RADFORD, Nicholas (d.1455), of Poughill and Upcott Barton, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



May 1421

Family and Education

s. of Robert Radford of Okeford, Devon. m. by 1431, Thomasina,1 s.p.

Offices Held

Jt. steward of the estates of Thomas, earl of Devon, 16 Feb. 1423-c.1435.

Commr. of inquiry, Devon May 1424, July 1438 (estates of St. James’s priory, Exeter), Feb. 1425 (destruction of fish in river Exe), Devon, Cornw., July 1429 (prevention of free sale of goods), Aug., Dec. 1431, Dec. 1434 (q.), June 1440, Jan. 1443, Apr. 1444, July 1454, Aug. 1455 (piracy), Feb. 1434 (escapes of felons), Feb. 1436 (desertion from the earl of Warwick’s army), Feb. 1440 (attack by Flemings), Dec. 1440 (arrest of a Flemish ship), Mar. 1442 (estates of (Sir) John Arundell I*), Som. June 1443 (judicial), Devon May 1444 (trespasses and felonies), Devon, Cornw., July 1449 (estates of John de Campo Arnulphi), Devon, Cornw., Som., Wilts. Aug. 1455 (conspiracy), Sept. 1456 (concealed crown income); to assess contributions to a parliamentary grant, Devon Apr. 1431; of gaol delivery, Exeter castle May, June 1432, Jan. 1451, Mar. 1454; to distribute tax allowances, Devon Jan. 1436; of arrest 1437; to raise royal loans Mar. 1439, Nov. 1440, Mar. 1442, Sept. 1449; of oyer and terminer Sept. 1439, Sept. 1440, Cornw. July 1440; array, Devon Mar. 1443, June 1454.

J.p. Devon 20 July 1424-d.

Escheator, Devon and Cornw. 7 Nov. 1435-23 Nov. 1436.

Apprentice-at-law, duchy of Lancaster 1439-d.2

Recorder of Exeter Mich. 1442-d.3

Tax collector, Devon Aug. 1450.


Coming from the same stock as the Radfords of Okeford, Nicholas rose to be a lawyer of considerable standing in the West Country, especially in Devon where he was to serve on the bench for over 30 years. In a petition addressed to Henry VI after his horrific death, it was said that he had been ‘oon of the moste notable and famous apprentice of your lawe’.

Radford’s first election to Parliament, as a representative for Lyme, occurred very early in his career, and all that is previously known of him is that, in February 1420, he had stood surety at the Exchequer for the lessees of the manors of Berkley and Elm by Frome (Somerset); that in the following June he had acted as feoffee of property in London on behalf of a goldsmith; and that in November he had attended the shire elections for Devon held at Exeter castle. On 24 May 1421, the day after he and his fellow Members of the Commons were dismissed, he provided securities for the prior of Cowick when he was granted custody of the priory lands.4 Of far greater significance than these events was his appointment, two years later and by the royal council, as joint steward with John Copplestone* of the estates of the earldom of Devon during the minority of the heir, and he also held courts in the name of the widowed countess. Earl Thomas did not come of age until 1435, and for many years Radford remained on such good terms with him as to be chosen godfather to his second son, Henry. An able lawyer like Radford was much in demand, and his services were put at the disposal of a variety of people. For example, in one week in July 1423 he found mainprise for Copplestone as lessee of the estates lately belonging to Lady Elizabeth Neville, sister of the earl of Kent and widow of the earl of Westmorland’s heir, for the tenants of the same lady’s land in Surrey, and for the royal grantees of the custody of Ellingham priory.5 One of his most regular colleagues, not least as a royal commissioner, was Sir Philip Courtenay of Powderham, and it was they who, in 1427 and together with Dean Sydenham of Salisbury, were granted custody of the dower estates in Devon, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire recently held by Eleanor, widow of Amauri, Lord St. Amand. In 1430, they were co-feoffees with the young earl of Devon of property in Somerset. In 1431 Radford again shared an Exchequer lease, this time of the town of North Tawton, and for the duration of the minority of one of the earl’s tenants. When making appearances in the central lawcourts, Radford came into contact with other up-and-coming members of his profession such as John Fortescue* and John Hody*, both future chief justices of the King’s bench. That he himself was to rise no higher than the rank of apprentice-at-law, may have been through personal choice, for had he taken the coif he might have lost considerable earnings from his many eminent clients. There can be no doubt of his ability, since he was employed by the duchy of Lancaster for 16 years and as recorder of Exeter for 13. He came to the notice of Cardinal Beaufort, who in February 1432 appointed him as one of four attorneys to act on his behalf in the courts while he was overseas, particularly in the matter of the writs of praemunire facias issued against him; and again employed him in the following year. By 1436 he was in receipt of an annuity of £6 13s.4d. granted by John Holand, earl of Huntingdon, and in 1438 he was retained as a councillor by Earl Humphrey of Stafford, from whom he received a fee of £2 a year from then until 1447 or later. Meanwhile, in 1445, he had been associated with Archbishop Stafford, the chancellor: in March that year, at the archbishop’s request, the priory of St. Nicholas of Barlinch, Somerset, was granted a royal licence to acquire in mortmain land worth 20 marks p.a. either from the archbishop himself or from Radford, in return for which the canons were to pray for the welfare of the King and the parties concerned, as well as for the soul of Henry V.6

