BURCESTER, Sir William (d.1407), of Lesnes in Erith, Kent and 'The Maze', Southwark, Surr.
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Family and Education
m. (1) bef. July 1378, Margaret (d. 1 July 1393), da. and coh. of Thomas Gisors of London, wid. of Henry Picard of London, vintner, and of Bartholomew, Lord Burghersh (d.1369), s.p.; (2) by royal lic. 6 Jan. 1396, Margaret (d. 12 or 20 Aug. 1444), wid. of Sir Thomas Brewes* of Manningford Bruce, Wilts. and Bramley, Surr., 1s. 1da. Kntd. between June 1378 and May 1379.
Tax collector, Kent May 1379.
Commr. to compel the tenants of Otford, Kent to perform their customary services Aug. 1381; put down rebellion, Kent Dec. 1381, Mar., Dec. 1382; of array Apr. 1385, May 1386, Suss. July 1402; inquiry, Kent Feb. 1391 (trespasses); to besiege and recover Pevensey castle, Suss. July 1399; determine an appeal in the constable’s ct. Nov. 1406.
J.p. Kent 18 Oct. 1383-Feb. 1384, 24 Dec. 1390-June 1394.
Sheriff, Kent 15 Nov. 1389-7 Nov. 1390.
Burcester, who was a native of Oxfordshire, possibly derived his name from the town of Bicester. His origins are obscure, although it may be speculated that he was a relation of Ralph Burcester, the mason employed in the 1340s to build Stafford castle on behalf of Ralph, Lord Stafford, for the early part of his own career was spent as a retainer of that nobleman and his son, Hugh, 2nd earl of Stafford. In a curious episode in 1376 Burcester was taken prisoner by the sheriff of Oxfordshire on the assumption that he was one and the same person as the earl’s servant, William Goldene, clerk, who had been indicted and outlawed for a number of felonies. Protesting that an error in identification had been made, Burcester secured his release and the return of goods distrained to ensure his appearance in court to clear his name. Yet it was as alias Goldene that he took out a royal pardon of outlawry in the following year. Whether or not the earl had helped him out of his difficulties, there is ample evidence of his close relationship with the Staffords over the next nine years. In February 1378 Burcester was associated with Sir Nicholas Stafford* (Earl Hugh’s cousin and the chief steward of his estates) as a mainpernor in the Exchequer for the prior of Wootton Wawen, and later that same year he was mustered as one of the esquires in the earl’s retinue destined for service in France. It was to be while overseas on campaign that he won his spurs.1
Shortly before embarkation, Burcester named the earl of Stafford and his uncle Richard, Lord Stafford, among the feoffees of certain estates he had acquired through his highly opportune marriage to Margaret, Lady Burghersh. Margaret was an heiress of some note, for her grandfather, John Gisors†, the pepperer and several times mayor of London, had left her in his will in 1351 all his property in the city parish of St. Martin Vintry, together with an annual rent of 100 marks from his mansion known as ‘Gisors Hall’, and in the years that followed she had received an income of as much as £92 a year from her holdings in the City alone. The deaths of her sister and other heirs to the Gisors estate were to bring further additions to her possessions in the capital, together with substantial holdings in Stepney and elsewhere in Middlesex, property in Southwark, land in Hertfordshire and a moiety of ‘Newton Hall’ in Great Dunmow, Essex.2 Nor was this all, for Margaret also held for life a dowager’s portion of the estates of two previous husbands, the first of whom, Henry Picard, had been a wealthy vintner and government financier, who, according to John Stow (the Tudor antiquary), had once in 1363 entertained four kings, the prince of Wales and many noblemen at a banquet in his London home; and the second, Lord Burghersh, had been a distinguished soldier and founder member of the Order of the Garter. Something of Burcester’s character is revealed in the way he aggressively promoted his wife’s interests. Use of force in seeking to prevent his young stepson, John Picard, from taking possession of a moiety of the manor of Charlton (Kent) and other parts of his inheritance, led to Burcester’s imprisonment in the spring of 1379 for threatening behaviour, and he was only able to secure his release when the Stafford brothers, Sir Humphrey I* and Ralph*, stood bail. Violence also erupted over Margaret’s jointure in the Burghersh estates at Ewyas Lacy (Herefordshire) and, more especially, at Heytesbury, Sterte and Colerne in Wiltshire. There was considerable divergence of legal opinion as to whether the enfeoffments designed to settle these properties on Margaret had been fully completed before Burghersh’s death, and her title to the Wiltshire manors was contested by the deceased’s daughter, Elizabeth, widow of Edward, Lord Despenser. In the quarrel that ensued both sides vied for the support of the influential Lancastrian retainer, Sir Thomas Hungerford*, who had served Burghersh as councillor and feoffee. The Burcesters sought to buy his favour by granting him a lease of the disputed property and by offering him a fee of £5 a year, but without success; and such was Sir William’s reaction to Hungerford’s refusal to support Lady Burghersh’s case, that in May 1381 he was required to provide securities in Chancery as a guarantee that he would not assault Sir Thomas, on pain of imprisonment. The Burcesters’ feeling of grievance found expression in the Parliament which met six months later, when they presented a bill against Hungerford alleging that his ‘procurement, covine et malice’ had enabled Lady Despenser to take possession of the disputed estates and that, furthermore, he had then persuaded her to relinquish Heytesbury to him and his heirs permanently. Owing to Hungerford’s ‘grant maintenance’ in Wiltshire, Sir William and his wife had found themselves unable to sue for redress in the local courts. Hungerford responded in the strongest terms, accusing Burcester of slandering him with ‘malveise et grevouses paroles’. The eventual outcome was a compromise: in the following May the Burcesters formally abandoned their claim to Heytesbury, thus enabling Lady Despenser to convey it to Sir Thomas, but they kept Stert and Colerne for Margaret’s lifetime, agreeing that after her death these manors should pass to William of Wykeham’s foundation of New College, Oxford. Until the summer of 1393, when his wife died, her Wiltshire holdings provided Burcester with an annual income in excess of £52.3
