SPENCER, John (d.1417), of Banham, Norf. and Burgate, Suff.
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Family and Education
s. of William Spencer of Burton Pidsea, Yorks. m. prob. bef. May 1401, Katherine (d. aft. June 1436), da. and coh. of Sir William Burgate* of Burgate by Eleanor, da. of Sir Thomas Visdelou† of Shelfanger, Norf., wid. of Robert Stonham (d.1397), of Stonham Aspall, Suff., s.p.
Clerk to John Carp, keeper of the wardrobe (alias treasurer of the Household) to Richard II by May 1390-c. July 1399.
Warden of Shrawardine chapel, Salop 17 Feb. 1398-c. July 1399.
Receiver-general to Henry, prince of Wales, by Apr. 1402-c. Apr. 1403; controller of his household c. Apr. 1403-Mar. 1413.
Commr. of oyer and terminer, Herts. Nov. 1409; to conscript workmen for repairs to the nave of Westminster abbey Nov. 1413.
Cofferer of the household to Henry V 21 Mar.-1 Oct. 1413; keeper of the wardrobe 1 Oct. 1413-d.
Sheriff, Norf. and Suff. 20 Feb.-30 Nov. 1416.
Born a bondman at Burton Pidsea in Yorkshire, Spencer owed his rise to high royal office, his marriage to the daughter of an affluent knight, and his acquisition of valuable landed estates entirely to his own ability and industry. Where he was educated and how he first came to enter royal service is not revealed, but he was described as ‘King’s clerk’ in October 1382 when he obtained a patent of manumission, and a year later he was wearing the livery of a member of the royal household. By 1390 he had been assigned to assist John Carp, the treasurer of the Household, and from then on he often went to the Exchequer in his superior’s place to collect money to cover the expenses of their department. Rewards for his work were soon forthcoming: in October 1390 he was given the corrody reserved for one of the royal clerks at the cathedral church of Coventry; in March 1391 the King granted him a life annuity of £5 charged at the Exchequer; and in January 1392 he was awarded a maintenance at the lazar house at Ilford in Essex.1 In the autumn of 1394 Spencer joined Richard II’s expedition to Ireland, being given the role of paymaster to the fleet commandeered for the passage of the army, a business which involved handling nearly £6,000 for the wages of masters and mariners. Then, early in 1396, he was made responsible for paying the expenses of the French ambassadors on their visit to London. On 12 Feb. that same year he was accorded an additional annuity of 20 marks at the Exchequer, authorized until the King should provide him with a sufficient benefice, and he continued to receive payments for his livery as a clerk in the Household.2
After the fall of the former Lords Appellant, effected during the first session of the Parliament of 1397 (Sept.), Spencer, like many other royal servants, received a share of their confiscated lands and goods. In October he was granted the free chapel of Shrawardine in Shropshire, forfeited by the earl of Arundel, four months later being formally presented by the King as warden there; and then, in February 1398, he obtained Arundel’s wood at Wellington, worth 20 marks p.a. Spencer’s interests in Shropshire were further increased that May when an annual rent of £12, payable into the Exchequer by the heirs of Nicholas, Lord Audley, for the manor of Ford, was given to him for life.3 At the same time he also set about acquiring landed interests in East Anglia: in April Richard II’s nephew, the earl of Kent, had interceded with the treasurer of the Exchequer on his behalf to secure the wardship of estates in Norfolk and Middlesex which had belonged to the late Sir William Marche, as well as the marriage of his heir. But although Spencer subsequently accounted for the issues of Marche’s lands in Norfolk from July 1397 until October 1399, he claimed that he never had possession of those in Middlesex nor had profited from the marriage of the heir, who had died meanwhile. In April 1399 he once more prepared to accompany Richard II to Ireland. He was still closely associated with John Carp and, when the latter died intestate in the following year, it was he who administered his estate.4