Most of Radford’s clients (among them John Basset of Cornwall, Baldwin Fulford and members of the Carew family), were west country landowners, and he devoted much of his energies to their affairs.7 From 1433 he was also deeply involved in legal battles between the city of Exeter and the dean and chapter of the cathedral. The counsel he gave to the mayor was rewarded from 1438 to 1442 with a 20s. annual fee, and from then on he received, as recorder of the city, an additional £3 a year, along with many gifts of wine and fish. During the mayoralty of John Shillingford* (1447-50), Radford was kept busy visiting the chancellor and chief justice in London to put the city’s case, representing the authorities at the local sessions of the peace and, in 1448, acting for them at a love-day with the earl of Devon. Other Devon boroughs also called on his services: in 1454, for example, he received a fee of £1 6s.8d. from Barnstaple. By then, of course, he was a well-known figure in the county at large, having served for 30 years as a j.p. and attended the shire elections held at Exeter castle ten times since 1420. His own single return as knight of the shire, in 1435, was followed while Parliament was still in session with his appointment as escheator.8

One of the motives for Radford’s murder, which ranks among the most notorious crimes of the century, may have been his wealth. By 1431 he had purchased land in Grantland, North Yeo, Babbadon and Cheriton Fitzpaine, as well as the manors of Cadeleigh, Poughill and Ford, which he placed in the hands of trustees early in 1455.9 He had already entrusted the dean and chapter of Exeter with gold and silver plate worth £600 together with £700 in cash, and he also possessed more plate, jewels and money valued at £700 which were kept in his house in the city. Another and more important factor, however, was the growing hostility between Sir William Bonville II* (now Lord Bonville) and Radford’s earliest patron Earl Thomas of Devon. Bonville had been one of Radford’s clients for over 20 years, and in the 1450s they seem to have become even more friendly: the lawyer served as Bonville’s feoffee and called on him to be a trustee of his own manorial holdings; he was reported to be ‘of counsell with Lord Bonville’ and was described by William of Worcestre as ‘juris peritissimus de concilio domini Bonevyle contra Thomam Corteney comitem dominum Devonie’.10 Clearly, his own previously good relations with the earl had irretrievably broken down, and although there remains a modicum of doubt that the murder took place with the earl’s prior knowledge, he certainly sheltered and aided the murderers. The sequence of events is well recorded.11 On the night of 23 Oct. 1455 Radford was wakened by the noise of the arrival at his manor-house at Upcott of the earl’s eldest son, Sir Thomas Courtenay, at the head of an armed band some 95 strong. Courtenay demanded that he should come down and speak with him, and upon receiving his promise as a knight and gentleman that no harm should befall him, Radford complied and opened the gates. Courtenay then ‘sotillye helde’ him talking and drinking while his men ransacked the house and its coffers, robbing Radford of £300 