BENET, William (1381-1463), of Canterbury, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. 1 Nov. 1381,1 s. and h. of Robert Benet (d.c.1396) of Canterbury by his w. Christine (d.1419). m. (1) bef. Mar. 1419, Isabel; (2) Alice; (3) Ellen; (4) Geraldine, s.p.
Jurat, Canterbury Mich. 1406-8, 1409-11, 1412-14, 1418-19, 1420-1, 1422-4, 1425-7, 1429-30, 1432-4 1436-8, 1439-41, 1442-3, 1445-7, 1451-2, 1457-8, 1459-61;2 bailiff 1415-17, 1419-20, 1421-2, 1430-1, 1434-5, 1443-4; mayor 1449-50;3 chamberlain 1452-4.4
Commr. of inquiry, Canterbury May 1458 (treasons and felonies).
William was the only son of Robert Benet, a prosperous draper of Canterbury, who had thrice served the city as bailiff. Under the terms of Robert’s will, enrolled in the city court in June 1396, all the family holdings were left to his widow Christine for life, though charged with an annuity of £2 payable to young William after he reached the age of 16. William did not have long to wait for the annuity, for he made proof of age, as being 15, in the burghmote in January 1397; but the property itself was not to pass to him until his mother’s death 22 years later.5
The premises Benet eventually inherited probably included his tavern known as Cok up on the Hop which suffered damage as a consequence of a ‘watirfall’ from the gutter on the building next door; in 1429 he successfully sued his neighbour for trespass before a local jury which, not inappropriately, consisted of masons and carpenters. Also within the city walls Benet held some land called ‘the Hermitage’ and more at Dane John, while other property was held on a tenancy from Christ Church priory. In 1431 he was assessed for the subsidy on holdings in Canterbury worth £8 a year, but this did not take account of his interests outside the city at Sandwich and elsewhere. The bulk of Benet’s income came from the profits of his trade as a draper, in which he had followed his father. He was not infrequently asked to supply cloth to the civic authorities to make robes for Canterbury’s legal counsel.6
Benet became involved in the administration of Canterbury in the year following his formal admission as a freeman on 12 Nov. 1405, then being elected as a jurat for the first of many terms. Displaying a wholehearted commitment to civic affairs, he continued to take an active role until he was 80 — a remarkable achievement maintained over a period of 55 years. In November 1409 he and others obtained a royal licence to grant a messuage to the commonalty, to hold in mortmain as an endowment for repairs to the city walls. He was returned to Parliament for the first time (in 1416) during the second of his seven terms as bailiff, and on many occasions in the course of his career he was sent back to Westminster on the business of the community. For example, journeys made in the years 1415-17 took him not only to the central lawcourts in connexion with the city’s suit against St. Augustine’s abbey, but also to the Exchequer to deliver a loan of 100 marks to the Crown. In November 1431, on behalf of their fellow citizens, he and Thomas Langdon* granted to the Austin friars a house and garden for the enlargement of their conventual buildings, provided that they paid the city a yearly rent of 5s. to be put towards the fee farm. While bailiff in 1434-5, Benet headed a delegation sent to the capital to seek the mediation of Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, in the city’s bid to obtain a reduction to 100 marks of the loan of £100 demanded by the King, a mission which he successfully accomplished. After the charter of 1448 Benet became the second holder of the new office of mayor of Canterbury, but his mayoral year was not to be a tranquil one, for in the spring of 1450 a civil riot was begun by a hermit called Bluebeard, and this was rapidly followed by the great insurrection led by Jack Cade. Benet reacted admirably to the crisis: he and his fellow citizens took Bluebeard captive, dispatching him in chains to the King at Westminster for execution, and then mounted a spirited action to prevent Cade’s rebels from entering the city. Three years later Henry VI, in a charter confirming the liberties enjoyed by Canterbury before the recent Act of Resumption, noted these achievements among the reasons why he owed the city special favour. In the meantime, when, in 1452, the local office of chamberlain had been created, Benet had been elected one of the first holders of the post.7
Benet’s standing in the community led to his often being asked to act as a feoffee of property in Canterbury and elsewhere in east Kent. For example, in 1422 he became a trustee of the manor of Bekesbourne and the advowson of ‘Bourne’s chantry’, which together were subsequently sold to Archbishop Chichele; and ten years later he served as a feoffee for the performance of the will of William Emery*, a local lawyer. In 1431, acting as an executor for Thomas Wykes* (the former knight of the shire for Cambridgeshire who had settled near Canterbury), he became involved in lawsuits brought by Sir Thomas Kyriel† over the ownership of certain properties on the Isle of Thanet. Benet was among those of Kent who, three years later, were obliged to take the generally prescribed oath not to maintain malefactors.8 On more than one occasion Benet’s trusteeships led to litigation in Chancery. The most serious cases arose as a consequence of his activities on behalf of Joan, widow of Thomas Ickham*, and of her son, William Ickham. (d.1424). First, he and the only other surviving feoffee, his friend William Chilton*, were alleged to have failed to make a settlement of property on Joan’s other son, Stephen Buckland, in accordance with her instructions, and then (in suits still in progress in 1440) complaints were made that they had ignored valid claims to the Ickham estate made by certain of William’s distant kinsfolk. On another occasion Benet was sued by a London draper for neglecting to carry out the last wishes of his mother, Alice Rollyng, with regard to land at Hawkhurst and elsewhere, although in a written deposition to the court the defendant claimed that he had always been ready to do what was lawful, protesting ‘this ys trewe as y wylle answere to God’. Finally, in 1454 he was taken to task for having, as a trustee of the late John Pirye’s† property in Canterbury, Stourmouth and other places, unjustly favoured the claims of the deceased’s half-sister before those of the ‘true heir’. Evidently there were those who had cause to doubt Benet’s integrity.9
The aged Benet died in 1463 (probably on 21 Nov., the date on which his obit was subsequently celebrated), and was buried in St. Augustine’s abbey next to his second wife, Alice. His fourth wife survived him. His undated will shows him to have been a man of considerable means, whose numerous bequests in money alone amounted to over £100. To St. Augustine’s he left a mazer with the image of the Virgin Mary carved thereon, and £1 towards the painting of another such image, ‘where the abbot lyeth’, and to Canterbury cathedral a donation of 11 marks towards the building of the Angel steeple as well as a ‘bekyr’ for the frater inscribed with his name ‘to be had the more in mind’. He gave ten marks to a priest to pray in St. Mildred’s church for the souls of his parents and former wives, and to sing 300 dirges and 300 masses within a month of his own funeral; and to St. Andrew’s church, of which he was a parishioner, he left the proceeds of the ultimate sale of his dwelling place (after the death of his widow), £20 for a cloth of gold vestment, 3s.4d. for the perpetual maintenance of its clock, and an annual rent of 10s. from gardens in Sandwich and Chantry Lane, Canterbury, for illumination. Yet it was to St. Clement’s, Sandwich, that he bequeathed his best piece of silver, weighing 52 ounces, to be melted down and made into a chalice with his name engraved on its foot. The city of Canterbury, which Benet had served all his long life, was also to benefit by his death, for he left it 300 feet of ashlar for making a wharf at the King’s mill, £10 for repairs to the shambles and to pave the street from the pillory to St. Andrew’s so that churchgoers ‘may go clean’, and after the death of his widow his houses in St. Mary Bredman parish, subject to an annual charge of 10s. for his obit in St. Andrew’s. Charitable bequests to local hospitals and prisons recalled the testator’s trade by including lengths of cloth to be made into shirts and smocks.10