Clearly, Burcester’s first marriage had made him a wealthy man. And in her third husband Margaret found a vigorous champion of her territorial rights, which he prosecuted with zeal not only in the courts of law but also in the localities in question. Thus it came about that Sir William eventually took possession of the Burghersh manor in Burwash (Sussex) together with other lands in the same county (which he contrived to pass on to his children by his second wife), and he also made sure that Margaret’s manor of ‘The Maze’ in Southwark and her holdings in Middlesex remained in his keeping after her death. The outcome of litigation regarding the manor of Foxgrove (Kent), in which he was engaged in 1385, is uncertain, but he was evidently successful in securing his title to the manor of Lesnes near Woolwich, which he purchased from Helming Leget*. The overall value of Burcester’s holdings is nowhere recorded. He must have suffered a diminution of income following his first wife’s demise, yet the subsidy assessors of 1412 (after his death) took note only of lands worth £20 a year in Surrey and property in London worth £4 6s.8d., which together were no more than a small part of his estate.4
It may well have been his close connexion with the Staffords which had first brought Burcester to Kent, where the earl held substantial estates administered from Tonbridge castle. There, he played a part in restoring order after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. In June 1385 he took out royal letters of protection as about to join Earl Hugh’s retinue in Richard II’s army preparing to invade Scotland, but then, preoccupied with his own affairs, he neglected to ride north, and the letters were accordingly revoked in October. The episode may mark the beginning of Burcester’s estrangement from the Staffords; indeed, after the earl’s death at Rhodes in the following year, he apparently ceased further association with them. Instead, he began to cultivate an acquaintance at the royal court: thus, in June 1388 he appeared as a mainpernor for the release on bail, from the Tower of London, of Richard Metford, clerk, the King’s secretary imprisoned by the Lords Appellant. His appointment as sheriff of Kent followed not long after the King regained control over the government in the next year. Another associate, for whom Burcester acted as a trustee in 1392, was the ‘King’s esquire’, John Colshull I*, at one time an apprentice to his wife’s father, who had since risen to be steward of the duchy of Cornwall. Burcester had sufficient influence to secure at the Exchequer in November 1393, a few months after he had sat in the Commons, a lease of the manor of Emmington (Oxfordshire), pending an inquiry into the title of his friend, Sir Thomas Sackville II* of Buckhurst. Through his first wife’s stepdaughter, he had also established links with the Despensers, whom Richard II favoured; consequently, in the autumn of 1394 Thomas, Lord Despenser, Sir Hugh Despenser and Lord Thomas’s retainer, Hugh Mortimer*, all nominated him as their attorney to safeguard their interests at home while they were in Ireland with the King. On a later occasion he provided securities for Mortimer at the Exchequer.5 There is no evidence to confirm that Burcester received livery as a member of Richard II’s household, but the fact that he was called ‘King’s knight’ when, in January 1396, Richard granted him licence to contract his second marriage, indicates some such privileged position. Margaret Brewes, whom he now married, held for life as dower the manor of Tetbury (Gloucestershire) as well as land in Wiltshire and Yorkshire. True to form, Burcester promptly became involved in litigation over two manors in Sussex to which distant relatives of his second wife’s former husband laid claim.6
Although Burcester took the precaution of obtaining a royal pardon in the summer of 1398, he appears to have remained loyal to Richard II to the end. In July 1399 he was placed on a commission by Richard’s council to besiege Pevensey castle and recover it from the Lancastrians, but no doubt he had to abandon the attempt when the King was taken captive not long afterwards. Such was his continued close relationship with Lord Despenser as to lead to suspicion of complicity in the plot to dethrone Henry IV in January 1400; and on the 23rd orders were issued not only for his arrest but also for that of a number of his friends, all of them to be brought before the King and Council to answer charges. Even though they were all released on bail within a few days, lingering doubts about Sir William’s loyalty to the new regime may account for his absence from royal commissions for more than two years. Nevertheless, the episode was eventually forgotten, for in 1403 he received a personal summons to attend a great council, as one of two men so called from Surrey, and three years later he sat on a judicial tribunal to hear an appeal from the constable’s court.7
Burcester’s will, made at his manor-house in Southwark on 31 July 1407, was proved within a fortnight. He was buried in the Minories. Settlements of his manors in Surrey and Kent and of his property near the Conduit in London entitle