NORTON, Thomas (d.c.1435), of Bristol.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
Bailiff, Bristol Mich. 1392-3; sheriff 1 Oct. 1401-30 Sept. 1402; mayor Mich. 1413-14.2
Commr. of inquiry, Bristol, Glos. Jan. 1414 (lollardy).
Norton was already established as a merchant and burgess in Bristol by 1388, when he was involved in the administration of the wills of Edith, widow of Richard Muleward, and the latter’s son, John. Perhaps he had been an apprentice or partner in trade of the older man. However, it was to the generosity of Elias Spelly*, one of the wealthiest and most prominent Bristol merchants of the time, to which Norton owed his rise in the community, although whether he was Spelly’s kinsman, or merely a junior business associate of his, does not appear. By his will, of January 1391 the childless Spelly left Norton a substantial number of properties in the town, including the New Inn in the High Street and three messuages, seven tenements and 12 shops elsewhere, the sole condition attached to the bequest being that he should provide the testator’s widow, Agnes Spelly, with an annual income of £20 for the rest of her life. Furthermore, Norton’s son, Thomas, was to inherit all of Spelly’s property in Worcester. Nor was this all: in 1392 Agnes conveyed to Norton a third part of the manor of Kingston Seymour, Somerset, together with a mill and the advowson of the local church, and a year later he was confirmed in possession not only of this estate but also of a third part of the manor of Stathe, which had also belonged to his benefactor Spelly. In 1413 Norton and his wife, Christine, made an entail of the New Inn and their holdings at Kingston Seymour, establishing their own joint tenure for life, with successive remainders to their sons, Thomas and Walter, and their daughter, Alice. Norton presented to the church at Kingston Seymour in 1420. Meanwhile, in 1401 he had also made an important purchase: this was of the property, consisting of two adjacent messuages, situated between St. Peter’s church and the Avon in Bristol, which was to become in his lifetime one of the largest and finest of the residences of local merchants. William of Worcester described it as a ‘magnificum hospicium’, and in later times it came to be used successively as a hospital, a sugar refinery and to house the Bristol Mint. As a parishioner of St. Peter’s, in November 1408 Norton assented to an agreement made between the rector and churchwardens following a dispute over premises near the church. His holdings in Bristol were assessed for the purposes of taxation in 1412 as worth £40 a year, while his Somerset lands were valued at the same amount, thus providing him with a substantial income to put beside his undoubtedly large profits from trade.3
The first record of Norton’s mercantile affairs dates from November 1384, when he obtained a royal licence, in association with Stephen de la Garde of Bayonne, to ship 500 quarters of wheat, beans and peas, grown in Somerset and Gloucestershire, to Bayonne and Bordeaux. His partnership with Elias Spelly led to his use of Spelly’s ship Le George of Bristol to make shipments of cloth to Portugal in 1387, and among his friend’s bequests to him was this very same vessel. Soon after acquiring it for himself, Norton procured in March 1391 a royal licence to convey on Le George an unlimited number of pilgrims on a single voyage to Spain the following autumn. On her return trip Le George brought back wine from Bordeaux, and she continued to carry Norton’s cloth to Gascony for the next ten years or longer. Relations with the merchants of Bayonne were not always harmonious, for shortly after 1399 the Bristol merchants refused to pay a new impost of 4d. in the pound demanded by their Gascon counterparts. Norton was the bearer of a letter from the Bristol authorities to the clerk of the rolls at Westminster requesting his continued help in their negotiations and official recognition of Norton himself as their attorney and proctor-general. Besides his skill as a negotiator, implied by this appointment, Norton was evidently a naval captain of ability, as is clear from his exploits in association with John Hawley I* of Dartmouth in the autumn of 1403. The two seafarers, as admirals of a fleet from Bristol, Dartmouth and Plymouth, were then responsible for the capture of as many as seven Spanish vessels laden with valuable cargoes belonging to merchants of Genoa, Navarre and Castile, in the belief that the ships were being used by the King’s enemies. When their action was found to be contrary to the truce recently concluded between England and Castile, Norton and Hawley were ordered to sail the captured vessels from Plymouth to London and release their crews; but they were in no hurry to restore the merchandise to its rightful owners, and restitution had still not been made several months later. Norton’s involvement in the cloth trade is evident from the record of his shipments to Ireland as well as those to France and elsewhere; and this interest is reflected, too, by his frequent provision of securities at the Exchequer for the alnagers of Somerset, Worcestershire and Bristol. Aspects of the complicated methods of trading in this period are shown by a lawsuit in which a mercer named Thomas Parys, in a petition to the chancellor, accused Norton of having falsely impleaded him in the Staple court of Bristol, thereby unjustly recovering against him an alleged debt of £160. The facts, as stated by Parys, were that Norton had lent him £150 and then gone abroad and purchased madder for £35, which he, Parys, had sold at Middleburg for £167, paying the whole proceeds of this sale over to Norton. Parys considered that he then owed Norton not £160, as was claimed, but a mere £19. The case obviously arose from a dispute as to whether Norton was Parys’s agent or Parys was his.4
