SEVENOAK, William (d.1432), of London.
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Family and Education
s. or foster s. of William Rumschedde of Sevenoaks, Kent.1
Auditor, London or Sept. 1399-1400, 1409-11, 1414-15; warden of London Bridge 23 Sept. 1404-6; alderman of Bishopsgate Ward by 1 June 1411-24 Mar. 1414, Tower Ward 24 Mar. 1414-22 June 1426; mayor, London 13 Oct. 1418-19.2
Tax collector, London Dec. 1402.3
Commr. to recruit soldiers and mariners, London Aug. 1403; of oyer and terminer Aug. 1409, Apr. 1412, Nov. 1418, July 1419, Jan. 1424; to provide victuals and shipping for the King’s army at Rouen June, July 1418; of inquiry, London Feb. 1424 (treasons and felonies).4
Warden of the Grocers’ Co. May 1404-5.5
Sheriff, London and Mdx. Mich. 1412-13.
Surveyor of the King’s works at Isleworth, Mdx. 2 June 1426.
The legend that William Sevenoak was abandoned in the streets of Sevenoaks as an infant and rose from extreme poverty to become one of London’s leading citizens appears to have grown up during the Elizabethan period. It even won him a place in Johnson’s Nine Worthies of London, where the poet dwells upon his subject’s triumph over misfortune: Behold en ebbe that never thought to flowe, Behold a fall unlikelie to recover Behold a shrub, a weed that grew full lowe, Behold a wren that never thought to hover.6 Stow, with his closer knowledge of the city records, was the first to draw attention to an entry in the Letter Books concerning indentures of apprenticeship drawn up between the MP’s father (or foster father), William Rumschedde, a tradesman from Sevenoaks, and the ironmonger, Henry Bois, who was master to the young William Sevenoak until July 1394, when the latter became a freeman of London. Three years later, in December 1397, Sevenoak petitioned to be readmitted as a grocer rather than an ironmonger, since Bois had actually belonged to the Grocers’ Mystery; and upon payment of heavy fines totalling no less than £12 his request was granted.7
In common with many grocers, Sevenoak had diverse commercial interests. Between January 1401 and September 1416, for example, he shipped occasional consignments of cloth into the port of London, besides obtaining royal licences for the export of wool to Calais. The customs accounts are too fragmentary to give much idea of the scale of his operations, but he does not seem to have invested as heavily as many of his contemporaries. Even so, in May 1402 he obtained a royal licence to send 160 quarters of salt from London to the Low Countries. He was importing wine from France in the following year, but this cargo fell into the hands of pirates, as did another ship carrying salt which he had bought in Devon for sale in the City. In February 1405 Sevenoak was himself held partly responsible for an act of piracy against a Prussian ship whose master complained that he had been attacked by a number of English vessels including two fitted out by the MP at his own expense. The latter was obliged to offer suitable compensation, but did eventually gain permission to recover his losses from the sailors themselves. Three years later, as part of a measure to counteract the rising price of grain in the City, Sevenoak was empowered to buy 1,000 quarters of wheat in the north of England and ship it south for sale in London.8 In October 1410 he appeared as defendant in a lawsuit concerning the retention of two bonds in £60, probably holding them on behalf of a fellow merchant involved in the case. He took other recognizances in £350 from the ironmonger, William Cambridge, in July 1414, perhaps as a guarantee that certain sureties he had recently offered for Cambridge would not be put at risk. Rather less is known about an undertaking made in October 1415 whereby William Chichele* mortgaged some of his London property to Sevenoak recovering it ten years later when a debt of £130 had been paid to them. Meanwhile, in June 1417, Sevenoak advanced £100 (one of the largest sums promised by any Londoner) towards the cost of Henry V’s second expedition to France. He made a second, short-term loan of £20 to the Crown in 1426, but otherwise had little else to do with government finance. Indeed, during the 1420s he experienced some difficulty in recovering unpaid debts, at least two of which were for sums of over £90. He remained an active member of the Grocer’s Company for most of his life, and in 1427 he made the comparatively large donation of almost £7 to the fund set up for building a meeting hall.9
