Thomasine Bonaventure, ‘The Whittington of the West’ was the daughter of John Bonaventure of Week St. Mary, near Bude, Cornwall, and his wife Jane. Not a great deal is known about her family, except that they were gentry and she had a brother Richard who was a priest. There are several versions of how she came to move to London and marry a series of wealthy merchants. The most prevalent is that a London man, traveling in Cornwall, came upon a shepherdess tending her flock and was so impressed by her that he took her home with him to care for his wife. The story is reported by Richard Carew in his Survey of Cornwall (1602),when writing of the parish of Week St Mary in north Cornwall. It is given fuller treatment in Davies Gilbert’s Parochial History of Cornwall (1838). Both authorities state the young woman’s name as Thomasine Bonaventure, though the surname might refer to her good fortune rather than her ancestors. A legacy in her will to a brother, ‘John Bonaventer’, suggests it was her name. Both emphasize her charm and intelligence. There is no dispute that she founded a school and library there around 1510, which was much used by the people of Cornwall and to some extent Devon, until it was suppressed in the reign of Edward VI. A copy of her will, with which she endowed the school, was bound for a buyer overseas in 1972, when it was purchased for the British Library.
The Week St. Mary website identifies this man as Richard Brimsby and goes on to say that he married Thomasine after his wife died, then died himself, three years later, of the plague. According to the website, she then married Henry Gall of St. Lawrence, Milk Street, a merchant adventurer, who died five years after their marriage. More scholarly accounts agree that Thomasine moved to London as a young woman (around 1460) but give the name Richard Nordon as her benefactor/employer and Henry Galle (d. 1466), a merchant tailor, as her first husband. Some suggest that she was an upper servant in Galle’s household and married him after his wife died. She was certainly married to Galle, for at his death she received a jointure of half his property and also £100 worth of cloth from his shop, the terms of his apprentices, and £100 in cash. She also appears to have taken over the business for a time before marrying another merchant tailor, Thomas Barnaby (d.1467). Around 1469, she wed her third husband, John Percyvale (c.1430-May 1503),who was also a tailor. Percyvale was Lord Mayor of London in 1498. After his death, Thomasine took over his business and continued the training of his apprentices. By this time she was so wealthy that she attracted the attention of the king, Henry VII and ended up having to pay a fine of £1000 in order to receive his pardon for trumped up charges against her. She may have returned to Week St. Mary in her last years to engage in charitable works. She spent her declining years in good works. Roads were made and bridges built at her cost; almshouses for poor maids were erected; she relieved prisoners; fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. In Week St Mary, Thomasine founded a chantry and free school “to pray for the souls of her father and mother, and her husbands and relatives.” To the school she added a library, and a dwelling for the chanters and others, “and endowed the same with £20 lands for ever.” Cholwell, a learned man and great linguist, was master here in Henry VIII.’s time; and here he educated in the “liberal arts and sciences’ says Carew, “many gentlemen’s sons.” Such were a few of the benefits conferred on Week by the girl who once had tended the flocks upon the moors; but who, by great good fortune and more by the exercise of good sense, became Lady Mayoress.
It has been thought that the chantry and college were abolished under the Chantry Act of 1545, and that the connection of the school with the Chantry of St. John in the Church gave the pretext for this action. Carew says: “In Thomasine Bonaventer’s grammar school divers of the best gentlemen’s sons of Devon and Cornwall had been virtuously trained up in both kinds of divine and humane learning under one Cholwill, an honest and religious teacher; which caused the neighbours so much the rather and the more to rewe that a petty smacke only of popery opened the gap for the suppression of the whole by the statute made in Edward Vi’s reign touching the suppression of Chanterie.”The fact however seems to be that when the Commissioners came to Week St. Mary to inspect the chantry, the school was already in decay. This is confirmed by the following extract from the report of the Trustees of the Launceston Charities in 1859: “Among the records at the Record Office, London, are certain Certificates of the Commissioners appointed in the reign of King Henry the Eighth and King Edward 6th to take the surveys of all Chantries, Colleges, and Free Chapels in the County of Cornwall, and that by a Certificate made in or about the 27th year of the reign of King Henry 8th it appears that a Chantry then existed in the parish of Week St. Mary in the County of Cornwall on the foundation of Dame Thomazine Percival, wife of Sir John Percival, Knight, to find a priest for ever not only to pray for her soul within the Parish of Week St. Mary, but also that the said priest should teach children freely in a school founded by the said Dame Percival not far from the said Parish Church, and he to receive for his yearly stipend a salary of £12 and 6 shillings to be levied of the lands given amongst other uses to that intent and purpose: to find a manciple or usher also to instruct and teach children under the said schoolmaster, and he to have for the maintenance of his living yearly 26 shillings and 8 pence. To give to the Laundress to wash the clothes of the Schoolmaster and Principal for her reward yearly 13 shillings and 4 pence and the remainder of the said lands and possessions belonging to the said Chantry the Trustees willed should be expended in the keeping of an obit yearly (18th April, see Tywardreath Obituary) for her within the Parish Church aforesaid.”“From a similar certificate of certain other Commissioners appointed in the second year of King Edward VI (1548) and by a memorandum thereto, it was noted that the Borough of Launceston was a very meet place to establish a learned man to preach and set forth the word of God to the people and also to teach children in their grammar and other necessary knowledge, and that whereas the said school at Week St. Mary was then in decay, the said Borough of Launceston was a very meet place to have the foundation of the said school removed unto.
