WIDDRINGTON, Sir John (1371-1444), of Widdrington and Shotton, Northumb.
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Family and Education
b. 2 Feb. 1371, 2nd s. and h. of Roger Widdrington (d. 13 Apr. 1372) of Widdrington and Shotton by his 2nd w. Agnes (d. aft. 1386). m. Margaret, 2s. 2da. Kntd. by Apr. 1402.1
Commr. of inquiry, Northumb. May 1399 (murder at Tynedale), Jan. 1412 (persons liable for taxation), Feb. 1423 (lands of Alice del Chamber), Nov. 1424 (claims of John, Lord Scrope of Masham), Apr. 1431 (persons liable for taxation), Norhamshire and Islandshire c.1431 (concealments);2 to take an oath of loyalty to Henry IV, Northumb. Aug. 1403; of array July 1410, Apr. 1418, Mar. 1419, Mar. 1427, Oct. 1429, July 1434; oyer and terminer, generally May 1438.
J.p. Northumb. 18 Dec. 1405-Mar. 1439, 18 July 1422-d., Norhamshire c.1431.3
Escheator, Northumb. 30 Nov. 1407-9 Dec. 1408, 13 Nov. 1423-6 Nov. 1424.
Sheriff, Northumb. 29 Nov. 1410-10 Dec. 1411, 15 Jan.-12 Dec. 1426, 10 Feb.-5 Nov. 1430.
Envoy to redress breaches of truce with Scotland 14 Aug. 1433, 4 Mar 1434.4
John’s ancestors are known to have lived at Widdrington from the 12th century onwards, although it was not until the time of his father, Roger Widdrington, that the family achieved a really prominent position among the Northumbrian gentry. This was partly because of Roger’s first marriage to Elizabeth, the only child of the wealthy Newcastle-upon-Tyne merchant, Richard Acton, which brought him considerable amounts of land and money, and thus enabled him to extend his own territorial possessions by purchase. The death of Roger’s elder brother, Sir Gerard, without issue in 1362, left him sole heir not only to all their father’s holdings in and around the manor of Widdrington, but also to one third of the property of their maternal grandfather, Sir Adam Swinburne. Roger’s growing influence is reflected in his career, for after serving a term as sheriff of Northumberland, in 1361, he later went on to become one of the wardens of the east march between England and Scotland. Unfortunately, however, his only son by his first marriage, Sir John, died childless in 1369 while still a young man, leaving two sisters (one of whom was married to Sir Bertram Monbourcher*) as heirs presumptive to this impressive complex of estates. The unwelcome prospect of a partition was narrowly averted when, on 2 Feb. 1371, Roger’s second wife, Agnes, gave birth to a son. Named in memory of his late half-brother, the baby was christened that day at Widdrington church amid scenes of such wild rejoicing that at least one of the drunken revellers sustained a serious injury.5 Just over a year later Roger died, and, although Elizabeth Acton’s lands were immediately shared between her two daughters, the rest of the estates which he had so carefully consolidated over the years descended intact to the infant John. His patrimony comprised the manors of Widdrington, West Swinburn, Shotton, Plessey, Colwell, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea and Woodhorn, together with the manor and castle of Haughton and the nearby vill of Humshaugh in Tynedale as well as extensive holdings in Linton, East Chevington, Blaydon, Creswell and other villages in Northumberland. Not surprisingly, Roger had tried, just a few days before his death, to avoid the worst consequences of a long minority by conveying a substantial part of his estates to trustees, but the Crown, ever alive to such evasive tactics, refused to accept the legality of this settlement and asserted its rights of wardship. Given that Henry, earl of Northumberland, was prepared to pay £50 p.a. in all for the farm of only part of the inheritance, such vigilance in the face of ‘fraud and collusion’ clearly bore fruit. The customary third of Roger’s estate, together with what appears to have been a generous jointure, went to his widow, Agnes, who, in July 1379, confirmed her young son in the reversion. This part of the Widdrington estates, at least, was still administered by the trustees, for by two deeds of October 1386 and June 1389 they, too, recognized John as next heir.6
Although he was still a minor, John Widdrington began to take an interest in local affairs as early as 1389, when he witnessed a deed for Sir John Fenwick. At about the same date he gave one of his serfs to a distant kinsman, Sir William Swinburne*, who had been present 18 years before at John’s memorable christening, and who was, in 1392, to provide evidence before the escheator of Northumberland at Morpeth that he had indeed come of age. Sir William farmed John’s demesnes at Haughton at a rent of £5 a year, so the two men maintained business as well as personal relations. John had barely taken formal custody of his inheritance before becoming embroiled in a dispute with the abbot of Newminster, who demanded an annual levy from his mills at Shotton and Plessey. The quarrel went to arbitration in 1393 and was temporarily settled, although six years later an even more