DEFENCE AND SECURITY Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Berwick King's Lynn defences casualties war damage financial administration taxation widows petition impoverishment warfare pardons merchants royal service customs wool trade maladministration financiers debt commerce business enterprise money-lending victualling profiteering
Subject: Personal profit and loss from war
Original source: Public Record Office. 1. Special Collections, Ancient Petitions, SC8/E360; 2. Patent Rolls, 16 Edward III, pt.I, m.34, 21 Edward III, pt.II, m.15
Transcription in: 1. C.M. Fraser, ed. Northern Petitions illustrative of life in Berwick, Cumbria and Durham in the fourteenth century. Surtees Society, vol.194 (1981), 174-75. 2a. Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1340-1343. London: HMSO, 1900, 383; 2b. Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1345-1348. London: HMSO, 1903, 354.
Original language: 1, French; 2 Latin (English abstracts by R. Isaacson)
Location: Berwick-upon-Tweed, King's Lynn
Date: 14th century


[1. Petition from a Berwick widow, ca.1318]

Joan, formerly the wife of John de la Chaumbre, declares to the lord king and his council that whereas the king had instructed the Bishop of Durham to provide Joan with maintenance appropriate to her status in Sherburn House, because Joan's husband was in the king's service when killed defending Berwick Castle as part of Roger de Horsleye's garrison, the bishop replied that the hospital was so full that she could not be accommodated. For which reason, Joan requests the king to show his grace and grant that she receive a share in the victuals at Newcastle upon Tyne, so that she can survive; for what goods she had to live by she has spent pursuing her suit, so that she now relies on the king's grace.

[2a. Pardon to a Lynn merchant employed by Edward III, February 3, 1342]

Pardon to Thomas de Melchebourne, late one of the collectors of customs in the port of Bishop's Lynn, and supplying the place of the king's butler there, purveyor of the king's victuals, one of the takers and buyers of wool for him and one of the takers of a moiety of the wool, receiver of wool, purveyor of hemp, iron and other necessaries for making anchors and cables for the king's use, purveyor of necessaries for building a galley and barge for him and arrayer of men, mariners and arms for the same, and other ships in the king's service, purveyor of victuals for the sustenance of the said men, appointed to arrest all victuals passing to Norway and Scotland, and deputy of admirals of the fleets, in the county of Norfolk, of a fine of £19.15s., whereby he made fine with the king before Thomas Wake of Lidell and his fellows, justices appointed to hear and determine divers oppressions in that county, for all oppressions done by colour of his said office or any other office under the king from the time when he assumed the governance of the realm until Monday after the Nativity of St. Mary last [10 September 1341].

[2b. Debts due the Lynn merchant for services rendered, July 12, 1347]

Whereas of late the king commanded the treasurers and barons of the exchequer to certify him of all that was due at the exchequer to Thomas de Melchebourn and William his brother, as well from the surplus of accounts rendered there as in any other manner, and they certified that on search of the rolls and memoranda of the exchequer it was found that there are due to Thomas 41s. 6¼d. by an account made with him of receipts and expenses about the buying of corn for the king's use in his tenth year; £80 4s. 5d. by an account made with him of the like in his thirteenth year as well as of expenses about the making of four anchors, three cables and other cords for the king's ship called la Graundecogge, in his eleventh year; £111 11s. 7d. by an account made with him of his charges for fitting out men at arms in the king's galley at sea, and for victuals for their sustenance, for bringing back his envoys from foreign parts in his eleventh year; £7 18s. 8½d. by an account made with him of his costs about the making of three cables for the king's ship called Cristofre in the said eleventh year ; and 81s. by an account made with him of his costs about the custody and carriage of five hundred bows, by the great hundred, and five hundred and eighty sheaves of arrows from Lynn to London, in the fifteenth year of the king; and whereas afterwards he commanded the treasurer and barons to certify him whether Thomas had been satisfied of the whole or any part of the said sums, and they and the chamberlains certified in the chancery that, on search of the rolls and memoranda of the exchequer as well as of the receipt of the same exchequer, it did not appear that any part had been satisfied; the king, willing that he be satisfied of the £208 7s. 2¾d. as is becoming, by these presents promises to pay the said Thomas that amount.


Although chronicles might mention the number of casualties in battle and often named prominent persons who were killed or captured, far less attention was given to civilian casualties. It seems to have been accepted as almost a matter of course that when a town was captured by an assaulting or besieging force there would be looting, burning, and killing; certainly such behaviours seem to have been common where a town was taken by a foreign army, as with French towns captured by the English, or those that fell in the context of the Anglo-Scottish wars.

Berwick-upon-Tweed suffered in that way. Originally a village within Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, it lay within territory ceded to the Scots after they defeated the Northumbrians in 1018; this marked the beginning of centuries of dispute and conflict over ownership. The most southerly town in Scotland, or the most northerly in England, depending on how you look at it, Berwick had the misfortune to be situated in the war zone, an entry point for either side intending to invade the other, and consequently a target for attack by both; control of it passed back and forth a dozen times before it came securely under English rule in 1482. Whichever side held it at any given time needed to maintain a garrison of several hundred men there. Before Edward I's capture of Berwick in 1296 it been a prosperous Scottish port with a population large enough to have warranted the establishment there of houses of several orders of friars; the population was a mix of Scots and English, along with some Flemings. The storming of Berwick in 1296 was accompanied by a slaughter of its inhabitants so considerable as to have been noted by several chroniclers. Their estimates of the dead ranged between 7,500 and 15,000; although we need not trust these figures, it is likely that hundreds died. Within the year or so following, efforts were underway to improve the defences (a ditch was dug immediately, but walls were not completed until 115), restore government, attract new settlers (particularly merchants and craftsmen) and reassign any urban properties now vacant.

