SOMER, Henry (d.1450), of London, Tottenham, Mdx. and Grantchester, Cambs.
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Family and Education
Commr. to survey the forfeited estates of the Lords Appellant of 1388, Essex, Herts. Oct. 1397; of musters, Southampton 1402; to recruit armourers to work in the Tower, London Feb. 1405, June 1406; of inquiry, Southampton Nov. 1405, Mar. 1406, Mdx. July 1420, Feb. 1421, Mdx., Essex July 1421 (forfeited estates of Henry, late earl of Northumberland), Mdx. Dec. 1438 (excessive charges by millers); to recruit craftsmen for work at the Mint, London Sept. 1412; of oyer and terminer, Mdx. Feb. 1414, Jan. 1430 (treasons and felonies); array May 1418; to raise a royal loan Nov. 1419, Jan. 1420, July 1426, May 1428; secure French prisoners in the Tower, London Feb. 1423;2 lease royal demesne land, Bucks., Berks. Feb. 1424; of kiddles, Essex, Herts., Mdx. Feb. 1428, Mdx. June 1430, Bucks., Mdx. Aug. 1433, Essex, Herts., Mdx. Apr. 1434, Bucks., Herts., Mdx., July 1438; to assess a royal loan, Mdx. Apr. 1431.
Collector of customs, Southampton 31 May 1398-5 Oct. 1399, the wool custom, London 18 Nov. 1400-6 Oct. 1401, tunnage and poundage 1 Oct. 1405-6 Feb. 1406.
Clerk of the receipt of the Exchequer by 1 Dec. 1399-1404; baron of the Exchequer 8 Nov. 1407-19 June 1410; dep. treasurer to Sir John Tiptoft* 20 July 1408-29 Sept. 1410, to (Sir) John Pelham* 17 Dec. 1411-2 Mar. 1413; chancellor of the Exchequer 20 June 1410-18 Dec. 1437.3
Alnager, Hants 31 Jan. 1404-Mich. 1408.
Keeper of the privy wardrobe in the Tower 13 Feb. 1405-27 Oct. 1408.
J.p. Mdx. 13 Feb. 1407-d., Cambridge 28 Jan. 1430-Feb. 1432, Cambs. 8 July 1442-Feb. 1446.
Keeper of the royal park at Kempton, Mdx. 29 (sic) Feb. 1409-d.
Warden of the Exchange and Mint in the Tower of London and at Calais 29 Nov. 1411-18 Dec. 1439.
Tax assessor, Cambs., Mdx. Jan. 1436.
‘Glad cherrid Somer’ is generally regarded as one of the best known and most interesting crown servants of the early 15th century, chiefly because his friend, the poet Thomas Hoccleve, has left us an unusually revealing picture of the man himself. An able and ambitious administrator who rose from relative obscurity to hold a remarkable combination of important offices, Somer none the less enjoyed a reputation for great personal charm and conviviality. He belonged to the celebrated ‘court de bone conpaignie’—a group of Exchequer and other royal officials who dined and drank regularly at the Temple—and although wont to criticize some of its members for their excesses, he was much esteemed for ‘freendly gentillesse’. Hoccleve addressed two of his verses to Somer in the hope of recovering his unpaid salary, for whereas Somer earned rapid promotion in the ranks of the Exchequer, the poet never rose higher than a clerkship and therefore valued their attachment all the more.4
Very little is known about Somer’s background. He may have been related to the Franciscan astronomer, John Somer, a scholar patronized by Richard II’s mother, and was perhaps a kinsman of the Henry Somer whom Edward III had made surveyor of Corfe castle in 1362. Either connexion would explain his early association with the Court, since he cannot have been more than about 20 when, in February 1393, he received an annuity of £5 as a royal servant. He had then been living in London for at least a year, although according to certain references of the period he came originally from Kent.5 One of Somer’s closest friends in Richard II’s household was the chief butler, John Slegh, an influential figure for whom he acted as feoffee, mainpernor, attorney and, eventually, executor. Slegh’s widow also relied upon him for assistance—possibly exploiting his sense of gratitude for the advancement such patronage could bring. The tide of preferment was already flowing his way by December 1397, the date of a grant made to him (as an esquire of the body) of the manor of Felstead in Essex, which he and another courtier farmed jointly at a rent of £50 14s.8d. a year. Not long afterwards he became collector of customs at Southampton, a post which remained in his hands until the Lancastrian ursurpation.6