heated disagreement broke out over John’s right to fell timber in the area. The parties seem eventually to have been reconciled, but only after the monks had complained at some length about John’s rapacity as a landowner. The latter was, however, in a strong position to defend himself, since by June 1394 Richard II had retained him as an esquire of the royal body, promising him the reversion of a fee of £10 p.a. which was currently charged as a rent upon John’s own manor of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. Perhaps anticipating the demise of the current recipient, an esquire named John Marshal, John allowed the payments to lapse, and on at least two occasions sharp reminders were sent to him on that score from the Exchequer.7 Despite his association with King Richard and the royal court, John apparently welcomed the Lancastrian coup d’état of 1399, and was knighted not long afterwards. He had certainly assumed the new rank by April 1402, when he stood godfather to William Mitford’s* son, John, at St. Nicholas’s church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Both the officiating priest and the child’s influential grandfather, Sir Robert Lisle*, had reason to remember the ceremony, but whereas the former received only a stinging rebuke from Sir John Widdrington for his clumsiness, the latter was at least able to settle an old quarrel amicably with his neighbour during the ensuing celebrations. Unlike some members of the northern gentry, Sir John withheld his support from the Percys during their rebellion of 1403, and was, indeed, commissioned to take oaths of loyalty to the Crown from local landowners after the insurrection had been suppressed. He first entered Parliament in January 1404, by which date he and Sir Robert Ogle had perhaps already become trustees of part of the Manners family estates in Northumberland. They appeared together with the abbot of Alnwick as plaintiffs in a collusive suit brought later in the year by Sir John Manners for recovery of the property, so their involvement in the latter’s affairs was probably longstanding. The death of his old friend, Sir William Swinburne, at about this time meant that Widdrington was also called upon to help the widowed Mary Swinburne and her children. Besides witnessing a number of deeds on their behalf, Sir John seized the opportunity to negotiate a profitable marriage for his daughter, Elizabeth, who was betrothed in August 1404 to Sir William’s young son and heir. The ensuing arrangements worked to Sir John’s immediate advantage, for in addition to the rents of £12 p.a. which she agreed to pay him for the marriage, Mary Swinburne also offered him 16 marks a year in return for the upkeep of her own small household.8
Widdrington and Sir Robert Ogle returned once again to the lawcourts in 1405, on this occasion to face litigation for debts totalling £100 begun against them by the bishop of Durham’s steward, Sir Ralph Euer*. Ogle’s death in October 1409 was followed immediately by a violent contest between his two sons, John Bertram* and (Sir) Robert Ogle*, for possession of Bothal castle, which Bertram then occupied. As a j.p. and friend of the family, Widdrington made a valiant attempt to prevent an armed assault on the castle, but his protests were ignored. Even so, relations between him and Ogle remained surprisingly cordial. A few months later, in February 1410, the two men were found to be joint custodians of a valuable cargo of merchandise which they had seized from a wreck on the Northumbrian coast. Orders were issued from Westminster for the immediate surrender of these goods, however, so they derived little lasting benefit from the venture. Sir John was, none the less, considered a suitable candidate for the shrievalty of Northumberland, which he occupied for the first time in the following November. During his term of office, Henry Lilburn, the husband of his other daughter, Agnes, died, and he supervised the allocation of her dower properties in West Lilburne. Both John Bertram and his former parliamentary colleague, Sampson Hardyng (who had also tried to restore order at Bothal in 1409), witnessed the ensuing settlement, which left Agnes with a comfortable income. Sir John and Sampson were again returned together to the second Parliament of 1414, which was still sitting when Henry V confirmed Sir John in the reversion of the £10 annuity originally promised to him some 20 years before. Throughout this period, our Member maintained a lively interest in parliamentary affairs, for although he appears to have represented Northumberland on only two occasions, he attended at least six county elections between 1407 and 1423.9
