Archbishop Robert Holgate


On 15 November 2016, Fr Brian Harris preached at the Founders Day Mass in the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Archbishop Holgate Hosptial.  Amongst other things, his sermon provides a useful summary of the life of Archbishop Robert Holgate, Hemsworth’s most famous son.  Fr Brian has kindly allowed us to publish it here:

Words of St. Peter to Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration:  ‘Master it is good for us to be here.’  St Luke 9. 33

May I speak, and may we listen, in the Peace of God, in the presence of Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is indeed good to be here and first of all may I thank Fr. David for inviting me to be here and for according me the privilege and honour of preaching at your Founder’s Day Service – today being the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Robert Holgate on the 15th November 1555 in his 75th year.  I understand that I follow in the footsteps of the Bishop of Beverley (Bishop Glyn I know well), Bishop Tony Robinson, now Bishop of Wakefield and Sentamu, Archbishop of York who was your guest last year to mark the opening of the Ebor Hall.  So I feel very honoured indeed.  Perhaps I can add to my CV – ‘Select Preacher at Archbishop Holgate’s Hospital!

One thing I have in common with Robert Holgate is that, like him, I was born in Hemsworth – howbeit some 450 years later – give or take a year or two – so I am, I suppose, like Robert Holgate though in a much less distinguished capacity – a ‘local lad made good’.

This, however, is not the first time I have preached here in the chapel of Holgate Hospital,  In 1956/7 as a prospective ordinand I frequently came to officiate and preach at Morning Prayer during the final illness and subsequent death of the then master, Canon Carleton.  The Rector of Hemsworth – Canon Duckett – believed in throwing people in at the deep end as it were.  No doubt it was good experience for me and |I certainly enjoyed coming here and was well received – but I wonder what effect my preaching had on the Brothers and Sisters at the time.  I might have had the same effect as St. Paul preaching at Troas where, according to Acts 20 a member of the congregation called Eutychus was, I quote – ‘overcome by sleep’ – but then Paul did go on until midnight.  Fear not I don’t intend to do that.  As far as I recall, no one fell off their seat!

I have known Holgate Hospital for as long as I can remember – knowing and visiting residents here over the years.  My connection was renewed when my mother came to live here as a Sister in 1965.  Incidentally when she wrote to inform family and friends of her move to Holgate Hospital she received replies thanking her for letting them know her new address but adding that they were very sorry to hear that she had been admitted to hospital and hoping she would soon be well!  My mother was here for 6 years until she died in 1971 – some of the happiest years of her life.  Later in the 1980s, an aunt of mine also came to live here at Holgate and I now have a contemporary among the Brothers and Sisters – John Lewis and I were at School together.

The first Holgate Hospital was thought to be near the Market Place.  Then in the 18thC a Hospital was built at the rear of St. Helen’s Church.  That building I remember as the parish Rooms where the Youth Club and the CLB met.  Apparently it is no longer there having been demolished in the late 1960s.  In 1860 Holgate Hospital was re-located here in Robin Lane in a beautiful idyllic setting, the cottages arranged in a quadrangle like an Oxford/Cambridge College with this lovely chapel at the centre of the community – which following the extensions and upgrading of the cottages in the late 1950s and 1960s was refurbished in 2000.  More recently the Ebor Room was completed to serve as a meeting place for the Brothers and Sisters and appropriately dedicated by Sentamu, Archbishop of York, the current successor of your Founder and Benefactor, Robert Holgate.

Born in 1481, very little is known about Robert Holgate’s early life except that he was born at Vissitt Farm very near here – but then, as someone once remarked – babies are seldom famous!

Following a long and distinguished career at Cambridge University, Robert Holgate became a monk in the Order founded by Gilbert of Sempringham in Lincolnshire – the only purely English religious foundation prior to the Reformation.  In 1534 he became Master of the Gilbertine Order and Prior of Watton in East Yorkshire in 1536 and Prior of St. Catherine’s without Lincoln and also Vicar of Cadney near Brigg in North Lincolnshire.

In 1537, on Lady Day (March 25) Holgate was consecrated Bishop of Llandaff in Wales – and in the same year he was appointed a member of the King’s Council, becoming Lord President of the Council in the North which had been set up by Henry VII as a means of subduing and controlling rebellious Northerners (which we still are) as well as keeping the Scots at bay and dispensing impartial justice.  His service did not go unrewarded for in 1545 Robert Holgate became Archbishop of York.  In this role Holgate had supreme power from the River Trent to the River Tweed and from the East to the West coasts – in effect Viceroy of the North – King in all but name.

On becoming Archbishop of York, he surrendered to the King 67 manors belonging to the See (Bishopric) of York together with a substantial amount of property belonging to the dissolved monasteries – for the King needed money for his wars and his conscience was not troubled as to how he came by it.  In return, Holgate was allowed to retain lands and property he had confiscated from those who refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as Head of the Church and by this means Holgate became the wealthiest prelate in England.  The cataclysmic event following the break with Rome was, of course, the Dissolution of the Monasteries – the result of which can be seen and felt as one walks among the ruins of the magnificent abbeys and priories – such as Fountains, Rievaulx and St. Mary’s Abbey in York.

