Whilst researching and writing about an ancestor of mine (Sidney Levi Wildman), I came across the name of Sir William Harspur. Harspur’s name is now associated with a school in the town of Bedford, an institution which my great-great grandfather attended in the late 19th Century. Whilst reading into Harspur himself I became fascinated with his life, particularly in how his own personal story relates to the wider societal change that took place in the Tudor era.

Sir William Harspur was a merchant who was originally from Bedford; born at the end of the 15th Century during the reign of Henry VII, he lived through the reign of Henry VIII (15091-1547), Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1558), and a significant chunk of the reign of the final Tudor Elizabeth I.

Harspur made his name when living in London, rising from a possible trade as a tailor to become a leading player in business. Such was his repute, he was elected alderman on various occasions and obtained prestigious posts across the city. This rise culminated in being made Lord Mayor of the city in 1561 and receiving a knighthood from Elizabeth I. Not bad for a boy from Bedford from modest beginnings!

Burning of Protestants (mid-1550s): one of many examples of religious upheaval

All of this got me to thinking about the different events that Harspur experienced and lived through. The Tudor period saw wars, battles, disputed successions, and divides in religion, and throughout this all William Harspur’s own life continued seemingly uninterrupted. The change in religion from Catholicism to Protestantism (and back and again depending on the monarch) doesn’t appear to have caused him any particular problems, and this itself is of interest mostly because the Tudor era is coloured as being violent and dramatic. It seems unthinkable in many ways that these changes would not have transformed society’s thinking and actions, however, the Harspur example shows that despite the change opportunity remained.

‘Chaos is a ladder’, comes a quote from TV show Game of Thrones. Harspur is a small example of someone who didn’t like political or religious loyalty bind him; he appears to have climbed through the ranks no matter the feeling toward Catholic or Protestant. There are – more significant – examples, such as that of William Cecil at the upper tier of government, however, Harspur provides an additional example of someone removed from the highest level of politics. A social climber who made his way up in the world despite the disturbances of Tudor change.