ATHERTON, Sir Nicholas (d.1420), of Atherton, Lancs.
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Family and Education
2nd s. of Sir William Atherton† (d.1389) of Atherton by his 1st w. Joan, sis. and coh. of Ralph Mobberley of Mobberley, Cheshire. m. by 1377, Joan, da. and h. of Adam Bickerstaffe (fl.1377) of Bickerstaffe in Ormskirk, Lancs., at least 3s. Kntd. c. Aug. 1400.1
Bailiff of the duchy of Lancaster hundred of West Derby, Lancs. 18 Sept. 1399-d. 2
Collector of a tax, Lancs. Nov. 1404, Dec. 1407.3
A leading member of the Lancashire gentry, Sir William Atherton twice represented the county in Parliament as well as sitting on the local bench and serving on various commissions. He had, however, yet to establish himself as a public figure when his second son, Nicholas, the subject of this biography, was retained for life in March 1370 by John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, at a fee of £10 p.a. charged upon the manor of West Derby. This connexion was to prove a dominant factor in Nicholas’s life, and he showed himself a devoted, albeit sometimes troublesome, servant to the duke and his descendants. Between 1369 and 1373, for example, he took part in at least four overseas expeditions under Gaunt’s banner, although he clearly expected to enjoy the benefits of his patron’s good lordship in return. During this period Nicholas became involved in a dispute over the murder of his friend, Roger Hilton, whose widow, Agnes, turned to him for help in seeking compensation from those responsible for the deed. Whether or not Gaunt was disposed, as an arbitrator, to favour his new retainer cannot now be determined, but his decision to award the two of them damages of 120 marks certainly appears more than generous by contemporary standards. It is just possible that Nicholas and Agnes were actually husband and wife, although they cannot have been so for long, as by 1377 Nicholas was married to Joan, the daughter and heir of Adam Bickerstaffe. The latter then settled his estates, which were centred upon the manor of Bickerstaffe and produced at least 20 marks p.a., upon them. As a younger son, Nicholas could expect little in the way of inheritance, so henceforward he made this part of Lancashire his home.4 But not all his affairs ran so smoothly. Towards the end of the year he was charged with murdering William Bredkirk, one of the county coroners, and committed to the Marshalsea prison in London, whence he was delivered, on 6 Nov., for trial at the Lancaster assizes. Three weeks later he and his father-in-law entered recognizances with Gaunt (who had appointed Bredkirk, and had thus been openly defied by one of his own retainers), presumably as bail. On this occasion it was Gaunt’s wife, the duchess Constance, who used her influence on his behalf, intervening to secure him a royal pardon which was issued just over a year afterwards.5
Not much is known about Nicholas’s subsequent activities, until, in 1385, he served as a juror at an inquisition held at Lancaster. His eldest son (Nicholas Atherton ‘le filz’) was old enough to accompany Gaunt and his wife to Spain in the following year on their unsuccessful attempt to secure the throne of Castile, although he did not become a regular member of the ducal retinue for another decade. Meanwhile, the death of our Member’s father-in-law in, or just before, September 1389, left him in sole possession of Bickerstaffe, and he promptly obtained a licence from the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield to make use of a private oratory there. He lived quietly on his estates for the next few years, avoiding official responsibilities and only occasionally becoming involved in the affairs of his neighbours. Towards the end of Richard II’s reign he witnessed an arbitration award for the prior of Burscough, but otherwise his participation in the county community appears to have been slight. His connexion with Gaunt, and by implication with the latter’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, was none the less enough to render him politically suspect once the King began to revenge himself against his former enemies. Yet although both Nicholas and his elder brother, Sir William, took the precaution of suing out royal pardons in October 1398, their worst fears proved groundless; and Nicholas and his son were actually confirmed in their respective annuities after Gaunt’s death in the following year, when Bolingbroke, already in exile, was disinherited. Their attachment to the house of Lancaster remained unshaken, even so, and Bolingbroke’s seizure of the throne, on 20 Sept. 1399, was greeted with delight by all the Atherton clan.6
Richard II had not yet been deposed when, on 18 Sept., Bolingbroke rewarded Nicholas Atherton the elder with the office of bailiff of West Derby. Two years later he was allocated a second annuity of £10 from the manor, and he also obtained a grant of surplus profits not exceeding £12 p.a. from the revenues there. In 1403 new letters patent were issued, assigning one of his two fees from the farm of the borough of Liverpool, and the money continued to be paid in this way until his death.7 It was during Henry IV’s campaign against the Scots, in the summer of 1400, that Nicholas became a knight of the royal body, while his son continued to serve as an esquire at a fee of £10, to which was added occasional gifts of money and other items of royal largesse. That the two men were quite prepared to exploit their position by breaking the law and intimidating the local tenantry is evident from a series of indictments levelled against them at this time. The more serious charges included acts of robbery against Robert Fazakerley and Richard Bradshaw, who claimed to have lost cattle and crops worth £60, and the murder, in September 1400, of Robert Walsh. Sir Nicholas’s second son, Ralph, was seriously implicated with them in the last of these crimes, although he eventually secured a royal pardon and escaped punishment along with the others. Given that the Athertons were able to rely upon the notorious partiality of their kinsman, Sir Ralph Radcliffe*, who as sheriff was responsible for empanelling juries at the Lancaster assizes, they had little reason to fear reprisals in any event. On the other hand, however, Sir Nicholas had little success in a lawsuit of his own, brought against two neighbours for persistent poaching on his estates at Bickerstaffe.8
Sir Nicholas stood accused of Walsh’s murder while sitting in the Parliament of 1401, which, so far as we know, marked his only appearance as a shire knight. Yet despite his violent and often high-handed behaviour, King Henry was prepared to reward him, in August 1403, with a gift of £100 confiscated from the rebel Sir Gilbert Halsall, as well as the promise of a further £20 which the latter already owed him. (The date of the gift and identity of the traitor suggest that Atherton had been in the royal army which, at the battle of Shrewsbury in the previous month, had suppressed the great Percy rebellion.) Then, in the following year, he was excused a sum of £10 due to the Crown because of the escape from prison of a man for whom he had offered bail. Towards the end of their lives, Sir Nicholas and his elder brother, Sir William (d.1414), began appearing together in various semi-official capacities. Both, for example, witnessed the settlement made in 1403 on the second marriage of their influential neighbour, Sir William Boteler*; and a few years later we find all three knights sitting as members of a local jury. Their reasons for joining with Ralph Atherton and John Savage in offering a bond worth £100 to Henry, prince of Wales, are not recorded, although, as we have seen, Ralph was a truculent character, and he may once again have committed some violent crime. Shortly before this date, in May 1412, Sir Nicholas had himself engaged to serve on an expedition to France which Henry IV vainly hoped to lead personally in support of the Armagnac faction — this being the last occasion that he volunteered to perform any military duties. He attended the Lancashire parliamentary elections of 1413 (May) and 1414 (Nov.), but he was now quite aged, and happy to spend his last years in retirement.9
Having drawn up a will in which he asked to be buried in the nearby parish church of Ormskirk, Sir Nicholas died shortly before 20 Nov. 1420. His eldest son survived him by only four years, but left issue to carry on the family line.10
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Variants: Aderton, Athirton, Hatherton.