After a Scottish assault in 1317 was rebuffed, the townsmen took responsibility for the defence of the town, in return for an annual payment of £4,000 to cover costs, an arrangement forestalled by Scottish capture of town and castle in spring 1318; it was perhaps then that John de la Chaumbre lost his life. Joan was doubtless not the only widow left homeless and thrown back onto very reduced resources, if not poverty, but perhaps few others could hope for some kind of charitable corrody.

The Scottish controllers of Berwick now confiscated the lands of any of its residents who had fled the city, on the assumption they were loyal to the English cause. Something similar must have taken place after the town changed hands in 1296, for the parliament of 1305 saw a number of petitions for restoration from men, women, or their descendants, who had held some of those properties previously. Margery of Durham, for example, argued that there was no reason why her property had been forfeited, since her husband was blind and paralyzed years before Edward I set out to conquer (and so could not have taken up arms against him). Alan the son of Richard of Corbridge complained that, even though he was born in England and had always been loyal to its king, never having been convicted of any offence against him, but instead having provided horses and armour for the king's forces, his house and three shops in Berwick had been confiscated and he was having trouble recovering them because they had already been given to someone else. Berwick returned to English control in 1333, after a two-month siege and the defeat at the battle of Halidon Hill of a relieving force; part of the terms of surrender were that the residents would not have their property confiscated.

Even where a town did not change hands, attacks would inevitably lead to some loss of life among civilians, destruction of their property, and the capture and carrying off of those for whom it was felt ransom could be obtained. A petition from Thomas Baudewyn, probably slightly later than that of Joan de la Chaumbre, described the petitioner as a former burgess of Berwick (although his father had been a knight) who had fought in defence of the town; he asked the king for financial support on the grounds that all his property in the town had been lost and he had been obliged to ransom his wife and children from captivity (his eldest son still being a hostage). He could not resist adding the criticism that he had never believed the townsmen should be responsible for their own defence, since their lack of expertise and their penny-pinching made it inevitable the town would fall. Some townsmen were held to ransom more than once in their lives. Although the king prohibited retaliatory raids, it was not uncommon to try to capture Scottish cattle that might be exchanged for ransom victims, thus fuelling the vendetta engine.

Of course, the Scottish were as much on the victim end of the stick as the English. But in either case ransoms and booty are unlikely to have profited townsmen much, for – although the war in France was probably more lucrative to soldiers of all levels than was the war against Scotland – the greater share in these perks went to the nobles and captains who commanded military forces, Whereas the burden of taxation, particularly felt after the population decline brought about by plague, fell heavily on towns.

Large-scale warfare was a costly, complex, and challenging undertaking, quite aside from the combat operations themselves; in the case, for example, of a major expedition to France: capable cavalry, infantry, archers (some mounted), and ancillary personnel had to be recruited, equipped, and assembled at assigned places at particular dates; supplies had to be purveyed for the soldiers and their horses (which consumed large quantities of grain) and replacement stores brought (mostly from England) to the front throughout the course of the campaign; large numbers of carts and wagons were needed to help an army on its overland travels; shipping had to be organized to transport men, horses, carts and wagons, supplies arms, armour, artillery, and other equipment across the Channel. Such tasks obliged the king – in the absence of a standing army and associated organizational mechanisms – to call on the resources of local communities, particularly its merchants or townsmen who had administrative capabilities. For a few of these – particularly those who were enterprising and able to raise enough capital to invest at the outset, it could offer lucrative business opportunities. Thomas de Melcheburn (or Melchebourne) presents an example of this type of urban entrepreneur.

The huge expense of war was beyond the normal resources of the monarchy. The institution of Parliament, although today we tend to see it primarily as part of the development of democratic representation in government, was really intended to expedite national administration by the king and his bureaucracy, and to solve (including marshal support for, as well as communicate nationally, the solution to) problems facing monarchic government, such as financing war. Warfare (and indeed government as a whole) was funded initially through taxation, with the approval of taxes gradually becoming a lever that Parliament could use to gain more say in governmental decisions and reforms. As parliamentary grants of taxes became routine and the assessments on local communities fixed, they also became less able to meet the fluctuating (and mostly growing) costs of war and the size of the royal debt; tax money was also slow coming in, while expenditure needs were pressing. From the time of Edward I onwards, kings had frequent recourse to borrowing, and they attempted to capitalize on England's wool trade through export duties and demands for a share in wool produce, which they then sold through middlemen.

Italian merchant companies were initially the chief source of large loans. Repayment of debts was often handled by assigning customs revenues to creditors. But those revenues could become overburdened through double-dipping by the king, trying to satisfy (or at least quieten temporarily) multiple creditors; as debt-payers, royal governments tended to be slippery and unreliable. The inability, or reluctance, of the leading Italian lenders to consistently meet all royal financial needs opened the door for English rivals who had already been lending on a more modest scale.

