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Rede, William (c.1315–1385), bishop of Chichester, theologian, and astronomer, was a native of the diocese of Exeter, although he was linked with the county of Kent through the patronage of Nicholas Sandwich. Rede's will states that Sandwich, who was lord of Bilsington and Folkestone, cared for or educated him (educavit) from boyhood to maturity, but it is not known how they met. A note by Robert Walter, Rede's secretary, intimates that he was studying at Oxford at least as early as 1337, but the only firm information as to his education comes from the records of Merton College, where he was a fellow by 1344, still so in 1357, second bursar in 1352–3, and sub-warden in 1353–4 [see ]. At some time before 1362 he became doctor of theology. His origins in a district associated with Exeter College, Oxford, and his gifts to that college, have led to otherwise unsupported claims that he was a fellow there, but the evidence is slender, and there is no entry in the rector's rolls to suggest that he was ever a fellow of that college.

Rede was given recommendations (letters dimissory) in 1354 by the bishop of Exeter and was ordained successively subdeacon, deacon, and priest, on the title of Merton College, in the diocese of Rochester, Kent, in 1356. He enjoyed a succession of ecclesiastical appointments, including those of archdeacon of Rochester (1359) and provost of Wingham, Kent (1363), which he vacated on his promotion to bishop of Chichester by papal provision on 11 October 1368; the temporalities were restored on 4 June 1369. He was consecrated by the pope at Avignon on 2 September 1369—he spoke in his will of Pope Urban V (r. 1362–70) as his promotor—and he occupied this see until his death.

Rede was active in public life: he lent money to the king, he built a castle on his manor at Amberley, and he was a trier of petitions in various parliaments from 1369 to 1380. But although he made collections of provincial constitutions and of documents concerning his see, no register survives to shed light on the day-to-day administration of his diocese, and he is best remembered as a scholar and scientist. His collection of some 370 books must have been one of the largest privately owned libraries in the country, and was greater than that of any Oxford college. It was rich in theology, natural philosophy, astronomy, and astrology. By his will, proved on 9 November 1385, he left 250 books to various Oxford colleges—including 100 to Merton—of which at least 58 survive. Many of them show Rede's marked scientific interests, but one of the most important reflects Mertonian theological concerns: copied for Rede and paid for by money given by Sandwich, it contains Thomas Bradwardine's De causa Dei and Thomas Buckingham's Quaestiones, searching for a compromise between the errors of Pelagius, Cicero, and Scotus on the problem of human freedom of action. Rede not only provided handsomely for the contents of Merton College Library, but at some time in the period 1373–8 he also provided much, perhaps most, of the money to build what amounts to the main shell of the college library in what is now called Mob Quad, and money for library fittings. The bishop's portrait was at some stage placed in the library, for John Leland reported having seen it and an inscription saying that Rede caused the library to be built.

By his will Rede bequeathed or confirmed numerous other gifts of money, books, chalices, and plate, but to Merton he also left an important gift of scientific instruments. One of his own astrolabes had been bequeathed to him by his somewhat older contemporary Simon Bredon (d. 1372), a former fellow of Merton who had for a time been prebendary and canon of Wingham. Rede's own will is less specific than Bredon's in respect of his astronomical instruments, but among his gifts to the college made in his lifetime (probably in 1374) were the following: an albion (an instrument designed by Richard Wallingford, d. 1336), an equatorium (by which, as by the albion, planetary positions could be calculated), a quadrant, a chilindrum (a type of sundial), a celestial sphere and an armillary sphere, a sea chart and a constellation chart. One or two of these can perhaps be identified with instruments still extant in the college, notably the equatorium. A college list of 1452 mentions also what was probably an observing instrument (triangulum, possibly a triquetrum) in a box inscribed with Rede's name.

This cornucopia of fourteenth-century science reflected more than the largess of a relatively wealthy bishop. It represented Rede's own interests and expertise. His name was known in astronomical circles throughout England, and even abroad, for an edition he drew up, around 1340, of the astronomical tables known as the Alfonsine. These tables, which continued a long tradition going back through Islamic astronomy to Claudius Ptolemy (second-century Alexandria) and beyond, were produced under the patronage of Alfonso X of León and Castile between 1263 and 1272. Versions of the tables, much modified in Paris, were circulating in England by the 1330s. Rede's modification of them—he adapted them to the longitude of Oxford, and in other slight respects—was not especially remarkable from an astronomical point of view, but a simple set of canons he wrote to facilitate their use was to be much copied. In 1348 a superior version was issued, possibly by William Batecombe, but Rede's tables long continued to have their adherents. Their popularity can be partly explained by the fact that they were intuitively slightly easier to grasp than their Parisian models, and also by the fact of Oxford's being the most important centre of astronomical education in England at the time. They supplied an important need, namely, a basis for astrological calculation. Rede's astrological motives are made plain by two surviving examples of his work, one a set of prognostications based on an eclipse of the moon and a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in 1345, the other a set of calculations done in 1357 for a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that was due to take place no less than eight years hence (October 1365). In the first case he performed the calculations, while the prognostication proper was done by his Merton colleague John Ashenden (d. 1368).

Among Rede's pupils in astronomy was Reginald Lambourne, fellow of Merton in 1353 and still in 1357, who left to become a Benedictine monk. Shortly after Rede was elevated to the see of Chichester, Lambourne sent him an astrological prognostication of the weather covering the years up to 1374, which is one of several tracts collected together by Rede and bound together in what is now Bodl. Oxf., MS Digby 176. This is one of three volumes left by Rede for the use of his kin, and is the single most useful source for his scientific interests. Its table of contents is in the hand of Robert Walter, his secretary. Nicholas Sandwich supplied part, and other parts came from the executors of Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) and Richard Campsall (d. 1360). The earliest work of Rede's to which a reasonably precise date can be attached, a solar almanac, or set of tables of the sun's position for the years 1341–4 inclusive, is included in the volume. According to Robert Walter it was prepared in 1337, probably on the basis of his more comprehensive Alfonsine tables, which can therefore be roughly assigned to the period 1337–40—the latter a date used as a standard of reference (radix) in them. Since he is likely to have studied astronomy for five or six years before being competent to do this kind of work, he was of the order of seventy years old when he died on 18 August 1385 at Selsey, Sussex. He was buried in the chancel before the high altar of Selsey church, in his own diocese.

J. D. North


Emden, Oxf. · J. D. North, ‘The Alfonsine tables in England’, Stars, minds and fate: essays in ancient and medieval cosmology (1989), 327–59 · F. M. Powicke, The medieval books of Merton College (1931) · J. R. L. Highfield, ‘The relations between the church and the English crown during the pontificates of Clement V and John XXII, 1305–1334’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1951, 446–71 · Richard of Wallingford: an edition of his writings, ed. and trans. J. D. North, 3 vols. (1976), vol. 3, appx 15 [Lat. orig., with parallel Eng. trans.] · K. V. Snedegar, ‘John Ashenden and the Scientia Astrorum Mertonensis’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1988, 55–9 · G. A. Clarkson, ‘Notes on Amberley, its castle, church, &c’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 17 (1865), 194–7


Bodl. Oxf., MS Digby 176

Wealth at death  

considerable: will, 9 Nov 1385, Powicke, The medieval books, 87–91