Robert Sherburne, the Chichester Wolsey

Bishop of Chichester 1508 – 1536, Robert Sherburne features rather a lot in Chichester Cathedral. An ambitious man who wanted to make his mark…. including carving his initials and motto (Dilexi sapientum) on the fireplace of the Hospital of St Cross, Winchester where he spent his boyhood. His father must have held office there. Robert was educated at Winchester College and then on to New College, Oxford. By 1496, he had become Master of St Cross.

Also by 1496, Henry VII described him as ‘King’s Secretary, Councillor and Ambassador to Rome’, attending the Papal court on King’s business. In 1498 he was a commissioner assigned to deal with the followers of Perkin Warbeck. Certainly in 1502, he was in Rome to convey the news of the death of Prince Arthur and then to apply for dispensation for the widowed Catherine of Aragon to marry her brother-in-law Prince Henry. Subsequently he was also involved in meeting Cardinal Campeggio in 1528 to try their divorce!

He was a ‘very industrious priest’, a commissioner involved in arranging the marriage of Princess Margaret Tudor to James VI of Scotland. Then in 1504, part of an embassy to Rome to congratulate Julius II on his election to the papacy.

In 1505 he was appointed Bishop of St David’s in Pembrokeshire. There were certainly allegations of forgery or falsification of records. There may have been connivance with someone in the Papal Curia. He had failed to disclose his retention of the offices of Master of St Cross and Archdeacon of Buckinghamshire. Intentional or unintentional, his appointment was confirmed.

St David’s was of course far too remote for a man of ambition and by 1508 he was appointed to Chichester. He liked to live well. In 1526, in a letter to Wolsey, Sir William Fitzwilliam commented that ‘there is not, within 100 miles, a properer or better cast house more neatly kept, with fairer or pleasanter walks’.

He lived in style at Amberley ‘Castle’, a substantial Bishop’s Palace. He commissioned Lambert Barnard to paint the Nine Worthy Women. An interesting selection of female empire builders, warriors and wives! Whilst they are depicted as fragile and demure, they also bear weapons and part armour. Some were downright bloodthirsty! Queen Thomyris defeated King Cyrus of Persia, forced him to watch the beheading of his generals before his own execution, then throwing his decapitated head into a bucket containing their blood… Other chosen ‘worthies’ included Hippolyta and Cassandra.

They may have been commissioned for the Queen’s Chamber at Amberley for the planned visit of Catherine of Aragon. This never went ahead because Henry was already pursuing Anne Boleyn. The surviving panels are now in the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester and not on public display.

He spent a lot of money in Chichester. He also commissioned Barnard to paint the unique panels in the cathedral transepts, as well as ceiling decoration, some of which survives in the Lady Chapel. The history panels include portraits of all the Bishops from St Wilfred to Robert Sherburne himself…. although all of the ‘portraits’ have the same facial features, that of Bishop Sherburne! Clearly a modest man…

This ‘smaller version’ of Wolsey was certainly involved in supressing some minor religious houses but wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1535, asking to be relieved of further proceedings due to age (81) and health. He retired on 9th June 1536 with a pension of £400 pa, but died only 11 weeks later. His elaborate tomb effigy bears his arms of ‘Shireburne of Stoneyhurst’, quartering Bayley and a ‘pelican in piety’.

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