Thomas de Melcheburn was not the trailblazer war financier. That credit is usually given to the merchant capitalist William de la Pole, who has been described as "one of the most influential businessmen in England.... a hard, unscrupulous man, who used his associates and then discarded them when they were no more needed." [E.B. Fryde, William de la Pole, Merchant and King's Banker, London: Hambledon Press, 1988, 1]. Although his origins and early career are obscure, circumstantial evidence suggests William and his brother Richard, his business partner until 1331, came from Kingston upon Hull or perhaps Ravenser, and presumably from a propertied and/or mercantile family from which they would have inherited sufficient wealth to kick-start William's career as merchant venturer and financier. However, even that could not have proven sufficient to fuel his large-scale lending to the Crown had he not been able (as he stated, when challenged on the source of his money) to build capital by persuading fellow merchants to invest their cash into the enterprise. For a few years, Edward III was reliant on William to fund his ambitions; one of William's advantages was that, through his own business acumen and the insider knowledge he gained through influential contacts at court, he was able to develop and exploit an understanding of the king's limited resources for financing a war. Even though disfavour and punishment were to follow after de la Pole's loans and money-raising schemes still proved insufficient to translate into military success for Edward, the national prominence he had gained was sufficient to raise his family into the lower ranks of the nobility.

In 1337 William de la Pole, together with his closest business associates, organized England's major wool exporters into a company to control the collection of duties and channel its revenues to the king. When this scheme hit problems and the company failed (declining to involve itself any further), de la Pole tried to ward off the king's displeasure by offering massive personal loans to the king (1338-39). This was to help pay for Edward III's first expedition to the continent. His banker's duties made it desirable for him to sail personally with the fleet in July 1338 and remain close on hand to the king, a role dignified in 1339 by giving him the rank of banneret. William had brought with him a small retinue (1 knight and 34 men-at-arms), which he later augmented – when the king was complaining of desertions and requesting reinforcements from England – with 200 archers. After disembarking in the Netherlands, the king established a wool staple at Antwerp and appointed de la Pole its first mayor. During his time in the Netherlands, William was given or promised many other rewards for his services, including the post of Second Baron of the Exchequer, which he occupied for a few months; but his fall from grace, trial and imprisonment (1340-42) put paid to most of those.

In a continued effort to win back his influence, he came up with a monopolistic scheme for a mercantile company to operate the customs service; this would provide quicker cash to the king and give the company opportunities for greater profits. His continued value to the monarchy was in his ability to persuade or coerce his fellow merchants into financing the king. Although de la Pole himself withdrew from the company when the war heated up again, a series of shadowy syndicates competed to operate it under essentially the same terms.

The English Company set up to control customs collection in July 1343 was headed by Thomas de Melcheburn and its thirty-plus members included Thomas' brother William. However, Thomas' front-man position was a courtesy on the basis of his election, a month earlier, as mayor of the Bruges staple; the real creative and driving (but initially invisible) force was, according to later testimony by William de Melcheburn and other company members, de la Pole; the latter, after signing a letter of agreement with his associates to put company interests before personal interests, assumed full control of the company in 1344 and took the customs at farm; he promptly purged it of those he did not like or trust, or who felt similarly about him, by persuading most members to either sell out to him or become sleeping partners. Those other members had been, like de la Pole and the Melcheburns, merchants with past experience in providing goods, services, or loans for the war effort. They included Londoner Walter de Chiriton, Newcastle's Richard de Galeway, and Henry Goldbeter of York (who would become its mayor a few years later).

It is, however, the Melcheburns who interest us here. They remained core members of the reorganized company after the purge. Although not de la Pole's equal in terms of wealth and influence, they were no non-entities, being leading merchants in their home town of Lynn, dealing particularly in grain and victuals. Thomas in particular was well-known within the national mercantile community, with which he mixed not only through business activities and posts in the royal bureaucracy, but as a Lynn representative to several parliaments between 1319 and 1340. Apparently a self-made man of relatively humble origins, Thomas may have possessed a certain amount of the personal forcefulness and business ruthlessness that characterized de la Pole. Another thing they had in common was being of good service to the war effort, and consequently in the king's debt – they were able to use their position in the English Company to secure repayment of some of the debts. On the other hand, unlike de la Pole, Thomas Melcheburn was not a heavy investor in real estate; he acquired a mere handful of properties in his home-base town, seemingly only what he needed for business and residential purposes, and a few lands outside of town (including in the village of Melchebourne).

The pardon Thomas obtained in 1342 indicates the range of roles in which he served the king – most of them related to the war effort – even before he stepped into the spotlight as mayor of the staple and figurehead for the English Company. The pardon was obtained in the context of a general investigation of alleged or suspected abuses by royal officials – ranging from heavy-handed behaviour or coercion through outright corruption such as embezzlement or smuggling, or complicity in such unlawful acts by others – initiated in 1340 by Edward III. The king had returned frustrated from his first expedition against France, blaming his lack of success on the failure of the financial support systems (notably de la Pole's wool company) set up before his departure, and also fearing that the heavy tax burdens his war needs were imposing on the populace might lead to popular unrest. De la Pole himself, as the principal target for the king's anger, would spend two years in various prisons after he was investigated.

The size of Melcheburn's fine does not suggest large-scale abuses on his part, and his purchase of a pardon should not be construed as an admission of guilt; yet it would hardly be surprising for him to have attempted to take advantage of his posts to maximize his personal profits, for such behaviour seems to have been commonplace in a society where enterprise and self-help were two fundamentals of making one's way in life. Thomas had in fact been accused in 1333 of trying to evade paying the wool-tax that parliament had approved, and in 1341 was seeking indemnity from the king in relation to various Norfolk men suing him on the allegation he had, as purveyor of wool (1337), requisitioned more wool than he was supposed. The 1340 investigations into the conduct of customs collectors brought about his dismissal in February 1341 from that post at Lynn, but his restoration a year later suggests he had persuaded the king that his removal had been unjustified [Robert Baker, "The English Customs Service. 1307-1343: A study of medieval administration," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., vol. 51, pt.6 (1961),42.] Whether punishment was warranted or not, it was not in the king's interest to keep men such as Melcheburn or de la Pole in prison indefinitely or to ruin them through heavy fines – not while they remained useful.

