BROWNING, John (c.1369-1416), of Melbury Sampford, Dorset and Leigh near Deerhurst, Glos.
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Family and Education
b.c.1369, s. and h. of John Browning by Alice, da. and coh. of Sir John Mautravers†, senior, of Hooke, Dorset, and Joan da. and h. of Sir Walter Foliot of Nantwich, Cheshire, and Melbury Sampford. m. (1) bef. Feb. 1383 Agnes (c.1364-bef. Feb. 1392), da. and coh. of William Rodborough of Leigh, 1s. d.v.p., 1da.; (2) bef. 1397, Eleanor, yr. da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Fitznichol* of Hill near Berkeley, Glos., 2s. inc. William†; (3) between Apr. and July 1408, Alice (c.1379-12 May 1414), da. and coh. of Thomas Berkeley* of Coberley, wid. of Thomas Bridges of Haresfield, Glos.
Sheriff, Glos. 17 Nov. 1398-3 Nov. 1399.
Commr. of array, Glos. Nov. 1403; inquiry May 1404 (felonies), Feb. 1405 (forfeited goods), Mar. 1411 (value of Kingswood abbey estates).
Tax collector, Glos. Mar. 1404.
Escheator, Dorset 4 Nov. 1404-1 Dec. 1405.
Browning’s father, John senior, was probably a Gloucestershire man by birth and certainly had established an interest in land there by the 1370s. It may, therefore, have been through inheritance that John junior came into possession of his property in Slaughter and his manor of Nethercote in Bourton-on-the-Water. The father had also acquired annual rents of £10 from tenements in the parish of St. Mary at Hill, in Tower Street, London, but whether the son ever received this particular income is not known.1 It was from his mother, Alice Mautravers, that Browning inherited the bulk of his property, for she was coheir with her sisters — Joan, wife of Sir Alan Cheyne† and Elizabeth, wife of Roger Folville of Clowne, Derbyshire — of their maternal grandfather’s manors of Melbury Sampford and Melbury Osmond in Dorset, and of a part of the barony of Nantwich in Cheshire. John junior is first recorded, in February 1386, in the midst of a family quarrel, for after the death of Sir Alan Cheyne in the previous year he and his parents had attempted to eject Elizabeth Folville from the Dorset estates, allegedly by force. They did eventually concede her right to moieties of the manors in dispute, although the inheritance was to fall to Browning in its entirety before his death. The precise dates of his parents’ deaths are not recorded, but his mother certainly died in or before 1392, for on Christmas Day that year Browning obtained livery of her portion of the Cheshire lands.2
To this inheritance Browning made substantial additions through three lucrative marriages. The first, which had taken place while he was still a minor, was to Agnes Rodborough, the niece of his mother’s first husband, Thomas Rodborough (d.1367), who besides the manor of Rodborough had owned property in Thrupp, Harford, Ebley and Notgrove, a few miles away from Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, all of which Browning’s mother occupied as her jointure. After the death of her brother in 1382 Agnes became the heir not only of these estates, once belonging to her uncle, but also to those of her father William Rodborough (d.1377), comprising the manor of Leigh and property in Staverton, Boddington and Evington. She predeceased her mother-in-law, however, so that although Browning was able to retain for life ‘by the courtesy’ the estates she had inherited from her father, he never secured possession of those of her uncle, which after his mother’s death were to fall to his young son, Richard (b.1387). Browning evidently tried to purchase his son’s wardship from Thomas, duke of Gloucester, in about February 1392, but within a year the property had escheated to the Crown and the boy’s wardship granted to John Bray, esquire. Browning’s attempts to retain control of his son’s inheritance led to his being required to enter into recognizances with Bray for £200. Richard Browning died while still a minor in May 1400, whereupon the heir to the Rodborough properties was his sister, Cecily. Not long afterwards Browning arranged that she should marry Guy Whittington*, eldest son of his close friend Robert Whittington of Pauntley, and nephew of the famous London merchant, Richard*.3
Browning’s second marriage brought him personally little material advantage, for he died before his father-in-law, Sir Thomas Fitznichol, although his sons by Eleanor Fitznichol were eventually to profit financially from their inheritance of some of their grandfather’s estates. He was fined £10 on 3 July 1408 for contracting his third marriage, to Alice Berkeley, without royal licence, but this sum was easily offset from the income derived from her inheritance (the manor of Eldersfield in Worcestershire, a moiety of a manor in Oxfordshire and property at Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire — valued at over £30 a year at the time of her death), and from her dower in the Bridges estate at Haresfield. On 13 May 1414, the day after she died, Browning obtained at the Exchequer custody of all these estates during the minority of his stepson, Giles Bridges†, for the payment of £32 16s.8d. a year and 100 marks for the boy’s marriage.4 In 1412 Browning’s landed holdings in Gloucestershire and Dorset had been assessed for the purposes of taxation at £40 p.a., but this was undoubtedly an underestimate.5
