SOPER, William (d.1458/9), of Southampton and London.
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Family and Education
Steward, Southampton Mich. 1410-11; mayor 1416-17, 1419-20, 1424-5; alderman 1417-19, 1425-9, 1430-3, 1434-7.4
Collector of customs and subsidies, Southampton 5 Nov. 1413-c.1446.
Commr. to build or repair the King’s ships, Southampton Feb. 1414, July, Dec. 1416, Nov. 1417, July, Dec. 1418, Feb. 1420, May 1429, June 1432, Nov. 1435; organize transport of soldiers to France from south coast ports May 1416, July 1418, Oct. 1419, May 1420, June 1423, Mar. 1436, May 1439, July 1440, Nov. 1441, July 1442, Mar. 1443, Dec. 1445; of inquiry, Suss., Hants, I.o.W. Apr. 1417, Dec. 1418, June 1421, July 1424, Dec. 1428, Mar. 1433, Jan. 1434, Jan. 1440, Feb. 1441, July 1448, Feb. 1451 (piracy, customs evasion and shipping), Oxon., Berks., Wilts., Hants July 1427 (concealed royal income) Hants July 1433 (treason and felonies), to hold musters, Southampton or Portsdown Nov. 1417, Mar., July 1418, Apr. 1419, Apr. 1420, May 1421, June 1430, May 1431, Dec. 1435, July 1436, May 1441, Aug. 1442, July 1443; organize works, Normandy Aug. 1419; of arrest, Hants, Devon July 1426, Dec. 1441; to raise a loan, Hants Mar. 1431; purchase wine for the royal household Feb. 1435; of array, Hants Jan. 1436, Mar. 1443; to confiscate smuggled goods, Southampton Apr., Oct. 1436, Dec. 1443, Sept. 1450; of gaol delivery, Winchester castle July 1445.
Surveyor of the King’s ships, 6 July 1418-20; clerk or keeper of the same 3 Feb. 1420-7 Apr. 1442; controller 1442-52.
Dep. butler, Southampton 22 Nov. 1418-Dec. 1422.
Verderer of the New Forest by 1428-c.1445.
Tax assessor, Hants Jan. 1436.
Soper, whose father may have been a Winchester draper, had come to reside in Southampton and trade from that port by 1410. A competent and skilled administrator, he was soon given charge over the building up of a fleet of ships for Henry V. Although not officially appointed surveyor or clerk of the King’s ships until 1418, from four years previously he had been occupied at Burlesdon supervising the construction of a number of large vessels, and his official accounts date from 1415. On 29 Oct. 1414 he and his fellow customer of Southampton had received £80 for their services, and the very next day Soper was paid £125 for the safe-keeping of the Seynt Clare of Spain, a prize taken at sea, which was then being renovated under his supervision. In due course the Seynt Clare was reborn as the Holy Ghost, and in February following Soper received payments for having her decorated with heraldic devices and arms, thus completing works which cost the Exchequer nigh on £1,000. In this period the administration of the navy developed to wartime proportions, and storehouses and dockyards were built on the Hamble, with Soper being put in charge of operations. He became intricately involved in the organization of Henry V’s French expedition of 1415, and in April following, doubtless as reward, he was given an annuity of 20 marks, afterwards confirmed by Henry VI. Soper played a notable part in the greatest naval enterprise of the time, the scheme to build a ship of 1,400 tons’ estimated capacity—the Gracedieu—work on which, together with her two accompanying balingers, the Valentine and the Falcon, began in 1416 in a specially built dock at Southampton. She, the largest ship built in England before the 17th century, was to be described by the King’s brother Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, as ‘the fairest that ever men saugh’. Soper’s expenditure over a seven-year period in Henry V’s reign amounted to £7,500, some of which he received from the Exchequer in the form of assignments on the customs which he himself collected at Southampton.5
Soper’s formal appointment as overseer of the King’s ships in 1418 gave him a daily wage of 1s. His work sometimes took him across the Channel to Normandy, where he organized the building of royal works, and in December 1419 he was granted a lease on a house at Harfleur. On 3 Feb. 1420 he became ‘keeper and governor’ of the royal fleet at double his previous pay, £40 p.a., and this office was confirmed by Henry VI’s council which, however, placed him under the controlment of Nicholas Banaster. From 1420 on he had a general mandate to make inquiries when and where he liked regarding the King’s vessels and their gear, and was also engaged in positions of trust, such as the transportation, in January 1422, of 20,000 marks from London to Southampton and thence to the King in France. After Henry V’s death one of the first orders of the Council was to direct that the bulk of the navy should be sold by Soper and others, and the naval establishment was as a consequence drastically reduced. Soper spent 101 days of the