ORGAN, John (d.1392), of London.
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Family and Education
m. bef. Mar. 1377, Margery (d.c.1404), 3s. 2da.2
Collector of a royal loan, London 16 June 1370-1 Jan. 1371.3
Collector of tunnage and poundage, London 29 Oct. 1371 (extended to the coast from Ipswich to Southampton 25 May 1382)-7 July 1384, 28 Nov. 1386-20 Mar. 1388, the cloth and alien petty custom 21 June 1376-3 July 1384, 15 Mar. 1387-25 May 1389, the wool custom and subsidy 1 July 1384-2 Jan. 1387.4
Alderman of Broad Street Ward 1 Aug. 1376-12 Mar. 1377, Mar. 1378-9, 1380-1, Coleman Street Ward 1382-3, 1384-5, Langbourn Ward 1385-8, during royal pleasure (no ward given) 24 July 1392-d.; auditor, London 21 Sept. 1384-5.5
Tax collector, London Nov. 1377, assessor May 1379.6
Commr. of kiddles, London Apr. 1380; inquiry (felonies and treasons), Mdx. Dec. 1385.
Dep. keeper of the sea, Winchelsea to Berwick-upon-Tweed 24 May-2 Dec. 1383.7
Sheriff, London and Mdx. Mich. 1385-6.
Warden of the Mercers’ Co. June 1390-d.8
Although he played a leading part in civic government and finance for over 20 years, Organ’s early life and background remain obscure. The first known reference to him occurs in April 1361, by which date he had become involved, probably as a trustee, in the conveyance of property in Tottenham, Middlesex. Organ may well have been in business for some time when, in November 1368, Richard Gillingham of Kent entered into a bond for 80 marks with him as a ‘citizen and mercer of London’. His first return to Parliament during the previous spring suggests that he already possessed some influence in the City; and the appearance of his name among the merchants to whom Queen Philippa owed money (in this case almost £22) when she died in 1369 is also a sign of his rising fortunes.9
How far Organ prospered as a result of his many years as a collector of customs and subsidies in the port of London is now a matter of conjecture. During the entire reign of Richard II only three customs officials—of whom he was one—were entrusted with the collection of all three of the major imposts raised on goods imported through the capital. His experience, which rivalled that of many a professional administrator, made him tremendously valuable both to the Crown and the London merchants waiting for assignments on the wool custom. It has, indeed, been argued that his confirmation in office was intended to reassure the King’s major creditors in the City: they in turn can only have welcomed the prospect of administrative continuity made possible by the reappointment of a friend and business associate.10
Organ’s official duties did not prevent him from pursing his trade as a mercer. Comparatively little is known about his commercial activities, but the income which they brought him was evidently great. In April 1385, for example, John Bataill of Essex undertook to pay £220 to Organ and one William Woodhouse within three months; and in the following year Organ and four others were promised a further £200 by John Elys of Stowmarket. Although neither debt was paid, the sums involved no doubt reflect the scale of his more successful transactions. Another of his customers was the royal favourite, Sir Simon Burley, a victim of the Merciless Parliament of 1388, who died owing ‘un graunt somme’ to the MP, evidently on the security of various luxury goods. Organ certainly enjoyed an income large enough for substantial investment in property. Between March 1377 and the time of his death he bought up land, rents and tenements in the London parishes of St. Martin Ludgate, St. Peter Cornhill and St. Margaret Lothbury, besides taking on the joint lease of a messuage and an inn in Tower Street. He and his wife also purchased the manor of ‘Dakerhames’ at Havering atte Bower in Essex, together with property at Nazeing in the same county.11
The frequency with which Organ was called upon to act as a mainpernor and feoffee by prominent Londoners and other notable figures shows him to have been a man of considerable influence in his own right. He was involved in the purchase of the marriage of John de la Pole by Margaret, countess of Norfolk, in March 1380, joining with the wealthy grocer, Hugh Fastolf*, to promise John, Lord Cobham, an indemnity of 800 marks should he not be compensated in full for the loss of his ward. Organ was also a party to the business affairs of the Surrey landowner, Nicholas Carew*, the London merchants, William Venour† and John Bosham*, and a number of clergymen with interests in the City.12
All this financial and administrative expertise was utilized by the civic authorities who needed the help of proficient auditors and accountants. In June 1370 Organ was one of the eight Londoners appointed to recover a loan of £5,000 advanced by the City to Edward III on the security of the wool custom; and on at least four occasions after this date he acted as an auditor of accounts presented before the chamberlain of London. In May 1376 he arbitrated in a dispute between two merchants, but on the whole financial rather than legal matters commanded his attention. The following August saw his election as alderman of Broad Street Ward after the deposition from office of the unpopular royal financier, Richard Lyons†, who had been impeached in the Good Parliament. This suggests that Organ had aligned himself with the group of city merchants then in opposition to the government and its extravagant foreign policy: his experience as a customs official had no doubt convinced him of the need for sweeping reforms. He meanwhile continued to play an increasingly active