JOHNSON, William (d.1420), of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumb.
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Family and Education
prob. s. of William Johnson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne by his w. Isabel. m. (1) by Apr. 1403, Elena; (2) by June 1407, Elizabeth (b. 13 Sept. 1391), da. of Sir Henry Heton (d.1399), of Hartley and Chillingham, Northumb. by Isabel (d. 23 Oct. 1426), da. of Sir Bertram Monbourcher*, at least 1s.1
Collector of murage and pontage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 6 Dec. 1384-9, 4 Feb. 1406-11.
Bailiff, Newcastle-upon-Tyne Mich. 1390-3; mayor 1398-9, 1412-13; alderman by Apr. 1407-aft. June 1414.2
Searcher of ships, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 24 Nov. 1395-15 Oct. 1396; collector of customs 25 Oct. 1403-10 Feb. 1405, 24 July 1408-14 Sept. 1410, 3 Apr. 1413-26 Nov. 1417.
Constable of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Staple 19 Jan. 1397-10 Jan. 1398.3
Commr. to take mariners for the King’s ships, Newcastle-upon-Tyne Aug. 1400; prevent sailings May 1401; of inquiry June 1406 (concealments); to raise royal loans June 1406.
The subject of this biography was quite probably the son and namesake of the William Johnson who endowed a chantry in the church of St. Nicholas, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, during the reign of Edward III. It is hard to tell which of the two men belonged to a consortium of local merchants who were pardoned, in 1376, for shipping a greater quantity of wool and woolfells overseas than they were licensed to do, and thereby evading the monopoly of the Calais Staple; but there can be little doubt that William Johnson the younger was active from at least 1380 onwards as one of the leading figures in the commercial life of the north east. He dealt principally in wool, hides and cloth, although the customs accounts reveal that he also made regular imports of commodities as diverse as iron, salt and madder.4 Unlike many of his associates, Johnson was also a shipowner; and in 1395 he obtained a licence to transport 40 pilgrims to Santiago on one of his vessels. During Henry IV’s invasion of Scotland, in 1400, he was commissioned to recruit mariners for the King’s warship, La Trinite, and also to engage men for service on his own two ballingers, La George and La Vaucour. Not surprisingly in view of the scale of his operations, he sometimes found himself in trouble with the authorities. In April 1382, for example, a ship carrying some of his wool was driven ashore near Calais and found to be transporting other goods on which customs duties had not been paid. At first it looked as if he might lose his merchandise, although he obtained permission from the Crown to transfer it to another vessel. Far more serious allegations were levelled against him several years later, in 1404, when the master of a ship sailing from Bremen claimed to have been robbed of his vessel and a cargo worth £200 in the North Sea by Johnson and his mariners. In a petition addressed to the court of Chancery he further accused them of forcing him and his crew into a small rowing boat, and casting them adrift ‘on the high seas’ without food or drink. This eloquent appeal for redress received a sympathetic hearing, and in May of that year Johnson was ordered under pain of £200 either to compensate his victims in full, or else to appear before the King at Westminster a few weeks later. The incident did not, however, lead to his immediate removal from his post as a collector of customs at Newcastle: on the contrary, he was actually re-appointed at regular intervals until his retirement in 1417. As a customs official, Johnson was well placed to further his own mercantile interests, which flourished throughout this period. Resentment at the control over wool exports exercised by the Calais Staple was particularly strong among the merchants of the north east, not least because the wool which they were obliged by law to ship through Calais was of inferior quality to that produced in the south, and tended, as a result, to fetch far lower prices than might have been realized under less intensive competition elsewhere. Plans by a group of local men to trade directly with Flanders at first received Henry IV’s approval, but pressure from the influential and powerful Calais staplers forced him to withdraw the licences he had granted them, and their wool was left to rot. Johnson’s return to the Gloucester Parliament of 1407 was almost certainly connected with a new offensive by the merchants of Newcastle, which got under way in the following year with the award of royal letters patent permitting seven of them (including Johnson himself, his parliamentary colleague, William Langton, Roger Thornton* and William Middleton*) to export 600 sarplers of wool from the original consignment to any friendly port overseas.5
From 1384 onwards, when he was made one of the collectors of murage and pontage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Johnson played an important part in local government. He served three terms as bailiff of the town, and two as mayor, besides holding royal office on a fairly regular basis in the port of Newcastle. His standing in the community was such that in April 1403 he and his first wife, Elena, had secured a papal indult for the use of a portable altar. He seems, moreover, to have had substantial business dealings with the earl of Northumberland, since £200 of the latter’s money was reputedly in his hands at the time of the Percy rebellion later in the year. Among his other important connexions was Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham, who made him farmer of the temporalities of the churches of Embleton, Horton Grange and Ponteland at some point before August 1410, and who was the feudal overlord of the land in Gateshead and Whickham which Johnson purchased during this period. Johnson’s second marriage to Elizabeth Heton, the young grand daughter of Sir Bertram Monbourcher, was clearly made possible because of his wealth and position in the mercantile community of Newcastle, and, in turn, helped to establish him among the ranks of the Northumbrian gentry. Elizabeth was just ten when the death of her only brother, William Heton, in September 1401, left her coheir with her two sisters to the manors of Chillingham and Hartley. Seizing the opportunity presented by the death of his first wife, Johnson married Elizabeth at some point over the next five years, and in 1408 obtained a third share of her late brother’s inheritance. Part of the Heton estates remained in the hands of Elizabeth’s widowed mother, whose second husband, Robert Harbottle, had himself attended the Gloucester Parliament of 1407, and may well have assisted Johnson in his appeal on behalf of the wool merchants of Newcastle. The two men were clearly friends, for Harbottle named Johnson as one of his mainpernors at the Exchequer not long afterwards, and maintained cordial relations with his stepdaughter. For some years Johnson had rented his home in Newcastle from Sir Richard Stanhope*, but the latter’s decision, in 1412, to sell off all his interests in the north east gave him a chance to buy the property outright, together with a piece of ground called ‘The Coal Yards’ and several messuages along the quayside from which he could conduct his business. Meanwhile, in March 1407, Johnson obtained royal letters of protection as a member of the garrison at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where he was probably employed to provide victuals for the troops.6
Johnson was naturally drawn into the protracted quarrel between Bishop Langley and the people of Newcastle over the building of a tower on the Gateshead side of the Tyne bridge. Protesting that this was an infringement of his episcopal jurisdiction, Langley took the town to court, and although Johnson was still in his service he played a notable part in pleading the burgesses’ case. In June 1410 he travelled to Westminster to present the evidence on behalf of the defence; and two years later, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to settle the dispute by private treaty, he was one of the delegation which appeared before the bishop and his council in the chapter house of Durham cathedral. He remained active until the end of his life, attending the parliamentary elections for Newcastle in 1413 (May), 1414 (Apr.), 1415, 1417 and 1419, as well as sitting in the Commons for a second time in November 1414. Throughout his life, Johnson was in considerable demand as a trustee and a witness to local property transactions; and as late as 1418 he is to be found among the feoffees-to-uses of land in the Durham village of Gibside.7
The precise date of Johnson’s death remains unknown, but it cannot have occurred much before June 1420, when an inquisition post mortem was held on his estates in Durham. He was succeeded by a son named John, who did not survive him for long. In April 1427, Bishop Langley appointed William Hardyng†, a Northumbrian landowner, to administer the estates of both father and son. Hardyng proved so grossly negligent that in the following January he was bound over in securities of £200 to find four additional mainpernors who would guarantee his readiness to render full accounts within the next nine months. By then the widowed Elizabeth Johnson had remarried, taking John Parke as her second husband.8