Bishop Hugh Oldham and The Manchester Grammar School

Bishop Hugh Oldham and The Manchester Grammar School

Hugh Oldham was born in 1452 to Roger and Margery Oldham. Early sources are unclear as to whether he was born in Oldham or in Manchester, but either way his family’s roots were strongly Lancastrian. His father appears to have been a relatively wealthy landowner, with extensive property in the Ancoats area of Manchester. Part of this land was later used by Oldham for his free grammar school.

Information about Oldham’s early years and education are scant. It seems that his connection with Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, was established early on, and it is clear that his later advancement up the ecclesiastical ladder was in part due to her patronage. With her help he was able to study law at Oxford and Cambridge and his career in the church began in the 1490s with a series of posts: canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster, canon at Lincoln, dean at Wimborne and archdeacon at Exeter. In 1504 he reached the zenith of his career when he succeeded to the bishopric of Exeter.

Oldham’s foundation of The Manchester Grammar School in 1515 came at the end of his life and career in the church. He may have been thinking of his on-going legacy. We know that he still had strong family ties in Manchester and at the time there was no educational establishment in the town. His friend William Smith had endowed a grammar school at Farnworth near Bolton in 1507 and Oldham followed suit in 1515. The foundation deed still retained by the school is dated 20th August 1515, and is signed by Oldham and his brother-in-law Hugh Bexwyke, amongst others. Hugh Oldham the Bishop is very much apparent in this early deed. At foundation the school had strong links to the collegiate church (later Manchester Cathedral) and the deed instructs the Master and Usher to attend ‘divine service in the choir’. An annual service of prayer for the souls of the founders is also set down in the document. Oldham’s later endowment (of £218) to the school in 1518 enabled the school to complete its first buildings on the land that Oldham had inherited from his father.

Oldham remained Bishop of Exeter until his death in 1519 and is buried in the chantry chapel of St Saviour and St Boniface which he built in Exeter Cathedral. His tomb is an ornate effigial monument, and the chapel is decorated with his rebus, the owl. The south west section of the Old Mancunians Association attends an annual service of commemoration in Exeter Cathedral with a wreath of flowers placed at the tomb. The custom of the OMA sending a wreath to the tomb started in 1907 and the addition of a commemorative service began in 1967 and has continued to the present day.

Owl guarding the gates of the Manchester Grammar SchoolSo Hugh Oldham’s name has not been forgotten at Manchester Grammar School. He is the only person to have the honour of a statue created in his likeness on the school site, and it has pride of place in the school quad. His portrait hangs in the reception hall, and his rebus, the owl, is the official symbol of the school. There is no escaping the owl – it appears on school ties, blazers, letterheads and even on the school fence. 

The school’s coat of arms (pictured) originate from Oldham’s. Originally, the coat of arms used were his Episcopal arms. Heraldically, this is incorrect and the error was pointed out to the school during a visit from the Queen in 1965. To put this right, the Old Mancunian Association funded an application for a grant of Arms personal to the school. The new coat of arms is very similar to Oldham’s original, but one of his Lancashire roses is replaced by the arms of the diocese of Exeter. In addition, the episcopal mitre which was originally on the school crest is replaced by a helmet surmounted with an owl holding a bishop’s pastoral staff in its right claw and the characters ‘D.O.M.’ on a banner across the owl’s breast. Oldham’s original rebus was an owl with the letters ‘dom’ coming from its beak – indeed, one such example appears in Oldham’s chapel at Exeter – and is a pun on the original pronunciation of Oldham’s name. The new usage of ‘D.O.M.’ is perhaps a nod to Oldham’s ecclesiastical history – an abbreviation of Deo Optimo Maximo. The school has also taken Oldham’s motto as its own – Sapere Aude translated, ‘Dare to be Wise’.

Long may Hugh Oldham’s memory continue and we hope in 500 years’ time he will still be commemorated in Manchester and at Exeter Cathedral.

by Rachel Kneale, MGS Archives

From an article published in The Friends of Exeter Cathedral Annual Report 2015

A statue of Bishop Oldham

Statue of Bishop Hugh Oldham in The Manchester Grammar School Quad
Erected in 1931 when the school opened its new buildings, having moved from the city centre.
Sculptor: William McMillan (1887-1977)
Photography: Paul Worpole

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