BELL, John, of Boston, Lincs.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
s. of Walter Bell of Boston. m. (1) by Easter 1386, Isabel, prob. at least 1s.; (2) by Apr. 1405, Ibote.1
Bailiff, Boston for John de Montfort, duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond Mich. 1380-3; receiver-general of the Lincs. estates confiscated from Richmond Mich. 1383-6; bailiff of Queen Anne as holder of these estates Mich. 1386-97.2
Commr. of inquiry, Lincs. Mar. 1382 (wreckage of a Hanse ship), June 1401 (tax assessments at Sutterton), July 1409 (concealment of the late Earl Marshal’s goods); to make an arrest July 1391 (attacks on Hanse merchants at Boston), Aug. 1403 (to detain goods of French merchants at Boston), May 1414 (generally); to assemble ships and men to combat piracy, Boston May 1398; of array, Holland Dec. 1399, Aug., Sept. 1403, Oct. 1417, Kesteven Apr. 1418, Holland Mar. 1419; sewers Feb. 1400, May 1403, Aug. 1409, May 1411, Feb. 1412, May 1415, Holland, Kesteven Feb., June 1416, Lindsey Feb. 1417, Holland Apr. 1418; to prevent the departure of ships from Boston May 1401; of oyer and terminer Oct. 1404 (disorder at Wrangle), Mar. 1406 (assault at Friston); to raise a royal loan, Holland Nov. 1419.
Constable of the Boston Staple 1385-7; mayor of the Staple Nov. 1390-1.3
Controller of customs and subsidies, Boston 20 June 1389-15 May 1390, 24 Mar.-19 Aug. 1401; collector of tunnage and poundage 16 June 1390-17 Feb. 1397, 7 May 1398-24 Mar. 1401, 28 Mar. 1403-1 Oct. 1405, 20 Feb. 1407-30 Sept. 1410, 12 Apr. 1413-10 Oct. 1420; collector of petty custom, wool custom and cloth subsidy 15 May 1390-8 Dec. 1391, 19 Aug.-27 Nov. 1401, 19 Oct. 1402-9 Nov. 1405, 20 Feb. 1407-30 Sept. 1410, 12 Apr. 1413-10 Oct. 1420.
Alderman of the guild of Corpus Christi, Boston 1395-8.4
J.p. Lincs. (Holland) 8 May 1398-May 1406, 13 Feb. 1407-June 1410, 16 Feb. 1411-Jan. 1418, 17 Oct. 1418-July 1420.
Alnager, Lincs. (Holland) 17 Oct. 1399-30 Nov. 1400.
Dep. to Thomas Chaucer*, the King’s chief butler, Boston 12 Nov. 1402.
Ambassador to treat with the Scots for the restitution of Flemish merchandise 15 Feb. 1403.5
Collector of a tax, Lincs. (Holland) Mar. 1404; a royal loan Jan. 1420.
Escheator, Lincs. Nov. 1404-15 Jan. 1406.
The only merchant to represent Lincolnshire during our period, John Bell was returned to Parliament towards the end of a long and distinguished career, having already achieved a degree of influence which many of his landowning colleagues had cause to envy. Not much is known about his family background save that he was the son of a Boston man, who may also have made his living through trade. He first appears at Michaelmas 1380, when he began to account as bailiff in Boston for Edward III’s son-in-law, John, duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond. One year later he was bound over to keep the peace towards a neighbour named John Haddeley. This incident had no adverse effect on his progress, however, for in the following year he received the first of many royal commissions. That he was rapidly becoming a figure of some consequence in the area is clear from his appointment, in 1383, as receiver-general of the lands in Lincolnshire which had been forfeited by the earl of Richmond following his shift of allegiance to Charles V of France. In this office Bell paid out wages, supervised the audit of accounts and attended inquisitions dealing with the property in his care. When the Richmond estates were granted to Queen Anne in 1386 he again assumed the post of bailiff, which he retained until 1397, some three years after her death.6 In addition to this, he took an active part in the running of the Boston Staple, and was employed almost continuously from 1389 onwards as a customs officer in Boston. It was, moreover, during this period that Robert, Lord Willoughby of Eresby, chose him to act as one of his trustees, and that he began to offer securities on behalf of friends with dealings in Chancery or at the Exchequer. In 1384, for instance, he went bail for William Windsor, a clerk charged with prosecuting suits to the King’s prejudice; and his services as a mainpernor were subsequently enlisted by such persons as Philip Gernon (as keeper of land in Boston) and Robert Sleford (a local tradesman being sued for debt). He also established a close connexion with (Sir) John Rochford* and Sir Philip Tilney*, two of the leading figures in Holland. Both these men were made feoffees, in 1386, of the estates which Bell and his first wife, Isabel, owned in Boston; and the association continued for many years, as can be seen from various local property transactions in which the three friends appeared together as witnesses and trustees.7