Browning’s career had begun by 10 Sept. 1394 when he took out royal letters of protection as being about to sail for Ireland in the retinue of the young Thomas, Lord Despenser, then accompanying Richard II on his first expedition to the province. His first known post in Gloucestershire was an unimportant one — that of a local constable — but it had interesting repercussions, for while attending the sessions of the peace at Gloucester on the Wednesday in Whit week in 1396 he tried, in his official capacity, to stop a brawl begun by a prisoner then being indicted for murder. James Clifford* of Frampton, a man of unusually violent temperament, intervened on the prisoner’s behalf, and Browning subsequently had to bring a suit against him in Chancery in order to obtain redress for his injuries. (Ample opportunity for revenge came his way eight years later, when he was appointed to royal commissions investigating Clifford’s riotous behaviour.) It seems very likely that Browning’s connexion with Lord Despenser continued throughout this period, and it was along with one of Despenser’s retainers, Hugh Mortimer, that he was elected to the second Parliament of 1397, both of them being newcomers to the Commons. It was in this assembly that Despenser was to play such a prominent part as one of the eight lords with whose assistance Richard II wreaked vengeance against his enemies, the Lords Appellant of 1387-8, and clearly the presence in the Lower House of such well-wishers as Browning and Mortimer was something which the King would have appreciated. There can be no question of Browning’s loyalty to Richard, for he was appointed as sheriff of Gloucestershire in November 1398, and he was among those who in the following July provided the duke of York with men-at-arms and archers in opposition to the forces led by Henry of Bolingbroke. However, the latter re-appointed Browning as sheriff on the first day of his reign (30 Sept.), and he was therefore responsible for holding the Gloucestershire elections to the Parliament which acclaimed Richard’s deposition and Henry’s own accession. To this assembly Browning returned two men whose sympathies were clearly with the new regime: his own father-in-law Sir Thomas Fitznichol (a former retainer of the earl of Arundel, condemned to death in the Parliament of September 1397), and Sir John Cheyne I* (a sometime associate of the murdered duke of Gloucester, and himself still suffering the effects of an imprisonment authorized by the same Parliament). Browning had earlier acted as co-feoffee with Cheyne of estates in Worcestershire belonging to Sir John Russell*, Richard II’s master of horse, but clearly this brief association with the Speaker-elect of 1399 and future councillor to the new King, carried little weight when set against his connexion with Despenser. He was removed from the shrievalty in November, and, possibly because of a suspected collusion with Despenser and his fellow conspirators who rose in arms against the King two months later, he was excluded from royal commissions for the next four years. Browning remained on close terms with Lord Despenser’s widow, Constance (herself later to be suspected of plots against Henry IV), on whose behalf he was party to bonds for £1,000, sealed on 1 Mar. 1401 during his second Parliament, their purpose being to guarantee to Elizabeth, dowager Lady Despenser, adequate compensation for wastes on her dower estates.6
Browning had been elected to the Commons of 1401 in the company of his father-in-law Sir Thomas Fitznichol, himself a veteran of nine Parliaments. He travelled overseas, to some unknown destination, in March 1402, and after his return he resumed involvement in local administration. In 1411 he stood surety at the Gloucestershire elections on behalf of his friend Robert Whittington. Plans for further travel abroad, this time to Aquitaine, were well under way by July 1412, when he made settlements of certain of his estates, providing for their distribution between his daughter Cecily and her half-brothers John and William in the event of his death overseas. However, he survived not only to sit in one more Parliament (1414), again in the company of Fitznichol, but also to take part in Henry V’s first campaign in France in the summer of 1415, as a member of the duke of York’s retinue. In conveyances made on 18 June, shortly before his departure, he stipulated that should he die abroad the trustees of his manors of Melbury Sampford and Melbury Osmond were to retain them until £130 6s.8d. had been raised to cover the provisions of his will. Among those of Browning’s kin then named as having a reversionary interest in his estates was Elizabeth (Mautravers), the wife of the wealthy Sir Humphrey Stafford II* of Hooke.