STONHAM, Robert (d.1455), of Stonhams in Rattlesden, Suff. and Dillington, Hunts.
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Family and Education
s. and h. of Robert Stonham (d.1397) of Stonham Aspall by Katherine (d. aft. 1436), da. and coh. of Sir William Burgate*. m. by Trin. 1415, Mary (c.1403-1464), da. and coh. of Sir John Bernak (d.1408) of Saxlingham, Norf. by Anne, da. of Sir Edmund Noon*, 1da.4
Collector of a tax, Hunts. Dec. 1429.
Sheriff, Cambs. and Hunts. 5 Nov. 1432-3, 8 Nov. 1436-7 Nov. 1437.
Commr. to raise royal loans, Hunts. Feb. 1434, Mar. 1439, Nov. 1440, Mar. 1442, June 1446; distribute tax allowances Jan. 1436, Apr. 1440, Mar. 1442, June 1445, July 1446, June 1453; supervise the felling of trees in the forest of Weybridge Mar. 1439; of inquiry, Hunts., Cambs., Norf., Suff. July 1439 (wastes and evasions), Hunts. Feb. 1447 (wastes and concealments); to treat for the payment of a subsidy Feb. 1441; of oyer and terminer Mar. 1450 (attack on the abbot of Ramsey’s property at St. Ives); to deliver Huntingdon gaol Sept. 1452.
J.p. Hunts. 18 May 1437-June 1443, 30 Jan. 1450-d.
In terms of landed wealth Robert Stonham was probably the richest man to represent Huntingdonshire during our period, for besides inheriting an impressive estate from each of his parents, he was also fortunate enough to marry a wife whose two brothers and only surviving sister died in childhood, thus leaving her heir to property in at least five English counties. In addition to the influence which such extensive landed interests brought him, Stonham also derived considerable personal benefit from his widowed mother’s two subsequent marriages. The first, which probably took place by the spring of 1401, was to John Spencer* (d.1417) of Banham in Norfolk, who served as controller of the household of Henry, prince of Wales, for a decade, and was duly promoted to the rank of keeper of the Wardrobe when his patron became King. Not long after Spencer’s death, she married John Tyrell*, another important crown servant, who eventually occupied the treasurership of the Household. Three times Speaker of the Commons, Tyrell was a distinguished parliamentarian, and even though he never actually sat with his stepson, there can be little doubt that Stonham’s somewhat belated interest in local administration (which really dates from his first term as sheriff in 1432), was actively encouraged—if not actually promoted—by him.
Although they were probably still under age when their father died in 1397, no record survives of any provision being made for the wardship of either Stonham or his sister, Eleanor, who were perhaps entrusted to the care of their maternal grandfather and the principal executor of their father’s estate, Sir William Burgate. Eleanor subsequently married Robert Ashfield of Ashfield in Suffolk, himself a former ward of Joan, dowager countess of Hereford, while Robert was betrothed to Mary, the elder daughter of Sir John Bernak. Their marriage took place at some point before the Trinity term of 1415, when Robert’s mother and her second husband confirmed them both in possession of the manor of Stonhams in Rattlesden, which formed part of the young man’s patrimony. The dates of death of Mary’s two younger brothers (who expired within a day of each other) are given variously as July 1414 and August 1415, but it is clear that Mary was not more than 13 years old when she and her sister, Joan, were able to share the Bernak estates between them. The latter’s death, in December 1420, left Mary in sole ownership of almost all this inheritance, comprising the manors of Dillington (Huntingdonshire), Hallaton (Leicestershire), Sandy (Bedfordshire), Colne Engaine (Essex) and Saxlingham (Norfolk). Joan’s half of the property was then valued at £21 a year, but it probably produced much more.
