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Alcock, Johnlocked

  • R. J. Schoeck

Alcock, John (1430–1500), administrator and bishop of Ely, was born at Beverley, Yorkshire, the son of William Alcock of Hull. Alcock received his early schooling in the grammar school attached to Beverley Minster, and then attended Cambridge University. DCL by 1459, he began his career in local diocesan administration in London. On 16 December 1468 he was admitted to the prebend of Browneswood in St Paul's, but possibly more noteworthy was his admission to the prebend of North Alton in Salisbury Cathedral, the first sign that he had attracted any wider attention. On 20 April 1469 the crown appointed him to a panel to hear an appeal in a debt case, and on 13 and 20 January 1470 similarly in cases from the court of admiralty.

Hitherto Alcock had enjoyed a respectable but largely anonymous career: now it accelerated dramatically, for reasons probably relating to the readeption of Henry VI or, more precisely, to Edward IV's recovery. On 26 April 1471, by which date Edward had defeated the earl of Warwick but had still to defeat Margaret of Anjou, Alcock was appointed dean of the royal free chapel of St Stephen, Westminster. On 29 April, with the king still away on campaign, Alcock was appointed keeper of the rolls of chancery, despite no known experience in royal government. These were two, obviously linked, marks of strong favour, bringing Alcock from the fringes of royal circles into somewhere near their heart. It must be speculated that his behaviour during the readeption had in some way earned him the warm approval of the exiled king, whether as an exile himself or perhaps after the fashion of Thomas Millyng, abbot of Westminster, whose sympathy towards Queen Elizabeth Woodville while she was in his sanctuary, won him very similar preferment and promotion in his career at this time. Following involvement in Anglo-Scottish diplomacy later in 1471 Alcock was papally provided to Rochester on 8 January 1472 and consecrated on 15 March. Although he resigned as keeper of the rolls, he was now an active servant of the king, especially in the heavy preparations for the proposed invasion of France. From 20 September 1472 to 18 June 1473 he had the keeping of the great seal; Bishop Robert Stillington of Bath and Wells, who was chancellor, 'did nothing except through his pupil [discipulum], John Alcock' (Pronay and Cox, 133), as another leading official would recall. From 10 June to 29 September 1475, while the expedition finally took place, Alcock acted as chancellor in England, since Bishop Thomas Rotherham of Lincoln, the incumbent, accompanied the king into France; for this Alcock received £100.

Meantime Alcock had taken on a longer-term responsibility. As early as 8 July 1471 he had been appointed an administrator of the infant Prince Edward's holdings in Wales, Cornwall, and Cheshire, last but one of the fifteen nominees, but only behind the greatest in the realm who were unlikely to pay much close attention. Now, on 10 November 1473 he was appointed tutor to the three-year-old Prince Edward, and also president of his council which was being set up at Ludlow to oversee the marches and the principality of Wales. To this he gave most of his attention for the next decade. On 15 July 1476 Alcock was translated to the see of Worcester, allowing him some easier access to oversee his diocese even while so much at Ludlow.

Nothing is known of Alcock's reaction to the deposition of his pupil in June 1483 by Richard of Gloucester; he was not arrested, but it seems unlikely that he enjoyed the confidence of the new king. That he helped negotiate the marriage alliance with Scotland at Nottingham in September 1484 did not make him a traitorous collaborator in the eyes of the king's enemies, and Henry VII's accession saw confirmation of the esteem Alcock enjoyed in old Edwardian and new Tudor circles. On 7 October 1485 he was appointed chancellor of the realm, and on 7 November opened the king's first parliament with a sermon. In June and July 1486 in London he led a delegation that agreed a three-year truce with Scotland. On 6 October 1486 he was translated to the very rich and easily managed see of Ely. He was selected to perform the baptism of Arthur, first son of Henry VII and Elizabeth. On 6 March 1487 Archbishop John Morton, now returned from exile, took over the great seal, but Alcock remained a trusted royal councillor.

Ely, however, provided special pleasures. As early as November 1486 the prior and monks obtained certain rights from the king in relation to choosing their own coroners—privileges derived, they were to understand, from Henry's personal affection for their new bishop. Cambridge University, of which Alcock was now visitor ex officio, saw much of him. On the first Sunday in Lent (23 February) 1488 he preached in Great St Mary's, starting at 1 p.m. and finishing after 3 p.m. In 1491–2 and 1492–3 he even took up extended residence in Peterhouse, of which he was ex officio patron. However, his affection for the college preceded this official connection: as far back as 1481 he had presented it with fifty-five manuscripts (of which forty-five are still there). Alcock shared in the current vogue for enlarging Cambridge University. He secured the site and buildings of a dissolved nunnery, St Radegund's, restored and converted the buildings, scattered his rebus liberally, endowed £70 p.a. in lands, and on 12 June 1496 established a college to support six priest fellows and 'a certain number of boys' (VCH Cambridgeshire, 3.421), dedicated to Radegund, the Blessed Virgin, and St John the Evangelist, but commonly known as Jesus College.

