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Sir Thomas White's Dream: St. John's College, Oxford, The Merchant Taylors' Company, London, and the Reformation


This dissertation is a dual case study of two institutions, St. John’s College, Oxford and the Merchant Taylors’ Company, London. It considers how these two groups navigated the later Reformation in England, from the accession of Elizabeth I until the beginnings of the English Civil Wars. Although separate corporations, they were tied together by Sir Thomas White, a Merchant Taylor who founded St. John’s College, Oxford. He joined the two establishments in his will, granting the Merchant Taylors’ Company the right to elect up to forty-two of the College’s fifty fellows. This arrangement ultimately resulted in power struggles between the two groups, as each side attempted to press its own interests. These tensions were exacerbated by confessional differences between the two groups. Sir Thomas White originally founded St. John’s College as a training college for Catholic priests during the re-establishment of traditional religion during the reign of Mary Tudor. Following the establishment of the Elizabethan Protestant settlement, it became a haven for crypto-papists and conforming Catholics. St. John’s College remained a religiously conservative institution until the 1580’s, when it became a breeding ground for avant-garde conformity, and later the birth place of Laudianism. Conversely, godly Protestants from the 1570’s onward increasingly populated the leadership of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. Godly members of the London community governed the Company from the turn of the seventeenth century onwards, but more moderate Calvinists who supported the Jacobean and Carolinian courts tempered them. These religious differences led to friction between St. John’s College and the Merchant Taylors’ Company that exploded regularly at the elections of scholars held on St. Barnabas’ day each year. Previous historians have highlighted the financial context of these rows, but have largely ignored the religious and social foundations of tensions between the two groups.

This dissertation seeks to rectify this oversight and contributes to the work of early modern English history, Reformation history, social history, and local history. My primary sources include correspondence, official registers, election ballots, state papers, college accounts, company court records, common place books, printed materials, wills, tombs, and material culture.

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