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Sutton House lecture marks 500 years since Christopher Urswick built St Augustine's Church

PUBLISHED: 10:43 13 November 2019 | UPDATED: 12:12 14 November 2019

A wood carving of Sir Christopher Urswick in the Urswick School's musuem

A wood carving of Sir Christopher Urswick in the Urswick School's musuem

Urswick School

It's 500 years since the priest, courtier and diplomat Christopher Urswick financed the re-building Hackney's old church. Emma Bartholomew finds out more about the man believed to have come up with the red rose symbol in the War of the Roses.

Hackney Walks Tour with Sean Gubbins, starting at Hackney Town Hall Steps, Mare Street, Hackney
St Augustine's TowerHackney Walks Tour with Sean Gubbins, starting at Hackney Town Hall Steps, Mare Street, Hackney St Augustine's Tower

It's nearly 500 years since Christopher Urswick died - but his legacy in Hackney is still going strong.

He's the man who founded a charity which has led on to Urswick School in Paragon Road, which was renamed from Hackney Free and Parochial in 2011 in his honour.

He spent the last years of his life as Rector of St Augustine's church - of which St Augustine's Tower is all that remains - and his magnificent tomb is now being restored as part of the multi-million pound restoration works at the "new" church of St John-at-Hackney.

And this year is the quincentenary of when the medieval parish church was rebuilt, and which he organised and helped to finance.

The Urswick School in Paragon Road, Hackney CentralThe Urswick School in Paragon Road, Hackney Central

To commemorate the landmark anniversary, Hackney Historic Buildings Trust arranged for the historian and TV and radio presenter David Starkey to give a special talk at Sutton House on Sunday.

He spoke about Urswick's life in the Tudor inner circle, whether he may have saved the life of the future Henry VII from the villainous Richard III, and his later years in Hackney.

Born in Furness, Cumbria, in 1448 Christopher Urswick had a remarkable life.

He was a priest but and became a confessor of Margaret Beaufort. She had married Edmund Tudor, a descendant of King Edward III's son, John of Gaunt, when she was just 13. Not long after she gave birth to his child, Henry, she was widowed.

A photo from the 90s of the monument to Christopher Urswick in Hackney Church. Picture: St John at HackneyA photo from the 90s of the monument to Christopher Urswick in Hackney Church. Picture: St John at Hackney

Urswick is thought to have acted as her go-between in plotting to place Henry on the throne in place of the hated Richard III. This was to lead to the Battle of Bosworth, the concluding chapter of the War of the Roses - a series of civil wars for control of the throne between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster, associated with the Red Rose of Lancaster and the House of York, whose symbol was the White Rose of York.

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Urswick eventually became a courtier in the inner circle of Henry VII after Richard III was slain at Bosworth and Henry became England's first Tudor monarch.

He was made Lord Almoner to the King, to distribute alms to the poor, and as well as being sent on foreign diplomatic missions he was given a string of other important positions like Dean of York, Dean of Windsor, collector of property forfeited by felons - and from 1502, Rector of the wealthy parish of Hackney.

In later years Urswick's influence declined - possibly because he expressed opposition to King Henry appropriating clerical property to boost the royal coffers.

Richard Brown is now head teacher of Urswick School, which was established to teach 12 poor boys to learn how to read in 1520. Pupils have carried out a lot of research into their school's founder - but Richard was intrigued by Prof Starkey's lecture.

He said: "The most interesting thing I heard was that in effect Urswick was a propagandist for the Lancastrian family in the civil war. He wanted a rival symbol to go with the white rose for the House of York, and there is evidence that Urswick invented the use of the red rose for the House of Lancaster.

"The other thing I found interesting was that towards the end of his life he fell out with Henry VII and had a crisis of conscience when he moved to Hackney and that determined the work he did here. He built up a vast wealth as chaplain of court and when he came to Hackney he devoted that money to good works - to the church and then the creation of the school."

He added: "What was really nice was we had 25 A-level history students who got the opportunity to hear this talk and clearly Prof Starkey is one of the most famous historians in the country, so it was good for them to have first hand experience of listening to David Starkey and listening to him talking about the foundation of our school. It was a really lovely experience."

According to Laurie Elks, who manages St Augustine Tower, Urswick divided his time between hunting and scholarship when he lived in Hackney, and built up connections with scholars from all over Europe. Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More were his personal friends.

Urswick evidently lived in comfort, if not luxury.

He died in 1521, and in his will he left 6s 8d to "the old poor man that comes to me from Kentish Town" and 3s 4d to the mother in law of one of his servants. All legatees were asked to pray for his soul.

Christopher Urswick habitually added the letters MIA to his coat of arms to denote Misericordian, or mercy.

"This seems to have been appropriate to the man," said Laurie.

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