Henry IV’s accession brought many promising careers to an end, but Somer’s was not, however, one of them. Far from suffering a reversal of fortune because of the change of dynasty, he prospered as never before, amassing an impressive array of offices. His career in the Exchequer is of particular interest, since he was one of the first laymen to act as clerk to the treasurer and to be described specifically as the latter’s deputy. His appointment also coincided with the beginning of a period of quasi-political patronage in this department. Whereas in the years prior to 1400 treasurer’s clerks had retained their posts under a number of different superiors, the early 15th century marked the growth of a system of clientage determined largely by the success of opposing factions in the royal council. Somer and his rival, John Burgh II*, alternated in office as either Archbishop Arundel or the Beauforts, their respective patrons, gained the upper hand in matters of policy. Yet it should not be assumed that Somer owed his success solely to the archbishop. The rewards and offices bestowed upon him throughout Henry IV’s reign testify to his administrative and financial ability. As early as October 1399 he was made farmer of the temporalities of the alien priory of Andover in Hampshire; between 1409 and 1412 he became both keeper of the royal park and custodian of the manor of Kempton; and in February 1411 he obtained a grant of property in Winchester.7 In June 1410 he exchanged the post of baron of the Exchequer, which he had held for almost three years, for that of chancellor, having previously served as a customs officer in London, an alnager in Hampshire and the keeper of the King’s privy wardrobe in the Tower. The period December 1411 to March 1413 also marked his return to office as treasurer’s clerk and his appointment to the very lucrative keepership of the Exchange and Mint.
Somer’s career underwent a major crisis in 1413, although the year began auspiciously enough with the award to him by Henry IV of an annuity of £40, previously held by the bishop of Tournai. The King’s declining health threatened to bring Archbishop Arundel’s ascendancy to an end, and it was probably for this reason that Somer, who no doubt expected to suffer from the political repercussions of a revival of the Beaufort interest, indemnified himself against any actions that might be brought against him as chancellor.8 Not enough is known about the Parliament which met two days later on 3 Feb. 1413 to say whether it was generally hostile towards Arundel and his supporters. Somer’s personal fears were, however, more than justified, and despite his royal pardon, proceedings were begun against him for the misuse of public funds. The King’s death in the following March placed him in an even more vulnerable position, for the first Parliament of the new reign, in which these inquiries were resumed, was dominated by the Beauforts. On 1 Apr. 1413, one week after his removal from the deputy treasurership, massive recognizances of 10,000 marks were given by Somer himself and an extremely distinguished group of mainpernors (including seven London merchants and, paradoxically, Bishop Beaufort’s most influential supporter in the Commons, Thomas Chaucer) that he would ‘stand and wait until the end of the next Parliament in order to answer touching all articles, causes and matters which should be laid against him on behalf of the King and council and of others in respect of impeachments concerning money made against him and others in the last Parliament’.9
The charges were either disproved or dropped for pragmatic reasons: Somer was too able a man to be sacrificed to the dictates of factionalism, and his irregularities, if any, were soon forgotten. On 15 June 1413 he was confirmed in his tenure of the chancellorship of the Exchequer and wardenship of the Mint, as well as in the two annuities previously granted to him by the Crown. Similar letters patent were also issued to him at the beginning of Henry VI’s reign, and he remained in office until December 1439, when age rather than political considerations forced him to resign. The additional annuities of £80 then awarded to him were none the less greatly reduced over the next seven years, as, indeed, were the ones which he had enjoyed from the start of his career.10 Somer must have been at least 70 when, in July 1440, he was excused from holding any royal office or serving on any juries against his will; but he still agreed to sit on a parliamentary committee set up in 1444 for the endowment and foundation of King’s college, Cambridge, in which he clearly felt a personal interest. Henry VI had already provided him with a corrody for life in Trentham priory, Staffordshire, by February 1446; and in the following May be obtained royal letters of exemption from having to provide food or accommodation for any member of the King’s household.11
