BENTLEY, William, of Plymouth, Devon.
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Family and Education
Commr. of arrest, Plymouth Oct., Nov. 1396; to defend merchant shipping Aug. 1403; fortify Plymouth Feb. 1404.
Lt. to Edward, earl of Rutland, admiral of England 1397-8.1
Mayor, Plymouth Mich. 1399-1400, 1408-9, 1412-13, 1417-18.2
Searcher, Fowey, Plymouth, Dartmouth and Exeter 12 June 1413-5 May 1417.
Collector of customs and subsidies, Fowey and Plymouth 12 Dec. 1419-Nov. 1423.
Bentley witnessed deeds at his home town, Plymouth, from 1396 onwards, and he acted as a feoffee of property in Sutton Vautort and Sutton Priour, the townships which joined to form the borough.3 Voyages to Gascony for shipments of wine gave him experience as a sea captain, and by 1396 he was master of his own barge, La Marie, which was then used for the passage of Richard II and his entourage from Dover to Calais for the King’s marriage to Isabella of France. It seems likely that he had already entered the service of the admiral, Edward, earl of Rutland, for it was in the capacity of Rutland’s lieutenant that only a year later he allegedly seized a ship called the Mary of Plymouth and conspired with others to defraud the owner of the vessel and the cargo.4
Bentley acted as executor of the will of Walter Crocker, a sometime mayor of Plymouth, and was himself elected mayor on no fewer than four occasions. On 27 Aug. 1400, during his first known mayoralty, Henry IV’s council issued orders for his arrest and for the confiscation of his goods and those of Richard Spicer* alias Newport of Plymouth which were in his keeping. Bentley had previously acknowledged in the court of admiralty that he was answerable for the sum of nearly 3,000 marks for merchandise taken at sea by Spicer. However, despite his admission before the King and the Council that he still had some of the goods in his custody, they had since been informed that it was his intention to flee the country and dispose of the spoils abroad. The outcome of Bentley’s second appearance before the Council is not known, but his arrest was ordered again on 4 Dec., following a complaint by Martin Ferrers† that when he had tried to carry out a commission of array at Sutton Vautort, Bentley and others had assaulted him, besieged him in a house at Sutton Priour, and set free certain Bretons whom he had arrested under letters of marque. It seems, however, that Ferrers’s charges were exaggerated: before the end of the month the Council was reliably informed that the allegations were untrue, and that if indictments were brought it would tend to the ruin of the commonalty of Plymouth. The parties were ordered to present themselves in person at the forthcoming Parliament where the case would be judged.5
Bentley’s activities at sea, not all above suspicion of piracy, continued as before. In 1402 he was in possession of a cargo taken from certain Spanish merchants, and was ordered to retain it intact, under a penalty of £1,000. On 6 Aug. that year, described as ‘of Devon, esquire’, he stood surety at the Exchequer for the ex-admiral, who was now duke of York, when he was granted custody of the estates of his late father, Edmund of Langley. And it was also as ‘esquire’ that on 26 Aug. 1403 Bentley procured royal letters of protection for one year, as being about to put to sea on the King’s service to execute a commission (issued on the same day) to defend the wine fleet from attack by Breton vessels on its voyage from Plymouth to Bordeaux. That autumn, following the capture of several Spanish ships by a fleet under the command of Thomas Norton* of Bristol and John Hawley I* of Dartmouth, Bentley undertook to levy all the freight found in Plymouth, Kingswear, Saltash, Fowey and East Looe which certain foreign merchants claimed had been seized in breach of the truce.6 The following February he was commissioned to view the fortifications of Plymouth and ensure that they were sufficient to withstand an invasion. Despite the evident dangers for merchant shipping, Bentley continued his trading ventures: in 1405 he obtained a royal licence to import salmon from Ireland, and in later years he had commercial dealings with merchants of Bristol, London and Hull. Furthermore, he seems to have again entered the service of the admiral of England: some time between May 1407 and September 1408 he was commissioned by Edmund, earl of Kent, the then holder of that office, to arrest John Sampson of Plymouth on charges of treason and piracy, only, as a consequence, to suffer persecution by one of Sampson’s friends. It was in association with another prominent sea captain, John Corp* of Dartmouth, that in 1409 Bentley appeared in Chancery as mainpernor for William, son and heir of William Burlestone*. Two years later he was granted letters of marque to obtain compensation from the French for certain vessels and their cargoes of wine valued at 5,250 marks which had been captured off the coast of Normandy on Good Friday 1410, the French having refused the requests for restitution made by Henry IV’s ambassadors. When, in 1421, a Venetian carrack, freighted with merchandise worth 8,000 crowns, was captured at Goldtop (Wales), the crew of one of Bentley’s barges was said to have been involved, but juries empanelled at Bridgwater and Gloucester swore to the innocence of Bentley himself.7
Bentley is not known to have had any connexion with Tavistock, the borough which he represented in the Parliament of 1420, but since he was engaged in the tin trade, he probably had dealings at the stannary there. At the time of his election he was serving as customer in Plymouth and Fowey. In April 1423 he purchased from William Soper*, the keeper of the King’s ships, the royal ballinger called George, which vessel, built ‘ad modum unius galee’; at a cost of more than £229, he secured for a mere £20. He is not recorded after his replacement as customer in November of that year.8