Thomas Penketh O.S.A. (also called Penker or Penkyer), born in Warrington, was the closest to an internationally celebrated scholar that the University of Cambridge had produced up to the end of the fifteenth century.
A indisputable distinction for Thomas Penketh was that of being the only Augustinian named in a play by William Shakespeare. Born at Penketh, Lancashire, like numerous noblemen in the area over many years, he joined the Augustinian Priory at Warrington, and was sent to Austin Friars in Oxford for his further theological education and priestly formation. For reasons unknown, he then transferred to the Austin Friars at the University of Cambridge to obtain his Mastership (now called a doctorate) in Theology in 1468-69. He was elected Provincial of the English Province of the Order of Saint Augustine (Austin Friars) in the summer of 1469.
In 1474 he won a public chair of theology at Padua, which then was the most famous university in Christendom. At Padua he lectured on metaphysics and edited some of the writings of John Duns Scotus (copies of which books still exist). At the request of his students at Padua, Penketh prepared for the press a corrected copy of the Quodlibeta of Duns Scotus. His writings printed in Padua are included among the earliest specimens of printing in Italy. One such volume, printed abroad and handsomely bound, is to be found today in the Warrington Museum, Cheshire, England. At Padua one of his pupils was Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. (1450 - 1498). who later was a Renaissance figure at the Augustinian priory of Santo Spirito in Florence. Mariano became famous (or infamous in the eyes of some people) for becoming a very public opponent in Florence of Girolamo Savonarola O.P. (1452 – 1498).
Penketh returned to England in 1477, and assumed the Chair of Theology at Oxford. Soon after that date, John Lettou, a printer in London, produced two small books edited by Thomas Penketh: Questiones Antonii Andreae super duodecim libros metaphisice and Expositiones super Psalterium. Thomas had returned to Oxford in 1477, where he also taught theology, and was probably in Oxford when these books were being printed in London. John Leland, writing during the era of Henry VIII, stated about Penketh’s scholastic attainments: "He was of such ability in the sharpness of disputation that scarce anyone equalled him. From his youth he was a great admirer of Scotus. So closely did he form himself after the pattern of the Doctor Subtilis (i.e., Scotus) that his biographer says 'one egg could not be more like to another or milk to milk.' "
Penketh was Provincial of the English Province of the Order of Saint Augustine (Austin Friars) again in 1480-1487. His second term of Provincial office was stormy because he let himself be involved in the politics of the ambitious king of the day. In 1484 he was invited to take part in the series of prestigious Easter Week sermons in London. These sermons were held each year at a number of churches such as St Paul’s Cathedral and St Mary’s Hospital. They were attended by the Mayor of London (Sir Edmund Shaw), the aldermen and all leading citizens, and drew large crowds. Penketh preached at St Mary’s Hospital, Bishopsgate, and caused controversy by preaching in support of the claim of Richard III for the English throne. Penketh failed to complete the sermon because of a throat ailment.
Penketh was part of a conspiracy with Sir Edmund Shaw to legitimise the Crown for Richard, the highly ambitious Duke of Gloucester, who in the previous year had became King Richard III. One contemporary historical commentator overstated the consequences of Penketh’s sermon (which, as it happened, he was unable to complete because of a throat ailment): “By bastardizing the issue of King Edward IV, he stained his former life and disgraced his Order.” The contemporary historical commentator in question was none other than Sir (later Saint) Thomas More. His Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland was a biography of King Richard III was written with considerable bias twenty years later when More was one of the undersheriffs of London in about 1513. Whether or not in the long term there was in fact any stain or disgrace for Penketh, King Richard III had less than a year previously interrupted the expected line of succession to succeed his late brother, King Edward IV, on 6th July1483.
For his involvement Penketh is mentioned in a script by William Shakespeare in his drama, although Penketh’s involvement in royal politics was not as significant as Shakespeare intimates. Four years after Penketh's death, Shakespeare has a player refer to Thomas Penketh (Penker) in Richard III (Act III, Scene 6):
"Ah, Go, Lovel, with all speed to Doctor Shaw;
Go thou to Friar Penker, bid them both
Meet me within this hour at Baynard'e Castle."
King Henry VII, a son of Edward IV whom Richard III had beat to the throne, held no animosity to the Austin Friars because of the late Thomas Penketh’s previous support of Richard III. Henry VII stayed at the Austin Friars Priory at Lynn in 1498, and made the French Augustinian, Bernard André O.S.A., tutor to Prince Edward and appointed him poet laureate. Andre retained the latter position during the early reign of Henry VIII, and was reputed to have ghost written In Defence of the Seven Sacraments for Henry VIII (which rumour was highly spurious). The previous king, Richard III, who had been the last monarch of the House of York, evidently had personal living quarters built in the house of the Austin Friars at York. Whether these quarters consisted of a separate house, which is probable, or formed part of the Augustinian monastery is not stated; the work was probably stopped after Richard's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 21st August 1485. Penketh was re-elected Provincial for the third time in 1484 and was invited to dispute at the General Chapter at Siena, Italy in 1486, a high honour indeed. Sickness prevented him from accepting the invitation. He died on 20th May 1487 before the completion of his third term as Provincial, and was buried at Austin Friars, London, in the second year of the reign of King Henry VII, and four year’s before Shakespeare’s drama, Richard III was written.
For the Augnet photo gallery about the Order England and Scotland, click here.