It may have been his relatively clean slate, together with his wide-ranging past services to the king, his prominence as an importer/exporter, and his growing stature at Lynn (where he had been elected mayor in 1338) that made him look a good choice as mayor of the staple and as titular head of the English Company. He could hardly fail to have known de la Pole, but there are no indications they had close business or personal ties. Long before his known association with de la Pole, Thomas Melcheburn had been seeking profit by putting his mercantile skills at the service of the king. One of the earlier references we have to him (1319) describes him as a "king's merchant" given a royal safe-conduct for purposes of trading by sea or by land. Such letters of protection were often issued him, as in 1327 and 1332 when he was shipping victuals to Newcastle and Berwick, respectively, to supply the army, and several other occasions during 1332 when he was off to Flanders to sell wool and, with his brother William (again as king's merchants), to Norway to buy victuals. He also supplied the army with weapons, and in 1333/34 was reimbursed £9 from Lynn's treasury for the expenses of using his ship for that purpose; another reimbursement from the borough was made in 1346/47, for the expenses of two of his ships in naval service. In 1328, Thomas had borrowed from the borough a springald to help defend one of his ships, presumably because it was to perform naval service.

The administrative side of Thomas Melcheburn's career continued unabated following his pardon and beyond de la Pole's fall from favour; his reduced involvement in local government at Lynn is a reflection of lack of time, not of any lessening of his reputation there. Besides his role (whatever it was precisely) in the English Company from 1343 to 1345, he remained mayor of the staple until at least September 1345 (I have encountered one source suggesting until 1348). He resumed his duties as customs collector, but gradually moved over into more of a head of policing role in national posts of searcher for smuggled coin and wool. In 1343 and again in 1344 he and William were members of a secret mission entrusted with redeeming, and bringing safely back to England, royal crowns that had been delivered as security to foreign creditors; William was rewarded for his part in this with a £20 annuity. September 1345 saw another quasi-diplomatic mission assigned Thomas (possibly as mayor of the staple): to negotiate with the governments of Flemish towns on the feasibility of standardizing English and Flemish currencies; the mandate was extended the following month to include trying to persuade Flemish authorities to recognize Edward III as king of France and overlord of Flanders. The failure of his syndicate to meet the needs of war finance does not appear to have done great damage to Thomas' reputation. The brothers were sufficiently in favour in October 1347 that they were given by the king three inns in Calais, after its capture, as spoils of war.

The English Company was in difficulties before March 1345, when it re-negotiated the contract, which it finally surrendered on August 1345, thwarted on the one hand by the adverse impact of war on trade, which reduced customs revenues, and yet on the other by its own imagined profitability: too many rivals were looking to take over the reins. It served as a model for the syndicates that succeeded it in the next few years. The first was led by another Lynn merchant, John de Wesenham, who had initially been asked to bail out Melcheburn and co. with a loan, but he refused, insisting on taking over the farm instead; this syndicate, which again included a brother, Simon de Wesenham, held the farm until September 1346. Although relatively successful, it knew by the previous May that it was to lose the contract to a higher bidder: two former members of the English Company, Walter de Chiriton and Thomas Swanlond; they had the misfortune to step in just as the siege of Calais brought new and heavy demands for money, and after the spread of plague in 1348-49 severely disrupted commerce (and therefore customs revenues) they went bankrupt. Thomas Melcheburn's downfall came not through his own failings, but through his having acted as a guarantor for Chiriton's fulfillment of his contract in paying the farm of the customs. When Chiriton defaulted, leaving an alleged debt to the king of some £13,643 and even more in debts to behind-scenes financial backers, the lands of the two Melcheburn brothers, along with those of a possible third, Richard de Melcheburn, were seized, and in 1352 William is found imprisoned in the Fleet at London. Thomas would have escaped such a fate, having died that summer.

When the Wesenhams took over the farm, William de la Pole stepped out of the picture. In 1353 his enemies, with the king's encouragement, tried to pin on him some responsibility for the farming syndicate's debts and to revive the charges brought against him in 1341 (which had been quashed when he was rehabilitated), along with anything else that looked plausible. He underwent another trial and once more ended up in prison for a few months in 1354. After being released on bail, he brought the prosecution to an end through a plea-bargain: renouncing the king's debts to him, together with all claim to royal lands he had obtained; the king then granted him a comprehensive pardon and an annuity from the Hull customs revenues. He resumed some involvement with the wool trade, not all of it above-board, for he was in trouble again in 1362 and had to purchase a fresh pardon. His disgraces had far from ruined him, however; he retained ample wealth with which to live out the remaining years of his life (d. 1366), and was able to settle valuable estates on his heir.

