WENSLEY, Sir Thomas (d.1403), of Wensley, Derbys.
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Family and Education
s. and h. of Roger Wensley of Wensley. m. 1s. illegit. Kntd. between Nov. 1382 and Nov. 1384.1
Collector of a tax, Derbys. Nov. 1377, Dec. 1384; assessor May 1379.
Commr. to suppress the insurgents, Derbys. Dec. 1381, Mar., Dec. 1382; of inquiry Mar. 1384 (attacks on the servants of the King’s mother at Chesterfield), Nov. 1390 (rights of way at Baslow), Feb. 1392, May 1395 (illegal use of dogs and ferrets), Cheshire Nov. 1399 (cattle thefts at Macclesfield); array, Derbys. Aug. 1384,2 June 1388, Mar. 1392, Dec. 1399, Aug. 1402; oyer and terminer Nov. 1387 (attacks on the property of John of Gaunt); to make arrests Feb. 1388 (persons charged with damaging Gaunt’s property), Derbys., Yorks. June 1402; enforce the statute on weirs and kiddles, Derbys. June 1398; prevent the spread of treasonous rumours May 1402.
J.p. Derbys. 12 July 1383-9, 10 Nov. 1389-June 1390, 24 Dec. 1390-d.
Steward and constable of the High Peak, Derbys. for the duchy of Lancaster by 1391-aft. Mich. 1393, by 7 July 1400-d; surveyor of the forest of the Peak 1396-7.3
Steward of the royal honour of Macclesfield, Cheshire, and surveyor of the forests there 13 Oct. 1399-8 Oct. 1401.4
Steward of the manors of Ashford and Chesterfield and the wapentake of Scarsdale, Derbys. confiscated by the Crown from Thomas, earl of Kent, Feb. 1400-d.5
A loyal and committed servant of the house of Lancaster, Wensley owed much of his success to the patronage first of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, then of his son, Henry of Bolingbroke, who seized the throne in 1399. Like so many of his contemporaries in Derbyshire, he was recruited into the ducal retinue while still a comparatively young man, and he continued to wear the same livery until he fell, fighting against Henry’s enemies, at the battle of Shrewsbury. He came from an old and distinguished family which is said to have lived at Wensley from the early 13th century onwards, if not before. His immediate background is fairly obscure, however, and we know very little about his father, Roger Wensley. Thomas was evidently of age by 1364, when he attested the first of a series of local deeds. Six years later Sir (Godfrey Foljambe the younger (son of the eminent lawyer and retainer of John of Gaunt) confirmed him in possession of part of the manors of Over Haddon, Great Rowsley, Wardlow Monyash and Chelmorton in Derbyshire, which were to revert on his death to no less a person than Gaunt himself. This early association between the two men is particularly interesting in view of Wensley’s later career, which owed much to his connexion with the duke.6
Some time elapsed before Wensley became involved in local government, but his efforts were promptly rewarded, and in October 1380 he and Juliana, the widow of Sir Richard Vernon, obtained a lease from the Crown of estates held in wardship during the minority of her young son. In the following year he was fortunate enough to gain custody of the heiress, Cecily Curson, this time through the good offices of John of Gaunt, who wished to reward his ‘trescher et bien ame esquer’. How far the duke’s hand may be detected in his election to Parliament in October 1382 and his subsequent appointment as a local j.p. remains a matter of conjecture, but his obvious popularity as a trustee and witness to property transactions during this period probably owed a good deal to his acquisition of a powerful patron. It is not clear when Wensley acquired a life interest in the Derbyshire manor of Harthill and a mill at Alport which belonged to Sir John Cockayne*, but the property was in his hands by 1383. The Cockaynes, too, were active supporters of the duchy, as were most members of his circle. In December 1384, not long after Wensley had been knighted, Gaunt entered into a new contract, retaining him for life in peace and war at an annual fee of 20 marks, charged upon the township of Bensall in Derbyshire. The benefits were certainly not all one-sided, for Wensley was expected to use his own influence as a member of the local bench and crown commissioner on the duke’s behalf when the occasion demanded. It is worth noting, moreover, that he was included on two commissions set up in 1387 and 1388 after attacks on the duke’s property in north Derbyshire, his presence being a guarantee that the Lancastrian interest would be upheld. He may, indeed, already have been in office as steward of the duchy lands in the High Peak, a post which he relinquished in about 1393, but resumed after Bolingbroke’s accession. Perhaps because of his close association with the eldest of Richard II’s uncles, Wensley also enjoyed various marks of royal favour; and in August 1387 he obtained a grant for life of the manor of Cleeton in Shropshire, with revenues of £5 a year.7