first year of the new reign riding to various ports to negotiate these sales, which raised some £995. Of this, 1,000 marks went to the late King’s executors, but some of the surplus was allowed to Soper himself, who in 1430 petitioned for payment of debts incurred when building the Holy Ghost and Gabriel, and while selling the remnants of the fleet in 1423-4, as well as for other labours over the previous 15 years. Such pleas for the payment of costs and wages, some long outstanding, show that his job was not all profit, and the sale of royal vessels may have provided an opportunity for him to recoup his losses. His salary, though high, was paid irregularly throughout his term of office, and privileges such as licences to trade could hardly have afforded a recompense for all his outgoings.6 After the sale there were only four large ships left, and Soper’s claim in November 1436 (when petitioning to be released from the clerkship) that he had recently been charged with ‘right grete and combrous occupations’, was perhaps exaggerated. However, although it was not until six years later that he handed over his office to a yeoman of the Crown, Richard Clivedon, the latter was to receive only 1s. a day (like Soper’s predecessors). For the next ten years Soper continued as controller over the new clerk, and performed many other duties under royal commission. Indeed, from the beginning of the reign he had been kept constantly busy requisitioning, equipping and manning ships for the war across the Channel, and on occasion he himself sailed to France. In the summer of 1445 he travelled to Rouen to help escort Margaret of Anjou to England for her marriage to the King. Nor was he inactive in other offices, such as that of customs collector at Southampton, which he occupied for more than 30 years. On the other hand, the post of verderer of the New Forest, for which, as resident outside the forest limits, he was not strictly qualified, was something of a sinecure. At an unknown date before April 1447 he was given the rank of a royal serjeant-at-arms, being then granted an annuity of 20 marks for the rest of his life for his services to three Kings.7
In the meantime Soper had not neglected his own mercantile interests, and these evidently brought him considerable profits. From 1412, if not earlier, he had been importing wine from La Rochelle. Two years later he was accused of the piratical capture of cargoes from Castile; and his trade with Italy, Spain and France included shipments of cloth, corn, iron, resin, nails, oil and slates. He took advantage of several special licences granted by Henry V and Henry VI: the first, addressed to him as ‘our esquire’ in 1415, permitted the shipment of 130 sacks of wool to Pisa; another, in 1420, exonerated him from payment of customs on 419 pockets of wool; a third, in 1424, allowed him or his factor, David Savage, to trade in Spain; and a fourth, issued two years later, gave him the unrestricted right to import salmon and hides from Ireland. Not surprisingly, Soper himself owned ships which were used for his trading ventures: for instance, having acquired Valentine, one of the royal fleet, he sent it to Bordeaux in 1426 with grain, coal, fish and kerseys. His years as clerk of the King’s ships and customer at Southampton lent a certain arrogance to his dealings; on one occasion when the royal searcher required the Valentine’s master to show his licence for exporting 700 quarters of corn, ‘he wolde not [indeed] nede not, bote made saylle and went awaye’. But Soper’s more ambitious schemes did not always prove successful: in 1429 and 1430 he joined with two other Southampton merchants, Walter Fetplace and Peter James†, in obtaining royal licences for their factors to trade in Spain, but when Soper’s agent, Savage, arrived at Bilbao in July 1432 on a barge laden with cloth and other merchandise worth £500, he was arrested and held for ransom, and the cargo was confiscated. Disheartened by this experience, Soper made no further attempt to establish regular trading links in the Iberian peninsula.8 In 1436 when Soper tried to resign from the clerkship of the royal ships on the ground that he had vowed to go on a pilgrimage to Lombardy, he requested that he might have to cover his expenses 20 sacks of wool for shipment to Flanders. His assertion that he ‘groweth into such age that yf the said pilgrymage be not don in right short tyme it may never be don by hym’, was perhaps premature, for he was able to continue his mercantile ventures for the next ten years, if not longer. In 1440, for example, he had paper, a featherbed and cinnamon carted from Southampton to London and wine sent to the dean of Salisbury. And when by Act of Parliament that same year alien merchants were compelled to reside with English hosts, and eminent foreigners such as the patrons of four Florentine gallies were promptly assigned to Soper’s personal care, this had the obvious effect of strengthening his Mediterranean connexions.9