A few members of the syndicates made a good profit, but others were ruined; losses were also sustained by lesser merchants and wool producers they exploited, as well as smaller creditors of the Crown who were given a back-seat in the recuperation of debts. Not surprisingly, these syndicates were very unpopular. By 1353 this unpopularity, together with a related preparedness of Parliament to grant the king higher duties so long as these were collected directly by royal officials, enabled the king to put de la Pole on trial. Other English financiers were similarly prosecuted in previous and subsequent years. In the second half of the century, English merchants were more reticent in providing the king with loans, the fates of de la Pole, Wesenham, Chiriton and others serving as a cautionary disincentive – at least until a new king came to the throne and some merchants were prepared to accept the risks in return for royal favour (e.g. Whittington). But the first half of the century saw a few family fortunes made, not so much through financier activities than through supplying army or navy with their various needs, particularly through commissions as royal purveyors. Townsmen willing to gamble, such as Thomas Melcheburn or Newcastle's John de Denton, could make a good profit in wartime, although their activities gave them enemies looking to bring them down. A few others became more directly involved in military operations, such as several Yarmouth men who commanded naval or military forces during the fourteenth century, or the London merchant and alderman, Gilbert Maghfeld, who was briefly guardian of the seas between Berwick and Winchelsea in 1383.



"the king had instructed"
The order was drawn up on 2 October 1318.

"Sherburn House"
Referring to the Sherburn Hospital, which a Bishop of Durham had founded in the village of Sherburne, just outside the city. This was an unusual choice, unless Joan suffered from one of the various diseases categorized as leprosy, since the hospital catered to lepers (space being provided for 65 inmates).

"Roger de Horsleye"
Constable of Berwick castle in 1317-18. He had previously served in the same capacity at Bamburgh, and returned to that post after Berwick – being the constable complained of in a burgess petition.

This presumably refers to supplies assigned to the Newcastle garrison.

"collector of customs"
Thomas first appears in the post of collector of customs on wool in August 1328 and remained therein for most of the period up to the close of 1344.

"king's butler"
He was appointed as a deputy to the chief butler in early 1338 and continued therein throughout the 1340 investigations, until at least July 1343.

"purveyor of the king's victuals"
Thomas was heavily involved in importing or exporting grain, malt, ale, fish, and other victuals, particularly from the 1320s to '40s. Some of this was clearly on behalf of the king, and probably intended to supply his armies, while some was likely personal business; it is not easy to disentangle the two. In August 1341 he and brother William were explicitly serving in this role, and this may be the particular episode for which he wished to protect himself.

"buyer of wool"
He is described as a purveyor of wool for the king in 1337 and 1339.

"receiver of wool"
In 1339 he was one of those commissioned to gather a forced loan of wool (the moiety) sanctioned by parliament.

"purveyor of hemp"
This probably relates to the work on the galley and barge; in 1337 Thomas was commissioned to have anchors made.

"building a galley"
He and his brother William were commissioned in December 1336 to build, at Lynn, a 60-oar barge for the king's use.

"arrest all victuals"
This perhaps refers to a commission issued to Thomas and William Melcheburn in April 1341, to arrest any ships suspected of planning to trade with the king's enemies. Although later than the 1340 investigations, including this role in the 1342 pardon would have been a sensible precautionary measure.

"deputy of admirals"
I have not come across any other reference to Thomas having playing this role, but it is not wholly implausible.

"all that was due"
In September 1344, the king's debt to the Melcheburn brothers (to be recouped from subsidies payable on wool exports via four particular ports) was stated to be £617 11s. 6d. This might have been a specific debt, rather than total indebtedness.

"great hundred"
Here a hundred refers to a load measurement rather than a specific number. A "great hundred" was meant in a way comparable to the more modern "baker's dozen" (13), and comprised 120 items (i.e. 600 bows in total).

"wool trade"
The wool trade was the principal motor of England's economy at this period, for the high-quality wool produced in England was in high demand from the cloth-making industry of Europe, focused particularly in the Low Countries.

"leading Italian lenders"
The Florentine firms known as the Bardi and Peruzzi – bankrupted in 1345 and 1343 respectively, as the monarchy defaulted on repayments. After Edward II's downfall, the Bardi's house in London was sacked by a London mob; the Bardi sold it in 1328 to the government and a few years later the king turned it over to William de la Pole.

"merchant capitalist"
Not to be understood with its modern connotations, but simply referring to the application of sizable personal fiscal resources – in William's case, gathered partly through a form of 'industrialized banking' – to ventures in which there was the prospect of a large return on investment. It remains a matter of debate among historians whether there really existed, in medieval England, capitalists in the modern sense.