Thanks no doubt to his position as an employee of the Crown, Bell was able to extend his holdings by obtaining preferential leases at the Exchequer. In December 1385, Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia (who was later to employ him), granted him for 60 years the farm of property in Boston called ‘Camerowe’. King Richard confirmed this arrangement by letters patent of June 1391, as did Henry IV when he seized the throne in 1399. A second, far more lucrative, transaction was effected at Langley in December 1392, whereby Queen Anne’s feoffees, with whom he had constant dealings in his capacity as bailiff, leased Bell the manor of Wykes (in Donington, Lincolnshire) at a rent of £100 a year. As a prominent and prosperous member of the mercantile community, Bell naturally participated in the religious and social life of Boston and its environs. In the summer of 1391, for example, he was a party to the endowment of the parish church of Leake (near Boston) by the widow of Sir Thomas Friskney. His main preoccupation at this time was, however, the foundation of a new guild of God and St. Mary in Boston itself. In this he was joined by several other distinguished townspeople, including Sir John Rochford and Sir Philip Tilney, who together paid £40 in September 1392 for a royal licence to acquire corporate status and endow the guild with land worth £10 p.a. Four years later he and five other brethren surrendered a further sum of 100 marks so that they might increase the value of their holdings to £22 13s.4d. Bell also belonged to Boston’s much older guild of Corpus Christi, whose members elected him as their alderman in about 1395. He was still in office in May 1398, when he obtained letters patent permitting the guild to secure additional rents in the town worth 23s.4d. p.a. Comparatively little evidence of Bell’s financial and mercantile affairs has survived, but we know that he played a prominent part in the cloth trade. The account of the alnager for Holland from 1395 to 1398 shows him to have been among the leading cloth sellers of the area, paying tax on 40 ‘dozens’. He also imported oil, wax, herring, canvas and Spanish iron. He was evidently well able to advance money to John, the son of Sir John Holt, j.c.p., in 1391, thus enabling him to buy back his father’s confiscated estates. His dealings in London were, however, marred by one city merchant’s refusal to honour a debt of £50; but he proved remarkably tenacious and, although the defendant was actually pardoned his outlawry for failing to appear in court, he refused to drop the case which dragged on for years. The award of a papal indult in 1394 allowing him to choose his own confessor serves as yet another indication of his growing prestige. Not long afterwards, he was acting as Richard II’s agent for the restitution of confiscated goods to a foreign merchant; and in April 1399 he was made the attorney of a royal clerk about to leave on the King’s ill-fated expedition to Ireland. At about this time, the bishop of Lincoln accorded him and his first wife a licence to celebrate mass privately in their own home at Boston.8
Despite the confidence which he clearly inspired in the court party, and which probably led to his appointment as a j.p. in May 1398, there is every reason to believe that Bell’s political sympathies lay elsewhere. His decision to sue out a royal pardon just three weeks after taking his seat on the bench, no less than the several marks of favour soon shown to him by Henry IV, certainly confirm this suspicion. Bell had played a small but necessary part in preparing the ships which carried Bolingbroke’s expedition to Prussia in 1390, and he may perhaps have kept up some association with the future King. It is also possible that the John Bell who was made porter of Pickering castle in July 1399 and who subsequently served as an officer in the royal household for both Henry IV and Henry V (whom he accompanied to France in 1415), was, in fact, the merchant’s son. From about 1406 onwards our MP is often described as ‘the elder’, possibly to distinguish him from the King’s servant of that name.9 At all events, he was the recipient of various gifts of royal patronage, ranging from successive appointments as alnager of Holland, deputy butler of Boston and escheator of Lincolnshire to grants of property held in wardship by the Crown. In November 1399, for example, he was made keeper of estates in Skirbeck and Mumby, Lincolnshire, which he held until the heir proved his age in 1412. More land in this area came his way in May 1406 as a result of the minority of Thomas Chosell, and three years