Norton was undoubtedly well qualified to represent the interests of his fellow merchants of Bristol in the House of Commons, and his seven Parliaments for his home town show that he was respected there. Before his first return he held office as a bailiff and had been nominated to the shrievalty (in September 1398), although it was not until his third nomination (in 1401) that he obtained appointment. In 1409-10 he was named as a member of the common council, and at Michaelmas 1413 he became mayor. During his mayoralty, in November that year, the harness of the scabbard of the black mayoral sword was weighed in his presence in the guildhall; it was to him that, in July 1414, the townsmen of Devizes brought their claim from freedom of tolls; and in August he presented the new prior of the college of Calendars. Norton attended the elections held at Bristol for 13 of the Parliaments summoned between 1407 and 1429. Meanwhile, in 1420, following his own sixth election, he personally carried the Bristol parliamentary indenture to the clerk of the Parliaments.5
Throughout the later years of his life Norton was involved in protracted litigation with Thomas Stamford on two issues: the alleged destruction by Stamford of a deed relating to certain of his Bristol properties, inherited from Spelly, and a false action for debt in Surrey brought by Stamford in the name of John Mavyell, as a consequence of which he had been outlawed. In December 1420, when attending his sixth Parliament, he petitioned the duke of Gloucester, warden of England, for a hearing before the royal council, but it was not until November 1421, with John Juyn, then recorder of Bristol, testifying on his behalf, that matters progressed any further. Even then, when the Council referred the matter to the court of common pleas Stamford failed to appear to answer the charges, so Norton went on to petition the Commons to request the King and Lords in Parliament to help him to obtain damages regarding the first complaint and Stamford’s trial regarding the second. Eventually Stamford was found guilty, committed to the Marshalsea, and ordered to pay the merchant 400 marks. The quarrel, however, remained unsettled, and Norton’s case had to be taken up after his death by his sons, Thomas and Walter, in the Parliament of 1437, when the former was sitting as Member for Bristol. Their petition noted that Stamford now alleged that the original Bristol jury had committed perjury, though on their part they claimed that he had ‘ymagyned and contrevyd’ several more actions against them.6
Norton probably died early in 1435, since his magnificent house near St. Peter’s church, which he left to his two surviving sons, had been divided by them into two parts by June that year, when Walter purchased separate access to his half from the rector of St. Peter’s. It was in this church that Norton had been buried.7
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. Som. Feet of Fines (Som. Rec. Soc. xxii), 174-5. It was his son, Thomas Norton 'junior' or 'esquire' who m. by Nov. 1406, Agnes (d. 8 Oct. 1419), wid of Thomas Gorges (d.1404) of Wraxall, Som., thereby acquiring the landed estate, worth as much as £60 a year, which Agnes held as jointure, only to relinquish it to her son (Sir) Theobald Gorges† at her death. That Thomas Norton took part in Henry V's expeditions to France in 1415 and 1417 as a member, respectively, of the retinues of Lord Botreaux and Sir William Bourgchier*. He died in 1449 in possession of his late father's manorial holdings at Kingston Seymour and Stathe. CIPM, xviii. 892-5; Reg. Bubwith (Som. Rec. Soc. xxix), 6, 76, 266; Reg. Bowet (ibid. xiii), 64; C138/38/40; C139/137/13; DKR, xliv. 566, 591; Feudal Aids, vi. 511; Lambeth Pal. Lib. Reg. Stafford f. 184.
- 2. Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xxvi. 129-30.
- 3. Bristol Wills (Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. 1886), 18-19, 27-28; CCR, 1389-92, p. 561; Som. Feet of Fines (Som. Rec. Soc. xvii), 151, 159; (ibid. xxii), 174-5; Reg. Bubwith (ibid. xxx), 384; Feudal Aids, vi. 448, 510; Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xxxii. 266-7; xlviii. 193-226.
- 4. E122/16/21, 24, 17/1, 40/12; Overseas Trade (Bristol Rec. Soc. vii), 39, 190-1, 196, 198, 201; Staple Ct. Bks. (ibid. v), 97; CPR, 1388-92, p. 387; 1401-5, pp. 360-1, 363, 427-8; CFR, xiii. 49; xiv. 10, 278-9, 341; E.M. Carus-Wilson, Med. Merchant Venturers, 56-57; CIMisc. vii. 270.
- 5. CFR, xi. 280; xii. 85; Little Red Bk. Bristol ed. Bickley, i. 137; ii. 216 (erroneously dated 2 Hen. IV instead of 2 Hen. V), 237; C267/5, no. 41; C219/10/2, 4, 6, 11/4, 8, 12/2-5, 13/1, 3-5, 14/1; Bristol Wills, 87.
- 6. SC8/27/1307-8, 130/6458; PPC, ii. 307-8; RP, iv. 509-10.
- 7. For biographical details of his sons and grandsons, see Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xxii. 272-85; xlviii. 193-226; lxxiv. 98-100; Lambeth Pal. Lib. Reg. Stafford, f. 184.