WARD, Robert (d.1405), of York.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
m. 2s. (1 prob. d.v.p.).1
Chamberlain, York 3 Feb. 1376-7; bailiff 1379-80; keeper of the keys of Monkgate by 1380; member of the council of 24 by Feb. 1391-aft. July 1399.2
In so far as the surviving evidence permits a detailed investigation of the commercial activities of York merchants during our period, Ward stands out as one of the busiest and most successful, notable not only for the scale of his involvement in the wool and cloth trades, but also for the diversity of his other interests. He served his apprenticeship with the prominent mercer, Robert Holme† (father of Robert Holme I* and brother of Thomas Holme*), during whose mayoralty, in 1368, he was admitted to the freedom of the city. Relations between him and his former master remained cordial, and in about 1377 they were involved together in lending money to the Crown. In September and November of that year they and their associates were permitted to transport 640 sarplers of wool overseas free of customs as a means of recovering some of the debt.3 Encouraged, no doubt, by such considerations, Ward soon became one of the major exporters of wool from the port of Kingston-upon-Hull, whence he shipped a minimum of 70 sarplers and large quantities of woolfells between October 1378 and the following March alone. Regular consignments ensued: 15 sarplers on one single day in October 1379, 20 sarplers in April 1380, over 29 sarplers between November 1381 and April 1382, 165 sacks and more than 3,000 woolfells in the spring and early summer of 1392, 17 sarplers in November 1396 and some 1,500 fleeces six months later. Like other prominent woolmen, Ward ran the constant risk of heavy losses at sea through piracy or shipwreck, and although he seems to have escaped any major disasters he did occasionally come very close. In February 1388, for example, a cargo of 151 sarplers of wool which he and other merchants were shipping to Middleburg was almost lost because of the incompetence of the crew; and nearly ten years later another consignment of his was salvaged after La Godesgrace split on the rocks off Skegness. Ward’s dealings in wool were matched by his investment in the burgeoning English cloth trade, which, if anything, was even greater. Some idea of the scope of his operations may be gained from the fact that between December 1391 and September 1392 he paid customs duties on various kinds of woollen cloth worth a bare minimum of £80, and that over the year ending September 1395 he presented 65 cloths and 60 ‘dozens’ from his own looms for examination by the alnager of York. On their return journey to Hull, the ships which had exported his cloth and wool to foreign markets carried merchandise as diverse as herring, nails, wine, iron and fruit, as well as woad, alum and madder, some of which may have been purchased for use by his own dyers. Ward transacted a good deal of business with the Hanse ports; and on one occasion a vessel carrying goods of his from Danzig was wrecked near the mouth of the Humber, where the local people, who placed a liberal interpretation on the law relating to salvage, made off with most of the cargo.4
In order to conduct such successful business, Ward must have devoted a substantial proportion of his time and energy to commercial affairs, and although he did not shirk his civic obligations neither was he as assiduous as some members of the mercantile elite in shouldering the burdens of office. He never served as mayor, nor, so far as we can tell, did he aspire to aldermanic rank (for which he was clearly well qualified). Indeed, his single return to Parliament occurred when he was already quite old (around 60) and near retirement. Ward’s preoccupation with costly overseas ventures may also account for the relative paucity of information about his more personal pursuits. He could not, however, avoid becoming embroiled in the factional disputes which divided the citizens of York during the early 1380s, being summoned, along with other important members of the community, to give evidence in May 1381 before the royal council about outbreaks of violence at the time of John Gisburn’s† explusion from the mayoralty. Personal securities of £40 were taken from them all as a guarantee that further disorder would be avoided, although rioting did, in fact, erupt again soon afterwards, and on a far more serious scale. Ward was again required to surrender recognizances to the Crown 16 years later, but this time under very different circumstances. As an outstandingly wealthy resident of York, he had little choice but to enter one of the notorious ‘blank charters’ whereby Richard II sought both to extort money from his more affluent subjects and cow any potential opponents into submission. Ward and an associate were together bound over in (98, payment being demanded of them in April 1398, when the King was at his most powerful. On the whole, however, Ward was remarkably fortunate in avoiding financial problems. He failed in the 1390s to recover debts totalling £16 from two men from Kirkby in Westmorland (from whom he had probably purchased cloth), but given that his imports through Hull on 8 June 1392 alone were worth over four times this amount, the consequences cannot have been too serious. Interestingly enough, Ward does not appear to have invested his profits in property: two fines of 1383 and 1384 respectively record his acquisition of at least one messuage in York, but otherwise he probably husbanded his resources for further speculation in trade.5
Ward may have died suddenly, because he had not yet made a will. Letters of administration were accorded to his son, Thomas, on 9 May 1405, although the latter did not gain admission into the freedom of York for another two or three years. Perhaps he had already outlived his elder brother, John, who had been admitted earlier, in 1403.6
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. Surtees Soc. xcvi. 107-8.
- 2. Ibid. xcvi. 73; cxx. 154, 173, 250; cxxv. 14, 30; clxxxvi. 31; York City Archs. List of Civic Officials ed. Skaife, f. 442.
- 3. Surtees Soc. xcvi. 66; List of Civic Officials, f. 442; CFR, ix. 42; CCR, 1377-81, pp. 31, 60.
- 4. E122/59/2, 5, 7, 18, 23, 24, 26, 159/11; CCR, 1385-9, pp. 377-8; 1396-9, p. 38; CPR, 1391-6, p. 233; Yorks. Arch. Soc. Rec. Ser. lxiv. 10, 11, 13, 15, 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 52, 75-76, 88, 91, 102.
- 5. CCR, 1377-81, pp. 524-5; CPR, 1391-6, pp. 253, 677; 1396-9, p. 363; CP25(1)278/142/47, 143/18; E122/59/23.
- 6. Borthwick Inst. York, York registry wills, iii. f. 234; Surtees Soc. xcvi. 107, 110.