CURWEN, Sir William (d.1403), of Workington, Cumb.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Jan. 1380
Sept. 1397

Family and Education

s. and h. of Sir Gilbert Curwen† (d. aft. May 1402) of Workington by his 1st w. Alice, prob. da. of Hugh Lowther of Wythop, Cumb. by his w. Margaret Whale. m. (1) bef. 1380, Ellen, da. of Robert Brun of Drumburgh castle, sis. and coh. of Robert Brun (d. s.p. bef. 1386) of Beaumont, wid. of Thomas Quitering, at least 2s. inc. Christopher*; (2) c. Aug. 1395, Margaret, da. of Sir John Croft* by his 1st w. Maud. Kntd. by 20 Aug. 1377.1

Offices Held

Constable of Lochmaben castle, justice, steward, and keeper of the lordship of Annandale, Dumfries bef. 7 Mar.-1 Dec. 1376.2

Commr. of inquiry, Cumb. Nov. 1383 (resistance to payment of clerical subsidies), Westmld. June 1388 (assaults on property of Sir John Derwentwater*); array Mar. 1392; to make arrests Mar., Apr. 1396 (persons assaulting the monks of Shap), Dec. 1397, June 1398, Yorks., Westmld. Nov. 1398 (homicides and insurgents).

Collector of taxes, Cumb. Dec. 1385, of an aid on the marriage of Princess Blanche Dec. 1401.

Sheriff, Cumb. 3 Nov. 1397-17 Nov. 1398.


Although their claim to be descended from Ethelred the Unready cannot be taken too seriously, the Curwens were indeed a family of great antiquity. Throughout the later Middle Ages they lived at Workington on the Cumberland coast, which they held, along with the manors of Seaton and Thornthwaite, as feudal tenants of the Lucys. Many of Sir William’s ancestors played a leading part in the government of the border area. Sir Gilbert Curwen, his father, represented Cumberland in at least four Parliaments, as well as serving as sheriff there and holding a variety of escheatorships throughout the north. Some of his success was due to the patronage of Roger, Lord Clifford (d.1389), who retained him at a fee of £10 p.a. from 1370 onwards. William, too, was soon recruited into the Clifford affinity, and one of Sir Gilbert’s tasks as escheator of Cumberland, in 1378, was to discover if a similar annuity awarded to his son from the manor of Skelton contravened the law in any way. Not surprisingly, he recommended that Clifford’s grant should be confirmed by the Crown. William was already well known to the authorities as a result of an armed raid carried out by him and Sir Nicholas Haryngton* with a gang of ruffians upon Ralph, Lord Dacre’s residence at Beaumont in Cumberland. A royal commission of oyer and terminer was set up in 1373 to investigate the affair: William escaped unpunished, but his friend, Sir Nicholas, was actually implicated in Lord Dacre’s murder, two years later. Our Member’s energies were put to more constructive use, early in 1376, on his appointment as constable of Lochmaben castle in Dumfries. Within a matter of months, however, he was replaced by Ralph, Lord Greystoke, perhaps because of some misconduct or irregularity on his part. He certainly deemed it expedient to sue out a royal pardon in April 1377; and he acquired two others in January 1382, a fourth in November 1391, and one more in February 1398. An examination of his eventful, sometimes violent, career clearly explains why he so often sought this protection, since his frequent brushes with the law made it necessary for him to safeguard himself from prosecution.3

Now a knight, Sir William Curwen entered Parliament for the first time in January 1380, being returned for Cumberland by his own father, the sheriff. It seems unlikely that Sir Gilbert had to exert much influence on his son’s behalf, since the young man already possessed all the necessary experience and qualifications for Membership of the Commons. He had probably been married for some time to Ellen, a daughter of Robert Brun, a local landowner with extensive estates in Cumberland. Ellen not only occupied the dower properties set aside for her by her first husband, Thomas Quitering, but after the death of her brother, Robert, who was childless, she and her two sisters inherited all the family holdings as well. In 1386, she and Sir William settled her third share of the manors of Bothel, Bowness, Cardurnoch and ‘Langbrunstath’, along with land and messuages in Dearham and Stubsgill, upon themselves jointly for life with a reversion to their son, Christopher. From this point onwards, as his own father began to live permanently in retirement, Sir William assumed effective control of all the Curwen estates. It was for this reason that he became involved in a bitter feud with Sir Christopher Moresby*, whose mother, Isabel, had been Sir Gilbert’s second wife. Almost certainly as a result of disagreements over the fate of her valuable property, ill-feeling soon developed between the two stepbrothers; and in August 1390 Sir William led an armed raid on Moresby’s home at Distington, causing great damage and threatening his tenants. Sir Christopher, in turn, instigated proceedings in the court of King’s bench, although he did not live long enough to see the outcome of the case. Pleading had begun by the time of Sir William’s second return to Parliament as a Member for Westmorland, in November 1391; and it seems likely that since he had already been summoned to appear in court he seized a useful opportunity to recover his expenses by serving in the Commons. Before long he was engaged in another round of litigation, this time over the partition of the manor of Beaumont, which Robert Brun had instructed his executors to offer for sale to his three sisters at a fixed price of 400 marks, payable within a year and a day of his death. Brun had now been dead for some time, but although the sisters and their husbands made repeated overtures to the executors, no firm agreement had been reached. Consequently, in, or just before, 1393, they joined together to bring a suit at the local assizes, claiming that the terms of Robert’s will had been ignored. Sir William accused the sheriff, Sir Thomas Musgrave*, of attempting to influence the verdict by empanelling a jury favourable to the defendants; and it may be that his decision to stand for Parliament again at this time was partly influenced by a desire to pursue the case more effectively in the central courts at Westminster. His principal reason for seeking election in 1394 was, however, the need to have important corrections made in the record and process of his trial for the murder of John Louthe and in the subsequent sentence of outlawry passed against him for his failure to appear in court. He had been appealed for murder by Louthe’s brother, Robert, but managed to get the transcripts altered, and thus, once again, escaped virtually scot-free.4

