THORNBURY, alias WENLOCK, Sir John (d.1396), of Little Munden and Bygrave, Herts.
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Family and Education
J.p. Herts. 16 Feb. 1384-Dec. 1390, 27 Nov. 1391-Feb. 1392.
Commr. of oyer and terminer Mar., Apr., May, June 1385 (cases in the ct. of the constable of England), May 1392 (case in the ct. of the admiral of England), July 1393 (the bp. of Norwich’s appeal against a verdict in the constable’s ct.); array, Herts. Apr. 1385, Mar. 1392; to remove the recs. of ct. of c.p. from London to York May 1392.
Sheriff, Essex and Herts. 7 Nov.-18 Dec. 1393.
Nothing is known about Thornbury’s early life or background, although since his son, Sir Philip, was claimed as a kinsman by Thomas Field, dean of Hereford (d.1419), we may reasonably assume that he was related not only to this influential royal clerk and diplomat, but also, albeit distantly, to the latter’s even more distinguished uncle, John Prophet, clerk of the Council to Richard II. The MP certainly spent his youth in some part of the Welsh marches. The alias of Wenlock by which he was known as late as 1380 suggests that he may have come originally from Shropshire. On the other hand, the possibility of some family connexion with the Gloucestershire town of Thornbury is borne out by later references to him as a resident of the diocese of Worcester, within which Thornbury lay.2 Lack of prospects at home probably led him to seize the opportunity for success abroad offered to so many landless young men by the Hundred Years’ War, and it was through his skills in the field that he was subsequently able to establish himself as a landowner and leading member of Hertfordshire society. Having gained a considerable amount of military experience on campaigns against the French, he hired out his services as a mercenary captain to the Avignon papacy, which since 1369 had been at war with the Visconti family of Milan.
Although somewhat overshadowed by his more colourful compatriot, Sir John Hawkwood, Thornbury clearly stood high in the esteem of Gregory XI, whose lavish praise of his ‘strenuous labours’ against ‘the damned, pestiferous and cruel tyrants’ was, even so, offset by a marked reluctance to settle any outstanding accounts. From the time of his enlistment in the papal army, which occurred well before January 1373, until he returned to England with a knighthood some four years later, Sir John found it increasingly difficult to secure payment for himself and his men. By June 1373 he had become a marshal of the English forces in Italy, but despite the frequent promises of remuneration made to him during the course of important expeditions to Piacenza and Parma and other missions of a highly confidential nature, no rewards were forthcoming. By April 1375 his troops were beginning to lose the ‘filial patience’ so strongly enjoined upon them by the Pope: the threat of wholesale desertion produced its desired effect, and in the following June Sir John was granted the castle of Montalto and its appurtenances in Ancona. Dissatisfaction with his paymasters at the Curia may have led him to abandon the life of a mercenary. He was back in England by the spring of 1377 when his first action was to secure royal letters of pardon and thus insure himself against the consequences of his somewhat irregular conduct overseas. At least 15,625 florins were then still due to him for services in the Romagna, as well as a further 11,700 florins which he claimed in compensation for spoils surrendered by him and his troops. A substantial amount of the former sum was assigned to him directly from the papal revenues collected in England (where he obtained priority over other creditors), but Pope Gregory refused to honour the other debt without submitting the matter to arbitration. Sir John was also owed money by other English soldiers, such as Philip, younger son of Roger, Lord Beauchamp of Bletsoe. The latter’s will of December 1379 made specific provision for the discharge of certain obligations by which the young man ‘was bound to a knight in Lombardy named Sir John Thornbury’.3
Yet whatever his problems in this respect, Sir John did not lose either financially or otherwise as a result of his Italian venture. Not long after his return, he made a compact with the King’s yeoman, William Gold, who appears to have been his companion-in-arms in the papal army, whereby the survivor of their partnership was to receive one third of the other’s goods. Since Sir John died a few months after his friend, neither party benefited from the arrangement, but his executors went to law for the recovery of an estate worth 4,200 marks, most of which was eventually handed over to them by Gold’s Italian agents.4 We may be fairly certain that Sir John’s financial position was at least as sound as Gold’s, and that the major part of his fortune was acquired during his years abroad. A further insight into his eventful military career derives from the royal letters patent accorded to him in April 1380, granting a second, far more specific pardon for
all seditions, adhesions to the King’s enemies and favour shown them, within or without England, captures or deliveries of towns, castles and fortresses without licence, breaches of truces and safe conducts, sales of castles, cities, etc., in England, France, Brittany and Gascony, violations of the King’s Seal, and all other offences against the Crown and the Common Law or in the King’s wars and for all captures of ships on the high seas and in port in time of truce.5
