WELLES, John III (d.1442), of London.
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Family and Education
s. and h. of John Welles† (d.c.1384), of Norwich, Norf. by his w. Isabel. m. by Dec. 1415, Margery, wid. of John Osbarn (d. by Sept. 1403), of London, fishmonger, and Henry Halton* (d.1415), of London, grocer, s.p.2
Sheriff, London and Mdx. Mich. 1420-1.
Master of the Grocers’ Co. July 1426-7, 1429-31, 1434-6, May 1441-2; warden July 1431-2.5
Commr. of inquiry, London Oct. 1432; oyer and terminer Oct. 1433, Oct., Nov. 1434, Jan. 1442; to distribute a subsidy allowance Dec. 1433, Feb. 1434.
Ambassador to treat for a truce with the envoys of John V, duke of Brittany, 24 Mar. 1433.6
Keeper and escheator of Norwich 15 July-29 Nov. 1437.7
John Welles, ‘the nobylle Aldyrman, and sumtyme Mayre of London’, came originally from Norwich, and was, indeed, baptized in the local church of St. George Muspole, where his father was a leading parishioner. On drawing up his will in March 1384 (some three years after he was returned to Parliament by his fellow citizens), John Welles the elder promised his young son the ownership of certain property in Norwich once he reached the age of 20, while also confirming him in the reversion of a messuage which constituted his mother’s jointure. The family appears to have been well-connected: our Member was certainly related to the wealthy Norfolk landowner, Sir Henry Inglose†, with whom he kept on close terms until his death, and more distantly to Sir John Fastolf of Caister, in whose affairs he was destined to play such a prominent part. The Thomas Fastolf described as a kinsman in his will was most probably the Ipswich merchant, who, in 1445, was made executor to Sir John’s cousin, John Fastolf of Oulton. These personal ties help to explain Welles’s appointment as keeper of Norwich in 1437, for although most of his adult life was spent in London, there can be no doubt of his continuing interest in East Anglian affairs.8
By 1412 Welles enjoyed an income of about £10 a year from the property which he had acquired in London, presumably through trade as a grocer. In July 1415 he and another member of his livery company were suing one of their fellow merchants for debt; and it was at about this time that he supplied the Earl Marshal with cloth worth £312 for use on King Henry’s first expedition to France.9 In the following February Welles himself acknowledged a joint debt of £764 payable to the chamberlain of London on behalf of the children of the late Henry Halton, whose widow he had already married. This was an extremely profitable match, for Margery Halton had not only been confirmed as life tenant of her late husband’s extensive London property, but also owned land in Lewisham, Kent, and was sure of a jointure from her first husband, John Osbarn, a wealthy fishmonger. Soon after their marriage, Welles settled his wife’s estate upon a group of his own feoffees. In February 1419 he obtained custody of Halton’s six children and their patrimony, being able eventually to sell the reversion of their entire inheritance for his own profit, since they all died without issue.10 Meanwhile, in July 1416, he appeared as a juror in a case of slander being heard before the court of the mayor of London; and shortly afterwards he offered sureties to the mayor and chamberlain for John Bacoun, one of his business associates. Although he had not yet held office in the City, Welles obviously enjoyed the respect and confidence of those who did, and by the time of his first return to Parliament in 1417 he had already established himself firmly in mercantile circles. It was as one of the executors of Richard Herry, a mercer, that he delivered £310 to Thomas and Idonea Chippenham in February 1417, but the £20 advanced by him towards the cost of Henry V’s second invasion of France four months later clearly came from his own coffers. Repayment of this loan was made a charge upon the London wool custom at some point after February 1420, while a second sum of £130 borrowed by the Crown from Welles and several others before August 1426 appears to have been repaid out of the wine subsidy within a matter of months.11
The triumphant entry of Henry V and his queen into London in February 1421 took place during Welles’s term as sheriff, and the Grocers’ Company spared no expense in providing him with a suitable retinue. Over £32 alone was spent on hoods and liveries for members riding in his entourage, which must have been both large and impressive. If he was not then one of the most powerful men in London, he soon achieved that goal; not even the charges of negligence levelled against him for allowing a prisoner to escape from Newgate during his period in office seem to have had any effect upon his rising fortune. His routine business activities and involvement in the affairs of others continued very much as before. In June 1421, for example, he stood surety for Nicholas Tunwell, a grocer about to take on the guardianship of two young children, and one year later he obtained a formal conveyance of all Tunwell’s goods and chattels, presumably with authority to act as his trustee.12 Welles was often present at the parliamentary elections held in the City, and over the years 1419 to 1442 he helped to choose London’s representatives on at least