"origins and early career"
Fryde suspects William was born in the 1380s. The first certain mention of Richard is in 1316, when (in the context of nationwide famine) he obtained king's licence to travel abroad to buy victuals. The following year both brothers were in the posts of deputies of the king's butler, suggesting they had already established themselves to some degree. In the 1320s Richard was a customs collector at Hull and William made increasingly large shipments of wool in that period. From 1321 to 1324 they jointly served as the chamberlains of Hull, where they are recorded to have purchased a house together in 1317; there are indications that, in that role, they came in contact with leading civil servants, while in 1322 they spent borough money to supply Edward II, who had arrived in the vicinity after fleeing from the Scots, with some equipment; during their camerarian term, they oversaw expenditure on town walls (for whose construction Hull had obtained royal authorization in 1321) and at the end of their term were still owed a sizable sum by the borough for expenses incurred. The brothers' purchase of wool and lead from the estates of Thomas, earl of Lancaster, confiscated after the rebellious earl was executed (1322), provides another example of how they were able to turn a profit from war. It is likely much of their early wealth came from their activities supplying victuals to royal armies invading Scotland; in 1320 Richard, as deputy butler, was accused by foreign importers of purveying more wine than the king needed, and then re-selling it for personal profit; whether true or not, it did not prevent his promotion to chief butler in 1327, for the service of such merchants experienced in provisioning northern forces was indispensable. the same year saw William's first loan to the king, to help pay military expenses. Fryde [op.cit., 17] argues that the initial goal of the brothers, in risking loans to the king, was to obtain his support for increasing the powers of Hull's local government, in which they had leading roles and of which they could expect to prove beneficiaries. A royal charter of 1331 granted Hull the right to elect a mayor (among other privileges) and the following year William de la Pole was chosen as the borough's first known mayor (conceivably also in 1331, if mayoral election was held that year) , re-elected in 1333 and again in 1335. After the dissolution of their partnership, by which time Richard's moveable assets and debts due were worth about £6,000, and William's probably much the same, the latter continued to use Hull as his base, while the former preferred to move to London. They would have been the equivalent of modern multi-millionaires. Being based at Hull meant William was well-placed in 1335 to supply English forces sent to hold the recently recaptured Berwick, and for that purpose he hired three large granaries at Hull and freighted six ships in May to transport to Berwick's besiegers grain, fodder, wine and other supplies, as well as artillery (whose refurbishment he had seen to) and its ammunition. That same year he was appointed to a small diplomatic mission sent to negotiate the cessation of Flemish support for the Scots and a resumption of trading relations between Flanders and England. .

"his brother Richard"
Richard de la Pole's principal role in royal service was as the king's chief butler 1327-31 and 1333-38; after relocating to London he became prominent enough in society there to serve as one of its aldermen 1330-40. He was knighted in 1340 and died in 1345.

Ravenser was once a district on the north-east coast within which was established a settlement known as Ravenserodd (a name partly derived from the use of "road" to refer to a stretch of beach or sandbank off which ships could safely anchor, as in Kirkley Road); this was a port near the mouth of the Humber, perhaps a mile distant from the mainland, to which connected by a road of packed sand. It originated in the time of Henry III, as a fisherman's colony. Its advantageous position and the commerce it attracted (not always by legal means) led, during the thirteenth century, to efforts to urbanize it; these may be credited in part to the Earl of Aumale, who obtained in 1251 a licence for market and fair, probably in conjunction with partitioning the site for building plots and with putting in place burgage tenure conditions for the residents (he was subsequently considered the founder of the town), but also partly to the Abbey of Meaux which, having earlier obtained an endowment of land there, erected buildings for storing fish. The annual revenues generated for the lord of the town skyrocketed from £6 in the 1260s to £68 by 1307, as Ravenserodd attracted new settlers and commerce; in 1280 the burgesses of Hedon, founded just east of Kingston-upon-Hull ca.1170 by an earlier Earl of Aumale, sought to persuade the king to let them hold the town at fee farm, warning that otherwise the town's economy would see further deterioration as residents continued to relocate to the growing port towns of Hull and Ravenserodd. In 1299 Edward I, to whom the Aumale estates had passed a few years earlier, granted Ravenserodd a borough charter, despite the older borough and fishing centre of Grimsby, just a few miles away on the opposite bank of the Humber, having complained (unsuccessfully) to him in 1290 about the 'newly-built' town attracting maritime commerce (and consequently toll revenue) away from its own port. However, Ravenserodd's advantage over Grimsby, in its closer proximity to the sea, would also prove its undoing: erosion and flooding due to tidal action during the reign of Edward III reduced its utility, and it lost business to the newer port at Kingston-upon-Hull ( to which Edward I had granted a borough charter on the same day that he chartered Ravenserodd, and with the same privileges), before finally being abandoned to tidal incursion at some time in the mid-fourteenth century. Prior to that, however, it had come for a short time under the lordship of William de la Pole, for it was an appendage of the manor of Burstwick (see below); as such William obtained it at farm for ten years in 1338, but the following year obtained an upgrade to full ownership. He achieved this because Ravenserodd was in rapid and, as it proved, irreversible decline, and had petitioned the king successfully for a reduction in its tax assessments, on the grounds of the progressive destruction of its site and loss of trade.

"ranks of the nobility"
William de la Pole was able to build up large landed estates in Yorkshire and East Anglia. His son Michael at first pursued a military career, notably in the service of the Black Prince, but then moved into politics, which led him to the chancellorship of England and the earldom of Suffolk; Michael's great-grandson became the son-in-law of the future Richard III and was named in 1485 as heir to the throne.

"Walter de Chiriton"
Although he established himself in London, Walter de Cheriton or Chiriton was from a Warwickshire family and his early career was perhaps as a mercantile agent for an uncle who held estates at Chiriton and in its vicinity. The property that Chiriton himself built up, besides that at London, lay in Berkshire and Surrey.

