Flower of the Month: Leeds’ John Harrison – good Christian benefactor or ‘the very knave of knaves’?

Statue of John Harrison, (1579-1656), City Square, Leeds

A standard search of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for “John Harrison” produces twelve results. Among scientists, artists, a horologist, a naval officer, clergymen, conspirators, one man is identified simply as “benefactor”—John Harrison (1579-1656) of Leeds. The only son and namesake of a successful clothier of the borough, Harrison inherited his father’s business in 1601. Through smart, aggressive commercial practices, Harrison became one of the wealthiest cloth merchants of Leeds and one of its ruling elite.

Some of the civic projects to which he devoted himself—such as building a new Moot Hall, petitioning to make Leeds a staple town for the marketing of wool, and purchasing the manor of Leeds from the Corporation of the city of London—obviously benefitted his business interests. Harrison was exceptional, however, in the generosity with which he funded civic improvements.

Moot Hall, Leeds. source: Percy Robinson, Relics of Old Leeds (Leeds and London, 1896), plate facing p. 20

“Having purchased the estates of the Rockleys and Falkinghams to the north of the town,” Joan Kirby writes in the ODNB entry, Harrison “built there, between 1620 and 1640, a new street, known as New Briggate (whose rents he assigned to the use of the poor), the beautiful church of St John the Evangelist, a row of almshouses to accommodate forty poor persons, and a new building on an attractive site for the free grammar school.” Harrison not only built St. John’s (see image at bottom), which remains one of the finest examples of an elaborately carved rood screen and pews, but also provided ongoing support with the income from a house, glebe lands, and an annual stipend of £80 for the uses of church.

Rood screen, interior, church of St John the Evangelist, New Briggate, Leeds, copyright John Salmon (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license; geograph.org.uk – 1333650.jpg)

Modern historians are unanimous in singing the praises of John Harrison as the benefactor of Leeds. Some of his contemporaries four hundred years ago had less flattering songs to sing. In 1617, Harrison submitted a bill of complaint to the Court of Star Chamber alleging that twenty-two of his neighbours, “envyinge his prosperitie and good estate” had conspired together to defame him in two “scandalous and infamous libells.” He claimed that they made these defamatory verses public by distributing copies, reading them aloud, and singing them with much jollity at Harrison’s expense.

The first of these songs consists of sixteen four-line stanzas, each one addressing the audience as “Good Neighbours.” The piece alludes to some costly, but ultimately unsuccessful, civic project that Harrison supposedly spearheaded:


The end and beginningy all is but one,

Rashnes begunne it by Councell of John,

ffye of suche Councell that after breedes mone;

And makes men buy witt good neighbours,


The second song, one of fourteen quatrains, provides a sustained personal attack on John Harrison as “of knaves the very knave.” The first eight stanzas, each one a parallel clause, build to the conclusion: “He is the knave of knaves I dare affirme,/ Although he were my Brother.” The next six stanzas build in the same way to the final reiteration of that claim.

The song portrays Harrison as an ingrate, a slanderer who fosters spite, a hypocrite whose words belie his thoughts, a Protestant who turns to Papists for advice, a civic leader who betrays the trust placed in him to settle old issues, and a businessman who buys land by deceit and “useth cunninge not to paye.” As the piece builds to its conclusion, it blends allusions to how Harrison consolidated his wealth and power with denigration of the man:


For a Seditious Libel, source: J. Woodfall Ebsworth, ed., Roxburgh Ballads, vol. 5 (Hertford, 1883), p. 174.

hee that hath gott some store of land

would governe all a towne,

And yet’s ill bred and Manners wantes

a knave a verie Clowne:

Hee that vppon the riche doth frowne,

but spighteth them that’s poore,

And hates them both and loveth none,

but flatterie and a whore,

Hee that abuses men of worth,

of knowledge and of arte,

And for to please a Butchers wife,

doth terme a Coach a Carte:

Hee that with all these Canne bee Chardged,

noe further shall hee have,

But while hee lives shalbee esteemed

of knaves the very knave:


Ironically, there is some truth to the song’s concluding prophecy, for during Harrison’s lifetime, despite all his generous benefactions, he would be denounced for his Anglicanism by the minister and parishioners of the church he built and fined for his Royalism by Parliamentary leaders he supported.

What occasioned that animosity that found expression in libellous song in the first place? Clearly some people were offended by the rapid increase of his wealth, property, and political influence. Some may have suspected that he has played a part in diverting money for the relief of the poor to building the new Moot Hall. Religion was also a factor. The Puritan faction in Leeds undoubted considered staunch Protestants like Harrison insufficiently Puritan. Most of the defendants named in Key vs. Harrison were members of that faction, led in 1617 by Alexander Cooke, a virulent anti-Catholic, an outspoken foe of alehouses, a violent opponent of local customs like rush bearings, an enemy of superstitious festive occasions such as Christmas, and one of the defendants in the case. Alexander Cooke was no friend of John Harrison: as John Metcalfe reported in his case against Cooke and his supporters in 1622 (STAC 8/215/6), the vicar, outraged by a procession, took a halberd in hand and cried out, “‘I would Metcalfe and Harrison were here, that I might drive the street of twenty of them!”

*This month’s Flower was very kindly provided by the REED: Yorkshire West Riding co-editor Professor Ted McGee (Waterloo). Professor McGee would like to express his gratitude to The Malone Society, in particular, for a grant in support of this and related REED-NE research.

From Wikipedia entry: ‘Harrison Memorial Window, St John’s Church, Leeds, UK. Painted in 1885 by Burlison and Grylls. The lower half depicts scenes from John Harrison’s life. From bottom left: Harrison gives a tankard of coins to the imprisoned King Charles I; the construction of St John’s Church; Harrison praying in his study; Harrison helps an old woman into his almshouse; Harrison sets up a market cross on Briggate in Leeds’. Photo credit: Alarichall, 6 May 2017, 13:10:16, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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