WORSLEY, Robert (d.1402), of Booths in Worsley, Lancs.

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



Family and Education

s. and h. of William Worsley (fl. 1366), of Booths. m. by 1376, Isabel, wid. of John Worthington of Blackrod, at least 1s.1

Offices Held

Collector of a tax, Lancs. Oct. 1386, an aid on the marriage of Princess Blanche Jan. 1402.2

Commr. to make an arrest, Lancs. Dec. 1381; of array Mar. 1400.3

J.p. Lancs. Mar. 1400.4


Robert’s ancestors owned substantial estates in and around the manor of Worsley, from which they took their name. The division of this property at the beginning of the 14th century between the two sons of Henry Worsley was, however, destined to cause a serious rift in the family as the descendants of the younger brother refused to be satisfied with anything short of the entire inheritance. Much of Robert’s life was given over to this struggle; and it is evident that he lacked neither the ruthlessness nor the determination to pursue his aim. Significantly, under the circumstances, he first appears in 1368 as one of a group of men charged with the murder of Thomas Booth of Barton. Given the long and close relationship which he maintained with Booth’s second son, John I*, in whose financial affairs he was closely involved, there remains a distinct possibility that his friend was somehow implicated in the affair. Having evidently escaped without punishment, Worsley managed to extend his estates by marrying the widowed Isabel Worthington, who took possession, in 1376, of dower lands in Blackrod. Two years later the couple obtained a licence from the bishop of Lichfield to make use of a private oratory on the manor of Booths, which Worsley had by then inherited from his father. No more is heard of him until 1382, by which date he had joined the retinue of John of Gaunt, possibly at the annual fee of £20 which was being paid to him at the end of the century. Some four years later he obtained royal letters of protection, pending his departure to Ireland on the King’s business, and although he may well have returned in time to accompany Gaunt to Spain, personal interests clearly took the upper hand, causing him to remain at home. It was almost certainly with the intention of pressing his claim to all the Worsley estates that he stood for the Parliament which met at Westminster in October 1386, since he was already then anxiously seeking support in what promised to be a long and bitter confrontation.5

The larger share of the Worsley inheritance (comprising the manors of Worsley and Hutton in Lancashire and land around Kirby Bedon in Norfolk) had descended to Robert’s kinsman, Sir Geoffrey Worsley, another Lancastrian retainer, who died in 1385 leaving an infant daughter named Elizabeth. Robert lost no time in acquiring the wardship and marriage of the child with the intention of making her the wife of his son, Arthur, and thus gaining control of her property. Sir Geoffrey’s sister, Alice, and her influential husband, Sir John Massey of Tatton, were, however, determined to frustrate this plan, on the ground that Elizabeth was illegitimate, and consequently unable at law to inherit, thus leaving Alice herself as the next heir. The survival of Sir Geoffrey’s first wife, Mary Felton, who according to them had been forced against her will to take the veil (but, as Robert countered, had sought a divorce entirely of her own volition) certainly complicated matters, especially as she now left her convent and also joined in the legal battle for control of her late husband’s estates. Sir Geoffrey’s kinsman and trustee, a chaplain named Richard Worsley, was at first prepared to uphold Alice’s title, although he subsequently agreed, under considerable duress, to enter a new series of enfeoffments beneficial to Robert. For a while the latter managed to retain the upper hand, thanks no doubt to his patron, John of Gaunt. In 1390 he received custody of the land and person of John Astley, one of Gaunt’s wards (with John Booth I standing surety on his behalf), and in the following year he again entered Parliament. Such was his feeling of security that he was even prepared to indent for a period of service in the garrison of Berwick-upon-Tweed under Sir John Stanley, who retained him for a year. But his adversaries, although temporarily unsuccessful, were certainly not prepared to admit defeat, and they resumed their attack in 1396 with a complaint about his coercive tactics towards Richard Worsley. Changing political circumstances, too, worked to their advantage, for King Richard’s recovery of power, coupled with his single-minded determination to punish those who had previously worked against him, gave Sir John Massey a heaven-sent opportunity for revenge. He and other members of his family denounced Robert as an erstwhile supporter of the Lords Appellant of 1388, claiming that he had actually served in the private army which the rebels had mobilized against Richard II’s favourites. Despite his trenchant denial of these charges, Robert was arrested by Sir Ralph Radcliffe*, the sheriff of Lancashire, in November 1398 and immediately committed to the Tower of London. A loyal supporter of the court party, Radcliffe had himself taken up arms in 1388 on behalf of the King, and was, moreover, anxious to settle an old score with John of Gaunt, whose palatine jurisdiction he effectively ignored in the matter. Worsley remained in prison without trial, ‘a tres grant perile de sa vie et tres graundes costages et damages’, until the arrival in England of Henry of Bolingbroke in the following summer. The latter, mindful of Robert’s loyal service to his father, Gaunt, ordered his release; and during the first Parliament of the new reign instructions were given for the award to him of suitable compensation, as well as for the holding of an official inquiry into his treatment.6