Throughout his career, Wensley was in great demand as a party to the sales and enfeoffments of land made by members of the Derbyshire gentry. In the late 1380s, for example, he was involved (together with such parliamentary colleagues as John Curson*, Sir John Dabrichecourt* and William Adderley*) in a series of conveyances of estates in and around Radbourne; and he also appears as a trustee of land in Bakewell, not least on behalf of the local guild of the Blessed Virgin, to which he most probably belonged. His activities in this quarter resulted in at least one lawsuit, heard at the Derby assizes in 1385, but, on the whole, his standing was such as to discourage all but the most persistently litigious.8
The political vicissitudes of the late 1390s, which saw the return to power of the court party and a systematic attack by Richard II upon his former enemies, the Lords Appellant of 1388 (among whom was Henry of Bolingbroke), must have caused Wensley considerable anxiety. Consequently, in May 1398, he sued out royal letters of pardon to secure himself against possible charges of implication in any acts of conspiracy. He was well advised to do so, for in the following September Bolingbroke was sent into exile; and on his father’s death, five months later, the entire duchy of Lancaster was confiscated by the King. Wensley himself received royal letters patent confirming him in his annuity of 20 marks, and was, furthermore, permitted to continue as a j.p., but this hardly reconciled him to the government; and when, in July 1399, Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur to reclaim his inheritance, Wensley was one of the Derbyshire knights who arrived to meet him with a large and loyal retinue. The size of his personal following must have been quite considerable, for in the following November the receiver of Tutbury was ordered to pay him £60 to cover his expenses in escorting Bolingbroke both at the time of his landing in England and at the Parliament which met in late September. Needless to say, Wensley was among the first to benefit from the change of regime: in August 1399 he received a grant for life of land worth £24 a year in the High Peak, and within the next few months three lucrative stewardships (of Macclesfield, the High Peak and Chesterfield) were in his hands. In August 1401 he was summoned to attend a great council as a representative for Derbyshire, where he continued to serve on various royal commissions. At least one local figure was, even so, prepared to risk his displeasure, and in 1402 an esquire named Godfrey Rowland petitioned Parliament for redress against a blatant act of terrorism on Wensley’s part. He alleged that in May 1399 the latter, abetted by a large gang of thugs and ruffians, had robbed him of goods worth 200 marks, kept him prisoner in the castle of the High Peak without food or drink for almost a week and, as a final act of brutality, had cut off his right hand. Whatever the truth of these charges, Wensley evidently managed to evade any further proceedings. He must by then have been at least 60 years old, but this did not prevent him from taking up arms against the rebels who threatened to depose Henry IV, and, as we have seen, he was killed on 21 July 1403, fighting at the battle of Shrewsbury.9
Sir Thomas was buried at Bakewell parish church, where the effigy on his tomb depicts him in full armour with the ‘SS’ collar of the Lancastrian livery about his neck. He owned estates in the neighbouring village of Darley, which, along with his interest in the guild of the Blessed Virgin (and perhaps also that of the Holy Cross), would account for his choice of burial place. We do not know if he had any issue by his wife, but he left at least one illegitimate son, John, who studied canon law at Oxford and eventually obtained a papal dispensation to hold benefices with cure of souls despite his illegitimacy. John prospered in the Church, becoming successively a canon of Lichfield, vicar-general to the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, and archdeacon of Stafford.10
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Variants: Wannesley, Wedeneslegh, Wyndesley.
- 1. CPL, vii. 519; CP25(1)39/38/205.
- 2. Wm. Salt Arch. Soc. xiv. 242.
- 3. Somerville, Duchy, i. 382, 550; DL43/15/7 m. 1; Coll. Top. et Gen. i. 334.
- 4. DKR, xxxvi. 145, 511.
- 5. CIMisc. vii. no. 47.
- 6. J.C. Cox, Notes on Churches Derbys. ii. 17-19; J.P. Yeatman, Feudal Hist. Derbys. iv. (8), 417; Derbys. Chs. ed. Jeayes, nos. 549, 677, 170