CURSON, Sir John (d.c.1415), of Billingford and Beck Hall in Bylaugh, Norf.
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Family and Education
s. and h. of William Curson† of Billingford and Bintree by his w. Joan. m. (1) bef. June 1389, Mary (c.1357-1394), da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Felton KG, of Litcham, Norf. by Joan, da. and coh. of Sir Richard Walkfare† of Great Ryburgh, wid. of Sir Edmund Hengrave the younger (d.1374) of Hengrave, Suff., 1s.; (2) bef. Easter 1399, Beatrice (c.1339-1421), prob. posthumous da. and h. of Nicholas Halughton (d.1338) of Cranham Hall in ‘Bishops’ Ockendon, Essex by his w. Margery (afterwards w. of Roger, 2nd Lord Northwood) and wid. of Sir Ralph St. Leger† (d.c.1397). Kntd. bef. Feb. 1391.
J.p. Norf. 26 Apr. 1386-July 1388.
Commr. to determine appeals in the admiral’s ct. May 1392, Apr. 1403, in the constable’s ct. Mar., May 1394, Feb. 1396, Mar. 1397.
Curson came from a prolific family possessed of substantial landed holdings in and around the Norfolk villages of Bintree, Foulsham and Billingford, some 15 miles to the north-west of Norwich. Among the Cursons’ holdings was the manor of ‘Swanton’s’ in Foulsham, and in 1379 they leased or purchased other manors nearby at Wood Norton and Yaxham. It is difficult to ascertain precisely which of the family estates Sir John Curson held personally, but he certainly had possession of a knight’s fee in Yaxham, and in the early 1390s he inherited from his father a number of properties centred on Billingford and Bylaugh. In 1396 he brought a suit at the assizes against Andrew Hokere, master of the hospital of Beck in Billingford, over land which had once belonged to his parents. Although there is no other reason to doubt the authenticity of his claim, the fact that he enlisted the support of his uncle, Thomas Curson, then sheriff of Norfolk, in order to secure a favourable verdict and substantial damages, led to allegations in Chancery that the sheriff with his nephew’s collusion had falsified records of the proceedings.1
At Foulsham the Cursons were tenants of the Lords Morley, and the two families had been intimately connected since the early years of the century. John’s father, William Curson, acted as a feoffee of the estates and executor of the will of William, 3rd Lord Morley (d.1379), and John himself provided securities in Chancery for William and his fellow executors when they were sued for debt in 1383.2 It was probably as an indirect outcome of this association that John came to make his advantageous marriage to Mary Felton, one of the three daughters of Sir Thomas Felton KG (d.1381), the seneschal of Aquitaine, for Mary’s sister Sibyl was the wife of Sir Thomas Morley. As a child, Mary Felton had been married to Edmund Hengrave, and in 1362 the Hengrave manor of Fordham, Cambridgeshire, had been settled on her as jointure. However, following Hengrave’s death overseas in 1374, she became a minoress in the abbey of St. Clare in London (a house which always had a particular attraction for persons of rank), and in 1383 it was arranged that her mother, Joan, should also have a life interest in Fordham. John Curson and Thomas, 4th Lord Morley, were both party to this last transaction as Joan Felton’s feoffees, and in the following year Curson and his father served as trustees of Joan’s manors of Great and Little Ryburgh, from which Mary and her sister Sibyl Morley (who by that time had entered Barking abbey as a nun) were to receive an income. It would appear that Mary was unwilling to spend her life in seclusion: in November 1385 she ran away from the Minories and, although a royal serjeant-at-arms was ordered to arrest her and deliver her to the abbess for punishment, she evidently managed to obtain release from any vows she had taken and married Curson not long afterwards. Nevertheless, the couple never gained possession of Mary’s inheritance. In 1389 they confirmed Joan Felton’s tenure of the manors of Ingoldisthorpe, Wilby, ‘Gelham Hal’ in Dersingham, Norfolk, and Barrow, Suffolk, for term of her life, and, as Joan lived on for some 20 years more (long surviving her daughter), it was Mary’s son John Curson junior who was to inherit the Felton estates at her death.3
Curson was appointed to the commission of the peace in Norfolk in 1386, but unlike his father (who had served as escheator 1383-6) and his uncle Thomas (who twice occupied the shrievalty) he played no further part in local administration. He was knighted before 1391, and this, taken together with his nomination in the 1390s as a member of special tribunals to determine appeals in the courts of chivalry, may point to a career as a soldier, even though no evidence of military service has been found. On occasion Curson made appearances in Chancery as a mainpernor, but most of his recorded activities at this time concerned the affairs of members of his family. In February 1391 he and his cousin, William Curson, obtained at the Exchequer a short lease of lands in Wood Norton, Guist and other places near their own estates. It was Sir John’s uncle Thomas who, as sheriff of Norfolk, was responsible for making his return to Parliament for the second time, in 1397. Not long afterwards the Cursons fell out with their influential neighbour Thomas, Lord Morley. Allegedly, a band of men led by Henry Curson, rector of Foulsham, broke into Morley’s park at Swanton and then, in retaliation, Morley sued for execution of bonds for £200. Although Sir John’s only known role in the affair was to act as surety for his kinsmen, it may be that a dispute over the Felton inheritance lay behind the rift.4
The background to Curson’s association with Sir William Bardolf, Lord Bardolf’s brother, is similarly obscure. In 1397 they were each being sued for a debt of 100 marks by certain ‘woodmongers’ of London. It may have been in order to escape the consequences of outlawry on this account that in November 1398 Curson placed all his goods and chattels in the safe-keeping of Thomas Peverell, bishop of Llandaff, and James Billingford, a lifelong associate of his own who was by that time chief clerk of the Crown in Chancery. Curson obtained a pardon of outlawry in July 1399, when the King was absent in Ireland. There is nothing to indicate whether or not he favoured the change of monarch which followed shortly afterwards. His connexions at Richard II’s court had included not only Bishop Peverell, who was chancellor to Richard’s queen, but also Bishop Stafford, the chancellor of England, who was a trustee of the Felton estates. Another of those trustees, however, was Sir Thomas Erpingham, a prominent supporter of Henry of Bolingbroke, and it is clear that Curson wasted no time after Henry’s elevation to the throne in securing Erpingham’s services as a feoffee, doing so, indeed, in the Michaelmas term of 1399.5
Curson’s second marriage had probably taken place in the spring of that same eventful year. His choice had fallen on Beatrice, widow of Sir Ralph St. Leger, who in her own right held manors in Ockendon, Essex, and Ulcombe, Kent. The estate in Essex was later estimated to be worth as much as £40 a year, and it was apparently there that Curson resided for the rest of his life. Not long after her marriage to Curson had taken place, Beatrice suffered some distress as the result of the fraudulent activities of a Cornish broker named Alexander Shessh who, much against her wishes, had married her daughter, Philippa St. Leger, and had then, in attempting to secure Philippa’s dowry, not only evicted Beatrice from her house in London but obtained her imprisonment. Curson himself seems to have been in continuing difficulties with the law, perhaps as a consequence of his earlier outlawry: in March 1400 he saw fit to transfer technical possession of the livestock at Ockendon (120 cows and four bulls) to his feoffees. Furthermore, in the following year he was required to appear before the King’s Council, and when he fai