Having explored the life of my 13th great grandfather, Gabriel Fowle, a schoolmaster in early sixteenth-century Lewes, in this post I’m moving on to the next generation, and sharing what I’ve been able to discover about Gabriel’s son Magnus Fowle, my 12th great grandfather.
Childhood in Lewes
As mentioned in the last post, Magnus was one of two children born to Gabriel Fowle and his wife, the other being Agnes, who married Lewes merchant John Harman. I haven’t been able to find records of the births or baptisms of either child, but from other records we can deduce that they must have born in the late 1520s or the early 1530s, almost certainly in Southover, on the outskirts of Lewes, where their father was master of the Free Grammar School (I wonder if Magnus was a pupil at his father’s school?) It’s likely that they were christened at the local parish church of St Michael, where Gabriel Fowle would ask to be buried, and to which he left ‘my written masse book’. Andrew Puggeslie, the curate of St Michael’s, would be one of the witnesses to Gabriel’s will. However, the family also had links with the neighbouring parish of Ringmer, where Gabriel owned property, and to whose church he left ‘my new graylle imprinted’ as well as money to pay for altar lights. The vicar of Ringmer, Dunstan Sawyer, was appointed as one of the overseers of Gabriel’s will.
The Old Grammar School, Lewes
That will, as previously noted, was composed during the brief reign of Mary Tudor and provides ample evidence of Gabriel Fowle’s loyalty to the ancient Catholic faith, despite the fact that he had lived through Henry VIII’s split from Rome and the protestant reforms of his son Edward VI. Gabriel was also master of a school that, for much of his time there, was attached to the Priory of St Lewes, though he continued in post after its suppression by Thomas Cromwell in 1537. From all of this we can assume that Magnus Fowle was brought up by his parents in the Catholic faith, even if that became increasingly difficult as time went on. In previous posts I’ve referred to the claim in some sources that Bartholomew Fowle, the last priory of St Mary Overy, Southwark, was the brother of Gabriel and thus Magnus’ uncle. Even if this precise claim is difficult to substantiate, there was obviously a connection of some kind between the Fowle family and Southwark priory, and further back with the Augustinian religious order to which it belonged.
Marriage to Alice Lucke
Magnus’ sister Agnes was already married to John Harman by the time her father died in 1555, since John merits a mention in Gabriel’s will, though no children are mentioned, so this had probably happened only recently. We don’t know the date of Magnus’ marriage, but from other records we can conclude that it probably took place between 1555 and 1560. There is a record from 1560 that describes Magnus Fowle as a yeoman of Mayfield, the home village of his wife Alice.
Alice was the daughter of Richard Lucke of Mayfield, who died in 1559, and the nephew of Thomas Lucke, a priest in the village of Litlington, but formerly a canon at Michelham priory, another Augustinian foundation. So the Fowle and Lucke families had the Augustinian connection in common, and there is also evidence of a continuing to attachment to Catholicism in both families, which may help to explain how the marriage of Magnus and Alice came about. I’ll have more to say about the Lucke family in the next post.
A copy of the Chancery bill, setting out the case involving Magnus and Alice Fowle
In the early years of their marriage Magnus and Alice were involved in a case in Chancery. The date of the case in the National Archives catalogue is imprecise, placing it some time in the period 1558 – 1579: in other words, in the first half of the reign of Elizabeth I. This corresponds with the period of office of the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Nicholas Bacon, the father of the philosopher Francis Bacon, to whom Magnus and Alice Fowle addressed their plea. The only date given in the document itself is 24th October 1551, the date of the will of Alice’s uncle Thomas Fowle, that is its subject. The dispute at the heart of the Chancery case is difficult to reconstruct from the partly-legible document. It would seem that Thomas Lucke made Robert Holden of Mayfield the executor of his will but that, according to Magnus and Alice Fowle, he had abused his trust and acted in a way that ‘vexyd and troublyd’ the complainants. I haven’t found any other records for Holden, but he is said to be acting in league with one William Penkhurst, whose family had lived in the Mayfield area for a number of generations, intermarrying with other families that occur in my family tree, including the Fowles.