later he obtained temporary custody of holdings in Algarkirk and Fosdyke, again because the next heir was under age. On both occasions Henry IV allowed him rights of marriage as well. In return for the King’s generosity, Bell showed himself a loyal servant of the house of Lancaster; and at the time of the Welsh wars, in 1404, he and three other Boston merchants raised a loan of £100 towards the cost of national defence. Repayment was promised to them out of the wool subsidy, and since Bell was then one of the collectors of customs for the port, it may be assumed that he soon recovered the money. He married his second wife, Ibote, at some point before April 1405, when the couple were permitted by the bishop of Lincoln to hold services in their own domestic chapel. His duties as executor of one Richard Muryell of Kent had already become rather onerous, although in the following May he used his influence to secure a writ of supersedeas and thus halted proceedings begun against the deceased for his failure to execute a royal commission. The problem of obtaining money from persistent debtors was one which few enterprising merchants could avoid, and Bell went to law again at this date, albeit with no more success than he had experienced earlier. His attempt to recover a debt of £40 was doomed to failure, and in February 1410 the two defendants managed to prevent further litigation by obtaining a royal pardon.10
A striking feature of Bell’s career during the first decade of the 15th century is his increased popularity as a feoffee-to-uses. He had always been in some demand in this respect, but his flourishing relations with King Henry made it even more desirable to engage his services. He continued to hold part of the Willoughby estates in trust, but most of the conveyances in which he was involved concerned the lesser gentry and yeomanry of Holland. He also became far more active as a royal commissioner and even took his place on an embassy to Scotland, but it was not until 1413, when he must have been well over 50, that he finally obtained a seat in the House of Commons. The breadth of administrative and mercantile experience which he then possessed was rivalled by comparatively few of his parliamentary colleagues, so it is all the more surprising that he was not apparently returned again. However, his interest in local government remained as strong as ever, and he did not relinquish his post as collector of customs until 1420. He was also one of the local notables who witnessed an important arbitration award made in 1415 between the abbot of Croyland and his tenants, but after this date he shouldered far fewer of the social obligations which he had so often fulfilled as a younger man.11
The date of Bell’s death is not now known. He may have still been alive in October 1426 when a man of the same name was pardoned his contempt for refusing to accept a royal writ, but this reference could equally well concern the crown servant who, as we have seen, was perhaps his son.12
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. C67/30 m. 24; CP25(1)143/146/10; Lincs. AO, Reg. Beaufort, XIII, f. 18; Reg. Repingdon (Lincoln Rec. Soc. lviii), 38. This MP was probably related to John Bell of Leake in Lincs. who was active locally throughout the 1370s, and who became a royal tax collector in 1380. Contemporaries clearly distinguished between the two men, however, and they should not be confused (CP25(1)143/142/3; CCR, 1369-74, pp. 567-8, 571; 1374-7, p. 87; CFR, ix. 228). Another of his namesakes was a clerk of the household of the earl of Huntingdon (CPR, 1388-92, pp. 194, 250, 365, 481).
- 2. E368/154-6, 159.
- 3. C67/23.
- 4. P. Thompson, Boston, 117.
- 5. Rot. Gasc. et Franc. ed. Carte, ii. 184-5.
- 6. E368/157, 158; E401/563.
- 7. CP25(1)143/144/20, 146/10, 149/2; CCR, 1381-5, pp. 98, 595; 1385-9, p. 637; 1392-6, p. 478; CFR, xi. 28.
- 8. C143/410/12, 428/7; CP40/528 rot. 143, 530 rot. 300; E101/339/27 m. 2; E122/7/17, 19, 21; CPR, 1388-92, pp. 424, 427; 1391-6, pp. 27, 192; 1396-9, pp. 19-20, 319-20, 342, 531; 1399-1401, p. 76; CPL, iv. 496; CCR, 1389-92, p. 334; 1396-9, pp. 38-39; Thompson, 117; Lincs. AO, Reg. Beaufort, XIII, f. 18.
- 9. C67/30 m. 24; Derby’s Expeds. (Cam. Soc. n.s. lii), 27; Somerville, Duchy, i. 137; N.H. Nicolas, Agincourt, 376; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 118; CPR, 1422-9, p. 463.
- 10. CPR, 1401-5, p. 417; 1405-8, p. 443; CCR, 1402-5, p. 510; 1409-13, pp. 80, 281; CFR, xii. 15, 20; xiii. 32; Reg. Repingdon, 38.
- 11. CP25(1)144/150/30, 151/15, 24, 26, 153/4, 13, 154/16; CCR, 1413-19, pp. 86-87, 96; Lincs. N. and Q. viii. 209; CPR, 1413-16, pp. 375-6.
- 12. CFR, xv. 142.