"needed for business"
In the case of de la Pole, however, Fryde [op.cit., chapter 4], has suggested that much of his piecemeal real estate acquisitions may also in fact have been tied to business needs: properties scattered along a major road leading from southern Yorkshire into county Durham and on towards Scotland (which could have provided him, or his agents, with nightly stopover points where merchandize could be safely stored away); other lands were in wool-producing areas, while his efforts to acquire and expand in Hull a mansion originally built for the royal keepers (before the town became self-governing) and the associated manor was a material indication of his own socio-political status there. Similarly, William's acquisition of houses in Coney Street, York would have given him a base there for conducting business, while the large house he obtained from the king in Lombard Street, London (formerly owned by the once-powerful city family of Rokesley before the Bardi moved in, and neighbouring a house built there by his brother Richard) would have served as a London business base and may have been intended as a foothold in the 'premier league' of mercantile society; this intrusion of nouveaux riches into the established urban 'aristocracy' was resented, however, and such Londoners appear among those later trying to engineer the downfall of de la Pole. William's interest in rural estates was equally part of his ambition – common to many prospering townsmen – to raise the social status of his family; his determined pursuit of this ambition would have been seen as presumptuous by some of the nobility close to the king and have earned him their enmity (even though there was really a good deal of commonality between the interests of the wealthier urban merchants and the landed gentry, many of the latter investing in commercial ventures themselves). In particular William had his mind set on leveraging the king's indebtedness to him to win possession of the royal manor of Burstwick (encompassing much of Holderness); although even this was not entirely independent of his business goals, for Burstwick meant control of large parts of the sheep-raising hinterland of Hull and it generated around £1,000 annually in revenues, which would have given a financial cushion against the risk of bankruptcy from delays in repayment of debts owed him. William had limited and temporary success in gaining Burstwick, although it also brought him additional resentment from the king, who confiscated the manor when William was convicted and imprisoned in 1341.

Possibly a bias of surviving records, since we tend to have more documentation concerning the guilty than the innocent. We do not have to look very hard to find instances of suspected abuses of office for personal gain. Many may have gone undetected. But we should not use this brush to tar everyone.

"John de Wesenham"
Like Thomas de Melcheburn, he became one of the great merchant capitalists of his generation. The first reference we have to him is a passing one in 1327, in the will of a fellow Lynn townsman, which bequeaths a rent payable from a tenement John held in Briggate; he would later own a tenement in Dampgate and a shop on the Stone Bridge but, like Melcheburn, does not seem to have invested heavily in Lynn real estate. He was evidently operating a retail business at this time, for in 1328 he was amerced at the borough's leet court for breaking the assize of ale and for failing to bring for inspection the measures he used. He was described as a cutler on several occasions between 1336 and 1342, probably to distinguish him from the tanner of the same name who was active at Lynn in the early decades of that century. A move into wholesale may be indicated by him becoming a member of the town's merchant gild in March 1330; he obtained this without entrance fine since his father, Giles de Wesenham, was himself a gildsman. It may have been Giles who relocated the family from the village of Weasenham, just a few miles east of Lynn; he had purchased the status of borough freeman in 1292, was exporting wool in 1308, and prominent enough in borough society by 1322 to be elected one of its jurats. His local tax assessments were at first (1297-1305) low, but by 1319 above the average.

John too did his duty as jurat (1346/47), having already served in local financial administration as borough chamberlain (1336/37) and gild scabin (1339-41); that he was not more prominent in local government (never mayor) is surely a reflection that his time was consumed by mercantile activities and service to the king. The former focused initially on the grain trade, his earliest known overseas venture being in 1333, when he was authorized to ship 1000 quarters of wheat to Norway, to trade for fish and other victuals. Other large-scale ventures are recorded in the 1330s and 1340s, some in partnership with Thomas de Bitering, member of a family of victuallers.

Royal armies may already have been part of John de Wesenham's clientele at that time. In later decades it was more explicit that he was purveying supplies on behalf of the king; in 1350, for example, he exported grain to Gascony in order to trade for wine for the king, and in 1352 he was again sending grain to Gascony, but this time to supply the army. In 1332 his national taxation assessment was higher than the average for Lynn, although only half of that of Melcheburn (who was at least ten years in advance of Wesenham in building his wealth), but his growing prosperity is indicated by a debt of £409 9s.4d. owed him by the king in 1342, for his victualling of English garrisons in Scotland. He subsequently branched out into the wool trade, when war financing schemes made that trade more attractive, and is even found exporting cloth through Southampton in 1349. In 1340 he partnered with Walter de Chiriton to sell, on the king's behalf, some of the wool gathered through the in-kind tax known as the moiety (see above), and he continued in such a role during de la Pole's first period of disgrace, 1341-42. By this time he had achieved sufficient prominence as a merchant that he was being regularly summoned to attend the merchant assemblies Edward III used, in quasi--parliamentary fashion, to deal with matters concerning international commerce (notably, taxing it).

In addition to mercantile services, he provided the king with military aid: for several months from June 1337 he had command of a force of soldiers and sailors in a Lynn warship sent to Gascony; in 1342 he was one of the arrayers of a naval force for service with the northern fleet. In 1353 he was described as a king's sergeant-at-arms when commissioned to arrest ships in Norfolk ports, for use in transporting victuals to Calais. He purchased a ship on the king's behalf in 1359. As one of two captains of the northern fleet, in 1360 he was commissioned to assemble and equip warships, which flotilla he commanded in person, being promised the sum of £4,500 to cover his costs. The king's great crown came into his hands, as pledge for a loan, but in 1356 he handed it back to the king, before repayment, in gratitude for which the king granted him land in Blackheath (north-east of London), and other properties in London itself (including a brewhouse and several shops) that had been confiscated from Chiriton; John had several years earlier taken up citizenship there.