We do not know from whom Stonham acquired his lands in the Lincolnshire villages of Caythorpe, Ranby and Staunton by Langworth, but these too may have come to him through marriage. Not content with his gains so far, he also advanced a title to the Bernak manor of Grafham in Huntingdonshire, which was then occupied by Henry Hethe, his colleague in the second Parliament of 1421 and sometime guardian of Mary’s younger brother, John. Hethe appears to have bought the manor in about 1416, and although Stonham was prepared to take the case to arbitration, the award went completely against him, even denying his right to token compensation. Despite the fact that he was bound in securities of £500 to perform the terms of the award, he gained a measure of satisfaction by allowing ten years to elapse before releasing Grafham to his adversary. Although the Burgate family estates (some of which were entailed in 1415 and 1417 upon Stonham’s cousins, William and Margery Rookwood) remained in his mother’s hands until her death, along with the manor of Tilney in Norfolk, which she held as dower, Robert was, none the less, the immediate heir to several major holdings in this part of England. According to the tax returns of 1428, he then owned other property in Tilney and the neighbouring village of Wiggenhall, together with the manor of Stonham Aspall, and the above-mentioned manors of Saxlingham and Stonhams in Rattlesden. In 1436 the whole of his estates (including further unspecified land in Northamptonshire) were said to be worth £150 a year, not including his mother’s possessions, which finally descended to him soon after. He did not, however, live to enjoy the revenues which came to his wife as niece and eventual heir of Sir Henry Noon. Part, if not all, of the latter’s estates in Norfolk and Suffolk were in her hands by 1458, when she sued out a royal pardon specifically as his next of kin, but Stonham had then been dead for three years, and thus never derived any personal profit from this rich inheritance.5
It was perhaps as a result of his connexion with John Spencer that Stonham enlisted in the army which Henry V led to France in 1415, although he contracted dysentery during the siege of Harfleur and had to be invalided home that autumn. He evidently chose to live on his wife’s Huntingdonshire estates, for part of the time at least, since most of his administrative duties were discharged in that county and, so far as we know, he never represented another shire in Parliament. Stonham first entered the House of Commons in December 1421, but he then showed little, if any, interest in public affairs for the next eight years. His decision to stand for election to the Parliament of 1429 has been seen as evidence of an association with the earl of Huntingdon, who was currently at odds with John, duke of Norfolk, and wished to consolidate his influence both in the locality and the Lower House. An armed confrontation had, indeed, taken place between the retainers of the rival magnates in Bedfordshire, on 22 Aug. 1428, but it is unlikely that the stormy events of the Huntingdonshire parliamentary elections, held one year later, were a direct outcome of this particular conflict. Whatever the cause (which probably arose from a disagreement in the ranks of the local gentry), a large group of ‘outsiders’ from Bedfordshire, among whom (Sir) Thomas Waweton* figured prominently, forced their way into the county court and left the sheriff no alternative but to return Robert Stonham and William Waweton. Having once before chosen Stonham as their MP, the electors of Huntingdon could hardly object to him on other than personal grounds; but their protests about William Waweton went far beyond his evident kinship with the high-handed Sir Thomas, who had, incidentally, been first to witness the indenture of return. In direct contravention of the statute of 1413, which stipulated that shire knights should be ‘receantz et demurrantz a temps de l’election es countees ou ils vent esluz’, William Waweton was neither a resident nor even a landowner in Huntingdonshire. A complaint was duly registered at the next meeting of the county court on 17 Sept. and, as a result of a strongly worded petition by (Sir) Nicholas Styuecle* and 13 other local notables, the sheriff then held a second poll, which was this time free from outside intervention. Neither Stonham nor Waweton retained their seats, being replaced by (Sir) Nicholas himself and Roger Hunt*, who, significantly in the circumstances, were two particularly experienced parliamentarians. In view of the strong feelings aroused by this attempt at electoral manipulation, it is interesting to note that both Stonham andWaweton were subsequently returned for the county, the former sitting in at least nine more Parliaments.6