Alcock enjoyed building projects and endowments. On 22 November 1479 he received a royal licence to found a chantry and school in the grounds of Holy Trinity, Hull, where his father was buried; handsomely endowed, it was to become Hull grammar school. While at Worcester he had led the rebuilding of the church of Little Malvern Priory. He built a new great hall for the episcopal palace in Ely, and improved considerably the bishop's manor house at Downham. After he died on 1 October 1500 at Wisbech Castle, he was buried in his best-known building, his glorious chantry chapel towards the east end of Ely Cathedral, which he had designed and started, although it took until 1508 to complete.

Alcock was the author of a number of works, four published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1496–7: Mons perfeccionis, the Hyll of Perfeccion (STC, 1475–1640, 278–81); In die innocencium sermo pro episcopo puerorum (ibid., 282–3); an English sermon on the text, 'Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat' (Luke 8: 8; STC, 1475–1640, 284–5); and Desponsacio virginis Christo: Spousage of a Virgin to Cryste, being an 'exhortacyon made to relygyous systers' (STC, 1475–1640, 286–7). Other works included Gallicantus ad confratres suos curatos in sinodo apud Barnwell (25 September 1499), a charge to his diocese but deemed worthy of publication by Richard Pynson (ibid., 277), and 'The Abbay of the Holy Gost' (BL, Harley MSS 1704 art. 9, 2406 art. 41). He is associated with the translation of Pierre Gringore's Château de Labour, with which the name of Alexander Barclay, a monk of Ely, is linked; Alcock may have sponsored or encouraged his effort, and Barclay in his Eclogues 1 and 3 later recalled and lamented the bishop.

Alcock was of a generation of churchmen who sought to renovate contemporary faith and religion within a strictly Catholic frame. Even the censorious protestant John Bale recalled him as one who 'having devoted himself from childhood to learning and piety, made such a proficiency in virtue that no one in England had a greater reputation for sanctity'; he had spent his life in vigils, study, abstinence, and in the subjugation of the temptations of the flesh (Bale, Cat., x.xx). Alcock's register as bishop of Worcester is in that diocese's record office, while his Ely register is in Cambridge University Library (calendar by J. H. Crosby, Ely Diocesan Remembrancer, 1908–10).


  • J. Gairdner, ed., Letters and papers illustrative of the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 24 (1861–3)
  • W. Campbell, ed., Materials for a history of the reign of Henry VII, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 60 (1873–7)
  • C. L. Scofield, The life and reign of Edward the Fourth, 2 vols. (1923)
  • C. A. J. Skeel, The council in the marches of Wales: a study in local government during the 16th and 17th centuries (1904), 21–9
  • Fasti Angl., 1300–1541 [monastic cathedrals]
  • T. A. Walker, A biographical register of Peterhouse men, 2 vols. (1927–30)
  • J. Bale, Illustrium Maioris Britannie scriptorum … summarium (1548)
  • J. B. Mullinger, The University of Cambridge, 1 (1873)
  • W. D. Sweeting, The cathedral church of Ely (1901)
  • J. Alcock, bishop's register, Worcs. RO
  • N. Pronay and J. Cox, eds., The Crowland chronicle continuations, 1459–1486 (1986)


  • BL, Add. MS 5827
  • BL, Harley MSS 1704 art. 9, 2406 art. 41
  • Inner Temple, London, papers
  • Worcs. RO, register
  • CUL, MS EDK G/1/6


  • J. Faber senior, mezzotint, 1714 (after unknown portrait), BM, NPG
  • oils, Jesus College, Cambridge
Early English Text Society
J. Bale, , 2 vols. in 1 (Basel, 1557–9); facs. edn (1971)
A. B. Emden, (1963)
Worcestershire Record Office, Worcester
[J. Le Neve], , ed. H. P. F. King, J. M. Horn, & B. Jones, 12 vols. (1962–7)
Chancery records (Public Record Office)
T. Fuller, , 4 pts (1662); new edn, 2 vols., ed. J. Nichols (1811); new edn, 3 vols., ed. P. A. Nuttall (1840), repr. (1965)