in money, and jewels, bedding, furs, books and chapel ornaments worth 1,000 marks, which they carried off on six of his horses, and heaved his invalid wife out of bed.12 Using the pretext that the earl wished to see Radford, Sir Thomas enticed him as far as a stone’s throw from the house and then, after exchanging words privately with some of his followers, rode off saying, ‘Farewell, Radford’. One of his men promptly with a ‘glayve smote the said Nicholas Radford a hidious dedlye stroke overthwarte the face and felled him to the grounde’, and then ‘yaf him a noder stroke upon his heade behinde that the brayne fell oute of heade’. Not content with this, on the following Monday (27 Oct.) Henry Courtenay, Radford’s godson, rode to the chapel at Upcott where the body lay, conducted a travesty of a coroner’s inquest and forced the deceased’s servants to bear his body to the church of Cheriton Fitzpaine. There, not only was the corpse pitched naked into a grave, but Courtenay and his men, ‘having no more compassion ... than though it hadde be a Jewe or a sarrison’, threw down on top of it the gravestones which Radford had bought for his tomb, crushing it beyond all recognition. The affair was not over yet, for on 1 Nov. Earl Thomas himself, at the head of 1,000 men whom he assembled at Tiverton, marched on Exeter where, having forced the guards to give up the keys of the gates and the dean to open the cathedral doors, they bore away all they could find of Radford’s valuables in the city. Exaggerated rumours of the events at Upcott and Exeter played a significant part in the appointment of Richard, duke of York, as Protector for the second time. But the earl of Devon and Radford’s murderers were able, in April 1457, to obtain full pardons for every crime they had committed.13

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


G.H. Radford, ‘Nicholas Radford’, Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxv. 251-78.

  • 1. CCR, 1429-35, pp. 164, 301.
  • 2. Somerville, Duchy, i. 453.
  • 3. Trans. Devon Assoc. xxxv. 257.
  • 4. CFR, xiv. 322, 328, 385; CCR, 1419-22, p. 109; C219/12/4.
  • 5. CPR, 1422-9, p. 46; CFR, xv. 47, 49, 55; SC2/165/35 m. 5.
  • 6. CFR, xv. 175, 223; xvi. 25, 95; Som. Feet of Fines (Som. Rec. Soc. xxii); 80; CCR, 1429-35, pp. 103, 309; Foedera ed. Rymer (orig. edn.), x. 500, 541; C. Rawcliffe, Staffords, 221, 237; CPR, 1441-6, p. 359.
  • 7. CCR, 1422-9, pp. 201-2; 1447-54, pp. 45, 308, 377; CAD, v. A10869; Som. Feet of Fines, 70; CPR, 1446-52, p. 309.
  • 8. M.E. Curtis, City v. Cathedral Authorities (Hist. Exeter Research Group Mono. v), 23, 65, 66; Letters and Pprs. Shillingford (Cam. Soc. n.s. ii), 50-51, 59, 61-63; Reprint of Barnstaple Recs. ed. Chanter and Wainwright, ii. 125; C219/13/2, 4, 14/1, 15/2, 4, 6, 7, 16/1-3.
  • 9. CCR, 1429-35, pp. 164, 301; 1435-41, p. 35; Trans. Devon Assoc. xxv. 273.
  • 10. Som. Feet of Fines, 115; Paston Letters ed. Davis, ii. 126-7; William of Worcestre, Itins. ed. Harvey. 82.
  • 11. SC8/138/6864; KB/16/50.
  • 12. Thomasina Radford had suffered a ‘sore falle of hire horce’ a few years before: Letters and Pprs. Shillingford, 64.
  • 13. CPR, 1452-61, pp. 358, 364; Bull. John Rylands Lib. xliii. 59-67.