SUTTON, Robert (d.1414), of Lincoln.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
Mayor, Lincoln Sept. 1379-80.2
Mayor of the Boston Staple, Lincs. 1379-80.3
J.p. Lincoln 26 May 1380-c. May 1381, 26 Mar. 1405-c. Mar. 1407.
Commr. of oyer and terminer, Lincs. July 1384 (obstruction of Foss Dyke); inquiry, Lincoln Apr. 1407 (wastes at the hospital of the Holy Innocents), Jan. 1412 (persons liable to contribute to a subsidy).
Collector of the wool custom, Boston 22 May 1385-30 Nov. 1390, tunnage and poundage 28 Nov. 1386-30 Nov. 390.
Dep. to John Slegh, chief butler of England, Boston 1 Nov. 1385.
Collector of a royal loan, Lincs. Sept. 1405.
One of the richest and most influential Lincoln merchants of his day, Sutton first comes to notice in January 1370, when he was pardoned a sentence of outlawry incurred for failing to appear in court to answer charges of trespass laid by one Alice Quadryng. He and his elder brother, John I, were very close and often used the same vessels to ship goods from Boston to Calais. Over the year ending in June 1378, for example, the two men exported large quantities of wool together, and in the previous October Robert had acted as a surety on his brother’s return to Parliament. Most of Sutton’s substantial income derived from the wool trade, although he is to be found dealing in other commodities such as iron and wine as well. His appointment first as mayor of the Staple and then as collector of customs at Boston (two important offices which his brother had previously occupied) clearly gave him a valuable commercial advantage over his rivals, but even after being replaced in 1390 he remained one of the most successful figures in this field, and numerous references survive to emphasize the scope of his activities. Not all of these fell within the law, however, for in both May 1382 and February 1398 he obtained general pardons from the Crown to cover unspecified misdemeanours; and in October 1395 he and his servant, John Maltster, were granted royal letters patent pardoning all illegal and fraudulent transactions in wool. Occasionally, as in April 1406, ships carrying his merchandise were wrecked off the east coast, but these set-backs did not seriously affect his prosperity. Indeed, in the summer of 1404 he was able to join with four other Lincoln merchants in advancing a loan of £200 to the government towards the cost of the Welsh wars.4
Sutton invested a large proportion of his money in property, becoming a notable landowner with messuages, shops and rents worth £32 a year in Lincoln alone, and other estates in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire which, in 1412, were said to produce a further £25 if not more. Some of the latter came to him on the death of his father, in about 1378, when he appears to have shared estates in Willingham, Ownby and Cold Hanworth with his brother. His holdings in the Nottinghamshire townships of Sutton and Mansfield may also have been inherited, but the rest were purchased out of the profits of trade. In addition to his home in Lincoln, he kept a country seat not far away at Burton with a separate staff of servants and a well-stocked farm. He was, moreover, able to exploit his position to acquire land from the mayor and corporation of Lincoln on preferential terms. In May 1383, for instance, he obtained a vacant plot for building purposes from them near the great bridge; and he was subsequently able to extend it by piecemeal leases. In 1385 he paid £5 at the Exchequer for a similar site in the parish of St. Peter Wigford, but his property development had by then begun to annoy the dean and chapter, whose relations with the citizenry were already extremely strained. In July 1386, the ecclesiastical authorities complained that Sutton’s building works not only constituted a major nuisance to their own tenants but that he had actually erected a house in St. Andrew’s churchyard, blocking their right of way. In other respects, however, Sutton was a generous benefactor to the Church, being largely responsible for the maintenance of a chantry at St. Andrew’s which he established in January 1382 and helped to support out of the revenues of a messuage and two shops in the city. His foundation attracted other gifts of property from friends and neighbours and thus became comparatively wealthy.5 It is unlikely that Sutton had the same direct personal interest in the endowment of St. Katherine’s priory near Lincoln where he was instrumental, in 1392, in setting up a chantry dedicated to his fellow merchant Walter Kelby. Yet he did leave the house a