ‘sanctus’ which means holy in Latin, referred to the part of the communion service where the bread (host) is raised to be blessed. The bell would be rung three times to denote this and again as the wine was lifted to be blessed. This is still the practice in many churches especially in the Roman Catholic mass.
Vesey added four bells to the sanctus bell.
Vesey also added extensions to the aisles to north and south (what we now think of as the Vesey and South aisles, as a further north aisle – the current one- was added later). These extensions are now separate spaces and are what we now describe as the Vesey Chapel (north) and choir vestry (south).
This contradicts Dugdale’s view, arising from earlier misuse of the term ‘isle / aisle’ and which is mistakenly perpetuated by Norman Evans in his “Investigation” of the church:
“Dugdale confirms that the Bishop in 1530 gave an organ and in 1533 enlarged the church by building two “Isles”. … As the organ was placed in the South Chapel in 1530, the East ends or ‘chapels’ of the aisles must have been built first and the ‘Isles’ extended along the sides of the Nave three years later. The Bishop is also credited with some repairs to the tower in which it is stated five bells were hung.” (p. 8)
Town developments during Bishop Vesey’s time
When the Bishop returned to his native town for his mother’s funeral in 1523, he is reputed to have found it in a poor state and the people themselves impoverished. He had been in contact with Thomas More at court and read More’s Utopia of 1516. It is said that this inspired him to seek a form of local government through the establishment of a Warden and Society of 24 men to run the town.
Vesey appealed to King Henry VIII to grant a Royal Charter to the Town, including part of the forest and chase which we now know as Sutton Park. The Charter was given in 1528.
As well as extensive work at the church, Vesey also made improvements in the Town as follows:
- the building of 51 stone houses, many at the outskirts of the town, to provide safe dwellings for tenants and in remoter parts to add security for travellers.
- paved roads at a cost of £40. 3s. 8d. at High Street, Mill Street and Coleshill Street, with a new marketplace at the junction of these
- provision for the wool (kersey) trade to flourish in the town
- the establishment of the grammar school in 1527
- two bridges – at Water Orton (still in use) and Curdworth – were built with stone from the old manor house.
Roger Lea writes about the wool trade:
“Bishop Vesey intended that his native town of Sutton Coldfield should thrive. On his travels throughout England, he saw that the cloth trade was the most profitable industry in the 1520s, and accordingly he set about establishing weaving in Sutton.
England’s chief export had for centuries been wool, but by 1500 woollen cloth was being exported rather than raw wool – rolls of broadcloth and kerseys. It was kersey-knitting that Vesey introduced to Sutton Coldfield, a kersey being a piece of cloth about a metre wide and sixteen metres long. Making kerseys was labour-intensive, it could take as many as fifteen people working for a whole week to make one kersey.
Another of Bishop Vesey’s projects to encourage the town to flourish was the building of fifty-one stone houses. Some of these houses had windows that were, for the time, quite large, letting in enough light to enable kersey-knitters to work in the room inside. He then imported a team of skilled weavers from the village of Honeybourne (near Evesham in Worcestershire) to come and make kerseys in Sutton.
There were thousands of sheep on the commons in and around Sutton producing wool in abundance, well-equipped workshops, and a good supply of skilled workers, but still the kersey trade failed to take root. Later historians thought the scheme was ill-fated because the Bishop was guilty of impoverishing his Exeter diocese in order to enrich Sutton, or because he was a favourite of Queen Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”), but by the time Sutton was ready to go into production in the 1530s the cloth trade was in decline; perhaps a few kerseys were woven here, but not enough to make a living.”
For more information visit the website of the Sutton Coldfield Local History Research Group.
Bishop Vesey’s extensive influence on his home town has led to a wealth of writing about him. Much can be found by a quick search of the Internet, including useful information from Birmingham City Archives.
A great deal of interest was created in 1928, when a pageant took place across the Town, and again in 1935 when a play was performed for the Jubilee of King George V. It was these two events that catalysed interest (led by Alderman John Willmott, JP) , in the formation of a lasting and visible memorial to him.
There are images of actors playing the Bishop both from 1928 and 1935. In 1928 this was the Vicar of St Peter’s Maney of the time, Canon Frederick Stanley Golden, and in 1935 it was John Willmott himself.
The Vesey Gardens were created in 1939 on Church Hill next to Holy Trinity, incorporating a memorial to Vesey.
WK Riland Bedford, ‘History of Sutton Coldfield’, 1891, reprinted 1968
Roger Lea – ‘History Spot 345’ in Sutton Coldfield Observer, 23.1.2015
Roger Lea – ‘History Spot 452’ in Sutton Coldfield Observer, 3.3.2017