COLLES, John, of Huntingdon.
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Family and Education
Bailiff, Huntingdon Mich. 1422-4, 1431-2.1
For well over a decade Colles’s life was over-shadowed by a particularly complex and acrimonious dispute arising from the administration of the estate of John Herries*, a wealthy mercer from Cambridge. He was apparently still quite young when the latter drew up his will, in February 1418, naming John Multon of West Wratting in Essex and the London draper, Henry Hart, to act with him as executors. Herries died a month later leaving cash and moveables alone worth an estimated £1,200, over and above a fairly extensive amount of property in various parts of Cambridgeshire, so the three men obviously faced an onerous and demanding task. At first matters seem to have gone quite smoothly, and in July 1420 they obtained confirmation of their joint title to some of the deceased’s holdings, preparatory to making a sale. But Colles and Hart eventually fell out, perhaps even coming to blows. Certainly, in May 1422 they were bound over in mutual securities of £400 to keep the peace towards each other, their recognizances being renewed in the following November. It looks very much as if Colles (who had shrewdly enlisted the support of the lawyer, Robert Scott*) sought election to Parliament during this period as a means of defending himself against some very determined opposition, for the quarrel got worse, and by June 1424 he found himself at odds with both of his associates. They now accused him not only of retaining cash and bonds to the value of £700, but also of robbing Herries’s widow of chests of specie and muniments, including a pledge of £225 bearing his own name. The matter was duly submitted to the arbitration of the chancellor, Bishop Langley, who took guarantees of £1,000 from each of the parties as an earnest of their readiness to accept his award. Prudently, under the circumstances, the bishop insisted that any further transactions concerning the deceased’s estate should be regarded as null and void without the joint consent of all three executors, while at the same time instructing Colles to repay £40 into a common fund. In view of the moderation of the award, too much reliance cannot be placed on a petition presented by Hart and Multon to the Parliament of 1427-8. In it they claimed, somewhat implausibly, that Colles had not only refused to perform the terms of the award, but had actually gone into sanctuary, emerging only to lead a gang of felons in an unsuccessful attempt on Hart’s life. There may, however, have been some substance in a further complaint about Colles’s extreme poverty and the problems of getting him into court, if only because he is known to have made several major enfeoffments of his goods and property in Huntingdon and the neighbouring village of Hartford from 1424 onwards, ostensibly because he was going abroad but quite possibly in the hope of avoiding the prospect of distraint. At all events, he either refused to defend himself against these charges or else failed to convince the chancellor of his innocence, and was duly relieved of his duties as an executor. Far from enabling him to line his own pockets, as his associates alleged, his involvement in the administration of John Herries’s estate may, in fact, have caused him serious financial problems. It is certainly worth noting that when two of his own trustees renegued on their agreement and refused to make restitution to him of goods worth over £400, in about 1432, he drew particular attention to his own heavy debts and ‘divers infirmities’ when seeking redress in the court of Chancery. Some of his feoffees, including John Bickley*, did prove reliable and restored his property to him, but none the less his fortunes remained somewhat precarious.2
Colles had at one time been affluent enough to negotiate a lease of the royal castle and honour of Huntingdon; and in May 1423 he and another burgess agreed to pay an annual rent of five marks for them for the next 20 years. His business as a wool merchant necessitated the outlay of quite large capital sums, although it is unclear if the debts of £97 which he owed to various people in the late 1430s were incurred through trade or were somehow connected with his ill-fated executorship. He eventually secured a royal pardon for failing to appear in court when being sued for the recovery of these sums; and was accorded permission from the Crown to pursue litigation of his own with regard to bonds worth £30 and a flock of 32 sheep. These letters patent were issued to him in late January 1441, after which date he disappears from the records.3