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Johnson, Robertlocked

  • C. S. Knighton

Johnson, Robert (1540/41–1625), Church of England clergyman and school founder, was second and youngest son of Maurice Johnson, dyer, of Stamford and Jane, daughter of Henry Lacy. Johnson senior and Lacy were among the town's leading citizens, both several times serving as alderman (chief magistrate) and MP. In the 1523 parliament Maurice Johnson's fellow burgess was David Cecil, grandfather of Sir William. These associations with the local merchant oligarchy and the larger world of court and government gave support to Robert Johnson's career as a radical preacher and educationist. Maurice Johnson died in 1551 and Robert, who by the custom of borough English (ultimogeniture) inherited his father's town property, was brought up by an uncle, Robert Smith of Stanground. He was sent to the King's School, Peterborough, and thence to Clare College, Cambridge, where he matriculated sizar on 18 March 1558. He migrated to Trinity College, where he was admitted junior fellow on 10 October 1563 and senior on 3 May 1564. He graduated BA in 1560/61, MA in 1564, and DTh in 1570. He had also studied in Paris and elsewhere in France, having (according to Johnson's son) received the queen's licence to be absent three years for this purpose.

On 27 June 1568 Johnson was ordained deacon at Peterborough, receiving the priesthood from Bishop Jewel of Salisbury, acting for the bishop of London, on 23 December following. In 1569 he preached before the University of Cambridge, and was appointed chaplain to the lord keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon. This key position involved examining candidates for livings in the lord keeper's extensive patronage and offered opportunity for his own advancement. From Bacon's house at Gorhambury, Hertfordshire, Johnson participated in the clergy 'exercise' organized by Archdeacon David Kempe of St Albans, and it was at Johnson's suggestion that these meetings were opened to the laity in 1572.

Johnson had meanwhile (23 June 1569) been nominated by the lord keeper to a canonry at Rochester, and in February 1570 to another at Norwich, where he was installed on 26 July. On 27 June 1571 he was named an original fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. Some time between July 1571 and September 1573 he acquired a canonry of Peterborough (vacated by September 1582). His association with various 'exercises' or 'prophesyings' prompted investigation of his opinions. On 4 July 1571 he was summoned before Archbishop Parker and two other bishops at Lambeth. On his refusal to sign articles in support of the prayer book he was suspended from ministry; but on 14 August, writing from Gorhambury, he submitted with only minor reservations, promising in future to observe the prescribed liturgy and the articles of religion. He offered to resign his Norwich stall, though this was not vacated until 1575. He was further advanced, on 25 July 1572, to a canonry of Windsor, which he retained for life (a record fifty-three-year tenure in St George's Chapel). On 17 December he was presented by the lord keeper, probably at the instance of Sir Walter Mildmay, to the rectory of North Luffenham, Rutland, to which he was instituted on 14 April 1574 and where he thereafter mainly lived. On 28 March 1575, in the church of St Magnus the Martyr, London, he married Susanna Davers, who died within a year. On 20 June 1576, in the Huguenot church in London, he married Mary Herd (d. 1598), who bore him his only child, Abraham, in 1577. He was occasionally resident at his other benefices; at Rochester he was elected subdean on 25 November 1579, and his Oxford fellowship intermittently received his attention. But his simultaneous occupation of four canonries drew adverse comment from both wings of the church; Parker objected to his 'cocking abroad … against statute and his oath' (canonries within the new foundations were not supposed to be held in plurality), while Grindal thought it offensive that Johnson and others took church livings 'and yet affirm it to be no church' (Bruce and Perowne, 450; Nicholson, 348).

As a puritan Johnson would have regarded cathedrals and their services as ridiculous, and he doubtless had no scruples about redirecting their revenues to purposes he considered more edifying. But he preferred to remain within the system while bending it as much as he could. Well connected as he was, he was politically acute enough to keep his nonconformity non-political. Bishop Parkhurst of Norwich licensed him to study the Admonition to Parliament or Cartwright's Replye to Whitgift's response; in May 1573 Johnson and others were brought before the privy council for disseminating views expressed in these works, but although Parker had wanted other matters discussed, the council did not pursue the investigation.