The Lancastrian usurpation of 1399 marked the restoration of Worsley’s fortunes, and he soon reasserted his local influence. In September of that year, for example, he undertook to arbitrate in a dispute involving two Lancashire landowners, and in March 1401 he acted as a mainpernor for his old friend, John Booth I, who had become the farmer of land in Salford. Booth performed the same service for him at this time by underwriting certain guarantees made to Sir John Massey over the fate of the Worsley estates. Massey’s position was now sufficiently vulnerable for him to be forced into a disadvantageous arrangement whereby he not only confirmed Worsley in his original inheritance, but also conveyed a life estate to the latter’s daughter-in-law of most of the manors of Worsley and Hutton. A collusive action brought at the Lancaster assizes of August 1401 recognized Massey and his wife as owners of the property, but the profits (worth well over £20 p.a.) passed out of their hands. Worsley’s position was strengthened even further in the autumn with the award of an annuity of £10 made to him for life by the Crown.7 But in other respects he was less fortunate, since the recurrent mental instability of his son, Arthur, meant that there was no one to defend his hard-won gains once he died. Indeed, on his death, which took place in March 1402, Arthur was pronounced insane and assigned to the care of Richard Worsley, who, as we have seen, had good cause to bear considerable rancour towards that branch of the family. A grant of custody made subsequently to John Booth I brought scant improvement, for the latter’s previous attachment to Robert Worsley did not prevent him from committing acts of waste and extortion on his son’s estates. Eventually, rights of wardship passed to (Sir) John Stanley*, in whose care Arthur died.8

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


Variants: Workeslegh, Workysley.

  • 1. VCH Lancs. iv. 382, 378; DKR, xl. 531; xliii. 2.
  • 2. Chetham Soc. n.s. xcvi. 76; DL42/15, f. 36.
  • 3. Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, no. 631; DKR, xl. 528.
  • 4. DKR, xl. 528.
  • 5. VCH Lancs. iv. 366, 378, 382; DKR, xxxii. 363; Chetham Soc. n.s. xciii. 107; CPR, 1385-9, p. 114; Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, p. 11; S.K. Walker, ‘John of Gaunt and his retainers, 1366-99’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1986), 289.
  • 6. SC8/103/5109, 146/7276; VCH Lancs. iv. 378-9; DKR, xxxvi. 540; Chetham Soc. xcv. 43; RP, iii. 445; Cal. Scots Docs. (supp.) v. no. 4390; CCR, 1396-9, pp. 348, 353; Walker, 176, 193.
  • 7. DL42/15, f. 92; Chetham Soc. n.s. lxxvii. 45-46, 79-81; xciii. 107; DKR, xxxiii. 29; xl. 529.
  • 8. VCH Lancs. iv. 382-3; DKR, xxxiii. 11; xl. 531; xliii. 2; Chetham Soc. xcv. 118.