MIDDLETON, Sir John (c.1373-1441), of Belsay, Northumb.
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Family and Education
b.c.1373, s. and h. of Sir John Middleton (d. 9 Aug. 1396) of East Swinburn, Northumb. by his w. Christine (d. 10 Apr. 1422), da. and coh. of Elizabeth Acton of Jesmond. m. by Oct. 1409, Joan (d. 17 Mar. 1450), da. and coh. of Sir Clement Skelton* and wid. of Sir John Blennerhasset (fl. 1394), 4s. Kntd. by Oct. 1407.1
Commr. of array, Northumb. July 1410, Yorks. (W. Riding) Oct. 1417, Mar. 1419; gaol delivery, the bp. of Durham’s liberty of Norhamshire and Islandshire c.1431; to hold an assize c.1431; of inquiry c.1431 (concealments).2
J.p. Northumb. 12 Feb. 1422-July 1424, Westmld. 7 July 1423-4, Norhamshire and Islandshire c.1431.3
Escheator, Northumb. 6 Nov. 1424-24 Jan. 1426.
Collector of taxes, Westmld. Apr. 1428.
Conservator of a truce with Scotland 12 July 1429.4
The Middletons of Belsay were reputedly descended from the house of Gospatrick, and were thus related, albeit somewhat distantly, to the earls of Dunbar. Although they took their name from Middleton in Northumberland, they had moved elsewhere by the early 14th century, when their estates comprised the manors of Belsay, Thornbrough and Little Whittington, and other substantial holdings in and around Kirkheaton, Caldstrother, Throckrington and Shortley, all in the same county. The forfeiture for treason in 1317 of John Middleton meant, however, that only the property in Little Whittington, Thornbrough and Shortley, which he had already settled upon his daughter, Joan, and his wife’s own manor of East Swinburn remained with the family. All his other holdings were confiscated and eventually granted by Edward III to John, Lord Stryvelyn, a distant kinsman of the Middletons, under whose banner John’s son, Thomas, served in the Scottish wars. No doubt through Stryvelyn’s influence, a marriage was arranged between his wife’s great-niece, Christine, and Thomas’s young son, John, whom the elderly lord evidently came to regard very much as his own child. Since he had no offspring himself, it was therefore natural that he should settle the Middleton estates upon John and his wife, so that they could regain their inheritance. But more than that, he conveyed a considerable amount of his own and his wife’s property to them in reversion, thus making them heirs presumptive to the manor and advowson of Brunton, together with extensive holdings throughout Northumberland, the manor of Bewcastle in Cumberland, land in Tunstall and Silksworth in the palatinate of Durham, and other unspecified property in Lincolnshire. Stryvelyn’s death, in 1378, had little immediate effect on their position, since his widow, Jacqueline (Jacoba) retained control of most of these properties, but when she died, 13 years later, the couple finally came into their own. They had, moreover, by then recovered the land with which John Middleton, the traitor, had endowed his daughter, who, by a stroke of luck, likewise proved childless. Given also their acquisition of the manor of Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland, John (now a knight) and Christine could, by 1391, regard themselves as landowners of note, who had more than compensated for the reversals faced by the Middletons at the beginning of the century.5
Sir John died in August 1396, leaving two sons and a daughter; but since his widow continued to occupy almost all his estates as a jointure, not even John, the elder son and subject of this biography, who was then 23 years old, could expect much in the way of lands or franchises during her lifetime. Fortunately for him, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was still anxious to consolidate his position on the east march by recruiting members of the local gentry, and he was retained at an annual fee of £20 during this period. Even so, his circumstances did not permit him to set up an establishment of his own, and he and his mother were living together at Bewcastle when the Scots launched a raid across the border, seized the castle and took them both captive. They were evidently ransomed quite soon, however, for by September 1401, when Henry IV pardoned them their ‘default of watch and good governance’, they had been released. John was probably instrumental in negotiating the marriage of his sister, Agnes, with John Manners*, whose father made a settlement upon them, in February 1403, of the manor of Humbleton in Northumberland. By the time of the county elections to the Parliament of 1407 he had been knighted; and he was, indeed, among the first to attest the return of Members. The management of family affairs none the less remained firmly in the hands of his mother, who decided, in the autumn of 1409, to consolidate their estates and provide him with a suitable home by acquiring the other half of the manor of Belsay in exchange for land in Little Whittington and Thornbrough. Sir John’s younger brother, Thomas, who was also a party to the transaction, later relinquished his title to the manor in return for the sole ownership of all their mother’s property in Durham and at Alnwick, so he, too, was given his own residence.6
