BIRKEN, John, of Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorks.
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Family and Education
m. by Mar. 1408, Margery.1
Bailiff, Kingston-upon-Hull, Mich. 1379-80; mayor 1386-7, 1400-1.2
John was quite probably the son or nephew of the Gilbert Birken who served as both bailiff and mayor of Hull in the mid 14th century, as well as representing the town in at least three Parliaments. Gilbert made considerable profits through trade, and it is worth noting that the first reference to John concerns his ownership, in 1375, of a staithe (or landing-stage) in the river Hull. The surviving customs accounts show that from 1382 onwards he was busily engaged in the export of cloth, while at the same time importing the export of cloth, while at the same time importing substantial quantities of wine and herring. His involvement in local government began in 1379, with his election as bailiff of Hull, and there is no reason to believe that the royal pardon accorded to him in February 1382 was more than a formality, intended, perhaps, to cover some peccadillo while in office.3 Shortly afterwards, John sat on a jury at an inquisition ad quod damnum in Hull, held to determine if Adam Tutbury* could make an endowment to the chapel of Holy Trinity. He himself was a member of the local fraternity of Corpus Christi, and in June of the same year he took seisin of a garden in Vicar Lane for the use of the guild. He was, no doubt, already by then engaged in a lawsuit against the administrator of the estate of Sir Thomas Sheffield, who had died intestate owing him over £11, although the defendant persistently refused to appear in court, and was in the end pardoned the sentence of outlawry which he had incurred for his contumacy. It is now hard to determine how much property John himself owned, since on some occasions he was almost certainly acting as a trustee for others. The solar and shops said to be in his possession in June 1395 were probably his own, but the three messuages settled upon him and Simon Grimsby I* in the same month had already been earmarked for the support of another chantry at Holy Trinity. Almost 13 years went by, however, before the necessary formalities for the award of a royal licence were actually carried out, by which date Birken and Grimsby were found to enjoy between them revenues of over £5 p.a. from other tenements in Hull. Letters patent authorizing the foundation were issued in November 1408, when Birken was at last released from his duties.4
By the time of his one and only known return to Parliament, in September 1402, Birken had discharged two terms as mayor of Hull and was regarded as one of the town’s leading burgesses. But all did not go well for him, and at some point before November 1407 he and a small group of associates stood accused in the court of the admiral of England of seizing a ship called Le Laurence of Ipswich and confiscating its cargo. The owner, Edmund Broke, was awarded the unusually high damages of 700 marks, together with compensation of £1,000, although the defendants were able to appeal on a legal technicality, and, indeed, managed to get the judgement annulled. Not surprisingly, in view of the sums involved, Broke challenged the findings of the royal commissioners who had overruled the verdict of the court, and two further commissions of oyer and terminer were set up in August and November 1409 to investigate his complaints. The outcome of this protracted dispute is not recorded, although Birken and his friends put up a spirited defence, arguing that the admiral (Thomas Beaufort, earl of Dorset, Henry IV’s half-brother) encouraged the imposition of heavy fines so that he could keep part of the proceeds for himself.5
No more is heard of Birken after this date, when he seems either to have died or retired from public life. Not much is known about his family, either, save that in March 1408 he and his wife, Margery, obtained a papal indult to choose their own confessor. The John Birken who, in 1447, occupied a plot of land in Hull which had belonged to Gilbert B