ACTON, Robert (by 1497-1558), of Elmley Lovett and Ribbesford, Worcs. and Southwark, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. by 1497, 2nd s. of Richard Acton of Sutton, Worcs. by Margery, da. and coh. of Humphrey Dore of Herefs. m. by May 1528, Margery, da. and h. of Nicholas Mayor of Southwark, 2s. 1da. Kntd. bef. 5 Sept. 1543.2
Groom of the chamber 1518, page 1526, gent. usher 1528; bailiff, Pembridge, Herefs. 1518, Walsall, Staffs. 1524; King’s saddler Sept. 1528-d.; constable, Haverfordwest castle, Pemb. by 1532-52 or later; keeper, Elmley Lovett park, 1533; escheator, Worcs. 1533-4; j.p. 1537-d., Surr. 1538-d.; sheriff, Worcs. 1538-9, 1545-6, Mont. 1541-2, 1548-9; esquire of the body 1539; commr. chantries, Herefs., Worcs. 1546, relief, Worcs. 1550, goods of churches and fraternities, 1553; member, council in the marches of Wales 1551.3
Robert Acton’s forbears had been substantial gentry in Worcestershire and the Welsh marches for several centuries. How he secured his advancement to the royal household is unknown, but after 1518 he became a regular recipient of grants and offices. He succeeded his father-in-law as King’s saddler, and inherited half his goods and all his lands, subject to his widow’s life interest in half the lands. Acton may have been living in Southwark, and possibly dealing in leather, as early as 1523 when he was assessed in Surrey for £5 towards the subsidy. After 1528 his name often appears as a supplier of hides, although he probably exercised his office through a deputy since none of the surviving saddlery accounts was prepared by or contains any reference to him. Margery Acton asserted the office to be worth not less than £266 a year in 1553, when she also listed the other benefits accruing to Acton from his marriage to her as follows: £68 a year in lands, £700 in cash, £333 in plate, a furnished house worth some £130, and £333 in debts due. Acton appears to have been as keen to minimize expenditure on his marriage as to increase his receipts from it, for the suit in which these figures appear contains allegations by his wife that he had ‘sent her to an alehouse, where she was and continued two years very sick in great misery’, and that from 1548 to 1553 he had paid nothing towards her maintenance except £27, part of the sale price of some land of hers. These allegations are given colour by Acton’s failure to appear or to reply to the charges; instead, he sent one of his sons ‘with certain letters seeming thereby to be contented to stand to some reasonable order therein’. The court of requests awarded Lady Acton £30 a year for life.4
It was probably as a royal servant that Acton owed his return to the Parliament of 1529. The King’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, had his town house in Southwark and was patron of the borough. No sure connexion between Acton and Suffolk is known, but Acton named his second son Charles, and Suffolk may have been ‘the marshal’ (unless the knight marshal was meant) who intervened on Acton’s behalf when he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. In October 1532 Acton went with Henry VIII to Calais, fell ill there, and had not recovered by the following January when he wrote to Cromwell to be excused from attending the session which was to begin the next month, although if it was insisted upon, he was prepared to go ‘even at the risk of his life’. Evidently leave was given, for although the session lasted till 7 Apr. Acton was at Elmley Lovett on 12 Mar. when he wrote again to Cromwell. Later during the summer he was sent to the Marshalsea for a debt which he and Sir John Dudley had jointly incurred to William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who complained in July that he could neither obtain his money nor have Acton kept in ward as ‘by the marshal’s favour he goeth at liberty’. (Although Acton’s parliamentary privilege of freedom from arrest did not protect him during a prorogation, the spectacle of a Member imprisoned for debt in his own constituency was perhaps one not to be stomached.) That Acton was back in the House at latest by the seventh session is shown by the inclusion of his name in a list of Members drawn up by Cromwell probably in December 1534: this list, which is thought to bear some relation to the treasons bill then passing the House, is representative of both the ‘official’ element and of ‘unattached’ Members, and Acton’s name, occurring where it does, seems to belong to the first grouping. Acton was to be returned again for Southwark in 1539 and 1542, and had probably also been re-elected to the Parliament of 1536, in accordance with the King’s general request for the return of the previous Members. His disappearance thereafter could have had a variety of causes, among them his worsening financial situation from 1544 and the death of the Duke of Suffolk in 1545. Where Acton’s knighthood, which cannot be precisely dated, fits into the pattern of these years it seems impossible to say.5
It was not merely because he was a client of Cromwell that Acton gained the warmest recommendations from successive presidents of the council in the marches. Hugh Latimer, whose episcopal residence at Hartlebury was two miles from Elmley Lovett, praised him for being ‘faithful and hearty in all good causes, no man more ready to serve God and the King, and your lordship’s [Cromwell’s] hearty lover to his power’. But Latimer also nicely observed that Acton was ‘altogether yours, under the King’s grace, to be whereas your lordship shall think his service most necessary’. John Hussee, Lord Lisle’s factor, who had difficulty in securing from Acton his master’s annuity out of the sale of Ribbesford to him in 1533, noted that he was ‘the finest piece that ever I met withal’, yet ‘I think there are few men, if they know his condition as well as I do, that would gladly meddle with him’.6
In 1536 Acton was called to serve against the northern rebels, four years later he attended the reception of Anne of Cleves, and in 1544 he fought in the French campaign. This last service was, on his own showing, ill-rewarded; in a chancery case of Mary’s reign he stated that, because he owed the crown ‘certain great sums’ which he could not pay, having ‘been at great costs and charges in his attendance at serving his grace at Boulogne and elsewhere’, he had been ‘committed to ward for the same debt’ and had been forced to raise £573 by the sale of land. One of his purchases, that of Wormington Grange, Gloucestershire, also involved him in a lawsuit.7
In addition to Ribbesford, Acton bought extensive property in the Welsh marches, his most important purchase being that of Elmley Lovett in 1543 after he had been living there for some time. Despite his estates and appointments in local government, Acton retained his links with Southwark, where he continued to be assessed for the subsidy, in 1548 on property worth 200 marks. After Henry VIII’s death Acton remained on the commission of the peace, but otherwise appears to have taken little part in public affairs: there is a record of the grant of the office of King’s saddler to ‘the King’s servant’ Nicholas Taylor in May 1552, but the grant was never completed and Acton retained the post till his death.8
To the discomfort of his estranged wife Acton sold her inheritance without recompense or even making a marriage settlement, and entailed most of his property for the benefit of his sons. These arrangements he confirmed in the will which he made on 24 Sept. 1558. To his widow he left one third of his movable goods and £20 in plate, the latter on the condition that she did not claim her ‘free bench’ in his house at Bewdley. After directing that his body should be buried at Elmley Lovett, Acton expressed the hope that he might rise again ‘with such as be elect and chosen people ordained for salvation and have the fruition of his godhead according to his true belief’: this Protestant aspiration notwithstanding, his executors included Cardinal Pole and Bishop Pate of Worcester. Acton died on the following 28 or 29 Sept.