07 August, 2020

William Thorneye of Lincolnshire, Sheriff and Alderman of London (d. 1349)

 I've been doing a lot of work on the social history of London from 1300 to 1350 for a forthcoming book, and have been endlessly fascinated by all the details I've found of Londoners' lives and families, etc. One man I've found a lot of information about was William Thorneye or Thorney, a pepperer from Lincolnshire who served as sheriff of London in 1339/40, was elected alderman of Coleman Street ward in 1342, and died sometime between 20 June and 27 July 1349, possibly of the Black Death. Everyone knows the story of Richard 'Dick' Whittington, four-times mayor of London; here's a post about a far lesser-known man, who a few decades earlier, also found that the streets of London were paved with gold.

William Thorneye was born sometime in the early 1300s, perhaps after 1310, in the tiny village of Whaplode Drove in the South Holland district of southern Lincolnshire, near the Cambridgeshire border. His parents were named Ivo and Christiana or Christine; he had brothers whose names I haven't been able to learn for certain, though possibly one was Thomas; and he had a sister, Leticia or Lettice, who married a man named Stephen Bageneye and had three daughters. William Thorneye's three Bageneye nieces were: Alice, who married Richard Saleman and had a daughter named Margery before June 1349; Joan, who married Nicholas Rolle and had a daughter also named Margery before June 1349; and Maud, who married Stephen Bageys and was widowed by June 1349, and apparently had no children. William also had relatives in Crowland, six miles from Whaplode Drove, and owned a plot of land twelve miles away in or just outside Leverington, a village close to the town of Wisbech and over the border in Cambridgeshire. The plot was named Brodedrove in William's will of 1349, and amazingly there are still various roads called Broad Drove, Broad Drove East, etc around Wisbech. Another village just a few miles from Whaplode Drove is Thorney, and presumably is where William's family took its name. 

William Thorneye moved to London sometime before 1323, and became the apprentice of the pepperer John Grantham, who was mayor of London in 1328/29 and sheriff in 1322/23 (and died between 23 July 1344 and 31 January 1345). Pepperers were people, or rather men, who imported spices from abroad and sold them, and many of them became wealthy and influential and served as mayors, sheriffs and aldermen of London. It's also interesting to note that Grantham is a town in Lincolnshire and was presumably where John Grantham originally came from, or at least his ancestors did. Perhaps he favoured apprentices who came from his own native county. William Thorneye's will mentions that he had 'poor kinsfolk' in Crowland and Whaplode Drove and he left them bequests, though he himself became exceedingly well-off thanks to a successful career as a pepperer in London, and in the mid-1340s he was able to lend £250 to the abbot of Crowland, a few hundred thousand pounds in today's values. William held onto his Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire connections for his entire life, despite his decades of residence in London and the success he found there.

In 1333, William was living in the parish of St Mary Aldermary* in London with a woman called Joan Armenters, much younger second wife and widow of John Armenters (d. 1306), sheriff of London in 1299/1300. I can't tell the nature of the relationship between William and Joan; she might have been his landlady, or they might have been lovers. William did later marry a woman called Joan, and possibly it was Joan Armenters, but 'Joan' was such an extraordinarily common name that I can't identify her. Whoever she was, William's wife Joan gave birth to their son around June or early July 1347 and died before 20 June 1349; details below. In 1333, William Thorneye and Joan Armenters shared a privy with neighbours Thomas Heyron - almost certainly the man of this name who was a vintner and the half-brother of John Chaucer, father of the great poet Geoffrey Chaucer (born c. 1342) - and Andrew and Joan Aubrey. Andrew Aubrey (d. 1358) was mayor of London in 1339/41. William Thorneye and Joan Armenters had, for some reason, removed the partitions in the five neighbours' common privy, and the Aubreys grumbled that 'the extremities of those sitting on the seats can be seen, a thing which is abonimable and altogether intolerable'. William was still living in the parish of St Mary Aldermary* in October 1336 when he was one of the neighbours questioned about the murder of Simon Chaucer, brother of Richard Chaucer, presumably the Richard Chaucer who died in 1349 and who was Geoffrey Chaucer's step-grandfather.

[* This church still exists and stands on the corner of Watling Street and Bow Lane, not far from Mansion House underground station.]