bequest of £5 in his will, perhaps because his brother had elected to be buried there. The forfeiture of Sir John Holt, j.c.p., by the Merciless Parliament of 1388 (to which both he and John I were returned) gave him a valuable opportunity to make good the loss of revenues alienated by him to the Church; and in the following July he paid 70 marks for 12 messuages and land which had belonged to the judge in Lincoln and its suburbs. King Richard’s complete recovery of the political initiative a decade later led to Holt’s restoration, and Sutton was obliged to surrender the property as a result. Although probably more to do with commercial ventures than anything else, his second royal pardon of 1398 may also have been sought by him with this in mind.6
From the date of his election as mayor of Lincoln in 1379 Sutton played a notable part in local affairs, and was, indeed, chosen to represent the city in no less than 11 Parliaments. In that of May 1382 (which was only his second) he was nominated by the Lords as one of the 14 merchants asked to ‘treter et communer de lour part et par eux mesme’ with regard to a royal loan. On two further occasions, in 1397 (Jan.) and 1399, he was responsible for the presentation to the House of Commons of petitions for the reduction of the city’s fee farm, but both appeals were referred to committees and nothing further was done. Meanwhile, during his mayoralty, Sutton faced the problem of raising £100 to cover the cost of the construction of a balinger (or sloop) for the King, and was eventually obliged to take two of the defaulters to court. As we have seen, his own dealings with the dean and chapter were far from cordial, and he inevitably became drawn into the wider struggle between the civic and ecclesiastical authorities over the exercise of their respective jurisdictions. In March 1390 he was bound over in the unusually heavy sum of 500 marks (the average being 100 marks) to keep the peace and stay away from the cathedral. Whether the size of his pledge was dictated by his wealth or the violence of his behaviour we shall never know, but he was implicated at this time in a similar conflict between the citizenry and John of Gaunt, the keeper of Lincoln castle. Interestingly enough, he and his brother had together witnessed a deed in 1388 for Gaunt’s mistress, Katherine Swynford (who was equally unpopular in the city), but this seems to have been little more than a formality. Although Sutton was henceforward obliged to show constraint towards the dean and chapter, his servants recognized no such restrictions, and in 1395 two of them appeared before the bench for maliciously wounding the dean’s employees.7
As might be expected of a man with so many financial and territorial interests, Sutton was often involved in litigation. During the Michaelmas term of 1392, for example, Thomas Mapperley* was indicted on a charge of attempting to ambush him twice, at both Mansfield and Sherwood, while he was on his way from Lincoln to Nottingham on business in the previous autumn. At some point before March 1395 Sutton also sued two local women for averring threats, albeit with no apparent success. It was during this period that he found himself in trouble for a breach of the Statute of Labourers, since he had been prepared to recruit workmen by paying higher wages than the law allowed. In both March 1397 and April 1407 he went to law to recover debts of, respectively, £4 and £20; and in about 1399 he became embroiled in a serious and probably violent quarrel with the Nottinghamshire landowner, John Pigot. In personal terms, however, the most unpleasant of his lawsuits was with his nephew, John Sutton, whom he arraigned in February 1398 on an assize of novel disseisin at Lincoln. Notwithstanding the fact that his claim to his late brother’s land in and and around Willingham had been ruled out of court, he continued to intimidate the young man, and in the following December a group of Lincoln merchants (including Thomas Forster II*) were called upon to guarantee his future good conduct. Sutton was a party to two or more other property disputes, the first of which concerned the manor of Holme and was decided in his favour during the spring of 1407. He and his friend, Robert Walsh*, lost the second shortly afterwards, and sustained damages of £5 for a wrongful eviction. Not long before his death he appears to have been engaged in an unspecified action against the guild of the Blessed Virgin in Lincoln, to which he left five marks on the condition that they dropped further proceedings.8 Rather less is known