Ellen Curwen died before her title to the manor of Beaumont had been established at law. By August 1395 Sir William had chosen, if not married, a second wife, whose father, Sir John Croft of Dalton in Lancashire, then acted as a trustee in a major settlement of the Curwen and Brun estates. This was designed to protect the interests of Sir William’s son, Christopher, as well as to make available a jointure for Margaret Croft. Some of the land in question, in Bampton, Westmorland, was then the subject of yet another lawsuit between Sir William and Robert Cliburn*, who claimed that certain feudal dues had been withheld from him. The next few years passed rather more smoothly for Curwen, largely because he found favour with Richard II and thus benefited from the triumph of the court party. His election to the second Parliament of 1397, in which Richard took immediate revenge against the more important of his old enemies, the Lords Appellant of 1388, suggests that Sir William was already seen as a candidate acceptable to the government; and his appointment to the shrievalty of Cumberland during the parliamentary recess reinforces this impression. Significantly enough, his own son, Christopher, first took his seat in the Commons at this time as a burgess for Appleby, and also swelled the ranks of royal placemen in the Lower House. In the following year Sir William acted as a ‘borow’ or security on behalf of the English envoys sent to negotiate peace with Scotland. His services were also in demand at the time of Richard II’s ill-fated expedition to Ireland in the summer of 1399, for both Sir Peter Tilliol* and John Monceaux* employed him as one of their attorneys while they were overseas. King Richard’s capture and deposition naturally proved a bitter blow to Sir William, not least because Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, who had supported the victorious Lancastrian cause, was anxious to extend his feudal rights over the Curwen estates. The earl had been married to Maud, Baroness Lucy, who died in 1398 without issue, leaving him and his son, Sir Henry Percy, in control of her property and franchises, which included the overlordship of Workington, Seaton and Thornthwaite. Although the Percys had initially confirmed Sir William as their tenant, they now decided to exploit their strong political position by forcing more concessions from him. In September 1399, Sir William and his younger brother, John, a cleric, were summoned to appear before the royal council, presumably to answer whatever claims the earl had chosen to make. One month later, Sir Henry Percy took sureties of 1,000 marks from Sir William as a guarantee that he would come to terms; and finally, in May 1401, an arrangement was reached. By now the Percys had adopted a more conciliatory approach, having, no doubt, realized that an amicable alliance with the Curwens would help to extend their influence west into Cumberland, where they were anxious to win more support. In return for the promise of an annuity of 20 marks for himself, another of £5 for his son, Christopher, and a third of £20 for his brother (until he could be found a suitable benefice), Sir William undertook to grant the earl of Northumberland and his heirs the reversion of the three manors should his own issue fail. His association with the Percys may have helped the process of rehabilitation, for a few months later Sir William was summoned to represent Cumberland at a great council held at Westminster.5

Sir William did not live to see the fall of his new patron, the earl of Northumberland. He and two of his brothers died during an outbreak of plague in 1403, and may even have predeceased their father, Sir Gilbert, who was certainly still alive in the previous year. Christopher Curwen inherited both the Brun and Curwen estates, and went on to play a prominent role in local government.6

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. v. 189-95; n.s. vii. 243; xiv. 315-16, 371, 373-4; C66/28B m. 8; J.F. Curwen, Hist. House Curwen , 62-73.
  • 2. Rot. Scot. ed. Macpherson etc. i. 975, 978.
  • 3. Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. v. 189-94, 196; n.s. xiv. 377-8; PRO List ‘Sheriffs’, 26; ‘Escheators’, 106, 190; CPR, 1370-4, pp. 311-12; Rot. Scot. i. 975, 978; C67/28B m. 8, 29 mm. 2, 11, 22, 30 m. 30.
  • 4. Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. n.s. 243; xiv. 315-16, 371, 373-4; CPR, 1374-7, p. 265; RP, iii. 316; SC8/21/1049.
  • 5. Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. v. 196; n.s. xiv. 374-5, 377-8, 398-400, 402-6; Cal. Scots. Docs. iv. no. 512; CPR, 1396-9, pp. 555, 559; CCR, 1396-9, p. 520; 1399-1402, p. 93; PPC, i. 157.
  • 6. Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. v. 195 and ped. facing p. 233.