part in civic affairs, being chosen by the common council in May 1378 to advise on the taxation of food sold in London. Three months later he served on another civic committee, this time set up to watch over the exercise of the City’s liberties. Organ’s contribution of £4 towards a gift raised in January 1379 by the people of London to persuade ‘the great lords of the realm’ to return to the capital places him among the wealthiest and most powerful members of the civic hierarchy. His standing in mercantile circles was also high, for in 1382 he sat on a committee of leading English merchants summoned on the advice of the House of Commons to discuss the possibility of raising a loan of £60,000 for an expedition to France. Understandably, he and his colleagues were unwilling to share the fate of Lyons and the other speculative financiers who had previously lent money to the Crown, and they refused outright to consider any such transaction.13
Organ’s vested interest in preserving the government of the City from change inevitably brought him into conflict with the radical mayor of London, John of Northampton†, and led him to support the party of Northampton’s great rival, Sir Nicholas Brembre†. He attended the common council meeting of 11 June 1384 at which Northampton was unanimously found responsible for all recent outbreaks of disorder in London, and shortly afterwards, as one of ‘the best and wisest men of the City’, he was commissioned to revise the notorious ‘Jubilee Book’ of ordinances compiled during Northampton’s mayoralty. Organ was also present at Northampton’s trial before the King’s Council at Reading in August 1384. In the following March the common council, meeting at an emergency session, nominated him as one of a body of 12 aldermen and 12 commoners set up to discover ways of strengthening the City’s defences against any future disturbances. But Brembre, too, overreached himself, and by 1386 a strong reaction had set in against him. The impeachment of the earl of Suffolk (in whose treasonous conduct he was, reputedly, implicated) by the Parliament of that year clearly encouraged his many opponents, who now numbered Organ among them. As both a mercer and a Member of the House of Commons he must, indeed, have played a leading part in the presentation of a petition drawn up against Sir Nicholas by ‘the folk of the Mercerye of London’. Their quarry escaped temporarily, but was brought to book by the Merciless Parliament two years later, and executed.14
Organ appears to have retired from office as an alderman at the time of Brembre’s fall, in 1388, shortly before giving up his collectorship of the petty custom. His long years of government service were well rewarded in February 1391 with a gift of 100 marks to be shared by him and his clerks ‘for their diligence and labour’. He returned briefly to civic life in July 1392 when Richard II’s quarrel with London was at its height and the normal government of the City had been suspended. Organ and four other leading citizens were then made aldermen by the King, holding office at royal pleasure rather than by election. Richard’s choice was a wise one, since all five men were well equipped to maintain order during a period of political upheaval. Organ was then serving as warden of the Mercers’ Company for the second consecutive year, since the crisis had made it impossible to hold the customary annual elections. During his first term he had with characteristic efficiency and ‘de sa frank volonte’ taken upon himself the task of compiling the company accounts without help from the other three wardens. With the full complement of four apprentices, he was still in business at the time of his death, which took place between July and November 1392.15
Organ was buried in the church of St. Olave in the Old Jewry, the site of a family monument. His son William, a clerk, inherited a considerable estate, but died before March 1395, leaving two brothers and two sisters to share his property and effects. One sister, Agnes, had married Richard Fryssyngfield, while the other, Alice, was a nun at the Benedictine house of Amesbury in Wiltshire. John Organ’s executors had to pay off a number of debts and fines. In August 1397, for example, they were excused all the arrears and concealments charged to his account at the Exchequer as holder of various offices upon payment of a fine of 100 marks; but it was not until June 1406, or even later, that they eventually made good the deficit of £22 owed by him as warden of the Mercers’ Company.16 Organ’s widow, Margery, was also sued for debt in January 1394, although so far as is known she managed to avoid any further legal action. She died between May 1403 and August 1405, having secured a life interest in most of her late husband’s property as well as a later settlement of rents worth six marks a year in the parish of St. Martin, Bowyer Row.17
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. Cal. Letter Bk. London, H, 153. It is possible that Organ sat for London in the May Parliament of 1382, since he was a member of the committee of merchants to whom the Commons referred the question of a loan to the Crown. Six other Londoners served with him, however, and only four can have been returned as MPs for the City (RP, iii. 123).
- 2. Corporation of London RO, hr 106/112; Cal. Wills ct. Husting London ed. Sharpe, ii (1), 325-6.
- 3. Cal. Letter Bk. London, G, 263-4, 266.
- 4. Studies in London Hist. ed. Hollaender and Kellaway, 194.
- 5. Beaven, Aldermen, i. 71, 108, 167; CPR, 1392-6, p. 12; Cal. Letter Bk. London, H, 249, 273, 393.
- 6. Cal. Letter Bk. London,