SWINBURNE, Sir Robert (c.1327-1391), of Swinburn and Gunnerton, Northumb. and Little Horkesley, Essex.
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Family and Education
b.c.1327, s. and h. of Thomas Swinburne (d. bef. 1332) of Gunnerton. m. (1) bef. Aug. 1357, Agnes (d. bef. 1367), da. of Sir William Felton† (d.1358) of Edlingham, Northumb. by his 1st w. and sis. of Sir William Felton (d.1367), 1s. Sir Thomas*, 1da.; (2) bef. Nov. 1372, Joan (d. 4 Mar. 1433), da. of John, s. of Sir John Boutourt of Gestingthorpe and Belchamp Otton, Essex, by Joan, da. of Sir John Gernoun of Bakewell, Derbys., coh. of her maternal gdfa., 4s. inc. William*, 2da. Kntd. by Apr. 1356.
Commr. of array, Essex July 1377, July 1381, Apr. 1385, May 1386; to defend Harwich, Essex July 1377; of gaol delivery, Colchester castle Aug. 1378; arrest, Suff. Oct. 1379; oyer and terminer, Essex Oct. 1380; to put down rebellion Dec. 1381, Mar., Dec. 1382; be one of the principal captains to resist the French, s. Eng. July 1385; defend and fortify Orwell, Suff. Sept. 1386; of inquiry May 1391 (treasons and felonies).
Tax surveyor, Essex Aug. 1379; collector Dec. 1384.
J.p. Essex 18 Feb. 1386-Nov. 1389.
Sheriff, Essex and Herts. 1 Dec. 1388-30 Jan. 1389.
The Swinburnes were an important Northumbrian family, seated at Chollerton. Sizeable estates fell to the senior branch, dwelling at Capheaton, while a cadet branch (from which our MP was descended) held Gunnerton and property at Little Swinburn. When his grandfather, Sir Robert Swinburne, died in 1326 he left besides these properties the manors of Knarsdale in Tyndale and Chirdon, in the same shire, Askham in Westmorland and Newbiggin in Cumberland, as well as another, far away in the south-west of England near Dursley (Gloucestershire). Furthermore, Sir Robert had purchased the reversion of the manors of Wiston (Suffolk) and Little Horkesley and the advowson of Horkesley priory (Essex), whichin due course fell to his descendants.1 By 1332 Robert, then aged five, was the heir to all these estates. His mother died in 1341 and when, seven years later, he petitioned for livery of his inheritance, he apparently secured all but the manor in Gloucestershire, which was the subject of litigation. His first marriage, to Agnes Felton, was perhaps arranged by John, Lord Darcy, in whose wardship he spent his youth.2 Agnes came from another influential northern family, being the daughter of a former constable of Roxburgh castle. When her brother, Sir William Felton, died childless in Spain in 1369 she was already dead, and accordingly the heirs-general to the Felton estates were her young son, Thomas Swinburne, and her nephew William, son of Robert, Lord Hilton, although the heir in strict male descent was her half-brother, Sir John Felton*, who challenged the settlement of the estates at law and ultimately secured the more valuable of them. However, in 1368 Sir Robert Swinburne obtained custody of part of his son’s inheritance in Northumberland, and after Thomas came of age he assisted him in dealings with his cousin, who had by then succeeded to the barony of Hilton, over the Felton properties in London.3
Swinburne’s second marriage brought him more permanent benefits and consolidated his landed interests in Essex, where he chose to spend most of his active life. The families of Swinburne and Boutourt had long been connected, and as early as 1361 Swinburne was recorded in association with his future wife’s grandfathers, Sir John Boutourt and Sir John Gernoun. By 1373 she, Joan, had inherited the Boutourt manors of Gosfield, Belchamp Walter and Gestingthorpe, while those of Belchamp Orton and Ovington were to fall to her later, on the death of her grandfather’s widow. Even more substantial estates were to accrue to the Swinburnes when Gernoun died in 1384, for Joan was his coheir (with her aunt Margaret, wife of Sir John Peyton), and her share included Bakewell in Derbyshire, Rippingale and two other manors in Lincolnshire, Weston Colville in Cambridgeshire, ‘Gernones’ and lands at Fordham, Bergholt and elsewhere in Essex, and an interest in the advowson of Benefield, Northamptonshire. In 1412 the properties pertaining to Joan’s inheritance in Cambridgeshire were said to have an annual worth £20, those in Derbyshire of Essex £40, but these were all clearly undervalued and no assessments have survived for her holdings in other counties.4 It must suffice to say that Swinburne’s second marriage made him a wealthy man. And to these widespread estates he added yet more: Duxford (Cambridgeshire) came to him from his uncle, Sir Adam Swinburne, and East Mersea and Harborough in Messing (Essex) were purchased in 1386.5
