WITTLEBURY, John (1333-1400), of Whissendine, Rutland and Milton and Marholm, Northants.
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Family and Education
b. Whissendine, 20 July 1333, 3rd s. and h. of Aubrey Wittlebury (1306-49) of Whissendine by his w. Joan (d.1368). m. (1) by 1373, Maud (d. by 1383), da. and coh. of Sir Walter Poynton (d.1367) of Canwick, Lincs. by his w. Orframinia Lokton (d.1383), at least 2s. (1 d.v.p.). (2) by c.1393, Agnes, at least 3s. (2 d.v.p.).1
J.p. Rutland 10 July 1368-Nov. 1399.
Tax collector, Rutland Mar., June 1371.
Sheriff, Rutland 24 Jan. 1372-12 Dec. 1374, 26 Nov. 1377-25 Nov. 1378, 1 Nov. 1381-24 Nov. 1382, 16 Feb.-1 Dec. 1388, 3 Nov. 1399-d.
Commr. of array, Rutland Apr., July 1377, Mar. 1380, Sept. 1386, Mar. 1392; to re-assess a tax Aug. 1379; suppress the insurgents of 1381, Dec. 1381, Mar., Dec. 1382; hold a special assize of novel disseisin May 1384 (property dispute at Teigh);2 of gaol delivery, Oakham castle May 1385; to administer the oath in support of the Lords Appellant, Rutland Mar. 1388; of inquiry June 1391 (wastes on the royal demesnes).
Steward of the King’s manor and lordship of Oakham, Rutland 26 Apr.-2 Nov. 1388.
As a member of one of the leading families of Rutland, the subject of this biography numbered among his ancestors several former sheriffs, shire knights and royal commissioners. His grandfather, Sir John Wittlebury†, was murdered in 1336 by one of the enemies he had made while serving on the local bench, and his estates, which comprised the manor of Whissendine and land nearby in Empingham, together with extensive property in the Northamptonshire villages of Paston, Piddington, Blakesley and Horton, descended to his son, Aubrey. The latter died 13 years later, leaving three sons, the eldest of whom was still a comparatively young man at the time of his death in June 1353. His younger brother had by then entered Peterborough abbey as a probationer, and in view of his evident reluctance to leave the cloister, Aubrey’s third son, our MP, became the next heir. Proofs of age were taken at his birthplace at Whissendine in September 1354, and he soon obtained possession of a patrimony somewhat depleted by the allocation of dower properties both to his grandmother and his mother (who also held the Northamptonshire estates as a jointure). However, the two women died before May 1369, when the local escheator was ordered to give Wittlebury seisin of the rest of his inheritance.3
Over the years, our Member gained control of two other important blocs of property, the first of which was settled upon him by his kinsman, Sir William Thorpe†; sometime knight of the body to Richard II. In May 1381, Sir William conveyed his two Northamptonshire manors of Thorpe and Milton to Wittlebury, although as the will made by him ten years later reveals, this grant carried with it certain specific conditions. By the spring of 1391 Wittlebury had also been promised the neighbouring manor of Marholm, which raised the value of Sir William’s bequest to about 100 marks. In return, he was not only to endow two perpetual chantries dedicated to the memory of his influential relative, but also to assume the latter’s heraldic arms for the rest of his life. Almost immediately after Sir William’s death, however, Wittlebury’s title to Milton was challenged by the rival claimant, Sir Robert Charles, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to recover the manor by law. The MP seems to have spent a good deal of time in this area, probably with his second wife, Agnes, who may herself have been a kinswoman of Sir William, and upon whom three manors were settled as a jointure, in 1395. Despite earlier provisions in favour of his eldest son, Aubrey, the latter was now disinherited in favour of Agnes’s two infant sons, William and Robert, although in the event neither survived, so it was to Richard, their younger brother, that these estates eventually passed.4 Wittlebury’s first wife, Maud, had been the daughter and coheir of Sir Walter Poynton and his wife, Orframinia, who retained a substantial part of the Poynton estates until her own death in 1383. Since Maud had predeceased her mother, this property was entrusted to Wittlebury until Aubrey, the next heir, came of age 11 years later. During this period, therefore, his rental was supplemented with revenues from the manor of Canwick in Lincolnshire, as well as the profits of certain tenements and houses in the city of Lincoln itself.5
Part of Wittlebury’s minority had been spent as a ward of the Crown, and in September 1354, not long after his coming-of-age, he was required to offer securities for the payment to Edward III of the price initially set upon his marriage. No money actually changed hands until February 1358, when he surrendered 20 marks for a licence to choose his own wife. After a quiet period, during which he seems to have lived in comparative obscurity, Wittlebury decided to follow a long-established family tradition by taking a seat on the Rutland bench. His first return to Parliament followed in 1372, significantly enough while he was serving the first of five terms as sheriff. It is also interesting to note that one of his electors was a local man named Thomas Thorpe, to whom he may well have been related. Meanwhile, in the early months of 1369, Wittlebury acted on three separate occasions as a feoffee-to-uses for Robert, Lord Tybotot, who settled almost all his English estates upon him in trust. The birth of his eldest son in 1373 prompted our Member to entail part of his own property, and during the Trinity term of that year he conveyed the manor of Whissendine to a group of trustees.6
Curiously for one so involved in public life, Wittlebury does not generally appear to have shown much active interest in the affairs of his friends and neighbours. Indeed, all in all, he remains a somewhat elusive character, whose biography must now be confined largely to details of his estates and offices. Only three instances can be found of his readiness to stand surety on behalf of others—one of which occurred in 1380 when he offered guarantees for William Flore† as the newly appointed keeper of agistment at Oakham castle. He did the same for Flore’s successor in the following year, and also agreed to support William, Lord Zouche of Harringworth, who became farmer of the Cantilupe estates at about this time. A few other scraps of evidence have survived to cast a more personal light on Wittlebury’s career. In February 1381, for example, he received royal letters of pardon for all the felonies of which he then stood indicted, particularly those concerned with poaching and trespass. His appointment as sheriff of Rutland in February 1388, followed two months later by the award to him of the stewardship of the castle and lordship of Oakham, certainly suggests that he was a firm supporter of the Lords Appellant, especially as he did not occupy the shrievalty again until Henry IV seized the throne in 1399. He was, moreover, replaced as steward once King Richard had recovered the political initiative, a sure sign of his unpopularity at Court. With the exception of this final return to office under the Lancastrian regime, Wittlebury’s last years passed virtually without recorded incident, and are of note only because of a somewhat protracted and evidently acrimonious dispute which arose between him and Sir Thomas Oudeby* of Hathern over the ownership of the manor of Knight Thorpe in Leicestershire. He and his kinsman, Richard Wittlebury, the parson of East Deeping in Lincolnshire, together with other members of the Thorpe family, successfully proved their title in 1396, although Oudeby refused to accept defeat and arraigned yet another assize of novel disseisin in the following year.7
John Wittlebury died on 21 Apr. 1400, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Aubrey, who, as we have seen, had already been deprived of some of his inheritance so that provision could be made for his younger half-brothers. Aubrey outlived his father by a mere six years: his daughter and heir, Isabel, eventually married Sir Henry Pleasington*, but by 1471 all the family esta