Johnson continued to promote his brand of religion in the east midlands, where in 1576 he was delated for nonconformity. In June 1580 he was the leading figure in a controversial fast at Stamford; following an earthquake Bishop Cooper of Lincoln had given conditional approval for a public act of penitence, but Johnson broke the arrangements by swamping the event with preachers of his own persuasion brought in from the diocese of Peterborough. Johnson incurred Burghley's censure, and the Catholic polemicist Robert Persons seized on the chance to castigate the puritans for disaffection to public authority. At Rochester in 1587 Johnson was reported for still refusing to wear the surplice. He resigned (or was perhaps deprived of) his canonry there on 21 November, but was reappointed on 22 November 1588, with a grant of the next vacant stall. Also in November 1587 he was presented by his Rutland churchwardens for preaching when he had been suspended by the bishop. In 1589 he engaged the semi-separatist Giles Wiggington, possibly a writer of the Marprelate tracts, to preach in his church, and in 1590 Johnson and other local clergy were in trouble for permitting unlicensed preaching at Oakham. Johnson adopted an irregular practice of celebrating communion after the manner of an ordinary meal. Although according to his son's pious recollection he was a careful and regular preacher, he was repeatedly accused of neglecting to repair his chancel and its windows. No doubt the friendship of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, kept Johnson out of trouble. Indeed, despite his maverick career he was on 19 April 1591 collated to the archdeaconry of Leicester, the duties of which he appears to have performed in person. About this time he petitioned the queen for a grant of £50 in recompense for his foundations; Burghley noted that his benefactions had been 'rare in this age' (Salisbury MSS, 4.107), and the queen consented. On 29 June 1591 Johnson was licensed to be absent from his canonries. At Windsor this was confirmed by chapter order of 19 January 1593, allowing him his stipend of £51 1s. 10d. despite non-residence; but this was restricted to five years, and an extension was refused in 1598. On 23 March 1593 he was granted arms. Early in 1598 his second wife died; she was buried at North Luffenham on 20 February. On 14 May 1599 Johnson took as his third wife Margaret Wheeler, née Lilley; she died in 1616, being buried at North Luffenham on 25 November.

Johnson's enduring achievement was in founding the schools at Oakham and Uppingham, the two towns of Rutland. For these he provided land and erected buildings in 1584. Each foundation originally also included a hospital for twenty-four paupers. Although the schools may well have functioned as soon as the buildings were completed, it was not until 14 October 1587 that letters patent were issued authorizing the foundation and endowment. At Oakham, Johnson's school absorbed an earlier one maintained by the dean and chapter of Westminster, but neither this, nor the uncertain extent to which Johnson augmented his personal benefaction with funds badgered from others, need detract from the credit due to him as originator and accomplisher of the project. Johnson also refounded William Dalby's hospital at Oakham in 1597. On 7 June 1625 he drew up statutes for the school and hospital foundations.

In his latter years Johnson continued to add to his family land holdings, from which his various foundations were funded. He died on 23 July 1625 and was buried next day at North Luffenham, where a memorial details his liberality. In his will he further provided for scholarships at St John's, Sidney Sussex, Clare, and Emmanuel colleges in Cambridge for boys from his schools. He made many other charitable bequests from a personal estate reckoned at £20,000. But he effectively disinherited his son, Abraham, who himself became a patron of radical preaching and in 1637 compiled an account of his father's life and his own.


  • C. R. Bingham, Our founder: some account of Archdeacon Johnson (1884)
  • A. Hawley, ed., A translation of a graunte from hir Matieto Robert Johnson (1929)
  • B. Matthews, By God's grace …: a history of Uppingham School (1984), 1–15
  • J. L. Barber, The story of Oakham School (1983), 18–39
  • CPR, 1569–72, 166, 450; 1585–7 (draft), 158
  • Correspondence of Matthew Parker, ed. J. Bruce and T. T. Perowne, Parker Society, 42 (1853), 450
  • W. Nicholson, ed., The remains of Edmund Grindal, Parker Society, 9 (1843), 348
  • Fasti Angl., 1541–1857 [Canterbury], 64
  • P. Collinson, The Elizabethan puritan movement (1967), 148, 171–2
  • R. Tittler, Nicholas Bacon: the making of a Tudor statesman (1976), 61, 158, 169–70
  • W. J. Sheils, The puritans in the diocese of Peterborough, 1558–1610, Northamptonshire RS, 30 (1979), 3, 34, 38–9, 45–6, 62, 99
  • Fuller, Worthies (1811), 2.23–4
  • The letter book of John Parkhurst, bishop of Norwich, ed. R. A. Houlbrooke, Norfolk RS, 43 (1974–5), 41, 60
  • C. S. Knighton, ‘The reformed chapter, 1540–1660’, Faith and fabric: a history of Rochester Cathedral, 604–1994 (1996), 63–4, 70, 72
  • S. L. Ollard, Fasti Wyndesorienses: the deans and canons of Windsor (privately printed, Windsor, 1950), 54
  • GL, MS 9535/1, fol. 140v
  • S. Bond, ed., The chapter acts of the dean and canons of Windsor: 1430, 1523–1672 (1966), 23–4, 32
  • B. Matthews, ‘Archdeacon Robert Johnson: puritan divine’, Rutland Record, 2 (1981), 53–7
  • MS of Abraham Johnson, 1637, Uppingham School Archives
  • BL, Lansdowne MS 443, fols. 176r, 207r
  • S. E. Lehmberg, ‘Archbishop Grindal and the prophesyings’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 34 (1965), 87–145, esp. 101

Wealth at Death

household goods £5900; incl. £522 16s. 2d. cash: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/145, fols. 489–489v

£20,000—incl. £1000 p.a.: Bingham, Our founder, 15

T. Fuller, , 4 pts (1662); new edn, 2 vols., ed. J. Nichols (1811); new edn, 3 vols., ed. P. A. Nuttall (1840), repr. (1965)
Historical Manuscripts Commission
S. T. Bindoff, ed., , 3 vols. (1982)
Guildhall Library, London
[J. Le Neve], , ed. J. M. Horn, D. M. Smith, & D. S. Bailey, [9 vols.] (1969–)