RETFORD, Sir Henry (c.1354-1409), of Castlethorpe and Carlton Paynell, Lincs.

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



Oct. 1404

Family and Education

b.c.1354. m. by Easter 1385, Katherine, wid. of Sir Ralph Paynell (d. aft. July 1383) of Caythorpe and Carlton Paynell, 1s. Kntd. by 25 Aug. 1384.1

Offices Held

Commr. to hold a special assize, Yorks. Feb. 1384, Lincs. May, Sept. 1385;2 of oyer and terminer July 1384 (withdrawal of labour services by the tenants of the prior of Newstead on Ancholme), July 1384 (disorder at Blyborough), Dec. 1384 (claim to land at Fillingham), Nov. 1385 (disorder at Bonby), June 1405 (treasons and insurrections); array (Lindsey) Apr. 1385, Mar. 1392, Dec. 1399, Aug. 1402, Sept. 1403; inquiry May 1385 (wastes at Haugham priory), July 1393 (use of fraudulent weights by wool merchants), Lincs., Northumb., Yorks. Jan. 1407 (lands of the late earl of Northumberland); sewers, Lincs. Aug. 1391; to enforce statutes concerning weirs June 1398; proclaim the King’s intention to rule justly May 1402.

Sheriff, Lincs. 15 Nov.-13 Dec. 1389,3 18 Oct. 1392-7 Nov. 1393, 3 Nov. 1397-17 Nov. 1398, 5 Nov. 1406-23 Nov. 1407.

Ambassador to seek the resignation of the two contending popes at Avignon and Rome 11 Apr.-8 Nov. 1397.

J.p. Lincs. (Lindsey) 12 Nov. 1397-13 Feb. 1407.

Speaker 1402.


According to evidence given by him to the court of chivalry, Retford was born in about 1354, although he may well have been slightly older. A Henry Retford of Worlaby near Castlethorpe obtained a royal pardon in November 1377 for murdering one of his neighbours, and since the MP is later known to have held estates in this area, it seems likely that the reference concerns him. The Black Prince’s retainer, Sir Edward St. John, had supported his defence to the charge, so he was clearly not without influential connexions. Indeed, it is interesting to note that after his second indictment for murder, in October 1377, Retford appealed to the prince’s widow, Joan of Kent, who managed to secure another pardon for him. Even by the standards of the age, Retford was clearly a man of violent and uncertain temper. In February 1376, for example, he and three others were bound over in sureties of £20 to keep the peace towards Robert Thresk, whom they had reputedly ‘threatened as to life and limb’. He was also involved at this time in a territorial dispute with Sir James Roos, whom he arraigned on three separate assizes of novel disseisin before the justices at Lincoln. A settlement was probably reached out of court, for no more is heard of the affair.4 Perhaps because he was busy campaigning overseas, Retford took no interest in administrative affairs until 1384, when he began to serve on various royal commissions, and also helped to effect an endowment of Legbourne priory in Lincolnshire. He may have already married by then, since it was through his wife, Katherine, that he acquired a substantial part of his estates. On the death of her first husband, Sir Ralph Paynell (a former sheriff of Lincolnshire), in or shortly after the summer of 1383, she had obtained a life interest in the manors of Caythorpe and Carlton Paynell with extensive appurtenances in Lincoln, Appleby Parva and Scawby. During the Easter term of 1385 she and Retford acquired the ultimate reversion of these properties as well, settling them upon feoffees who held to their use. Her holdings also included the manor of Broughton, the ownership of which was unsuccessfully contested at this time by a rival claimant. In order to secure their title completely, the couple made subsequent enfeoffments of the three manors in 1394 and 1396, naming Robert Cumberworth* as one of their trustees.5

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1385, Retford took part in Richard II’s ill-fated invasion of Scotland with a personal retinue of one esquire, a man-at-arms and two archers.6 The collapse of this venture soon led him to seek military employment elsewhere, and in the following April he obtained permission from the King to appoint attorneys pending his departure for Spain with John of Gaunt, who hoped to make good his wife’s claim to the kingdom of Castile. The expeditionary force was ready to leave Plymouth, when, on 16 June 1386, Gaunt and several of his men, including Retford, gave sworn depositions on behalf of Richard, Lord Scrope of Bolton, in support of the latter’s exclusive right to bear the arms ‘azure a bend or’. This was also the date on which Sir William Hawley drew up his will at Bayonne in France, naming Retford as one of his executors; and when the document was finally proved in November 1387 power of execution was reserved to him alone. Hawley’s son, Sir Thomas, was eventually returned with Retford to the second Parliament of 1404, by which date the two men were old friends.

Understandably enough, Retford’s name appears on the list of Lincolnshire gentry who were asked, in March 1388, to take the general oath in support of the Lords Appellant, although his personal sympathies clearly lay with the court party rather than its enemies. In November 1393 Retford actually joined the royal household, being retained by Richard II as a knight of the body at an annual fee of 40 marks payable for life. Together with a personal bodyguard comprising one esquire and three mounted archers, he accompanied the King to Ireland in September 1394 and returned in the following April. He so impressed Richard with his ability that when a delegation was appointed in February 1397 to attempt the difficult task of ending the papal schism, he was one of the four English ambassadors chosen Sir William Sturmy* was the other layman). This initiative was being undertaken jointly by the three kings of England, Castile and France, who hoped either to persuade or else to force the rival popes, first Benedict XIII and then Boniface IX, to resign and make way for a single successor. Retford and his colleagues did not, in fact, leave home until the following April, when, under royal letters of protection, they set out for Avignon. From thence they travelled to Rome, but neither they nor the other ambassadors met with any real success. Retford was, however, able to gain some personal advantage from the venture. Just before leaving England he and his wife had been given a papal indult allowing them to use a portable altar; and while he was at the Vatican he obtained two further licences, one for the plenary remission of sins at the hour of death, and the other for the upkeep of a private chapel with a baptismal font. Notwithstanding the disappointing outcome of the mission, Retford remained in high favour, and had barely landed back in England when he was made sheriff of Lincolnshire for the third time. His appointment followed Richard II’s triumph over his former enemies in Parliament, and was part of a systematic policy designed to strengthen royal control in the counties. Moreover, just nine days later, on 12 Nov. 1397, his official position and local standing were strengthened by his appointment to the commission of the peace in the parts of Lindsey.