From 1400 onwards, if not before, Sevenoak was a churchwarden of St. Dunstan’s in the East, to which he left ten marks a year from his property in the parish. We know that he owned a wharf, shops and a number of tenements in this area, but as with his many holdings in other parts of London these cannot easily be distinguished from the premises which he held to the use of friends and associates. Already in 1412 he could rely upon an annual income of nearly £20 as a rentier in the City, and there can be little doubt that by the time of his death his revenues had risen substantially. He had, moreover, other possessions outside London: it was probably from his father that he inherited the cottages in Sevenoaks which he bequeathed as almshouses for the deserving poor. In 1403 he and his heirs were confirmed in possession of a messuage and land in Upchurch, Kent, although he seems to have disposed of this before he died.10 Sevenoak was a party to many conveyances of property in the south-east. He acted, for example, as a trustee of the estate left by Richard Whittington*, and performed a similar service for other eminent Londoners, including Nicholas Wotton*. He was also involved in the settlement of land in Middlesex and Essex upon the Bridgettine house of Syon, and together with Sir Reynold Cobham and other notable Surrey landowners he entered into substantial bonds in July 1424, possibly regarding the endowment of Merton priory.11 Sevenoak appears far less often as a mainpernor, although he did perform this service from time to time, most notably in April 1413 when he offered joint sureties of 10,000 marks for Henry Somer*, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then summoned to answer unspecified charges before the next Parliament. Not much is known of the grocer’s personal connexions in the City, but he was evidently on close terms with Henry Halton*, whose estate he helped to administer, and Richard Marlow*, who chose him to supervise his will.12
By the time of his retirement from public life in about 1426, Sevenoak had not only served as bridge warden, alderman, sheriff and mayor of London, but had also sat on a number of important commissions. The post of bridge warden, which he held from 1404 to 1406, was no sinecure, and during his period in office he acquired a considerable reputation as an authority on the repair and construction of bridges. When, in September 1422, the wardens of Rochester bridge were concerned with problems of maintenance they came to London to interview him, and subsequently invited him to Rochester for further consultations. His advice must have been sound, for in 1430 they spent 3s.6d. on half a boar, intended as a gift to keep his good favour. Sevenoak attended at least eight of the parliamentary elections held in London between 1407 and 1423. He also arbitrated in a number of disputes occurring between his fellow citizens, and was on hand to give specialist advice as an auditor. Further evidence of his social position may be found in the award of a papal indult, in 1412, permitting him to make use of a portable altar.13 Sevenoak was not, however, without his enemies: in March 1415 the grocer, Thomas Mayneld†, appeared before the mayor’s court to answer the charge of threatening him ‘with Brembre’s fate [hanging] if he did not conduct himself well and honestly’. The accused pleaded guilty, but thanks to Sevenoak’s intervention he was merely bound over in £200 to be of good behaviour and did not have to serve the prison sentence passed on him by the court. A pious, even puritanical man, Sevenoak took the opportunity during his mayoralty to supress Christmas customs involving ‘in eny manere mommyng, pleyes, enterludes or eny other disgisynges with eny feynyd berdis, peyntid visers, diffourmyd or colourid visages in eny wyse’; and he also forbade the city officers to beg for gifts.14 He was, on the other hand, a generous benefactor to certain London churches, and in July 1432, just before his death, he set aside the revenues of other property in the City for the foundation of a grammar school at his native Sevenoaks. His concern for the education and support of the local poor lends colour to the story of his own humble beginnings, and perhaps gave rise to it.15
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. Cal. Letter Bk. London, H, 439. The knighthood accorded to this MP in many works (see, for instance, DNB, xvii. 1214) is fictitious.
- 2. Cal. Letter Bk. London, H, 449; I, 34, 75, 88, 94, 127-8, 206, 226-7; Beaven, Aldermen, i. 34, 198; G.C. Home, Old London Bridge, 334.
- 3. Cal. Letter Bk. London, I, 25.
- 4. Ibid. 197, 201, 220; K, 25.
- 5. Ms Archs