FRENCH, Robert, of Totnes, Devon.
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Family and Education
?m. (1) Anne, da. and h. of Robert Winard of Sharpham, Devon;1 (2) Maud. 1s.
Steward, Totnes c.1386-7.2
Commr. of inquiry, Devon Mar. 1401 (ownership of lands in Harberton); oyer and terminer Mar. 1411.
Escheator, Devon 29 Nov. 1402-1 Dec. 1405.
It was either this Robert French or his son of the same name who by his marriage acquired the manor of Sharpham, about two miles from Totnes, and the family also owned property in Chudleigh and Stokenham.4 The parliamentary burgess was a lawyer, and from 1373 onwards is found acting in the central courts at Westminster on behalf of clients from Devonshire and in association with such notable men of law as Lord Bryan’s steward, John Prescott*, and the recorder of Exeter, Thomas Raymond*.5 This experience was no doubt of some value when he himself came to hold courts in Totnes as steward for the lord of the borough, William, Lord Zouche (d.1396). In the meantime, in 1383 French had appeared at the Exchequer on behalf of the prior of Totnes, Thomas Swynford, but evidently he developed a personal antipathy to certain monks of the house, one of whom, a kinsman of Swynford’s, he and three other Totnes men fell upon and brutally mutilated. On 4 Feb. 1388, shortly after the incident, the earl of Devon himself was instructed to arrest French and bring him before the King’s Council to answer for the crime. The Council’s sentence is not recorded, but in April 1389 Bishop Brantingham ordered him to do penance by walking with bare head ‘absque capucio et zona’ before the procession in Exeter cathedral and the parish church of Totnes on three Sundays in Pentecost, to offer candles to the priests celebrating mass there, and to seek absolution from the Apostolic See.6
The affair did not irrevocably damage French’s reputation. In June 1390 he witnessed a conveyance of lands in Axminster made by Sir Warin Archdeacon† to Sir William Bonville I*; and some years later he was appointed to a royal commission to investigate a claim to lands in Harberton. He evidently discharged his duties well, for in 1402 he was made royal escheator of Devon and, moreover, held office for three consecutive years. In March 1405, during his final year as escheator, the rector of Loddiswell bequeathed to him the entire contents of his cellar, a silver cup and £5 to spend on wine, seeing that they would no longer be able to drink together, and asked him to assist his executors when they came to Devon to administer his estate. French already had some experience of estate management himself, and by the time of the parliamentary elections of 1407 he had been appointed as their steward by three local landowners: the abbot of Buckfast, the prior of Plympton and Sir John Pomeroy. In February 1410, Bishop Stafford of Exeter granted him a licence to choose a confessor, and he is perhaps last recorded in the following year when appointed to a commission of oyer and terminer.