And in another certificate it states “ And where as the said scole of Seynt Mary Wyke ys nowe yn decaye, for lake of convenyent reliff for the scolers ther; this (Launceston) ys a very meate place to have the foundation of the said scole removed unto; for the said townes of Launceston and Weke standethe wtin vij miles distaunt.”“By the ninth and tenth certificates of the said Commissioners issued some time in the reign of King Edward VI, it appears that the said Chantry of Week St. Mary was removed to Launceston, and that the schoolmaster, usher and laundress of the said school of Week St. Mary were to continue their services at their accustomed wages (amounting together to £17 13s 3d) at Launceston.”It was suggested that the Horwell Grammar School (below), as it was called, in Launceston, benefited by the action of the Commissioners, so that “Dame Percyval’s” Charity was not misappropriated by the Crown, but passed from her beloved Week St. Mary to Lanstephadon, which she also loved.
However in their book ‘A History of Launceston and Dunheved’ Otho and Richard Peter state that the local tradition of the Week St. Mary School being the parent of the Launceston School was a myth or a palpable error. They state that through the investigation of other certificates of the time that the provision had been made for a school by the grant of Colyn, Cobthorne, and Tharrape, and that the statement of the mayor and commonalty in 1478 was strictly correct, although it did not particularize the duties of the schoolmaster. They went on to describe Thomasine and that she was born in 1450. They stated ‘ The pretty story of her early poverty, her beauty, and her three marriage’s fills some of Cornish histories, After the death of her third husband, Sir John Percival, knight, who was lord mayor of London in 1499, she returned a wealthy widow to her birthplace.’ They went to explain that there was no reason to doubt that she founded a chantry there, and that she was a benvolent and religious woman. The book also mentions that she made her will in 1512, and, in a codicil to it, briefly mentions her chantry and grammar school, adding that her cousin, John Dynham, was in full possession of her wishes and directions respecting these institutions. The Peter’s also identified that she had a brother, John Bonaventure, to whom she gave a legacy of £20, and she had probably enriched him and her other poor relations whilst dwelling among them at Week St. Mary. They also suggested that this John Bonaventure was the mayor of Launceston in 1512.
The book then goes on to state that the chantry at Week St. Mary could not have existed earlier than the year 1500. It foundress is supposed to have died in 1530 and soon after the chantry was already in decay and unable to support itself. It continues that Launceston had a larger population, was the county town, and a place of great resort, but its revenues were heavily charged. It had priests, bridges, a gaol, poor prisoners, and almshouses to maintain. On public grounds therefore, as well as for the convenience and comfort of the two scholastic foundations themselves, and of persons attached to them, the Commissioners advised that the Week St. Mary establishment should be sent to, and united with, or absorbed in, that of Launceston, and the advice was followed by the young king’s protector. So they conclude that it was more of a merger than a simple moving of the establishment.
Sir Alfred Robbins, in his book ‘Launceston Past and Present’ mentioned the earliest description of a Grammar school in Launceston in a passage ‘The pencon of ye prst to be borne by th’inhabitants of ye towne. Being ye scolemaster of St. Mary Weke, by there own suite, is removed thither.’
Dame Thomasine Percivall died, respected by all who knew her, in 1530, having then reached the good old age of eighty years. It appears probable that the name Bonaventure, by which this remarkable female is usually known, was given to her, likely enough, by the linguist Cholwell, to commemorate her remarkable fortune.
Berry Comb, in Jacobstow, was once the residence of Thomasine, and it was given at her death to the poor of St Mary Week.
The Week St. Mary website quotes letters she supposedly wrote home, including one to her mother, though this seems at odds with the shepherdess story. And while the website agrees that her will was made in 1512, it claims she did not die until 1539 at the advanced age of eighty-nine. She had no children. Her will included a legacy of twenty marks towards the building of the church tower of St. Stephens.