The usurpation of Henry IV brought in its wake measures which cannot have been to Spencer’s financial advantage. One such was the reversal of the forfeitures of 1397, resulting in his loss of Shrawardine chapel and the wood at Wellington. But the new King could not readily dispense with the services of experienced administrators, even if they had been members of Richard II’s household. Accordingly, on 12 Nov. 1399 Spencer’s annuity of £5 and his £12 p.a. rent from Ford were given royal confirmation, and in the following March he was granted 20 marks yearly at the Exchequer for life, in lieu of the annuity granted him in 1396.5 In neither of these letters patent was Spencer described as ‘clerk’ or ‘King’s clerk’, and it would appear that the deposition of his former sovereign had coincided with a personal decision to abandon the quest for preferment in the Church in favour of a new role as landowner and esquire. This he was to achieve through marriage to a wealthy widow. Spencer’s match with Katherine Burgate probably took place before May 1401, when he was party to a suit brought by the parson of Stonham Aspall, one of the executors of the will of Robert Stonham, her former husband. The full extent of Katherine’s dower lands is unclear, but it is known that in 1409 she and Spencer made a quitclaim to Sir Edmund Thorpe* and his wife of a manor in Stonham Aspall, and that six years later they settled on Robert Stonham* (Katherine’s son) ‘Stonham’s’ in Rattlesden, another manor in Suffolk. From her father, Sir William Burgate, Katherine inherited in 1409 a moiety of the manor of Burgate and lands at Mellis, Thrandeston, Yaxley, Thornham, Gislingham and Rickinghall in the same part of the county, all of which were entailed in 1415 on her issue, with remainder to her nephew, William Rookwood of Stanningfield. Previously, Spencer had also acquired the manor of ‘Haringby’ and property in Stokesby and Runham near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, perhaps owing these, too, to his marriage.6 Meanwhile, he had purchased other valuable estates in Norfolk: in 1402 he had been described as ‘lord of the town of Banham’ when he obtained royal confirmation of a charter of 1338 granting an earlier lord a market and fair there. Of the four manors in Banham—Banham itself, ‘Marshalls’, ‘Greys’ and ‘Beckhall’—he took possession of three and a moiety of the fourth, although for a few years he had to pay a pension to the former owners, Joan, widow of Sir Thomas Felton KG, and Sibyl Felton, abbess of Barking.7
That Spencer was able to make purchases of such value was due to the income he derived from his employment by Henry IV and, more especially, by Henry of Monmouth. He had become a ‘King’s esquire’ by June 1402, and by that date had already been assigned to the prince’s service as his receiver-general and controller of his household, offices which he subsequently shared with his friend, John Wynter*. His devotion to duty won him rewards over and above his official fees: for instance, in April 1403 the prince granted him an annuity of £20 from the issues of the toll booth at Bishop’s Lynn. For the next three months Spencer was busily engaged as paymaster to the military captains enlisted to follow the prince into North Wales: based at Chester from 15 May to 11 June and at Shrewsbury for the following week, he moved on to Harlech before the end of that month, and then, with his own small following of eight archers he most probably saw action at the battle of Shrewsbury under the prince’s banner. In 1404 he was once more in the Welsh marches in Monmouth’s entourage, there being preoccupied with disbursements for the household’s expenses during its stay at Hereford and Leominster.8 Later in Henry IV’s reign Spencer was also occasionally employed by the King’s Council: in March 1408, for example, he and Edward, duke of York, following the Council’s instructions, entered into recognizances to guarantee repayment to John Arnold, a London merchant, of £251 which he had loaned for the wages of the garrison at Fronsac in Guienne. In February 1409 Spencer stood surety at the Exchequer for John Phelip*, another of Prince Henry’s esquires, and later that year he and Hugh Mortimer*, the prince’s chamberlain, were commissioned to investigate the withdrawal of services by the bond tenants on one of Henry’s manors in Hertfordshire. Others in the prince’s employment with whom Spencer was frequently associated included John Rothenale (subsequently controller of Henry’s household) and John Wynter, his receiver-general; and he was also acquainted with Sir Thomas Erpingham, the recipient of a substantial annuity from the prince. Spencer was becoming well known to other members of the East Anglian gentry: in 1409 he was linked with Sir John Ingoldisthorpe* when acting on behalf of Sir William Elmham’s* widow in the sale of her manor of Walsham (Suffolk), and two years later he stood surety in Chancery for Sir William Bardwell* and his sons, who had been accused of a breach of the peace. Such contacts can only have proved useful when he sought election to Parliament for the first time, in October 1411, even though it was to an assembly summoned while Prince Henry and his allies the Beauforts were still in control of the government.9
