Benson, William (d.1549) (DNB00)

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BENSON or BOSTON, WILLIAM (d. 1549), abbot and first dean of Westminster, a native of Boston, Lincolnshire, was probably educated in some religious house belonging to the Benedictine order, of which he was a member, merging, according to custom, his own name of Benson in the name of the town where he was born. Until 1521, when he graduated B.D. at Cambridge, nothing is known of his history. He took the degree of D.D. in 1528. Two years later he appears as one of the doctors to whom the university referred the question of the validity of the marriage of Henry VIII with Katharine of Arragon, when its opinion on the matter was sought by the king, and voted with the majority against the marriage. In the following year (27 March) he was elected abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Mary and St. Modwen in Burton-on-Trent. About 1532–3 he resigned this office to be elected abbot of Westminster, although not a previous member of the chapter, as every abbot had been since William Humez, who died in 1222. It is probable that a sum of 661l. 13s. 4d., which Cromwell received from him about the same time, was a part of the price of the preferment, and the 500l., to secure which three of the best manors belonging to the abbey were assigned to Cromwell and Paulet shortly after his election, may have been the balance (cf. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, vi. 578, No. 25). Benson assisted the Bishop of London at the christening of the Lady Elizabeth, which took place in September 1533 in the Church of the Friars Minors of the Order of St. Francis at Greenwich. In the following year he was appointed, jointly with Cranmer, Lord Chancellor Audeley, and Cromwell, to administer the oath to accept, on pain of high treason, the statute defining the succession to the crown, in the preamble of which the marriage of Queen Katharine was declared void (25 Henry VIII, cap. 22). Sir Thomas More finding himself unable to take the oath without at the same time distinguishing between the preamble and the operative part of the act, Benson endeavoured to induce him to ‘change his conscience.’ More, however, proving obstinate in his refusal to take the oath, was placed under arrest on Monday 13 April, Benson having the custody of him until the following Friday, when he was committed to the Tower. This same year (1534) we find Benson defending the privilege of sanctuary claimed by the collegiate church of St. Martin's-le-Grand, which had been annexed to the abbey by Henry VII, against the corporation of London, which in times past had made more than one strenuous effort to suppress what was felt to be an intolerable nuisance. They failed, however, on this as on previous occasions, and Benson had a document drawn up and enrolled in the Court of Chancery accurately defining the extent of the privilege. He subscribed the articles of religion formulated in 1536. This year he surrendered to the king the manors of Neyte (whence Knightsbridge), Hyde, now Hyde Park, Eybury, and Todington, the advowson of Chelsea, some meadows near the horse-ferry between Westminster and Lambeth, Covent Garden, and some lands at Greenwich, in exchange for Hurley Priory in Berkshire. In the following year (15 Oct.) he was present at the christening of the Prince of Wales at Hampton Court. In 1539 he was summoned to the reactionary parliament which passed the law of the Six Articles. Early next year (16 Jan.) he surrendered his monastery to the king, and on the establishment of the cathedral was made its dean. In this year he signed the document by which Henry's marriage with Anne of Cleves was declared a nullity. He was present at convocation in 1547, when the right of the clergy to marry was discussed, and declared himself in favour of the lawfulness of matrimony. He does not, however, seem to have been married himself. In an undated letter to Cromwell, clearly written before 1540, he begs to be relieved of his office, describing himself as so feeble, ‘by reason of divers most grievous diseases,’ that staying at his post would not only shorten his life but imperil the interests of his soul. He remained there, however, for many years afterwards, during which the abbey became greatly impoverished, owing partly to the depreciation of money, but chiefly to the rapacity of the Protector Somerset, who in 1549 secularised its appanage of St. Martin's-le-Grand, and extorted the surrender of fourteen of its manors by a threat to demolish the entire structure. Benson's death, which took place in this year, is supposed to have been hastened by distress caused by this spoliation. He was buried in the abbey in the chapel of St. Blaize, but the inscription on his tomb has long been obliterated.

[Widmore's Hist. West. Abb. 126; Neale and Brayley's Hist. West. Abb. i. 103; Strype's Cranmer, bk. i. cap. vi.; Strype's Mem. (fol.) ii. pt. i. 4; Strype's Ann. ii. pt. ii., App. bk. i. No. xxxvii.; Burnet's Reform. (Pocock), I. 256, 410, II. 175, i. 286, 503; State Papers Henry VIII, i. 635; Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, v. g. 166 (53), g. 278 (25), vi. 228, i. 472, 661, g. 417 (20) (21), g. 578 (25), g. 1111 (4); Sir Thomas More's Works (fol. London, 1537), 1430; Ellis's Letters, 3rd ser. iii. 273; Rymer's Fœdera (2nd ed.), xiv. 459; Dugdale's Monast. (ed. Caley), i. 280; Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy), iii. 346; Kempe's St. Martin's-le-Grand, 163, 200; 8 Rep. Dep. Keep. Pub. Rec., App. ii. 48; Dart's West. i. 66; Cooper's Athenæ Cantab. i. 537.]

J. M. R.