William Rokeby, a leading statesman and cleric in early sixteenth-century Ireland, dies at Kirk Sandall, near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, on November 29, 1521. He holds the offices of Bishop of Meath, Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He is commemorated in the Rokeby Chapels in two Yorkshire churches, St. Oswald’s Church, Kirk Sandall, and Halifax Minster.
Rokeby is born at Kirk Sandall, eldest of the five sons of John Rokeby (died 1506). His younger brother, Sir Richard Rokeby (died 1523), is Comptroller of the Household to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and later Treasurer of Ireland. He retains a deep affection for Kirk Sandall and returns there to die. He goes to school at Rotherham, studies at the University of Oxford and becomes a fellow of King’s Hall, later Trinity College, Cambridge. He becomes vicar of his home parish in 1487 and is transferred to Halifax, another town for which he has a deep attachment, in about 1499. In 1507 he is made Bishop of Meath.
On the death of Walter Fitzsimon in 1511, Rokeby becomes Archbishop of Dublin. It has been suggested that his elevation is due at least in part to his English birth, as the Crown is anxious to place Englishmen high up in the Irish hierarchy. No doubt his brother’s close connection to Wolsey also plays a part. He is Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1512 to 1513 and from 1516 to 1522.
Writer Roderick J. O’Flanagan believes that Rokeby is a good and diligent Lord Chancellor, although he does not leave behind many written judgments. He is clearly a trusted servant of the Crown; in particular, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Deputy, Surrey, with the approval of Henry VIII, choose Rokeby in 1520 as mediator in the feud between Maurice FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Desmond, and Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, which has become exceptionally bitter.
As Archbishop Rokeby makes a reputation as a peacemaker, settling a long and bitter dispute between the Dean and Chapter of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He gives permission to Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, for the original foundation of Maynooth College, which is suppressed in 1535. He is frequently at the English Court, so often indeed that he is accused of neglecting his official duties back in Ireland. He participates in the christening of the future Queen Mary I in 1516 and the ceremony by which Wolsey receives his cardinal’s hat.
As Archbishop of Dublin, Rokeby is best remembered for the Synod of 1518. The Synod prohibits the use of any tin chalice at Mass, and the disposal of Church property by laymen; and attempts to regulate the procedure for dealing with intestate estates, the payment of tithes and burial fees and the rules for admission to the clergy. Rather comically, he strictly forbids clergymen to play football.
Rokeby is appointed Archdeacon of Surrey on March 27, 1519. By 1521 his health is failing, and he retires to Kirk Sandall, where he dies on November 29. In his will he leaves £200 to rebuild St. Mary’s Church, Beverley, whose tower had collapsed the previous year.
Rokeby makes elaborate provisions in his will for the disposal of his remains. In accordance with his wishes, his body is buried in St. Oswald’s Church, Kirk Sandall, but his heart and bowels are buried in the Church of St. John the Baptist, Halifax (now known as Halifax Minster). Mortuary chapels are erected at both spots, which still exist today.
O’Flanagan praises Rokeby as a good man, a good bishop and, so far as we can tell from the scanty records, a good judge. Irish author F. Elrington Ball, while acknowledging his good qualities, suggests that he was a failure as Irish Lord Chancellor, due partly to his frequent absences in England.
(Pictured: Halifax Minster, where Rokeby’s heart is buried)