Swinburne made a career in the profession of arms. In 1355 he took part in the Black Prince’s expedition to Gascony, which culminated two years later at Poitiers, and it was while overseas that he was knighted. (His subsequent dealings with Mary de St. Pol, dowager countess of Pembroke, involving bonds in large sums of money, may well have been connected with ransoms of prisoners taken on that campaign.) And he saw further military service abroad in 1366 and 1369.6 Such experience was put to use by the government at home in the early years of Richard II’s reign, Swinburne then being named on several commissions of array in Essex, and being entrusted with the defence of Harwich. In March 1380 he took out letters patent of exemption from appointment to royal office against his will, but this did not prevent his being required to help restore order in the south-east in the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt. It had been in that uprising that Swinburne’s friend, the chief justice Sir John Cavendish, was slain at Bury St. Edmunds; and he and his son-in-law, John Rookwood, now took on the executorship of his will. Swinburne’s most important task came in the summer of 1385 when he was named as one of the ‘principal captains and leaders of men-at-arms’ delegated to take charge of the defence of the south of England while the King was away with an army in the north. Then, in September 1386, he was ordered to commandeer workmen for the fortification of Orwell, following reports that the French forces were intending to land there, and to keep in close communication with certain knights of the King’s chamber who had been appointed to survey the port.7
Swinburne acted as a feoffee of the lands in Essex and Suffolk belonging to his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Cornard, and often assisted him in financial transactions. A more important connexion was that formed by 1377 with Walter, 3rd Lord Fitzwalter, whom he also served as a trustee of estates in Essex and elsewhere. In 1379 Fitzwalter made a grant to him and Sir Thomas Percy for term of their lives in survivorship of the manor and advowson of Great Tey, and he was Swinburne’s co-feoffee when, about five years later, they sold the former Gernoun manor of Abington (Northamptonshire) to Sir Nicholas Lilling*. Lord Fitzwalter was an adherent of Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and so, too, were several other of Swinburne’s closest associates and feoffees of his own estates (such as Sir Richard Waldegrave*, John Doreward*, Thomas Lampet and John Boys). But no record of a personal connexion between Sir Robert himself and the duke has been discovered, and it should be noted that although he was appointed sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire in December 1388 (when Gloucester and his fellow Lords Appellant were still in control of the government), he was replaced a mere two months later ‘for particular causes’. Then, too, the removal of his eldest son, Sir Thomas, from the constableship of Roxburgh a few months earlier, had probably occurred because of his connexions at Richard II’s court.8 Nevertheless, Sir Robert was kept on as a j.p. and it was while the Appellants were in power that he successfully obtained from the Exchequer a grant of the wardship of lands in Norfolk and Suffolk belonging to the late Sir Thomas Loudham. And there are no signs that he was ever in Richard II’s favour. Indeed, in November 1390, after Richard had regained the initiative in government, one of Swinburne’s counsellors, a man named John Rokele, was imprisoned in the Tower and held for examination by the King’s Council. Rokele’s arrest had been deemed expedient owing to the violence of the dispute between him and the abbot of St. Osyth, a matter closely bound up with Swinburne’s own quarrel with members of the de la Mare family over the details of his purchase of their manor of East Mersea. That same month Sir Robert agreed to pay Alice de la Mare 360 marks as compensation, but she nevertheless, petitioned the Parliament of 1391 about her grievances.9
Swinburne died on 6 Oct. 1391, shortly before that Parliament assembled. He was buried in Little Horkesley priory church, in an altar tomb which his son, William, ordered to be built on the model of the royal tombs in Westminster abbey. Magnificent brasses depicting Sir Robert and his eldest son, Sir Thomas, yet survive.10 Swinburne’s widow outlived him by 42 years, eventlually dying in 1433. She apparently never remarried, and had to face alone both the hostility of her stepson Sir Thomas, who tried to oust her from the Swinburne estates by force, and the trouble of litigation over her own Boutourt and Gernoun inheritances. Although Sir Robert left five sons they all died before his widow and without issue (Sir Thomas in 1412, Geoffrey a few years later, Andrew in 1418, William in 1422 and John in 1430), so in 1433 the heirs to the Swinburne estates were his daughter Alice, wife of John Helion of Bumpstead Helion, and his grand daughter Katherine Berners, wife of Sir Thomas Fynderne† of Carlton, Cambridgeshire.11