Friday, May 2, 2014

THE SANDYS FAMILY: A Primate and a Pioneer

Edwin Sandys
Archbishop of York 1575-1588
Unknown artist.  Oil on Canvas
University of Cambridge

I never knew Lord Sandys, the Sixth Baron of Ombersley, as he died shortly after my fifth birthday, but I have dim memories of him calling at the vicarage and spending time in my father’s study.  My mother told me later that the two men would also take long walks together, deep in conversation, and that Arthur Sandys (who insisted on calling dad “My Rector”) expressed a deep interest in matters of religion, and was constantly thinking about his family history with all its colourful characters with an ardour that bordered on obsession.  And I can understand why.

The Sandys family is a very old tree that can trace its roots back to the twelfth century and the old country of Cumberland in what we now recognize as Cumbria and the Lake District.  There then followed nine centuries of history in which several generations made their mark on the world in a number of ways under the motto:  Probum non poenitet.  “We do not repent of what is good.”

Here is not the place to narrate the long military history of the Sandys, although it is fascinating to note that men from different branches of that tree fought on different sides during the English Civil War (1642-51.)  Nor the lists of those who served politically in both Houses of Parliament.  Highlighted in this brief column are two other Sandys.  An Archbishop of York and his son.

Edwin Sandys was born in Lancashire in 1516 of royal Scottish blood on his mother’s side.  A keen and natural scholar, ordained as a young man, he developed radical tendencies and even joined the primitive Puritan Party and supported Lady Jane Grey in her bid for the English throne.  (Look up that story for yourselves.)  This resulted in his being thrown into the Tower of London for a few weeks and then exiled in Switzerland until a new monarch was enthroned – Elizabeth 1. 

He became a favourite at court and at the age of forty-three was enthroned as the Bishop of Worcester (1559. ) Climbing the ecclesiastical ladder he was made Bishop of London in 1570 and then in 1575 invited to become the Archbishop of York. He was not a popular man in many circles, and contemporary commentators are less than flattering about his character.  He is described as “an obstinate and conscientious puritan,” and a man “strongly repressive in tendency.”

He sired nine children, eight by his second wife Cecily. (He was previously married to his first cousin who died a young woman.)  The youngest of these was George Sandys. (1578-1644.) 

George was a free spirit and a talented scholar and composer.  He was one of the early pioneers in the Colony of Virginia and is famously remembered for being the man who wrote the Constitution of that colony – on which George Washington and others later modeled what would be the Constitution of the United States of America. And did anyone ever mention the notion that George Sandys was probably gay?  He never married, and there was more than a fair share of court journals and correspondence to suggest this.  But we will never know for sure.

Arthur Sandys (1876–1961) would almost certainly have known all this and more.  As an elderly man, perhaps leaning on my father’s arm as they walked along the lanes of Himbleton, would he have talked of these people and more? I like to think that he did, and might have said something along the lines of, “My Rector, did you know I have an Archbishop in my family?”

Now Cynthia, the Lady Sandys, is another story.

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