This date marks a significant turning point in Thornbury’s life, for he had by then decided to purchase estates in Hertfordshire and involve himself in the affairs of the local community. His reasons for leaving the diocese of Worcester (where he had been living since his return from Italy) are now obscure; but by the end of 1380 he had acquired the manor and advowson of Little Munden, together with land at Watton-at-Stone and Bennington. He subsequently bought a knight’s fee at Pillerton; and in 1383 Sir Alexander Walden* sold him his manor of Bygrave, perhaps reluctantly, for one of his relatives had been murdered there not long before. After this date, Sir John was content simply to consolidate his property: he obtained a grant of certain franchises at Little Munden from Richard II in 1385 and in the following year received permission from the King to crenellate two of his houses at Bygrave.6 Possibly as a result of his move to Hertfordshire, where the influence of the duchy of Lancaster was particularly strong, Sir John became a retainer of John of Gaunt, who engaged him by indentures of November 1380 to serve in both peace and war. Yet his days as a soldier seem already to have come to an end. Despite the award one year later of royal letters patent exempting him from a wide range of official duties, Sir John represented Hertfordshire in at least five Parliaments from May 1382 onwards, and spent over six years on the local bench.7 He soon began to participate in the affairs of his neighbours, witnessing a number of local deeds (most notably with Sir Edward Benstede*, who was to marry one of his daughters), and, in June 1385, acting as a feoffee-to-uses for Thomas Boys, lord of Great Munden. Three years later he successfully intervened to obtain a royal pardon for a resident of Great Munden accused of murder. In the following July he joined with a group of influential Essex and Hertfordshire landowners in purchasing the manor of Sacombe, which had been temporarily forfeited by Sir John Holt. It was at this time that he offered sureties of 200 marks to the King’s secretary, John Lincoln, but there is no means of telling if the two transactions were connected. Sir John also maintained links with Warwickshire, for as well as marrying his other daughter to William Peyto of Chesterton, he agreed in December 1389 to stand surety in Chancery for Thomas Wonecote who lived at Bevington in the same county.8
Until the very end of his life, Thornbury was able to profit from his wide range of military experience, being appointed to various commissions of oyer and terminer set up to examine appeals in the courts of the admiral and constable of England. By November 1388, he had risen to become a knight of the body to Richard II, and presumably sat as such in the Parliaments of 1390 (Jan.) and 1391.9 His part in the removal of legal records from London to York, which was effected during Richard’s momentous quarrel with the City in 1392, shows him to have been a trusted servant of the Crown, although he was never singled out for particular marks of royal favour. Pressing commitments at Court may, none the less, explain why, in November 1393, he took on a long lease of property in the parish of St. John Zachary, London, for which he paid an annual rent of eight marks. Sir John’s wife, Naverina, seems to have been Italian, and it was perhaps through her influence that he kept up some of the earlier connexions of his mercenary days. These occasionally proved useful. In 1382, for instance, the abbot of Coggeshall in Essex granted him and two colleagues an annuity of ten marks in return for the expenses they had incurred in Rome while helping to acquire the rectory of Childerworth for the abbey. Eight years later, the Lombard merchant, Ghinus de Guynes, was involved in a minor financial transaction with our Member, to whom he made a letter of exchange of five marks. Of rather more significance is Sir John’s offer of sureties totalling 100 marks for the Florentine goldsmith, Nanfre Molakyn, on his appointment as master of the Mints at London and Calais. The Luccan attorney, Balduche Parghia, who represented the recently widowed Naverina in her lawsuit against the creditors of William Gold, probably had previous dealings with Thornbury, but it is now impossible to discover the extent of his continuing interests in Italy.10
Sir John died not long before 4 Sept. 1396 and was buried in the church of Little Munden. He left only one son, Sir Philip, although the Thomas Thornbury who served on the Hertfordshire bench between 1392 and 1394 may also have been one of his children. Both his daughters were called Joan, and are thus easily confused. One (d. 1418) married successively William Peyto, John Knightley* and Sir Robert Corbet, Sir John’s colleague in the Parliament of 1385. The second (d.1449) had two husbands, William Greville of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, and Sir Edward Benstede.11
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Variants: Thornebury, Tornberi. For Italian variants of Thornbury’s name see CPL, iv. 619.
- 1. CAD, ii. B2571; Cal. P. and M. London, 1381-1412, pp. 253-5; CPL, iv. 120, 122; C139/138/20.
- 2. J. H. Wylie, Hen. V, i. 92; CPR, 1377-81, p. 484; Biog. Reg. Univ. Oxf. ed. Emden, ii. 682-3; iii. 1521-3; CPL, iv. 158-9.
- 3. CPL, iv. 120, 122, 124-5, 129, 132-3, 136, 143, 146-7, 154, 158-60, 206, 209; Early Lincoln Wills. ed. Gibbons, 29; C67/28B m. 13.
- 4. Cal. P. and M. London, 1381-1412, pp. 253-5; CPR, 1385-9, p. 53; 1391-6, pp. 470, 508, 514, 632-3.
- 5. CPR, 1377-81, p. 484.
- 6. CAD, ii. B2568, 2574, 2576; iii. D538, 636; VCH Herts. iii. 130, 214; CPR, 1381-5, p. 55; 1385-9, p. 235; CChR, v. 301; CCR, 1385-9, p. 68; 1389-92, p. 153; 1402-5, p. 73; H. Chauncy, Herts. i. 91.
- 7. Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, pp. 8, 18; CPR, 1381-5, p. 55.
- 8. CCR, 1385-9, pp. 603, 643; 1389-92, pp. 72-73, 102, 150, 344, 350-1; CPR, 1385-9, p. 535; 1388-92, pp. 79-80; E326/4391; Corporation of London RO, hr 114/14, 20.
- 9. CPR, 1385-9, p. 535.
- 10. VCH Essex, ii. 126; CPR, 1381-5, pp. 465-6; CCR, 1392-6, pp. 472, 542; Cal. P. and M. London, 1381-1412, pp. 253-5; Corporation of London RO, hr 122/53.
- 11. VCH Herts. iii. 134; CAD, ii. B2569, 2571; CPR, 1388-92, p. 526.