Somer made many notable connexions during his long years in office. He was evidently a friend or acquaintance of Geoffrey Chaucer*, who authorized him to collect his pension for him in June 1400 when he was ill; and, as we have seen, he was on intimate terms with another literary figure, Thomas Hoccleve. On being appointed his father’s lieutenant in Ireland in 1408, Thomas of Lancaster made Somer one of his attorneys. The latter’s dealings with his patron, Sir John Tiptoft, naturally involved them together in a good deal of quasi-official Exchequer business: in February 1409, for example, Sir Humphrey Stafford II* and others acknowledged a joint debt of 400 marks to the two men, who had probably first come to know each other in the Parliament of 1406, when Tiptoft was Speaker and Somer one of the shire knights chosen by the Commons to supervise the engrossment of the roll of the Parliament.12 Somer’s work as a commissioner and crown servant brought him into contact with most of the leading men of the day: among those for whom he was most active as a feoffee-to-uses were Richard, earl of Salisbury, and Thomas Chaucer (the son of the poet, who had stepped in to rescue him in 1413), although his services in this capacity were naturally in general demand.13
Of far greater consequence was Somer’s friendship with Mark le Faire, the richest and most influential merchant then active in Winchester, which probably dated from Somer’s term as collector of customs at Southampton. Le Faire’s only daughter and heir, Katherine, was widowed at about this time, and had married Somer by November 1402. Three years later they obtained a papal indult enabling them to use a portable altar and appoint a confessor of their own choice; and in November 1412 they were granted permission to receive plenary remission of sins at the hour of death. In addition to the dower properties in Salisbury settled upon her by her first husband, Katherine held the reversion of all her father’s holdings in Winchester and Southampton, as well as his manor of Freefolk in Hampshire and land in Wiltshire. An inheritance worth £46 a year or more thus came into her hands when le Faire died in about 1417, and although Somer eventually allowed most of his wife’s property to fall into decay, he must at first have relied quite heavily on the revenues which she brought him.14
The precise chronology of his own acquisitions is often harder to establish, but the most lucrative appear to have been made in or after 1419. Somer leased property in London from 1392 onwards, if not before, and as the records of the possessory assizes show, was not always punctilious in paying his rent. In August 1401 he and his trustees purchased some dwellings in the parish of All Hallows, Barking; three years later le Faire joined with him in acquiring tenements in Water Lane; and at some unknown date he added a hostelry in Thames Street to his rent-roll. Soon after becoming warden of the Mint, Somer rented certain premises near the Tower which belonged to the abbey of St. Mary Graces, although in May 1425 he exchanged them for an annuity of £10 by) way of compensation for money spent on improvements. He also advanced a claim to six messuages in the parish of St. Mary Woolchurch, but he and his tenant, a kinsman named Thomas Somer, were unable to uphold their title at law.15 Somer’s other purchases in the City cannot be so easily distinguished from the many rents and tenements which he held there as a feoffee-to-uses—often with London’s most distinguished citizens—so his possessions may well have been even more extensive.16
As a royal official employed at Westminster, Somer naturally preferred to build up an estate in the home counties rather than consolidate the le Faire properties in Hampshire, some of which he finally sold to the city of Winchester. By 1402 he had begun to acquire farmland in and around Edmonton and Tottenham (where he struck up a close friendship with his neighbour, James Northampton*), buying, selling and exchanging various manors over the next 20 years until he had accumulated a compact and manageable group of holdings.17 This no doubt explains his readiness to exchange the manor of Graunt Courts in Essex for Henry V’s manor of Dephams in Edmonton—a transaction which was completed in 1422 allegedly upon the payment of 500 marks for his ‘good will’. Such an unusually generous award is more likely to have been made in settlement of the loan which he had advanced towards the French expedition of 1415 and has probably been confused with it. Even so, the ensuing territorial arrangements can only have met with his approval. It was probably after receiving the keepership of Kempton park in south-west Middlesex that Somer either leased or purchased the nearby manor of Hanworth, which reverted to the Crown on his death.18
