ASHCOMBE, Robert (d.c.1417), of London.
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Family and Education
Common councillor, London 9 Aug. 1376-aft. 21 Sept. 1396.2
Auditor, London 21 Sept. 1396-7.3
King’s embroiderer 8 Dec. 1396-c. Sept. 1399.
Nothing is known of Ashcombe before July 1372, when, as an embroiderer living in London, he began a lawsuit against John Moun of Dorchester, who allegedly owed him £18. Outstandingly litigious, even by 14th century standards, he was involved in at least 15 actions for the recovery of debts totalling more than £92 over the next nine years. Among the influential defendants summoned to answer him in court were Sir Ralph Basset, Sir Thomas Blount† and Sir William Hanley, each of whom may well have been among his many customers.4 Also at this time, in May 1379, Ashcombe was himself named as defendant in two suits concerning the ownership of a tenement in the parish of St. Michael, Wood Street. It is by no means certain, however, that he owned the property, which probably belonged to Sir John Kyriel with Ashcombe acting as his feoffee. The final verdict is not recorded, and the parties may well have settled amicably out of court.5 This was certainly not the case with Maud, the widow of John, Lord Grey of Rotherfield, who in November 1384 was pardoned her outlawry for failing to appear when sued by Ashcombe for a debt of £40. Ashcombe, a persistent and unrelenting litigant, probably continued to press his suit, which became a source of considerable friction between him and the Greys. On 21 Nov. 1386, Maud’s sons, Robert, Lord Grey of Rotherfield, and Richard Grey, undertook to pay Ashcombe 100 marks should the servant of his kinsman, John Ashcombe, be permanently maimed ‘by the hurt which was lately done him at Pykerynge’. Together with Ralph Hastings, they entered into further recognizances in £1,000 not to molest Ashcombe himself in any manner. The fault may not have been entirely theirs, for Ashcombe was quite clearly a difficult and quarrelsome man. Twice, in July 1390 and February 1402, he was obliged to invoke the protection of the courts against persons using threatening behaviour against him.6
Meanwhile, Ashcombe continued to sue debtors from places as far apart as Cornwall and Northumberland. Between May 1385 and February 1402 he began a further seven actions in the court of common pleas alone, which show that he had dealings with such influential figures as Sir William Lisle*, Sir Robert Hilton* and Sir Thomas Gerberge*.7 Furthermore, in November 1391, Sir Thomas Swinburne* bound himself by a recognizance in over £70 to the embroiderer, but unlike so many of the men with whom Ashcombe did business, he seems to have paid up promptly when required. Perhaps the most serious of Ashcombe’s lawsuits was heard in the court of Chancery at some point before November 1411. He had apparently been trying to recover lands worth 40 marks a year and goods to the value of £2,000 from Richard Clitheroe I*, who had agreed to sell them on his behalf to pay off certain debts but had failed to do so. Perhaps because he was making no progress in court, Ashcombe agreed to accept the arbitration of four auditors, with William Hanningfield* as one of his own nominees. It is a reflection of the large sums involved that both parties pledged mutual securities of £1,000 to accept whatever decision should be reached. The hearing was delayed by the appearance of Thomas Somerton as co-defendant with Clitheroe; a second set of arbitrators (with Alan Everard* acting for Ashcombe) was chosen in December 1413, but no more is heard of the dispute after this date.8
Not all the people against whom Ashcombe took legal action had necessarily commissioned work from him, but he was clearly in great demand as a skilled practitioner of his craft. His appointment in December 1396 as embroiderer to Richard II, a discerning patron, is in itself sufficient proof of his accomplishments. He was empowered to hire other embroiderers, as well as painters and tailors to work for the King, and although Henry IV does not appear to have retained his services, he at least intervened in December 1399 to prevent Ashcombe being arrested because these men had not been paid their wages.9 It is impossible to tell how much Ashcombe prospered during his three years of royal patronage, but he was without doubt a wealthy man even before serving the royal household. The bulk of his property, acquired in, or before, November 1382, lay in the two London parishes of St. Alban, Wood Street, and St. Mary Stanyng; a charter of November 1412 also refers to him as the owner of an alley in the parish of St. John Zachary, but no mention is made of this in his will. According to the lay subsidy return of 1412, Ashcombe derived an annual income of £15 15s.8d. from these various premises, which were probably undervalued at the time.10 Ashcombe’s relations with his neighbours, Gilbert and Mazera Accon, were characteristically hostile, and in June 1400 an assize of nuisance was held to investigate his complaints about their insanitary and unduly inquisitive habits. The Accons were given 40 days to amend their ways, but the widowed Mazera took her revenge five years later, when she sued Ashcombe in the husting court for gaining illegal entry into her own Wood Street tenement. The outcome of this protracted feud remains unknown, although it seems unlikely that Ashcombe would have left an old score unsettled.11
Ashcombe may have made many enemies over the years, yet he did not lack influential friends and connexions. In April 1383, for example, he was a party to the conveyance of land in Mumby, Lincolnshire, by Walter, Lord Fitzwalter; and he also acted as a feoffee for the wealthy London mercers John Bosham* and John Woodcock*. As might be expected of an embroiderer, his closest friends seem to have been mercers, and in his will he bequeathed 20 marks to Martin Kelom, another member of that company, ‘for his diligence and labour and good council in the past’.12Ashcombe often agreed to act as a mainpernor in both Chancery and the Exchequer, offering sureties on behalf of other embroiderers, tailors and craftsmen, as well as more eminent figures, including Sir John Felton*, Sir William Vale, and Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester.13
Save for his single term as an auditor of London, during which he was also returned to Parliament, Ashcombe did not play a significant part in civic affairs. He was present at the election of Sir Nicholas Brembre† as mayor of London on 13 Oct. 1384, and in the following March he attended the emergency meeting of the common council at which it was decided to press for the execution of Brembre’s political opponent, John of Northampton†. This was a unanimous decision, reached after a period of great unrest in the City, and there is nothing to suggest that Ashcombe ever became one of Brembre’s active supporters. He did not serve on any of the ad hoc committees set up by the common council at this time; nor, more significantly, was he among the 24 leading citizens of London summoned in June 1392 to attend upon the King at Nottingham. Perhaps he was too absorbed by private affairs, especially litigation, to devote much time to civic life. Ashcombe’s position at Court, where he was evidently in great favour, may explain why the electors of London were prepared to depart from the usual practice of returning a member of one of the more powerful city guilds and choose a relatively obscure artisan as their representative. That he was returned together with Andrew Newport, an esquire of the royal household, would suggest either an obsequious desire by the rulers of London to stand well with the King, or a direct attempt by Richard II to influence the elections to the crucial Parliament of September 1397. Ashcombe’s association with the earl of Worcester, whom he presumably got to know either at Court or as a result of shared connexions in the north, may well explain why he was subsequently retained by the latter’s elder brother, the earl of Northumberland, to help with the victualling of the border fortress of Berwick-upon-Tweed (a commission which, in his case, probably involved the decoration of flags, banners and other heraldic devices.) He indented to serve the earl there for one year, in the spring of 1402, but does not appear to have been implicated in any of the Percys’ subsequent rebellions against the Crown. Even so, he never again came to enjoy his earlier success as a royal craftsman, and spent the rest of his life out of the public eye.14
Ashcombe’s will was drawn up on 13 May 1416, but not enrolled in the court of husting until 23 Nov. 1423, two days before his executors began selling off his property. He was buried next to his late wife, Joan, in the church of St. Alban, Wood Street; and, having no children to succeed him, he was able to set aside most of his estate for charitable bequests.15