From his will, we know that Magnus Fowle was a yeoman farmer of some substance, owning property not only in Mayfield, which he probably inherited via his wife Alice’s family, but also in Ringmer and Glynde, and that he was able to employ a number of servants. He was also a man of some standing in the community, serving as one of the county coroners for Sussex. I understand that in the medieval period there were three coroners for each county, and their role was keeping the pleas of the Crown – ‘custos placitorum coronas’ – from which the title coroner or ‘crowner’ (see Shakespeare’s Hamlet) derives. Coroners were unpaid and there was a property qualification associated with the office. They were elected, but those entitled to vote were a select few: the Freemen of the county, meeting for the purpose in the county court.
Farms at Mayfield, Sussex (via geograph.org.uk)
A collection of accounts of Sussex Coroners’ Inquests 1558 – 1603, edited by R.F. Hunnisett and published by the Public Record Office in 1996, includes summary reports of 582 inquests that took place in the county during the reign of Elizabeth I. Magnus Fowle acted as coroner in 79 of these cases. His first inquest was held on 30th April 1572 and his final inquest on 8th April 1595, a year before his death. If I’m right in my speculation about Magnus’ approximate birth date, then he would have been in his early forties when first appointed to the role of coroner, and in his sixties when he convened his last inquest.
In most of the inquest reports, Magnus Fowle is described as a county coroner, but a minority give him other titles: he is described as the coroner for Lewes rape in 9, for Bamber rape in 3, and for Eastbourne hundred and Dorset hundred in one each. A number of the reports give him the title ‘gent[leman]’ and accords gives him the suffix ‘esq[uire]’, suggesting a rather higher social standing than ‘yeoman’.
In only one year during this period (1578) did Magnus Fowle not preside at any inquests. In other years, the number of inquests in which he was involved ranged from one, during each of two years in the 1570s and in his final year, to eight in 1592, with two to five inquests being the more typical range in other years. In two cases Magnus presided with another county coroner, but in the vast majority of cases he presided alone.
Of the cases which Magnus oversaw, the majority were deemed to be accidents or death by misadventure, the second largest category being suicides, closely followed by murders and then natural causes, with two cases being defined as killing in self-defence. The reports themselves provide a fascinating glimpse of life in Elizabethan England, albeit through the lens of abnormal events. A remarkable number of people, often women and most of them spinsters, seem to have been desperate enough to take their own lives, with hanging, drowning and cutting one’s own throat among the methods recorded.
Murders were often committed in the course of breaking and entering, or as the result of fights, with a handful of women accused of killing their own babies immediately after giving birth. A number of those convicted of murder were able to plead benefit of clergy, or pregnancy, and therefore escape the noose, but others were not so fortunate. Accidental deaths occurred when people fell into wells, or were mortally injured in the course of work, whether by scythes, ploughs or water wheels.
A substantial number of Magnus’ inquests were held in gaols and involved the deaths of those who had died in custody. These were almost always deemed ‘natural’ deaths, suggesting that disease or poor conditions must have been the cause, and prompting the reflection that a prison term may have been as sure a guarantee of death as a sentence of execution.
A public execution in sixteenth-century England
There is a suggestion in the records that Magnus Fowle might have taken a while to get the hang of his role as coroner. Editorial footnotes by Hunnisett to the reports on his first two inquests, which took place in 1572 in Westmeston and Preston respectively, comment: ‘The coroner was summoned to King’s Bench to answer for defects in the inquest; process against him ceased when the inquest was amended, presumably by the addition of the information about the goods and chattels which is interlined’.
A later inquest report, from November 1585 in Lewes, is followed by a long explanatory note by the modern editor. This was a complex case of murder and violent affray, in which questions appear to have been raised about the conduct both of Magnus Fowle, acting as coroner, and some members of the jury. It’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened, but it becomes clear that one of those involved in the case challenged the coroner’s credentials and expressed doubts that justice would be done due to Fowle’s ‘want of sufficient judgement in law’. Apparently the extensive original documentation of the case includes both the accusations against Magnus Fowle and his own answers, which offer very different versions of events.