Years of seemingly loyal service to the house of Lancaster had earned Sir John a position of trust, and in May 1415 he was given the task of escorting the duke of Albany’s son, Murdoch, earl of Fife, to Berwick-upon-Tweed so that he might be exchanged for Henry Percy (grandson of the late earl), a prisoner of the Scots. In the event, however, Murdoch was briefly kidnapped near Leeds by plotters whose ultimate aim was to dethrone Henry V in favour of the earl of March, the rightful heir to Richard II. How far Sir John himself master-minded the abduction we shall never know, although he had clearly by then become dangerously implicated in plans for a legitimist coup d’état, and thus, on circumstantial evidence, at least, appears to have been one of the leading protagonists. During a meeting on 17 June 1415 at the castle of Conisborough in Yorkshire, the earl of Cambridge informed his fellow conspirator, Sir Thomas Gray, that both Sir Robert Umfraville and Sir John Widdrington had recently taken an oath in the chapel there that they would raise up the north with the aid of armed support from Scotland. Gray (who was Sir Robert Ogle’s brother-in-law and the owner of extensive estates in Northumberland) left Conisborough with further treasonable messages for the two rebels, although by then both had evidently come to regret their rash commitment to such a doomed enterprise. In a calculated attempt to save his own skin while betraying his former allies, Umfraville actually repulsed an invading force of Scots at Kirk Newton. Sir John also showed a remarkable talent for self-preservation, for whereas Sir Thomas Gray, the earl of Cambridge and Henry, Lord Scrope, were denounced by the earl of March, and condemned and executed for treason at Southampton on the eve of Henry V’s first expedition to France in August 1415, he escaped unscathed and even retained his seat on the Northumbrian bench. Henry V was probably far too shrewd to begin wholesale reprisals in an area where discontent and demoralization, resulting from constant attacks by Scottish marauders, ran high: so Widdrington and the other northern malcontents went chastened but unpunished.10
Despite all the scheming done in his name, Henry Percy did indeed return to England, and was duly restored to his grandfather’s confiscated estates and titles. Sir John was among the distinguished gathering which met, in October 1417, to witness the young earl of Northumberland’s confirmation of the rights of Hulne priory. A few months later he and his wife, Margaret (whose identity otherwise remains unknown) received a papal indult to make use of a portable altar, having by then been fully rehabilitated after their narrow escape. They had at least two sons, the younger of whom, Gerard, may well have voiced some objections to an arrangement whereby his brother-in-law, Sir William Swinburne, was permitted to lease all the family estates at Haughton for a period of six years. At all events, in April 1419, the young man was bound over in sureties of £40 not to disrupt the agreement in any way. From this date onwards, Sir John’s life seems to have passed without serious disturbance, although his involvement in government business did not diminish at all, as his record of official appointments shows. Other matters, such as two lawsuits for the recovery of unpaid debts worth over £12, and his responsibilities (shared with (Sir) John Bertram) as a trustee of the manor and castle of Chipchase preoccupied him during the 1420s; and in June 1423 he served as a juror at the inquisition post mortem held on his friend, William Mitford. His association with Sir Robert Ogle continued throughout this period as well, for in 1425 we find him acting as an arbitrator on Sir Robert’s behalf.11
Sir John was just over 73 years old when he died on 20 Feb. 1444. His elder son, Roger, who was then said to be at least 40, succeeded to all the family estates, which had been enlarged in 1436 on the death of Sir John’s niece, Elizabeth Vaux, the owner of land in Jesmond. Roger’s marriage to Sir Thomas Gray’s daughter, Elizabeth, suggests that the two families remained close long after the earl of Cambridge’s conspiracy, although he himself pursued the career of a loyal and assiduous royal servant, during which he was four times sheriff of Northumberland.12
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Variants: Wederyngton, Wodryngton, Wyderington.
- 1. C139/115/33; CIPM, xiii. no. 215; CFR, xvii. 294; Arch. Aeliana, n.s. xxii. 123; (ser. 3), i. 79-81, 160; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 233-4, 236-7. J. Hodgson, Hist. Northumb. ii (2), 230-4, provides an interesting amount of genealogical detail about the Widdringtons, but confuses the MP with his elder half-brother, Sir John.
- 2. DKR, xxxiii. 136.
- 3. Ibid. 137.
- 4. Rot. Scot. ed. Macpherson etc. ii. 283, 286.
- 5. Hodgson, ii (2), 230-4; Arch. Aeliana, iv. 329; (ser. 3), i. 79-81; CIPM, xiii. no. 2; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 232.
- 6. Hodgson, ii (2), 230-4, 252; CIPM, xiii. no. 215; xiv. no. 339; CFR, viii. 209; ix. 85-86, 117; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 233-4.
- 7. Hodgson, ii (1), 285, (2), 234, 297; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 234-6; Arch. Aeliana, iv. 329; CPR, 1391-6, p. 420; CCR, 1392-6, p. 434.