seven occasions. His financial position was improving from year to year and his standing in the world of commerce had never been higher. Thus, between December 1424 and March 1428, he acted as an arbitrator in six disputes submitted to the court of aldermen, while also agreeing to examine certain accounts which came before the court as evidence. Furthermore, in 1425 the Hanseatic merchants trading in England named him as one of the men they preferred to have assigned to them as judges in mercantile cases.13 Two years later, during the first of his six terms as master of the Grocers’ Company, Welles presided over the laying of the foundation stone of the new Grocers’ Hall in Coneyhope Lane, and in November 1429 he acquired an inn in the Old Jewry for the Company’s use. He also at this time bought ‘an olde voyde house that was vyntyled (untiled)’ from the Grocers for £7, presumably intending to rebuild it and let it at a profit. In May 1431 Welles joined with three other eminent Londoners to give and take securities for an advance of £2,000 made to the King out of the forthcoming clerical subsidy.14
Welles’s commercial interests were not confined to the grocery trade, lucrative though it was. The extent of his undertakings as a financial agent or broker for English captains fighting in France, among whom Sir John Fastolf now serves as the most notable example, remains unknown, but he evidently derived a considerable proportion of his income from that quarter. The ransom money and profits of war shipped to him from overseas generally took the form of long-term loans, recoverable at some unspecified date, upon which he paid the customary interest of 5% a year. The capital was meanwhile his to ‘merchandise with’ or invest as he saw fit, and he appears to have done so with great success. Fastolf certainly had a high opinion of his business acumen, and ‘as one of thaym that he moost trusted too’ remitted to him ‘dyuers tymys certeyn sommez of goold by the handys of Lombardys and dyuers othyrs straunge personys and also by the handyz of dyuers seruantz’ to hold to his own use. In January 1426, for instance, Fastolf gave instructions for 8,000 gold crowns to be forwarded from France jointly to Welles and one of his own officials; and in April 1430 a further 500 marks were sent on to the two men by Sir John’s Italian bankers. Other substantial sums were entrusted to Welles between 1427 and 1436, there being some doubt as to whether everything had been repaid by the time of his death. Fastolf, ever suspicious of those with whom he did business, was convinced that the former mayor had died heavily in his debt, but lacked the necessary proof. While ready to assert in private that Welles had retained the ‘grete good’ which he owed, he contented himself in public by demanding a thorough examination of his late agent’s accounts. Persistent to the end, he even made provision in his will for an inquiry into Welles’s affairs. The latter had been far more than a mere receiver of money on Sir John’s behalf, having, from 1433 onwards, if not before, been involved in his property transactions, as well. During the Trinity term of that year, Fastolf acquired the two Norfolk manors of Hellesdon and Drayton, naming Welles, together with Sir Henry Inglose and John Kirtling, his receiver-general, as feoffees. Some months later, Fastolf, Welles, Inglose and three others obtained letters of attorney from Elizabeth Fitzhenry with permission to collect rents worth 20 marks a year from Dowgate Ward, London, although the reason for this is not disclosed. Shortly before his death, Welles himself made an enfeoffment of his wife’s property in Lewisham upon a group of close friends, including Fastolf, which suggests that their relations remained superficially cordial to the end.15
It is now impossible to calculate the size of an income derived from so many different and often unpredictable sources. Welles’s election as mayor of London in October 1431 serves, however, as a reminder of the great wealth and status and the reputation for personal magnificence which were already his. On returning from France in February 1432, the young Henry VI was met outside the City, according to John Stow, by a large deputation of Londoners with Welles, the mayor, at their head,
in Crimson veluet, a great veluet hat furred, a girdle of golde aboute his middle, and a Bawdrike of gold about his necke trilling down behind him, his three Henxemen, on three great coursers following him.16
This ostentatious display may in part have been financed out of his revenues as a landlord, for over the years he had built up a sizeable estate, both in and out of London. Like Sir John Fastolf, Welles was anxious to invest his surplus capital in property. Assessed at £40 a year in the tax returns of 1436, his clear income from land may well have been far higher, since most of the estimates made at this time tended to undervalue the holdings concerned. Moreover, Welles is known to have conveyed a messuage and its appurtenances in Norwich to Edmund Dumpyng and his father six years before, and had perhaps by then sold off most of his original inheritance for investment elsewhere.17