Being no less shrewd in his own dealings than he was when occupied with public business, Somer proved himself to be a capable and farsighted landlord. Between 1419 and 1427 he purchased a large estate centred upon Grantchester in Cambridgeshire, which had previously belonged to John Walden*; and in spite of the heavy running costs incurred by a return to demesne farming, he was able to raise almost £60 a year in net profits. His spirited—and at times even violent—resistance to the tithe collectors sent repeatedly to Grantchester by the wardens of Corpus Christi college no doubt typifies his behaviour as a landowner, although not all his adversaries were so easily cowed. At a somewhat earlier date, for example, Joan, dowager countess of Hereford, successfully championed the tenants of Edmonton in their struggle to resist his enclosure of common land by taking him to law and sending in men to destroy his fences.19 Somer is known to have owned other property in Chingford and Waltham, Essex, and Camberwell in Surrey, but none of these places are listed in his will. He did, however, die in possession of holdings in Bermondsey, and an inn with adjacent farmland in Barkway, Hertfordshire, as well as a market, fair, and free warren in Ickborough, Norfolk, which were confirmed to him by the Crown in November 1432.20
According to the tax assessments of 1436, Somer’s estates extended as far north as Staffordshire, which suggests that the settlement of land in and around High Offley made upon him in December 1427 constituted a sale rather than an enfeoffment-to-uses. The Kentish properties mentioned in the return cannot now be traced, but it is unlikely that they contributed more than a small part towards the £266 a year which he is said to have enjoyed as a landowner. His total annual income probably exceeded two or three times this sum, for in addition to his various annuities, he could rely upon handsome perquisites from his offices in the Mint and Exchequer. The above-mentioned loan of 500 marks made by him towards the French expedition of 1415 reflects his great wealth, as do his subsequent contributions to the war-effort. Henry V borrowed at least £1,000 from him altogether, although he may perhaps have advanced part of this sum (and the additional £353 he lent over the next ten years) on behalf of a consortium of creditors. The Crown again approached him for money on three occasions between May 1434 and February 1436: we do not know what he was then prepared to lend, but he was certainly better placed than most for collecting his debts.21
His preoccupation with affairs of state notwithstanding, Somer was able to devote a substantial part of his time to local matters. A member of the Middlesex bench for over 43 years, he represented that county in five Parliaments and was also present to witness the return of shire knights at the elections of November 1421, 1426, 1427 and 1433. It was as one of the notables of Middlesex that he was ordered, in May 1434, to take an oath not to maintain persons disturbing the peace, although he had by then become almost as influential in Cambridgeshire. His Grantchester estates made him a prominent figure in the county, which returned him to the Parliament of 1432; he also sat as a j.p. in both Cambridgeshire and the town of Cambridge, for which he developed a particular attachment.22
Somer died on 23 Mar. 1450, and was buried in a tomb which he had already ordered to be built at St. John’s church, Cambridge. His daughter, Agnes, who is said on rather dubious evidence to have been betrothed to Thomas Charlton’s* son and heir, but who actually married Sir Richard Veer, had predeceased him, leaving a young son named James, to whom most of Somer’s property descended. The boy also received a legacy of 3,000 marks in cash, plate and outstanding debts which was placed in trust for him until his coming of age. Somer probably had other kinsmen—the John Somer who became an auditor of the Exchequer in 1427 almost certainly owed his advancement to a family connexion—but only one, the above-mentioned Thomas Somer, appears as a beneficiary of his will. His servants were generously rewarded with gifts of plate, money and, in the case of Thomas Maister, his receiver-general, a life estate in some of the properties he had helped to administer.23
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Variants: Somere, Somers, Sommer.