Perhaps the most notorious case in which Magnus Fowle was involved as coroner was a gruesome murder that occurred in his home village of Mayfield, on 1st October 1594, when a husbandman named Ralph Mepham (or Deaphon, in some accounts) was accused of killing his wife by cutting her throat with a knife. I’m grateful to Rosie Franczak for drawing my attention to this case. It seems that the local constable was the first to arrive on the scene following the violent death of Mrs Mepham. He then called for the coroner (presumably Magnus Fowle) who proceeded to interview witnesses. Having interrogated the suspect, he had him committed to ‘the queen’s gaol at Lewes’, some twenty miles away. One account mentions an inquest held at Mayfield on 8th October 1594 convened by Magnus Fowle, and heard before sixteen jurors. Ralph Mepham was eventually tried at East Grinstead Assizes on 24th February 1595 when, despite his plea of ‘not guilty’, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, the execution being carried out three days later.
An additional point of interest is that the murder was reported in a sensational pamphlet printed by John Danter of Smithfield, London. Danter was a notorious ‘pirate’ with a reputation for printing stolen texts, including (also in 1595) the first ‘bad quarto’ of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He was both friend and landlord to Thomas Nashe, satirical pamphleteer and co-author with Ben Jonson in 1597 of the lost ‘seditious’ play’ The Isle of Dogs, which was performed in July 1597 when the London theatres were ordered to be closed by Robert Cecil and the Privy Council. There is also a connection between Nashe and the actor Edward Alleyn, son-in-law of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe. Henslowe’s diary makes a number of references to Arthur Langworth of the Broyle, Ringmer, who was also a friend and business associate of Alleyn’s. As we shall see, Langworth would be referred to rather disparagingly in Magnus Fowle’s will.
The Mepham case must have been one of the last that Magnus Fowle oversaw, since he made his will on 30th July 1595, just five months after Ralph Mepham’s execution, and died some time before the following May, when the will was proved by his daughter Agnes. The latter seems to have been the only child born to Magnus and Alice Fowle who survived them. Agnes must have been born in the late 1550s or early 1560s, since her marriage to Edward Byne of Burwash took place in 1575. From the fact that it was Agnes who proved her father’s will, and from evidence in the will itself, we can deduce that her mother died first, though the date of Alice Fowle’s death is not known.
Last will and testament
By the time he died, Magnus Fowle was already a grandfather. As co-executor with his wife Agnes, he appointed his eldest grandson, Magnus Byne, suggesting that the latter was already of age. However, we know that Edward and Agnes Byne also had other children by this time: William, Edward, Stephen (my 10th great grandfather, born in 1586) and John, as well as a son named James and an unnamed daughter who both died in infancy. Magnus Byne seems to have been the main beneficiary of his grandfather’s will, inheriting all of the latter’s lands following his mother’s death.
Magnus Fowle’s will confirms that, in addition to his residence in Mayfield he also owned land in the villages of Ringmer and Glynde. These were almost certainly the properties left to him by his father Gabriel in his will of 1554. Magnus also seems to have maintained connections with the village of Rotherfield, with his home parish of Southover near Lewes, and with Lewes itself, since he left money to the poor of all these places.
Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer, Sussex (via static.panoramio.com)
Magnus Fowle bequeaths ten shillings ‘to my sister Morfyn’ and twenty shillings to her children. Later in the will he appoints ‘my Brother William Morffyn’ as one of its overseers and awards him twenty shillings for his pain. I’ve been unable to establish the identity of these people. However, since we know that Magnus had only one biological sister – Agnes, who married John Harman – it’s possible that ‘my sister Morfyn’ was actually the sister of his late wife Alice, that William Morfyn was her husband, and that they were actually Magnus’ sister-in-law and brother-in-law.