Expansion at Belsay, henceforward Sir John’s principal seat, probably followed upon his marriage, in, or just before 1409, to Joan, the widow of Sir John Blennerhasset, whose will they were then both helping to execute. As one of the three daughters and coheirs of Sir Clement Skelton, Joan had for some years been in possession of the manor of Staunton, near Penrith, one third of the manor of Orton (which had belonged to her mother) and other property in Carlisle, Thornby, Grinsdale and Burgh in Cumberland. All these lands were entailed upon John Blennerhasset, the child of her first marriage, but Sir John Middleton still enjoyed the use of them throughout his life. Joan and her two sisters also advanced a claim to land in the Cumbrian villages of Bothel, Blindcrake, Bowness, Carleton and Torpenhow, which had belonged to her late cousin, Thomas Skelton. The latter’s executors complained to the court of Chancery that Middleton and his brothers-in-law (one of whom was Sir William Leigh*) were ‘de si graunde aliaunce et cosinage’ that no one in the north dared make a stand against them. Yet, despite the fact that both Sir John and Sir William got themselves elected to the April Parliament of 1414, along with William Middleton, one of the burgesses for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who almost certainly helped them to argue their case in person, they failed to carry the day. Eventually, after long deliberations with members of the ‘council learned in the law’, the chancellor ordered the three heiresses and their husbands to make full restitution to the executors and vacate the premises in question. Nor, incidentally, did Sir John’s influential position prevent him from being outlawed, in 1409, as a result of his failure to appear in court when being sued for a debt of £22 by a Yorkshireman. He did, however, secure royal letters of pardon, and gradually began to be employed on royal commissions and in other areas of local government.7
Nothing daunted by these reversals, Sir John once again represented Northumberland in the Parliament of 1417. One of his colleagues on this occasion was Roger Thornton, the richest and most powerful merchant in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which he was then representing for the third time. Thornton’s great wealth (derived chiefly from trade in wool and lead) more than compensated for lack of lineage or position, and the two men soon began to discuss plans for a marriage alliance between their respective families. Although by now well advanced in years, Christine Middleton continued to exercise her matriarchal authority, as the ensuing contract, sealed in November 1421, amply testifies. She certainly proved an equal match for Thornton, who agreed to pay eight fothers of lead and £200 in gold on the marriage of his daughter, Isabel, to Sir John’s young son and heir. As their side of the bargain, the Middletons undertook to support Isabel for ten years at their own expense, while at the same time offering her father the innumerable, albeit less tangible, social advantages which a connexion with the upper reaches of the northern gentry could bestow. Christine settled her manor of East Swinburn, together with its widespread appurtenances and other land in Jesmouth, upon her grandson and his bride just before her death, in April 1422, naming Thornton as a short-term lessee, so the marriage clearly cemented their relationship. The rest of the Middleton estates passed at long last to Sir John, who was almost 50 when he took livery of his inheritance. We cannot now tell exactly when he acquired a reversionary interest in the manor of Gratton, together with holdings in the villages of Codnor and Stanton in Derbyshire and one half of the manor of Wandesley in Nottinghamshire, but references in his son’s marriage contract of 1421 suggest that he already had a title to—if not actual possession of—the properties. For the last year of his life, then, he could rely upon an impressive landed income derived from estates throughout the north of England, as well as the expectation of yet more to come.8
Meanwhile, in September 1418, Sir John was present at Brinkburn priory in Northumberland to witness the resignation of the old prior and the election of his successor. He also attested the return of shire knights to the Parliaments of 1420, 1423, 1425 and 1427, being himself elected in 1426 for the third and last time (a week after his replacement as escheator of Northumberland). Needless to say, he was in considerable demand as a witness to local property transactions, such as a series of conveyances made at Tynemouth, in 1426, by the Yorkshire goldsmith, John Horsley. Nor could he avoid becoming involved in the long and bitter dispute which followed his brother-in-law’s attack upon, and reputed murder of, a member of the Heron family and one of his servants. For two years following the incident, which took place in January 1428, the parties appealed to a series of arbitrators, and Sir John gave Manners his support while compensation was being discussed. Negotiations were still in progress when Roger Thornton died, in January 1430, leaving widespread property in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Sir John served as a juror at the inquisition post mortem held to determine the extent of these holdings, although he does not otherwise seem to have played much part in the administration of his late kinsman’s estate. Indeed, his remaining years were spent in comparative retirement, being marked only by a second (and equally unsuccessful) lawsuit for debt brought against him in the early 1430s, and his inclusion on the list of Northumbrian gentry who were to take the general oath of May 1434 that they