In the meantime, Soper had become increasingly active in local government, and his election to no fewer than 13 Parliaments is a reflection of his high standing in the community. Having previously been three times mayor of Southampton, between 1428 and 1437 he was made responsible for paying the fee farm to Queen Joan.10 In addition he served Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, the admiral of England, as a feoffee of his property in the town; he acted in the same capacity for Peter James’s daughter, Katherine (the god-daughter of his first wife); and he was an executor of the will of Walter Fetplace. On one occasion he stood surety in the Exchequer for the abbot of Beaulieu. There are no hints that trust in him was ever misplaced, although Agnes, widow of William Overey†, once wrote to ask a friend to ‘speke to my lord of Glouchester to commande William Sopere to be a good friend to me and my children as he hathe ever be’. He also showed concern to some extent in the affairs of the county at large, by attending the shire elections held at Winchester in 1421, 1427, 1429, 1432, 1433 and 1445, and after Southampton had itself achieved county status he witnessed the local electoral indentures in 1449 and 1453.11
Soper’s own property in Southampton, by 1431 assessed at £15 a year, comprised his dwelling-place, a house and quay known as ‘Isabell vaute’, and the building where the customs were collected, all situated in English Street. He renovated the two towers on the Watergate at his own cost, subsequently, in 1433, receiving from the town a 100-year lease of the premises (paying only a rose as annual quit rent), and also obtaining leave to build a shop on two plots next to the town wall. The lease was extended six years later, only then he assigned it to John Ingoldesby, ‘pro consilio michi impenso’, at an annual rent of £1.12 His estate on the west side of Southampton Water included three tenements in Hythe, and land at Fawley, Dibden and Eling, and he shared with Richard Holt† possession of holdings in South Langley. An Italian merchant who visited Soper’s moated house on the edge of the New Forest (probably ‘Osiers’ in Dibden) was clearly impressed by its richly decorated exterior and private chapel. Indeed, Soper was by then a comparatively wealthy man, with an income from his landed possessions in Hampshire alone which exceeded £50 a year. While Isabel, his first wife, was still alive he formed a relationship with Joan Chamberlain, niece of a former fellow Member, William Chamberlain, who, being a young kinswoman of his wife, lived with them. After Isabel’s death he married Joan ‘per verba de presenti’, and in 1438 secured from Pope Eugenius IV letters ordering the bishop of London to absolve them from excommunication and legitimize any offspring. Soper was then recorded as domiciled in London, and in 1443 wine was sent there from Southampton ‘pro hospicio Willelmi Sopere’.13
In August 1452 Soper arranged with the warden of the Friars Minor at Southampton for a daily mass to be said in their church, where he proposed to be buried, for the souls of his parents, his wives and himself; and he gave the Franciscans two houses which he had had built in their cemetery. At Soper’s home in Eling three years later, Thomas Chamberlain†, one of his executors, bound himself to pay the mayor and corporation of Southampton £2 every year after the deaths of Soper and his wife for their attendance at the obit.14 Soper’s will, made on 8 Nov. 1458, left legacies in cash of over £135, and also provided for the distribution in alms of woollen and linen goods worth 100 marks. His widow was to have 100 marks in money, their house in English Street, the rent from the Watergate towers, and half of his moveable possessions and other properties. Most of the latter were to pass to the borough authorities after her death. So, too, following Joan’s death, was to fall her obligation to provide candles and distribute 34s.8d. in charity every year, with reversion for non-compliance to Beaulieu abbey and St. Denys priory. Certain rents were to be hers for five years, but were then to be sold for repairs to roads around Southampton. Soper died before 20 Nov. 1459. His widow, who survived until at least 1482, apparently married Richard Ludlow, who took up residence at the late MP’s house at Newton Bery.15
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Author: L. S. Woodger
For fuller details of Soper’s life, and especially of his work as keeper of the King’s ships, see Navy of Lancastrian Kings (Navy Recs. Soc. cxxiii), 6-27.