Besides William Morfyn, Magnus Fowle names two other overseers of his will: John Motley and John Collett. I haven’t been able to identify the latter, but John Motley or Motlay was the parish priest at Ringmer. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1566 and was ordained a priest in 1575, serving as vicar of West Firle and Ringmer until his death in 1604. Magnus also leaves forty shillings to one ‘Michaell Marten sometime of Brightlinge’. This might be the Michael Martin who built the house known as ‘Shepherdes’ between 1554 and 1561, on the site of what is now Brightling Park.
The reference in Magnus Fowle’s will to Arthur Langworth is intriguing. Magnus insists that, should his heirs at any time ‘bargayne sell alienate lease demyse grante or otherwise convey or assine’ any of his properties in Ringmer or Glynde ‘to Arthur Langworth to his heires or to anie of his name, or to anie other p[er]sone or p[er]sones whereby or by meanes whereof anie of my saide Landes or the inhertytance thereof maie come to the saide Arthure or to anie other p[er]sone or p[er]sones to his use, or to the use of anie of his heries or of his name’, then John Motley and various other men ‘shall have full power and authoritie’ to enter those properties and turn them over to the use of the poor of the aforementioned parishes.
Arthur Langworth, who was the owner of ironworks, lived at Broyle Place in Ringmer and seems to have been involved in a number of property deals, which may have been a cause of his breach with my ancestor. I’ve written about the Langworth family elsewhere: Arthur Langworth’s brother John was a prominent cleric who was suspected of being a Catholic sympathiser, a number of whose children married into known recusant families.
As for the men charged with ensuring that none of Magnus Fowle’s properties fell into Langworth’s hands: John Cornford was a yeoman of Ringmer. His father William had been the park keeper at Ringmer Park, which was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury until it was sold to him in 1546. The Cornfords owned the property until 1580 when John sold it to Lord Buckhurst. John Sheppard was a yeoman of Ringmer as was John Delve, whose own will is dated 1613. Thomas Sharpe also seems to have been from Ringmer.
Perhaps the most intriguing bequest in Magnus Fowle’s will is this one:
I give to Elynor Ashbourneham the daughter of Mrs Isabell Ashbourneham Twentie Shillings in gold.
The Ashburnhams were an ancient and notable Sussex family, associated with the village whose name they bore, which is near Battle and about fifteen miles from Mayfield. The Isabel Ashburnham mentioned in Magnus Fowle’s will was almost certainly the widow of John Ashburnham who sat in Parliament for Sussex in 1554. Isabel was the daughter of John Sackville of Buckhurst in Kent. John and Isabel Ashburnham had six children, of whom the Eleanor Ashburnham mentioned in my ancestor’s will was the fourth. Apparently she died unmarried. Interestingly, after her husband’s death in 1563, Isabel Ashburnham spent her later years in Lambeth and in 1584 was buried at the church of St Mary Overy in Southwark.
Ashburnham House, Sussex, before its partial demolition in the 1950s
It would appear that the Ashburnhams, like Magnus’s father Gabriel, were loyal to the traditional Catholic faith, and remained so (at least initially) despite the upheavals of the Reformation. The second John Ashburnham, the son and heir of John and Isabel, and the elder brother of Eleanor, had an accusation of recusancy laid against him in 1574: in other words, he refused to attend services of the newly-protestant Church of England. By 1588 he had amassed so many unpaid fines that his estate at Ashburnham was sequestered by the Crown and later farmed out by Queen Elizabeth to her master cook, William Cordell. It was only recovered when John died and his son, the third John Ashburnham, who presumably did not share his father’s religious scruples, became head of the family. The estate was forfeited again during the Civil War, due to the family’s support for Charles I, but returned to them at the Restoration. (Ashburnham House was eventually sold off and partly demolished in the 1950s. It is now a Christian conference centre: I remember spending a weekend there in the 1970s).
I’ve managed to find the names of various members of the Ashburnham family in the Recusant Roll for 1592. According to one source:
The rolls recorded the punishments and fines of those who refused to conform to the Anglican doctrine. After 1581, recusancy became an indictable offence, so recusants often appear in Quarter Session records and the fines levied were recorded in the Pipe Rolls. After 1592 a separate series of rolls called Recusant Rolls was created which continued until 1691 (previously recusancy was recorded in the Pipe Rolls). The Rolls could include other dissenters or nonconformists and show the fines and property or land surrendered by the accused.
