LEE, Sir Walter (c.1350-1395), of Albury, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. either 1348 or 1353, s. and h. of Sir John Lee (d.1370) of Albury, steward of the household of Edw. III, by his w. Joan; prob. bro. of Thomas II*. m. by July 1373, Margaret, s.p. Kntd. by July 1370.1
Commr. of inquiry, Essex Mar. 1377 (over-fishing of rivers), Herts. July 1380 (persons infringing the King’s right to present to Therfield church), Essex Dec. 1390 (losses sustained during the Peasants’ Revolt), Essex, Herts. Aug. 1392 (estates of Robert de Vere, duke of Ireland); array, Herts. Apr., July 1377, Mar. 1380, Apr. 1385, Mar. 1392; to enforce customary services upon the tenants of Ramsey abbey, Norf., Suff., Herts. June 1381; suppress the insurgents of 1381, Herts. Mar., Dec. 1382; of oyer and terminer, Essex June 1386 (withdrawal of labour services on the estates of the dean and chapter of St. Paul’s), Herts. June 1387 (an assault on Sir William Fulthorpe at Waltham); to take oaths in support of the Lords Appellant Mar. 1388; make arrests Sept. 1388, Jan. 1391 (persons contesting the King’s right to present to the treasurership of St. Paul’s), Feb. 1390 (an apostate monk); survey the King’s lands in Essex and Herts. Jan. 1390, July 1391.
J.p. Herts. 2 July 1377-Apr. 1378, 14 Dec. 1381-July 1389.
Assessor of a tax, Herts. Aug. 1379.
Constable and keeper of Colchester castle, Essex 23 Mar. 1388-d.; keeper of Tendring hundred, Essex 10 Feb. 1393-d.
Sheriff, Herts. and Essex 15 Nov. 1389-7 Nov. 1390.
One of the most experienced parliamentarians to represent either Essex or Hertfordshire during our period, Lee also achieved a distinction in local—and occasionally national—affairs which sets him apart from most of the shire knights returned by these two counties during the late 14th century. The Lees owed much of their influence to Walter’s father, Sir John, whose disgrace and imprisonment in 1368, on a charge of abusing his powers as steward of Edward III’s household, seem to have had very little effect upon the fortunes of his son. Sir John died two years later, leaving a substantial estate to the young man, who was then said to be over 21 years old. There is, however, a strong possibility that Sir Walter entered his inheritance while still just a minor: he described himself in 1386 as a man of 33, and thus aged only 17 at his father’s death, and although his military record suggests than he may have been two or three years older his comparative youthfulness is beyond question. This important piece of evidence further disproves the common, but erroneous, belief that the Thomas Lee II with whom he was returned to Parliament in 1386 was his son. On chronological grounds alone, the two men are far more likely to have been brothers or cousins.2
Sir Walter’s patrimony comprised the family seat and estates at Albury, together with the manors of Clothall, Wallington, Upwick, Datchworth, Cumberlow Green, Chamberlayns, Patmore Hall, Brent Pelham, Furneux Pelham, Cockhampstead and Patchendon, and extensive farmland in Stapleford, Bengeo and Queen Hoo Hall. In addition to these holdings in Hertfordshire, he inherited the Essex manors of Barn Hall and More Hall in Tolleshunt Knights, Hassobury in Farnham (with their advowsons), Copt Hall in Little Wigborough and Gobions in Great Leighs, as well as other property in Clavering, Salcott and Virly. He also acquired part of the manor of Cottenham Fen in Cambridgeshire. With the exception of his land in Chamberlayns, which he restored to a rival claimant in 1376, Sir Walter made a settlement of these estates upon feoffees (among whom were Sir Robert Tey†, Sir William Baudt† and other prominent local landowners). His property in Essex was, however, pledged as security during the late 1370s for the repayment of a debt of £150 to Sir William Septvance†, who appears to have sold the manor of Copt Hall to Sir John Lee at an earlier date. References to the ‘burden of debt’ carried by our Member at this time suggest that a considerable part of his revenues were being set aside for the payment of his father’s creditors.3
Already an experienced soldier by the date of his coming of age, Lee first went abroad in February 1368, when he received permission from the King to travel from Dover to Milan with an escort of eight horsemen. His mission probably concerned Lionel, duke of Clarence’s marriage to Violante Visconti, although no further evidence of his activities in Italy has survived. In the following year he accompanied John of Gaunt on his expedition to Normandy, where he was probably knighted; and in July 1370 he contracted to serve with Sir Robert Knolles, whose plans for a freebooting campaign against the French ended in failure soon afterwards.4 Sir Walter spent the next few years at home, dealing with various lawsuits and other problems arising from his recently acquired inheritance. In July 1373, for example, he offered Aubrey de Vere, future earl of Oxford, sureties of £50 that his title to the advowson of Farnham would not be challenged as a result of any litigation then in progress, and one year later he entered into further recognizances in £100 which were held by two Essex men. His affairs took a more violent turn by November 1375, when he was released on bail after appearing in Chancery on a charge of disturbing the peace. Notwithstanding this brush with the authorities, Sir Walter began his long and distinguished parliamentary career in January 1377; and within a matter of months had extended his interest in local government to include service on both the Hertfordshire bench and a fairly active round of royal commissions. He left England again in April 1378, this time on a short visit to Calais, although for most of this period he was preoccupied with the increasingly tense political situation in London and the home counties. No doubt because of his father’s influence at Court, Lee first donned the royal livery during the reign of Edward III. We do not know what position he held in the