- 1. Hants RO, D/LY/7/25.
- 2. CPL, vii. 337; Black Bk. (Soton Rec. Soc. xiv), ii. 59.
- 3. CPL, viii. 579-80; Queen’s Coll. Oxf. God’s House, D432. She was not the widow of Richard Gould* as stated in HP, 1439-1509 ed. Wedgwood, Biogs. 782-3.
- 4. Stewards’ Bks. (Soton Rec. Soc. xxxv), i. p. vii; J.S. Davies, Hist. Southampton, 173; CPL, vii. 337; Black Bk. ii. 16, 18, 19, 27, 40, 43, 50-52; Southampton RO, SC4/2/255; CCR, 1435-41, p. 32.
- 5. C.F. Richmond, ‘R. Admin. and Keeping the Seas’ (Oxf. Univ. D. Phil. thesis, 1963), 26, 29, 33; E403/619; E404/32/261; C64/17 m. 20d; CPR, 1416-22, p. 6; E364/61 m. 7; E101/49/29; Navy of Lanc. Kings, 51; Mariner’s Mirror, xl. 55-72.
- 6. CAD, iii. C3128; PPC, ii. 267; CPR, 1416-22, p. 274; 1422-9, p. 57; CCR, 1422-9, p. 58; Richmond, 36, 47-48; E364/65; C64/12 m. 47; Somerville, Duchy, i. 187; Navy of Lanc. Kings, 108-11.
- 7. E28/58/62; Letters and Pprs. Illust. Wars of English in France ed. Stevenson, i. 457; CPR, 1446-52, p. 35.
- 8. Southampton RO, SC4/2/223; CPR, 1413-16, p. 192; 1416-22, p. 295; 1422-9, p. 329; C76/98 m. 7, 107 m. 10; Cott. Vesp. FXIII, art. 51; E122/141/4, 22, 184/3 file 3, f. 3, file 4, ff. 2, 14; Port Bks. (Soton Rec. Soc. xv), i. 4, 9, 19, 22, 26, 29, 46, 69-70, 74, 100.
- 9. C76/111 m. 3, 112 m. 10, 119 m. 10; C1/9/403; CPR, 1436-41, p. 36; Port Bks. 1439-40 (Soton Rec. Ser. v), 23; Italian Merchants in Southampton (ibid. i), 157; Brokage Bk. (Soton Rec. Soc. xl), i. 88, 111, 123; Southampton RO, SC5/4/4; EHR, lxi. 5; E101/128/31 mm. 9, 20.
- 10. Ports Bks. i. 86; 1435-6 (Soton Rec. Ser. vii), 124, 126; Stewards’ Bks. i. 11, 87, 95, 96; ii. 47, 49; Southampton RO, SC5/4/2, f. 49.
- 11. Black Bk. ii. 59; Remembrance Bk. (Soton Rec. Soc. xxvii), i. 7; CFR, xv. 267; C1/15/184; Southampton RO, SC4/2/234; Hants RO, D/CJ/28; C219/12/5, 13/5, 14/1, 3-5, 15/7, 16/2.
- 12. Southampton RO, SC4/3/4, 6, 7, 13/1/1; God’s House, R382; Winchester Coll. mun. 17835; Feudal Aids, ii. 360.
- 13. CCR, 1422-9, p. 319; CPL, viii. 579-80; CPR, 1436-41, p. 131; Brokage Bk. (Southampton Rec. Ser. iv), i. 28; ii. 161; Navy of Lanc. Kings, 16; E179/173/92.
- 14. Hants RO, D/LY/7/25; Southampton RO, 13/1/1; Black Bk. ii. 123.
- 15. Black Bk. 99-115; CPR, 1476-85, p. 317; Navy of Lanc. Kings, 26.