Our Member’s appointment as keeper of Norwich in July 1437 was an emergency measure intended to restore order after a long period of civic disturbance, during which the machinery of local government had virtually ground to a halt. Given the need for a strong hand capable of reconciling, or at least restraining, the rival factions responsible for this crisis, Welles was the ideal choice, and proved a ‘ful notable and worthy warden’. The cost of keeping him in office was too great, however, and after a heated discussion among the members of the royal council his period of rule was officially terminated at the end of November. He remained in Norwich until the following March to supervise the formalities of peacemaking and the restoration of civic liberties, having, it appears, more influence over the local authorities than any of the other crown commissioners sent to tackle the problem.18 Welles remained active until his death four years later: he served on a number of committees set up by the rulers of London, and in March 1440 he became a guardian of the common seal of the city. He sustained what were evidently quite serious losses during the winter months of 1439 and 1441 because of piracy in the Channel, although his will, drawn up on 7 June 1442, is proof enough of his continued prosperity.19 Besides the quantities of plate, jewellery, clothing, books and armour left to friends and servants, he made provision for over £500 to be spent on various bequests, mostly of a public or charitable nature. The former mayor naturally showed a great sense of civic pride, and set aside substantial sums for projects such as the repair of London bridge, improvements to the high road leading past the Savoy and the erection of a new standard and conduit at West Cheap, where he had been an alderman for the previous six years. His personal involvement in the building of the new Guildhall chapel, which he had recently helped to supervise, found expression in a particularly generous gift of money not recorded in his will. At the beginning of September 1442 his executors undertook to construct the great east window, a presbytery, two niches for images and an altar with marble steps in the chapel: according to Stow, they also built an elaborate tomb for him there, although he had already arranged to be buried in the Grocers’ church of St. Anthony.20
Thomas Knolles†, John Chichele, and Welles’s other executors faced many problems over the following years, not least being the repeated demands of Sir John Fastolf for the repayment of his supposed debts, and a suit in Chancery brought against them by one of Welles’s own disgruntled servants. They had also been instructed to sell the manor of Shippenham in Kent and land in five London parishes as a means of financing these various building schemes, but only two sales—both of his wife’s property—are known to have been completed. Even so, it was largely through their efforts that Welles gained his posthumous reputation as a great builder and benefactor of the City.21
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. Cal. Letter Bk. London, K, 12.
- 2. Ibid. I, 26, 203; Reg. Chichele, ii. 616; Corporation of London RO, hr 144/51; Norf. RO, Norwich enrolments 14 m. 19d.
- 3. Corporation of London RO, jnl. 1, f. 21.
- 4. Beaven, Aldermen, i. 100, 168; Cal. Letter Bk. London, I, 261, 273; K, 1, 14, 32, 44-45, 54, 63, 123-4.
- 5. W.W. Grantham, Wardens Grocers’ Company, 9-10. It is possible that Welles was also warden of the Company over the year ending July 1417. No accounts have survived for this year, but a reference made shortly afterwards to ‘nostre dyner en le tempz de John Wellys et John Checheley’ suggests that the two men were then in office (Ms. Archs. Grocers’ Company ed. Kingdon, i. 126).
- 6. Rot. Gasc. et Franc. ed. Carte, ii. 279.
- 7. PPC, v. pp. xxiv, 45, 76.
- 8. Colls. Citizen London (Cam. Soc. n.s. xvii), 184; Reg. Chichele, ii. 615-20; K.B. McFarlane, ‘The Investment of Sir John Fastolf’s Profits of War’, TRHS, ser. 5, vii. 99-100; Norf. RO, Norwich enrolments 14 m. 19d.
- 9. Arch. Jnl. xliv. 61; CPR, 1413-16, p. 313; R.E. Archer, ‘The Mowbrays’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1984), 244.
- 10. Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, p. 47; Corporation of London RO, hr 143/50, 144/51, 159/54, 56, 162/58-59; CP25(1)113/286/192. See Halton’s biography for more precise details of the property acquired by John Welles in 1415. The latter also had interests in the London parish of All Hallows Barking, but the nature of his title remains unclear (Corporation of London RO, hpl 156, Monday aft. feast St. John ante portam latinam, 11 Hen. VI; hcp 157, Monday aft. feast St. Martin in hyeme, 12 Hen. VI).
- 11. Cal. Letter Bk. London, I, 172, 180; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, p. 55; CPR, 1416-22, pp. 234-5; 1422-9, pp. 318-19.
- 12. Ms. Archs. Grocers’ Company, i. 136-7; SC8/149/7446; Cal. Letter Bk. London, I, 254; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, p. 207.
- 13. C219/12/3, 6, 14/1-3, 15/1, 2; Corporation of London RO, jnl. 2, ff. 17, 29d, 34d, 37d, 84, 90d, 92d; RP, iv. 303.
- 14. E404/47/320; Ms. Archs. Grocers’ Company, i. 163, ii. 202; CPR, 1429-36, p. 78; Corporation of London RO, hr 157/8, 160/3, 44.
- 15. McFarlane, 95-100; Paston Letters ed. Gairdner, i. 454-5; CP25(1)169/181/88; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-17, p. 274; CCR, 1444-7, p. 226.