Nor was this the only time that Stonham became involved in a disputed election, although on the second occasion, in 1450, the local electors showed themselves as anxious to keep him as their representative as they had previously been to replace him. According to a petition addressed to the King by Stonham’s supporters, he and (Sir) Nicholas Styuecle’s son, John†, were then chosen on the unanimous vote of 125 Huntingdonshire freeholders worth over 40s. a year, and the general acclaim of ‘a three hundred moo good comuners of the same shire’, thus complying with all the current legislation on elections. The proceedings were, however, interrupted by the appearance of 70 other ‘freholders comoners’, assembled ‘be labour of dyvers gentilmen of other shires and of (the) said shire of huntyndon’, who clamoured for the election of their own candidate, Henry Gymber. An attempt by the under sheriff to examine the electoral qualifications of each party caused such a disturbance that fear of a general riot forced him to return Gymber, even though the latter was deemed ineligible because of his humble birth. Whatever the truth of this assertion (Gymber was later appointed to both the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire benches and also served on many royal commissions), the original election was upheld by Henry VI, and Stonham once again took his place at Westminster. We are told that both he and Styuecle were returned in 1450 because of their position as esquires of the royal body. The date of Stonham’s entry into the King’s household cannot now be determined, but it is quite likely that his stepfather, John Tyrell, had originally introduced him to the Lancastrian establishment years before.7
In marked contrast to his eventful career as an MP, comparatively little is known about Stonham’s more personal affairs. In May 1430, he obtained royal letters of protection and attorney on his imminent departure for France, no doubt accompanying the newly crowned Henry VI on his only visit to his mother’s country; and in the following November the letters of protection were renewed while he was still abroad. In May 1434 he was included in the list of leading Huntingdonshire gentry who, along with those of all other counties, were to take the oath not to assist persons breaking the peace. Stonham had only one surviving child, a daughter named Elizabeth, who married John Broughton of Willan in Hertfordshire. The match had taken place by April 1437, when Robert and his wife entailed their manors of Hallaton and Sandy upon the couple. The MP remained close to his old friend, (Sir) Thomas Waweton, being from 1440 onwards a co-trustee with him of the manor of Diddington in Huntingdonshire. His circle now included (Sir) Nicholas Styuecle (his opponent in 1429, but one of his chief supporters at the time of the 1450 election), whose endowment of Ramsey abbey in 1453 was greatly facilitated by Stonham’s activities as a feoffee-to-uses. Most notably of all, he appeared along with William, duke of Suffolk, Thomas, earl of Devon, and other distinguished figures as a trustee for James, earl of Ormond.8
Stonham died on 28 Feb. 1455, and was buried in the panelled vault of a specially built chapel in the parish church of Great Staughton (near Dillington). His daughter was then aged about 30, although she did not survive her widowed mother, who lived on for another nine years. On her death, in the autumn of 1464, Mary Stonham was succeeded by her grandson, John Broughton the younger, twice sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and MP for Suffolk in 1478.9
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. Stonham was returned as a shire knight at the county court in Huntingdon on 20 Aug. 1429, but because of protests about ‘outside’ intervention, a second election took place on 17 Sept. following, when he either did not stand or else failed to retain the seat (C219/14/1, and below, n. 7).
- 2. CFR, xvii. 140.
- 3. CFR, xvii. 325, 329.
- 4. C138/18/10, 56/23; C139/156/2; C140/12/9; CP25(1)244/113/22; Norf. and Norwich RO, Reg. Harsyk, f. 238; CP, v. 80; HP ed. Wedgwood, 1439-1509, Biogs. 814. The genealogies of the Bernak and Stonham families given in VCH Hunts. ii. 361, 366, and Vis. Beds. (Harl. Soc. xix), 14, and that of the Burgates essayed by J. Copinger in Suff. Manors, iii. 244-5, are inaccurate in many respects, and present an essentially misleading picture of this Member’s background and connexions.
- 5. Feudal Aids, ii. 447; iii. 262, 337, 563, 581; Copinger, ii. 357; iii. 244-5; C138/18/10, 56/23; CP25(1)169/186/37, 224/113/22, 24, 114/22; Hunts. Feet of Fines (Cambridge Antiq. Soc. xxxvii), 105; Add. Ch. 33378; EHR, xlix. 635; CCR, 1402-5, pp. 87, 88, 299; 1422-9, p. 113; Reg. Harsyk, f. 238; HP, Biogs. 814.
- 6. C219/14/1, 15/1; E101/44/30(1); J.S. Roskell, Commons of 1422, pp. 17-20; R.E. Archer, ‘The Mowbrays’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1984), 259, 344, 350.
- 7. HP, Reg. pp. cii-civ; Biogs. 276-7; VCH Hunts. ii. 12; Essays Presented to B. Wilkinson, ed. Sandquist and Powicke, 383-95.
- 8. Rot. Gasc. et Franc. ed. Carte, ii. 269-70, 272; CPR, 1429-36, p. 375; 1436-41, pp. 50-51; 1452-61, p. 74; Hunts. Feet of Fines, 107; VCH Beds. ii. 243; VCH Leics. v. 124; Add. Ch. 34083; E326/4458; Huntington Lib. San Marino, Hastings ms, HAD (large box), 84.
- 9. C139/156/2; C140/12/9; VCH Hunts. ii. 366; Vis. Hunts. (Cam. Soc. xliii), 51; CFR, xx. 143; HP, 1439-1509, Biogs. 117, 814.