His usefulness to the king is shown by his appointment in 1347 as chief butler, a post he held until 1350, following which he was made exchanger of the king's money at London, for a short term; the butlership brought with it the coronership of London (although those duties were carried out by a substitute). As butler, he purchased wine from various fellow Lynn merchants, including Melcheburn. He had earlier served stints (during parts of the period from 1335 to 1339) as a customs collector at Boston, and perhaps acquired property in the town for he became co-founder of the gild of Corpus Christi there in 1349; at some time before 1364 he also acquired Thames-side property in London. Possibly the butler's post was in compensation for Wesenham having lost the customs farming contract; another possible compensatory grant, in July 1346, took the form of a lifetime exemption from being appointed or elected against his wishes to posts in local or national government, as well as from serving on assizes or other juries. Despite that protection (renewed 1353), he accepted an appointment in 1363 as one of a pair of mayors of the Calais staple, with the mandate of administering the town and its garrison so that they would become financially self-supporting. From about 1357 to 1360 he was granted the farm of the temporalities of the bishopric of Ely, in which capacity he exported produce of those lands.

John de Wesenham's career was not all smooth sailing, however. He was in hot water in his home town in 1335 after insulting the borough chamberlains and town clerk, but smoothed matters over by offering a tun of wine in recompense. As his importance grew, he and his wife Cicely would be on the receiving end of gifts of wine, food, and money from the borough (several instances between 1346 and 1365). He was able to use his influence at court to assist local concerns, such as the borough's battle with the Bishop of Norwich for control of local courts; he obtained a favourable verdict for the borough, but the bishop won a reversal immediately after Wesenham's term as butler ended. In April 1337 he was released from a brief imprisonment in the Tower, after finding guarantors for him to stand trial on charges of shipping grain and wine to Berwick (while in Scottish hands) contrary to the king's prohibition. He was convicted in July, but presumably weathered the storm by paying a fine. In 1340 one of his ships was charged with participating in a piratic attack on a Flemish ship, obliging the king to pay a large compensation to avoid a rift with Flanders. To win a pardon, John once more led a ship into royal service in 1342. That same year he was accused of contempt for having withdrawn from court before he and the king had come to terms regarding money John owed for royal wool he had purchased.

Involvement with the customs farm inevitably made him a target, and in 1347 Wesenham and Chiriton were petitioning the king for the opportunity to defend themselves against parliamentary charges of extortions. Following the failure of the last syndicate in 1349, ending the king's reliance on English financiers, various investigations took place into the behaviour of merchants and royal officials. During his tenure as changer of the king's coin, when one of his former customs-farming associates was Master of the Mint, there was a parliamentary complaint about manipulation of coinage, and Wesenham may have been one of its targets [G. E. Morey, East Anglian Society in the Fifteenth Century, PhD thesis: London University, 1951, 132-33]. In April 1352 he was able to obtain from the king a pardon for his impeachment on the charge of importing false coin, using false wool-weights, and smuggling wool; the king declared himself satisfied that the charges were groundless. During a subsequent investigation into suspected smugglers in previous decades, evidence emerged of smuggling via Boston during Wesenham's tenure as customs collector. In 1361 the Exchequer accused him of complicity. Possibly he had no defence to offer, for his preferred strategy was to delay the trial for two years and then produce the royal pardon of 1352.

John de Wesenham remained on the firing line. Upon losing the farm of the customs, he was at once sued by London woolmongers, complaining he had failed to provide protection (for which they had paid) for their ships; the case was dropped at the orders of the king. Around and just after the end of his term as butler, he is found acknowledging sizable debts to several English and French dignitaries, and more debt recognitions are documented in 1362. In 1361-62 the Exchequer was hounding him for debts related to his farm of the bishopric of Ely and to account for money advanced for his work with the northern fleet. In 1364 the governor of Calais was instructed to seize the property and arrest the person of Wesenham, as guarantor for the king's minters, whose work was deemed unsatisfactory.

Possibly all these difficulties, together with reduced capacity to conduct business as he aged, brought him into financial trouble. In 1380 the king remembered Wesenham's past services and granted him a pension of £46.13s.4d from customs collected at Lynn and Boston (although payments could not be obtained before 1382), along with 2 tuns of wine annually. It was probably around this time that he died, for we hear no more of him. He left his heirs modest property scattered across Norfolk, including in his ancestral village of Weasenham. His son Hugh had also obtained rural property, in Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire, by marriage to an heiress; he had been knighted by 1359, and seems to have had little involvement with Lynn. It is not clear whether later townsmen named John Wesenham, prominent at Lynn in the early fifteenth century, were descendants.

"Richard de Melcheburn"
He does not feature much in the records, but in 1350 held the post of supervisor of wool-weighing in east coast ports.

They were restored to William, as sole survivor, in 1358. William died ca.1361.

William may have had property there; he was in the post of wool-weigher there in 1341 and 1344.

"king's encouragement"
According to Fryde [Studies in Medieval Trade and Finance, London: Hambledon Press, 1983, XII, 18-21], the king planned to regain much of what he had been forced to grant away to de la Pole in the past ad to rid himself of his remaining debts to de la Pole. Chiriton and Swanlond were the agents used to head the legal assault as plaintiffs, and Melcheburn was co-plaintiff in one accusation. Once de la Pole had submitted to the king's will, Chiriton and Swanlond became targets for prosecution again, and it would be their turn to see the inside of a prison.

"remaining years"
In 1354 he obtained permission to found at Hull a hospital for the care of paupers, and part of his real estate went to endow this. As he approached death he planned to transform it into a convent, but it was left to his son to add a monastery to the hospital; William de la Pole was buried in its church, and his wife Katherine asked in her will (1381) to be buried alongside him.

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Created: December 31, 2007. Last update: June 25, 2016 © Stephen Alsford, 2007-2016