22 March 2023

Thomas Babington, an Oxford
theologian with strong links
with the Comberford family

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library, Oxford … Thomas Babington was Vice Chancellor of Oxford and the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

My visit to the small village of Yelvertoft in Northamptonshire last week, to visit All Saints’ Church were Canon Henry Comberford was the rector during the Tudor Reformation era, reminded me of the close links in the mid-16th century between the Comberford family and the Babington family, who were part of a nexus of families that also included the Fitzherbert and Beaumont families, all related through intricate patterns of intermarriage.

As patrons of the living in Yelvertoft for the best part of a century, the clergy nominated by the Comberford family as Rectors of this Northamptonshire parish included the Revd Thomas Babington, who became Rector in 1510, and Canon Henry Comerford, who was the Rector in 1546-1560.

Thomas Babington, who was the Rector of Yelvertoft in 1510, was a first cousin of Canon Henry Comberford and of Richard Comberford, sometimes described as the ancestor of the Comerfords of Kilkenny and Wexford. Like Richard and Henry Comberford, Thomas Babington had studied at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

Thomas Babington was the uncle of the Revd Dr Francis Babington, and Henry and Richard Comberford were first cousins once removed of this interesting Oxford theologian who survived much of the Tudor Reformation and Marian turmoils, but who was finally forced out of office and into exile in 1565, during the reign of Elizabeth I.

I have an additional interest in the life and influence of Thomas Babington because he was also the Rector of Milton Keynes briefly in 1560.

All Saints’ Church in Milton Keynes Village … Thomas Babington was the Rector of Milton Keynes in 1560 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Francis Babington was the son of Thomas Babington’s brother, Humphrey Babington, and his wife Eleanor Beaumont, a sister of Dorothy Beaumont who married Humphrey Comerford, and of Joan Beaumont who married William Babington.

Francis Babington entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1544 (BA 1549). He became a Fellow of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, in 1551, and was there when he proceeded MA in 1552.

About that time he transferred from Cambridge to Oxford, where he ‘incepted’ in arts with the degree MA in 1554 and became a Fellow of All Souls’ College. By 1555, his name is appended to the Roman Catholic articles of belief imposed by Queen Mary.

After three years, he was unanimously chosen Proctor of his new university (1557). He was ordained priest on 5 March 1558 by Edward Bonner, Bishop of London, who had vigorously restored Catholicism in his diocese. Babington took the Bachelor’s and Doctor’s degrees in Divinity (BD, DD) in Oxford successively in 1558 and 1560.

Thomas Babington became a Fellow of All Souls’ College when he moved to Oxford from Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Anthony à Wood suggest Babington’s rapid academic promotion was only because Oxford University was very empty, and wanted theologians ‘to perform the requisite offices.’ Only three doctors in theology had proceeded in six years; and sermons were so rare, that scarce one was given. Elsewhere, however, Wood mentions Francis Babington as renowned for his philosophical and logical disputations.

Queen Elizabeth I’s visitors removed William Wright from office as the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1559 and Babington became the Master (head) of Balliol College, Oxford, on 2 September 1559. However, he resigned the following year when he became the Rector of Lincoln College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in 1560. He remained Vice-Chancellor of Oxford until 1562 and Rector of Lincoln College until 1563.

Babington had no objection to holding a plurality of livings and offices. Between 1557 and 1565, he was the Rector or Vicar of at least seven or eight parishes, holding many together: Vicar of Aldworth, Berkshire, Diocese of Salisbury (1557), Rector of Adstock and Sherrington, Buckinghamshire (1557), Rector of Caythorpe, Lincolnshire (1558-1563), and Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire (1560), Rector of Twyford, Buckinghamshire (1560-1563), Rector of Holsworthy, Devon, Diocese of Exeter (1562-1563), and Vicar of Aston cum Aughton, Yorkshire, in the Diocese of York (1565).

Lincoln College, Oxford … Thomas Babington was the Rector of Lincoln College (1560-1563), Vice Chancellor of Oxford (1560-1562) and the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Besides these preferments, he was appointed the Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, in May 1560 and was the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in 1560-1562. He was also the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in 1560-1561, although the statutes forbade this chair being held by the Vice-Chancellor. The Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity is a senior professor attached to Christ Church, Oxford. The professorship was founded from the benefaction of Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), mother of Henry VII, and the holders were all priests until 2015.

Babington was chaplain to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and seems about this time to have been high in favour with Elizabeth’s favourite. Wood says Babington was one of Leicester’s five most trusted advisers in Oxford. He was chosen to preach the funeral sermon of Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, in Saint Mary's Church, Oxford, in 1560.

Amy Robsart died when she tripped or fell down the stairs at her home and there were persistent rumours that her husband had conspired to arrange her death. Babington’s text was Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur (‘Blessed are they who died in the Lord’), and during his sermon he ‘tript once or twice by recommending to his auditors the virtues of that lady so pitifully murdered instead of so pitifully slain.’

Christ Church, Oxford … Thomas Babington lost out to Thomas Sampson as dean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Babington stood as the representative of the more conservative party for election as the Deanery of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1561 against Thomas Sampson, a leading figure in the Puritan party. Strype, in his account of this contest, describes Babington as ‘a man of mean learning and of a complying temper.’ But he failed in his candidature. He seems by this time to have been losing Leicester’s favour, and was more than suspected of being a concealed Papist.

In March 1562, Babington was involved in forcing the appointment of John Man as the Warden of Merton College, against the wishes of the Catholic fellows. Wood has given a graphic description of the whole scene, but Babington remained true to his Catholic sympathies, shared with many members of his wider family circle.

Eventually, however, Babington was forced to resign as the Rector of Lincoln College in 1563. Two years later, he was deprived of his preferments in 1565 because of his Catholic sympathies. In that same year, Samson was deprived as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, because of his extreme Puritanism.

Babington was forced to flee England, and he died in exile in December 1569.

Within two decades, his kinsman, Anthony Babington was involved in the Babington Plot in 1586 to assassinate Elizabeth I and put her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The chief conspirator was Anthony Babington (1561-1586) of Dethick, a young recusant was recruited by John Ballard, a Jesuit priest. He was executed on 20 September 1586.

Thomas Babington was the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1559-1560 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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