On 28 Mar. 1413, within a week of Henry V’s accession, Spencer’s annuities (which provided him with an annual income of £50 6s.8d.) received royal confirmation. He was then returned to Henry’s first Parliament, and on 13 June, four days after the close of the session, he secured appointment as one of four custodians of the temporalities of the bishopric of Norwich, pending the elevation to the see of the King’s friend, Richard Courtenay. His fellow keepers were Erpingham, Wynter and John Wodehouse*, men who like him had all been closely connected with the King while he was prince of Wales. Spencer held an important place in the newly organized royal household: described in the accounts of March to October 1413 as ‘cofferer’, on 1 Oct. he secured promotion to the keepership of the wardrobe, an office he was to hold for the rest of his life.10 Spencer received more royal favours in 1415: in January he was accorded for life the Crown’s purparty of the toll booth at Bishop’s Lynn, retaining his £20 annuity from that same source and rendering no more than £3 a year at the Exchequer; and in December he was granted a life annuity of £40 from the issues of the duchy of Lancaster estates in Norfolk. Meanwhile, in November, he had been named again as a keeper of the temporalities of Norwich, following Bishop Courtenay’s death at Harfleur. No firm evidence has been found that he himself had accompanied Henry V on the expedition to Normandy, but it seems likely that he did so, for just before the army embarked he had completed several property transactions as if in preparation for a journey. The substantial annuity granted him in December following the campaign may well have been his reward for service overseas. In his capacity as keeper of the Wardrobe, Spencer obtained a licence in January 1416 to ship grain from Great Yarmouth to Holland. In the following month he was appointed sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, in time to hold the elections to the Parliament summoned for March. (Incidentally, during his term of office he received a present of a young bear from the mayor of Bishop’s Lynn.) In view of his position at Court it is not surprising that he was able to obtain, in May 1417, a royal pardon of £120 still owing on his account for the shrievalty.11
During Henry V’s reign Spencer established connexions of considerable importance. He acted as a trustee of the estates of Elizabeth, widow of Michael de la Pole, 3rd earl of Suffolk, who had met his death at Agincourt, and in May 1417 he stood bail for Richard, Lord Strange of Knockin, when he was released from the Tower of London. In March that same year he had assisted the King’s standard-bearer, the Hainaulter Sir Lewis Robessart, to purchase lands in England from the estate of a former bishop of Norwich. Among the trustees of his own lands, as named two years earlier, were such prominent figures as Sir Simon Felbrigg KG, Sir John Howard* and Sir William Phelip*.12 Spencer died on 7 Aug. 1417.13 In his office as keeper of the Wardrobe he had received many bad assignments and at least £2,700 was owed to him at his death. Katherine, his widow, was his executrix. Evidently suffering from poor health (two years earlier she had obtained, on the advice of her doctors, a papal dispensation permitting her to eat meat on prohibited days and to be excused all fasting), she none the less survived him by at least 20 years. Before the summer of 1423 she married John Tyrell*, the future Speaker, who was destined to rise to be treasurer of Henry VI’s household and so occupy the same high office that her second husband had done. Katherine retained for life the manors which Spencer had acquired at Banham, selling their reversion to Sir Lewis Robessart in 1421; and in 1436 she and