Barnabas Oley, Vicar of Great Gransden

Oley bookNear the end of John Walker’s selection of letters among the antiquarian great and good of Oxford in the early eighteenth century is an explanation from one John Worthington to Thomas Hearne about the author of ‘the prefatory account of Mr Herbert’s life printed in his little book called the Country Parson’.

George Herbert’s A Priest to the Temple (or The Country Parson) is a prose work on priestly duties. Worthington quotes Izaak Walton: ‘At the death of Mr Herbert this book fell into the hands of his friend Mr Woodnot; and he commended it into the trusty hands of Mr Bar. Oley; who published it [in 1652] with a most conscientious and excellent Preface.’

Worthington goes on to reproduce ‘a mural inscription within the Church of Great Gransden, in the County of Huntingdon, transcribed by me, Nov. 2, 1699’, in order to demonstrate that ‘you could not but acknowledge [Oley] to be a person of very great worth, if you knew no more than what I shall add.’ Here it is:


These generous benefactions were made to the parish to which Oley (a Yorkshireman, baptised in 1602) was presented by Clare College, Cambridge, in 1633. He remained vicar for the rest of his long life (he died in 1686), though he was not resident for long periods, partly because of personal circumstances (he was heavily involved in university affairs and was a prime mover in the rebuilding of his own college), but also because of the tumults of the times. The account of his life in the ODNB describes his royalist convictions, and the tradition of a tale of derring-do involving the transmission of the University plate to the King, which (sadly) it proceeds to demonstrate is unlikely to be true.

He was ejected from his fellowship in 1644 by the earl of Manchester, who had been put in charge of the affairs of the University by Parliament, and spent most of the rest of the decade in Yorkshire, being sequestered from his father’s rectory, and paying fines as a ‘deliquent’ for helping royalists evade arrest. By the 1650s he was settled enough to edit Herbert’s last works (he produced a second edition in 1671, correcting in the preface Walton’s mistaken belief as to the ownership of the Country Parson manuscript, in fact the property of Oley’s friend Edmund Duncon), and editing other works of his contemporaries.

In 1659 he returned to Great Gransden, and the earl of Manchester, as the political tide turned, restored his fellowship at Clare. More importantly, he gained financial security by the presentation of a prebendal stall at Worcester cathedral: in 1663, he resigned his fellowship, and began a programme of donations to his own parish and others. As well as the works listed in the church mural, he gave King’s College £100 for improvements to the choir stalls in the chapel, and his will made further provisions which were notable at the time for their generosity.

To quote the ODNB: ‘One feature was its provision of books for poor parishes: records of borrowing by parishioners exist into the eighteenth century. To the dean and chapter of Worcester Oley gave £200 for buttresses for the choir and the chapel at the east end of the cathedral; to Clare College he left 100 marks (£67) for building a library, and £10 to the descendants of John Westley, the builder of the college. The junior fellows of King’s College received £50 for the construction of a walkway for their recreation. A charity was set up in his name, with assets in Warmfield, Kirkthorpe, and Great Gransden, overseen by the fellows of Clare College and still operating with limited resources in the late twentieth century.’

So what remains of Oley in Great Gransden today? Well, most appropriately, the village primary school is named after him.

The memorial to Barnabas Oley inside the church.

The memorial to Barnabas Oley inside the church.

And though the church mural seems no longer to be visible, a memorial tablet of 1910 (above) records his benefactions to this tranquil village, one of the dozens (hundreds) of places in Cambridgeshire that I had not previously visited. It is close to Waresley, of which the squire, Sir John Hewell, gave Oley some furniture when he returned in 1659, and which now offers the excellent Waresley Park Garden Centre – with equally excellent café. (Waresley Park, now an equestrian centre, was landscaped by Repton.)

Here is the church:



And here are some flowers from the Gransden Wood nature reserve, managed by the BCN Wildlife Trusts (to which I shall definitely return).

Dog rose

Dog rose

Common vetch

Common vetch

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

I wonder if the leather fire-buckets survive? Leather, presumably, as being watertight and less heavy to pass hand-to-hand in an emergency than wooden pails?

More fascinating Stuff from Johns Walker and Aubrey in due course!


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3 Responses to Barnabas Oley, Vicar of Great Gransden

  1. Pingback: An Hour in the Botanic Garden | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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