latter’s household, but by 1380 he had become a knight of the body to Richard II.5 He was thus not only able to dissuade the young King from intervening personally to suppress the violence which broke out in St. Albans during the early summer of 1381, but also to convince him that he, Lee, could be relied upon to deal with the incident. Even if, as Thomas Walsingham believed, Sir Walter was genuinely anxious to protect the surrounding countryside from the depredations which usually accompanied a royal visit of this sort, his readiness to confront the rebels suggests that he was not unaware of the possibilities for self-advancement which success might offer. Possessed of a royal mandate to mediate between the townspeople and the abbot, whose harshness as a landowner lay behind much of the unrest, Sir Walter arrived at St. Albans on 28 June. His speech to the insurgents at Derfold wood on the following day (at least as reported by the author of the Historia Anglicana) contained a mixture of bombast and flattery which, although well enough received, failed totally to achieve its purpose. Being unable either to secure the return of certain charters which the abbot had been forced to concede to his tenants, or to persuade the townspeople to abandon their ringleaders, he was driven to subterfuge, and as a result sparked off an even worse outbreak of rioting. His plan to arrest the leading rebels and escort them secretly to Hertford provoked such a violent reaction that even the earl of Warwick and Sir Thomas Percy were unable to restore order in the town. Paradoxically, it was not until Richard himself visited St. Albans with an armed force that the rebellion was finally put down. Despite his inept handling of the situation, Sir Walter received £20 to cover his expenses, and was, moreover, appointed to two commissions for the general suppression of unrest in Hertfordshire.6 Indeed, his standing at Court continued high throughout this period. In both 1380 and 1386 he successfully intervened to obtain royal letters of pardon for friends or retainers; and in November 1381 he gave information leading to the grant of a prebend to the King’s clerk, William Hermesthorp. He took up arms again in 1383, when he campaigned in Scotland under his former captain, John of Gaunt. He returned there once more in 1385 with a contingent of six esquires, six men-at-arms and eight archers to take part in Richard II’s ill-fated expedition against the Scots. It was also in 1385 that he received a livery of black cloth, to mark the death of the King’s mother, Joan of Kent. His loyal service was rewarded two years later with the keepership of the royal parks of Cropley and Badmondisfield in Suffolk. One of Sir Walter’s companions in arms over these years was Sir Richard Scrope, first Lord Scrope of Bolton, whose dispute with Sir Robert Grosvenor over the right to bear certain arms reached the court of chivalry in 1386. On Oct. 15 of that year, while attending the Parliament at Westminster, our Member gave evidence on Scrope’s behalf, and claimed to have been active as a soldier himself since the age of 19.7
Despite his proximity to the King, Sir Walter evidently did not belong to that inner ring of royal favourites who fell victim to the Lords Appellant in 1388. His Membership of the Merciless Parliament, together with his appearance in March 1388 as a commissioner appointed to take oaths in support of the Appellants, suggests that he shared (or was persuaded to share) some, if not all, of their sympathies—a supposition borne out by the award to him at this time of the constableship of Colchester castle. On the other hand, Richard II was later prepared to include him among the surveyors of the estates confiscated from Robert de Vere, duke of Ireland. During his middle and later years Sir Walter built up a wide range of important connexions with members of the nobility and leading local landowners. He was a demesne tenant of Walter, Lord Fitzwalter, for whom he occasionally witnessed deeds, and a beneficiary of the will of Sir William Moleyns†, the son of one of Edward III’s chamber knights. Among those who asked him to act for them as mainpernors in either Chancery or the Exchequer were Sir Robert Ferrers, Sir Philip de la Vache* and a servant of Sir Thomas Matham; he was likewise much in demand as a feoffee-to-uses, most notably for Thomas Bataill* (who reciprocated the favour) and his own kinsman, Thomas Lee II, who also made him one of his executors.8
Of Sir Walter’s more personal affairs rather less is known, although throughout his life he was involved in a number of lawsuits, some of which were fought at the local assizes in defence of his title to property in the home counties, while others were actions for debt or trespass heard at Westminster.9 Two cases in particular concerned Sir Walter as a crown servant: the first arose from an alleged act of contempt against him as sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire; and the second followed on the escape from Hertford castle of a prisoner who owed the duke of Gloucester 400 marks. Gloucester demanded reparation from our Member, which explains why, in June 1395, he and his brother-in-law, Robert Newport*, offered sureties of 200 marks to the duke.10
Sir Walter died soon after these recognizances were drawn up, and was buried beside his wife in St. Mary’s church, Albury. Since he left no direct heirs, his estates were divided between his three sisters, Margery (wife of Robert Newport), Joan (mother of John Barley*) and Alice (wife of Sir Thomas Morewell*. He appears to have made a new settlement of this property shortly before his death,and his feoffees, among whom were his executors, Walter Arderne, John Boys and Richard de la Pantry (a colleague in the Parliament of 1394), soon found themselves at odds with Newport over the implementation of his will. The dispute eventually reached the court of Chancery, where Newport was accused of attempting to debar the three men from their trusteeship.11