It's apparent that William Thorneye knew the Chaucer/Heyron family pretty well: as well as living next door to Geoffrey's uncle in 1333 and perhaps witnessing the murder of Simon Chaucer in 1336, in his 1349 will William mentioned a shop which he had purchased from John Chaucer, Geoffrey's father. Barney Sloane's (excellent) 2011 book The Black Death in London states that William Thorneye was John Chaucer's half-brother, but he wasn't; this appears to be a misreading of the part of William's will where he refers to John Chaucer and John's half-brother Thomas Heyron (John and Thomas had the same mother, Mary, Geoffrey Chaucer's grandmother, whose third husband was Richard Chaucer). We know from William Thorneye's will that he was born in Lincolnshire and that his parents were named Ivo and Christine, and he wasn't related to the Chaucers, a London family.

William was elected as one of the two sheriffs of London in September 1339, serving with Roger Forsham. There were always two sheriffs of London, and they only ever served one term (unlike the mayors, who were often re-elected) of one year. In February 1342, William was elected as alderman of Coleman Street, one of the twenty-four, later twenty-five, London wards. Aldermen usually held the position until they died, though were occasionally moved to another ward, and William did indeed serve as alderman until his death in 1349. He often appears in city letter-books and in the records of the London assize of nuisance as the alderman of Coleman Street, and also appears in the coroners' rolls during his period as sheriff in 1339/40.

In his will, William mentioned his 'children', plural, but only one is named in it: John Thorneye, William's only legitimate son and his heir. I haven't found any records of any other children William had, and that part of his will is slightly unclear and it might be referring to his brothers' children. John Thorneye proved on 8 July 1368 that he had come of age, i.e. twenty-one, so was born on or not long before 8 July 1347. John's mother was William's wife Joan, about whom I can discover nothing except that she was buried in the priory of St Helen, Bishopsgate, London sometime before 20 June 1349. William requested to be buried there with her, and I suppose he was. Possibly William became a father rather later in life, as his sister Lettice already had three daughters and two grandchildren in 1349, when William's son was only two years old. William might have been very roughly forty-ish in 1347 when John was born.

William made two long wills on 20 June 1349 in which he disposed of his many possessions and his property in London and in the area where he grew up in Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire. He also left many generous bequests to numerous religious houses, including to the abbey of Thorney, a Benedictine house founded in 972 near his native village (see also here). William founded a chantry in the chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist in Whaplode Drove, and the parish church of Whaplode Drove is still dedicated to St John the Baptist. He left money for his 'poor kinsfolk' in his village and in Crowland and gave Brodedrove, his plot of land near Leverington, to five women and girls: his three nieces and two great-nieces, his sister Lettice's daughters and granddaughters. William owned a book called the Proverbs of Solomon which he bequeathed to his son John, and John also received his father's silver spoons, cups of mazer (maple-wood), pewter salt-cellars, mortars, pestles, weights and balances, and other utensils William had used in his profession as a spice merchant. He left a breviary to the chapel of St John the Baptist in Whaplode Drove, and another breviary, a psalter, a silver-gilt vessel for the Host and a silver-gilt chalice to the priory of St Helen in London, his wife Joan's burial-place and presumably his own. Finally, generous bequests of money went to William's apprentices and servants and to the houses in and around London that looked after lepers, and he showed a particular concern for the 'poor and maimed' living in religious houses in London and Lincs/Cambs, some of whom were his own kinsfolk, and left money for their care. Having made a lot of money and having become a man of some influence in London, William took a kindly and generous interest in those who were less fortunate, which I find moving and impressive. I also admire the way he remained loyal to the area where he grew up for the rest of his life.

William Thorneye died sometime before 27 July 1349 when one of his two wills was proved, and it's quite probable that he was one of the countless victims of the Black Death, then raging in London and elsewhere. John Thorneye was barely two years old when he was orphaned and cannot have remembered either of his parents, which makes me very sad, and it does bring home the tragic, appalling losses suffered by so many people during the terrible pandemic of bubonic plague in 1348/49. There are a lot of fourteenth-century London records detailing the guardianship of orphaned children and custody of them being granted to relatives, but unfortunately a record of John's case no longer seems to exist. He was, however, still alive in September 1401, aged fifty-four, and was then married to a woman called Isabel, so clearly someone looked after him, and he knew exactly who he was: 'John, son and heir of William de Thorneye, late pepperer'. The tenements and rents which belonged to John as his inheritance from William were faithfully held in trust for him for many years, and as soon as he proved in early July 1368 that he was now twenty-one, they were given to him.


Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, ed. R. R. Sharpe, part 1, 1258-1358.

Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London, ed. R. R. Sharpe, Letter-Books E, F, G.

Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, ed. A. H. Thomas, vol. 1, 1323-1364.

Calendar of Coroners Rolls of the City of London 1300-1378, ed. R. R. Sharpe.

London Assize of Nuisance, 1301-1431: A Calendar, ed. H. M. Chew and W Kellaway.

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