The Recusant Roll is written in legal and abbreviated Latin: my knowledge of the language is a little rusty, but with the help of a dictionary I’ve been able to make some sense of the document. The Roll is organised by county, and in the section covering Sussex I’ve found two long passages which appear to detail the sequestration of the estate of the second John Ashburnham and its occupation by ‘Willelmus Cordell magister coquus coquine domine Regine’ (William Cordell, Queen Elizabeth’s master cook) and its return to the Ashburnhams on John’s death.
There are two brief references to Eleanor Ashburnham in the Recusant Roll. In the first ‘Ellionara Ashburneham’ appears in a list of recusants fined £40. Eleanor’s name comes after that of one Eleanor Parker, a spinster of Willingdon, which was about fifteen miles south-west of the village of Ashburnham, and she is said to be ‘de eadem’ – of the same – and also a spinster. There is a similar reference a few pages further on in the document.
The first list in which Eleanor’s name appears includes three other members of the Ashburnham family: Mary and Katherine Ashburnham, both said to be of Ashburnham and both spinsters, and William Ashburnham of Dallington, which was about five miles north of Ashburnham. Mary, Katherine and perhaps William were all the children of the recusant second John Asburnham who died in 1592. Clearly, they did not share the desire of their brother, the third John Ashburnham to conform to the Church of England, but instead maintained their father’s recusant principles. There is a reference elsewhere in the document to a William Ashburnham of Ashburnham, but I’m not sure if he is identical with William of Dallington. There are also two references to a Thomas Ashburnham, who is probably another sibling of Mary, Katherine and William, but it’s also possible he was Eleanor’s brother of that name, who is mentioned in their mother Isabel’s will of 1584.
The third Sir John Ashburnham (by Hieronymus Custodis, 1593)
To summarise: we know that in 1592, three years before her name appears in Magnus Fowle’s will, Eleanor Ashburnham, the unmarried, middle-aged daughter of John and Isabel Ashburnham (she was probably about forty years old at the time), was fined for holding fast to her late brother’s recusant principles. She was joined in this by two of her nieces and at least one of her nephews, and perhaps by her own brother. It’s worth noting that Eleanor’s nephews and nieces would have been in their late teens or early twentiess at the time: they were all born in the reign of Elizabeth I and thus represented a new generation determined to hold on to the faith of their ancestors, despite the increasingly heavy penalties for doing so.
If Eleanor Ashburnham was still being fined £40 on a regular basis three year later, when Magnus Fowle wrote his will, it makes his bequest to her of ‘Twentie Shillings in gold’ more understandable. It also makes it more likely that Magnus was sympathetic to Eleanor’s religious stance, even though he felt unable, for whatever reason, to adopt that stance himself and to face the legal consequences. I have no evidence that he, too, was a recusant. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel a secret sympathy for those who were brave enough to risk all for the religion of their (and his) forefathers, especially if there were long-standing links between the two families, perhaps connected with their shared patronage of the priory of St Mary Overy?
The preamble to Magnus’ will may provide a further clue to his (secret) religious affiliation. Although it doesn’t include the appeal to Mary and the saints that we find in more explicitly Catholic wills, Magnus bequeaths his soul ‘to Almightie god, the father, the sonne, and the holie ghoste, Three persones and one god’. According to Michael Questier, this simple evocation of the Trinity was commonly used by Catholics after the Reformation, to signify their allegiance to the traditional faith, while avoiding both an accusation of recusancy and the florid Calvinist-influenced language of the reformers.
If we combine the evidence of his will with what we know of his upbringing, then I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Magnus Fowle was a ‘church papist’, in other words someone who outwardly conformed to the new religion, but inwardly retained an allegiance to the traditional faith, and may even have attended its rituals in secret, despite the fact that this would become increasingly difficult during Elizabeth’s reign. As we shall see from the next post, there is also evidence that Magnus’ secret allegiance to Catholicism was shared by his wife’s family, the Luckes.