- 1. CCR, 1402-5, pp. 172-3; Lambeth Pal. Lib. Reg. Stafford, f. 183v-184v.
- 2. PPC, iii. 23-24.
- 3. J.L. Kirby, ‘Rise of Under Treasurer’ EHR, lxxii. 667-72; E403/564, 595 m. 9; PRO List ‘Exchequer Offs.’ 196.
- 4. T. Hoccleve, Works (EETS, extra ser. lxxii), pp. xiii, 58-59, 64-66. The ballads ‘enuoiee a lonure sire Henri Sommer, Chaunceller de leschequer ’ and ‘faites a mon meistre H. Somer, quant il estoit Souz-tresorer ’ have been misdated by the editor.
- 5. DNB, xviii. 626; CPR, 1361-4, p. 189; 1391-6, p. 216; CFR, xi. 100, 186, 197.
- 6. CFR, xi. 100, 245, 247, 276; CPR, 1391-6, pp. 476, 667, 689; 1396-9, p. 47; Corporation of London RO, hr 137/8.
- 7. Kirby, 667-72; CFR, xii. 16, xiii. 202; CPR, 1408-13, pp. 61, 394-5.
- 8. CPR, 1408-13, pp. 460, 465.
- 9. CCR, 1413-19, pp. 61-62.
- 10. CPR, 1413-16, p. 47; 1422-9, p. 72; 1436-41, pp. 559-61; 1441-6, pp. 222, 235; 1446-52, p. 30.
- 11. CPR, 1436-41, p. 442; 1441-6, p. 427; CCR, 1441-7, p. 364; RP, v. 92-94.
- 12. Chaucer Life Recs. ed. Crow and Olson, 532-3; CPR, 1405-8, p. 439; CCR, 1405-9, p. 492; RP, iii. 585.
- 13. CPR, 1429-36, pp. 123, 448, 598; CCR, 1429-35, p. 335; 1435-41, pp. 92-93; CP25(1)13/81/8, 19/26/9.
- 14. CCR, 1402-5, pp. 172-3; CPL, vi. 14, 20, 386.
- 15. Corporation of London RO, hr 130/118-19, 133/101, 141/61; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, pp. 157, 199; CCR, 1422-9, pp. 209-11; London Rec. Soc. i. nos. 197, 266; Reg. Stafford, ff. 183v-184v.
- 16. CCR, 1435-41, p. 183; Corporation of London RO, hr 143/6, 21, 145/25, 148/25, 150/15, 155/79, 157/21, 159/9, 172/52, 175/40-41; London Rec. Soc. i. no. 263; Cal. P. and M. London, 1381-1412, p. 273.
- 17. CP25(1)151/85/78, 152/87/44, 88/11, 15; VCH Mdx. v. 150-1; CCR, 1402-5, p. 161; 1422-9, pp. 209-11; CPR, 1408-13, p. 372; 1416-22, p. 435.
- 18. VCH Mdx. ii. 393; v. 151; Feudal Aids, iii. 381.
- 19. VCH Cambs. v. 163, 201-3; C139/138/21; Feudal Aids, i. 183; CCR, 1422-9, pp. 380, 389; Edmonton Hundred Hist. Soc. n.s. xxvii. 4.
- 20. C139/138/21; Reg. Stafford, ff. 183v-184v; CPR, 1408-13, p. 372; 1429-36, p. 241; CCR, 1422-9, pp. 63, 74.
- 21. CCR, 1422-9, pp. 384, 386; CPR, 1413-16, p. 342; EHR, xlix. 632; PPC, iv. 213, 303-4, 325; A. Steel, Receipt of Exchequer, 184.
- 22. C219/12/6, 13/4-5, 14/4; CPR, 1429-36, p. 408.
- 23. C139/138/21; Reg. Stafford, f. 183v-184v; CPR, 1422-9, pp. 423, 457, 463; J. Saltmarsh, ‘Receiver-general on Estates of King’s College’, Camb. Hist. Jnl. iii. 206-11.