Nearly 2000 religious houses throughout England were dissolved – of which half were hospitals endowed with estates given by powerful benefactors.  The poor relied on the monasteries for daily doles of food – the medieval equivalent of modern food banks.  As well as feeding the poor and nursing the sick the monks and nuns had established the earliest schools.  As you can imagine this left a gaping vacuum in what we would call the social and educational infra-structure of the time.

Robert Holgate was undoubtedly a man of his time and obviously went along with the dissolution of the monasteries, but he also recognised the need for schools aand care for the poor and the needy.  On the accession of Queen Mary and the return to allegiance to Rome, Holgate was deprived of his See of York and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  He skilfully apologised to the Queen – not least for having married.  He promised to obey the Queen’s laws, to act according to his vocation and to make amends for his offence.

Following his release on the payment of £1000 he regained his estates, mostly in Yorkshire – at Yeddingham, Huggate, Hemsworth, Malton and York and promising to use his assets for charitable purposes.  If, for example you go to Huggate, there is opposite the church there a farm called Hemsworth Farm.  In York Minster in the South Choir Aisle, there is a brass memorial plaque to Robert Holgate –  placed there and dedicated on this day in 2005 at Evensong at which I was present.  Every time I am on duty as an honorary chaplain at the Minster, I pause and pay my prayerful respects to Archbishop Robert Holgate.  The inscription reads:- ‘ROBERT HOLGATE, ARCHBISHOP OF YORK 1545-1555, Lord President of the Council in the North.  Founder of free schools in York, Malton and Hemsworth where he also founded a hospital.  Born Hemsworth 1481 Died London 15 November 1555.’  Robert Holgate used his recovered wealth to found grammar schools at York, Old Malton and Hemsworth.  In 1881, the school here in Hemsworth – which was situated where the Roman Catholic Church was   – had very few pupils – the population of Hemsworth being very small before the advent of the mines so despite the Trojan efforts of the then Rector of Hemsworth, the Rev’d Charles Thomas, the foundation was moved to Barnsley.  The Rector predicted that there would be a need for a grammar school in the future.  This was Hemsworth Grammar School in Station Road set up in 1920.

As a late transfer scholar or as I like to think, the result of God’s providence, I was a pupil at Barnsley & District Holgate Grammar School from 1951 to 1958 which gave me the educational skills and qualifications to proceed to King’s College, London and eventually Ordination in 1962 – for which I am eternally thankful to God and to Robert Holgate.

Undoubtedly Holgate’s crowning achievement was the founding of this Hospital here in his native town of Hemsworth – of which, like many before you and hopefully many after you – you are the current beneficiaries.  Unlike the 3 Schools, Holgate Hospital was a posthumous benefaction – a request according to Holgate’s will dated 27 April 1555:  His executors (I quote) “shall within 2 years after my decease found, erect or make, or cause to be founded, erected, made and incorporated, one hospital of one Master and 20 brethren and sisters in Hemsworth in the said County of York to continue for ever.” For such as be fully of the age of threescore years or more – giving preference to those who are either blind or lame.  Following the dissolution of the monasteries and their ministry to the old and infirm, Robert Holgate realised that there was an opportunity and obligation for the church to provide for the elderly and vulnerable in society – it took nearly 400 before the introduction of our modern welfare state in 1947.  It is said ‘Society is judged by the way it treats its elderly.

Robert Holgate’s provision of accommodation and care for the elderly living together in community is a practical expression of the Christian Faith – namely that God is our Father and we are all made in the image of God – so we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Fr. David is your Master but he, I know, acknowledges and answers to his Master in heaven – so he is amongst you as one who serves.  The Church is an anticipation of the Kingdom of God which is a biblical term for the Community of right relationships.  Here at Holgate Hospital is a template, a pattern for society generally and for the world.

At the centre of this Hospital is this lovely chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross, where you come together regularly as we do this evening to do what Jesus did with his disciples at the Last Supper and commanded us to do in remembrance of Him i.e. as a means of realising Christ’s real presence among us and in each one of us – which Robert Holgate continued to believe in spite of doctrinal arguments at the time, was the intention of the sacrament.

Robert Holgate may have been a man of his time – but he was a conservative with regard to the doctrine of the Eucharist and as evidence in his will in his devotion to Our lady and his request for prayers for his departed soul – which is the purpose of this Requiem.  For like Justin Welby our Archbishop of Canterbury, Holgate believed that our true identity rests not in the status of our birth or our education or our wealth but solely in Christ – and that by partaking of one bread and one cup in Holy Communion – which means genuine community – you are renewed and strengthened as equally members of the Body of Christ in this place and as witnesses to the world of what it means to live in community and harmony with one another.


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