Whatever his personal attachment to King Richard, Retford was not prepared to run any risks by opposing Henry of Bolingbroke once the latter had seized the throne. Nor was the new King disposed to show any animosity towards a man of such wide military and administrative experience. Having proved his loyalty to the Lancastrian cause by fighting against the Scots ‘and elsewhere’, Retford obtained confirmation in February 1401 of his annuity as a knight of the body. He was then actually sitting in his very first Parliament, and in the following August he was summoned to a great council at Westminster. His re-election to the House of Commons in 1402 may well have been influenced by the initial failure of Henry IV’s campaign against the Welsh, in which he had quite probably taken part, and about which he was clearly well qualified to debate. This factor too probably led to his election as Speaker, since despite his impressive record in other fields he was not a seasoned parliamentarian. His knowledge of the ecclesiastical situation in Europe cannot have escaped attention either, for the chancellor, in his speech opening the Parliament, had referred to improved prospects of restoring unity to the Church; and the question of the schism was one which the Lower House subsequently felt it necessary to place before the King. A week after Retford’s assumption of the Speakership, the Commons requested a liaison committee with the House of Lords; and although this was reluctantly granted, King Henry hastened to assert that his compliance was ‘of grace only’. His desire to avoid the creation of an unwelcome precedent may not have been unconnected with the contrast between his own rather miserable showing against the Welsh and the triumph of the Percys over the Scots at Humbleton Hill. Retford thus found himself in a particularly sensitive position, yet, even though he had to deal with a variety of appeals for the reduction of urban fee farms and other imposts, he did succeed in obtaining a fairly generous grant of taxation for the war-effort from a somewhat disgruntled and openly critical House of Commons. The gravity of the problem was brought home to him personally at this time, as the session had only just begun when he himself was asked for a loan towards the cost of suppressing the Welsh.

All in all, Retford’s tenure of the Speakership proved satisfactory from the royal point of view, and in the following year he was again required to represent Lincolnshire at a great council. He sat in only one more Parliament, the second of 1404, and from then until his death, five years later, contented himself with essentially local affairs. Rather more is known about his private life and connexions during the period after 1398, probably because he lived for most of the time on his Lincolnshire estates. Prominent among the members of his circle was Philip, Lord Darcy (d.1399), who chose him to be the supervisor of his will. This task was performed with (Sir) Gerard Sothill (his colleague in the Parliament of 1402), and it may well have been as a result of their collaboration in this capacity that the two men offered securities of 300 marks to John Kynaston the elder. Retford alone received two similar bonds from Kynaston in 1399 and 1400; and in 1401 he agreed to act as a mainpernor for both Kynaston and Sir Nicholas Hauberk when they were bound over in mutual securities of £200 to keep the peace towards each other. During this period, Retford often appears as a witness to property transactions and a trustee in Lincolnshire. These activities led to his involvement in litigation against Sir Walter Tailboys* at the Lincoln assizes in December 1405, but otherwise his last years passed without incident.7

Sir Henry Retford died shortly before 16 June 1409, when, because of an administrative error, the custody of his estates, together with the marriage and wardship of his young son, Henry, was farmed out for 1409 by the Crown. Further investigation revealed, however, that Retford had not been a royal tenant at all, so the grant was rescinded. Sir Henry Retford the younger became sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1427, and was later made mayor of Bordeaux. A prominent Yorkist, he fought on the losing side at the battle of Ludlow in 1459, and was duly attained for treason by the Coventry Parliament of that same year.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


Variants: Radford(e), Ratford, Redford(e), Riddeford, Ryddeford.

  • 1. CP25(1)143/145/43, 47; CPR, 1381-5, p. 351; Lincs. AO, FL 3060. Unless otherwise stated, all references to Retford’s career are to be found in J.S. Roskell’s biography in Lincs. Archit. and Arch. Soc. vii (2), 117-25.
  • 2. C66/317 m. 21d, 319 m. 16d.
  • 3. On this occasion he did not account: PRO List ‘Sheriffs’, 79.
  • 4. JUST 1/1488 rot. iv.
  • 5. CP25(1)143/145/43, 47, 144/149/18, 150/17; JUST 1/1496 rot. 1, 3; CPR, 1381-5, p. 472.
  • 6. EHR, lxxiii. 19.
  • 7. JUST 1/1514 rot. 93v, 95; Lincs. AO, FL 3151, 3152, 3183; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 588; 1405-9, p. 355; Sel. Cases in Chancery (Seldon Soc. x), no. 118; Cott. Ch. XXVII 6 J.S. Roskell is mistaken in asserting that the MP’s widow had two more husbands (William, Lord Clinton (d.1431), and Sir John Heron of Northumberland), and lived on until 1459, some 40 years after Retford’s death. In fact, this evidence relates to his son’s wife, Mary, who took Sir Henry Retford the younger as her third and last husband: CP, iii. 315; CFR, xix. 212 (where the three men are listed in reverse order).