CANYNGES, William (d.1396), of Bristol.

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



Feb. 1383
Apr. 1384

Family and Education

?s. of John Canynges of Bristol. m. (1) bef. 1369, Agnes, prob. da. or sis. of John Stoke† of Bristol, ?2s. inc. John*; (2) aft. 1375, Agnes, da. of Nicholas Montfort and wid. of Sir Robert Martin of Athelhampton, Dorset.1

Offices Held

Bailiff, Bristol Mich. 1361-2, 1370-1; mayor 1373-4, 1375-6, 1381-2, 1385-6, 1389-90.2

Jt. farmer of the cloth subsidies, Bristol, Glos., Som. 30 Sept. 1362-5, 28 Apr. 1368-71.

Commr. of inquiry, Bristol, Glos. Feb. 1376 (maladministration of St. Laurence’s hospital), Bristol, Glos., Som. Feb. 1387 (customs’ evasion); to arbitrate in a mercantile dispute, Bristol Nov. 1386; of gaol delivery Feb. 1390; to visit St. Laurence’s hospital Sept. 1390; of oyer and terminer Oct. 1390.

Tax collector, Bristol Mar. 1377, Mar. 1380, Nov. 1382; surveyor Dec. 1390.

J.p. Bristol 8 Feb. 1386-c.1387.

Collector of customs and subsidies, Bristol and ports from Bridgwater to Chepstow 30 Nov. 1390-8 Dec. 1391.


Bristol has been rightly proud of the two William Canynges (this William traditionally being the grandfather of the more famous one), but both before and after the time of the poet Thomas Chatterton, who wrote copiously about them, fiction and legend have distorted the facts of their lives. It would appear, however, that the Canynges family came from Bishop Cannings in Wiltshire, and the first member known to have lived in Bristol was John Canynges, the wool merchant who in 1334 witnessed a deed belonging to St. Thomas’s church, in which parish William was later to dwell. Tradition has it that the latter was married to a daughter of John Stoke, the sometime mayor and cloth merchant of Redcliffe Street, and, indeed, it seems likely that his first wife belonged to Stoke’s family. Certainly, the two men were closely associated: when Stoke drew up his will in 1381 he named William as one of the four executors, whose main duty was the foundation of two chantries in St. Thomas’s church, a task they completed in 1388. By then, however, Canynges had married for the second time: the wife named Agnes, who was bequeathed a silver cup by Stoke’s widow in 1393, was the former wife of Sir Robert Martin, some of whose property in Somerset and Dorset she and Canynges claimed as her dower.3

As a councillor, official and regular witness of local deeds, Canynges was at the forefront of Bristol’s affairs from 1360 for more than 30 years, during which period he served as mayor for five terms. Indeed, when, by royal charter of August 1373, Bristol became a county, it was he who, on 15 Sept., was elected as mayor of the borough and appointed as first royal escheator of the shire. It was probably during his second mayoralty (1375-6) that the Great Red Book began to be compiled. In the Easter term of 1376 proceedings were initiated against Canynges and John Vyel* concerning the customs dues collected by them on wine coming from Gascony under convoy when they had been mayor and sheriff, respectively, two years earlier. In 1382, following the petition of several Bristol merchants, including John Fulbroke*, Canynges as mayor opened an inquest into losses incurred by piracy, later, in November 1386, being appointed to arbitrate in a dispute arising from the settlement of the case. As a leading stapler, Canynges had been regularly among the electors of the officials of the Bristol Staple in the autumns of 1364-8 and 1371, and, while mayor for the last three terms (in the 1380s), he concurrently held the post of mayor of the Staple, by appointment of the Crown.4

Not surprisingly, Canynges had come to the notice of the royal administration early in his career. In November 1363 the commonalty of Bristol had complained that corn on which it relied from Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire had been prevented from reaching the town by royal officials, and only after Canynges and two others had provided securities that the grain would not be exported were orders given to ensure supplies. Two months previously Canynges, in association with John Stoke and Walter Frampton†, had been granted by the Exchequer the right to farm the subsidy on cloth collected in Somerset, Dorset and Gloucestershire for three years, and this concession was renewed for a further period in April 1368. In June 1371 he stood surety for the new farmers (including a close friend, Thomas Beaupyne*); and the interest of his family in the collection of this subsidy continued in 1375 with the appointment as alnagers of John and Simon Canynges, who are thought to have been William’s sons. Meanwhile, in October 1370, Canynges had procured the wardship of William Corbet’s heir and a lease of his estates, first in Gloucestershire and later, in 1373, in Shropshire too. He retained part of the Corbet estate until 1382 and even later, owing to a debt of £320 incurred by his ward. Canynges was named as a commissioner in February 1387 to investigate cases of evasion of payment of local customs through the unloading of vessels in ‘les Floteholmes’ but he neglected to hold an inquest until August 1391, by which date he had taken on additional responsibilities as customer in the ports between Bridgwater and Chepstow. Meanwhile, in July 1390 he had acquired an Exchequer lease of lands in ‘la Hyde’, Dorset.5

The wealth of the Canynges family and its standing in Bristol were based on William Canynges’s success in mercantile and commercial ventures. Early in his career he was engaged in the lucrative pilgrim traffic to Spain, acquiring in March 1368 the necessary licence, in partnership with Elias Spelly*, for their jointly-owned ship La Seint Marie Cogge to transport pilgrims to the shrine of St. James of Compostella; and the following February Canynges obtained permission to convoy as many passengers as he pleased, returning home with merchandise. He was also then engaged in shipping hides from Ireland to Calais, successfully petitioning the King in December 1370 and again in August 1378 for the release of certain cargoes, respectively of 60 and 40 hides, confiscated by the customers at Bristol for alleged evasion of subsidies. He continued to trade with Ireland (in 1385 he nominated attorneys to act in the province on his behalf for two years), but the most important markets for his principal trading concern, cloth, were Gascony, Spain and Portugal. He is recorded in 1378-9 as exporting 80 cloths worth £184, as well as other merchandise valued at £50. Not only did Canynges ship cloth supplied by merchants of the region, such as the Beaupynes of Cirencester, but also what he himself had manufactured: alnage accounts show that in the year before his death he sold as many as 41 cloths woven in Bristol. Canynges’s imports included woad, wax, oil and carcasses, and in the autumn of 1391 his ship La Rodecogge docked with a cargo of fruit and wine from Bordeaux.6

Canynges and his partners encountered a number of setbacks in their trading ventures. La Clement, a ship of 120 tuns owned by him and Elias Spelly, was reported in December 1366 to have been captured and burnt by subjects of Henry of Trastamara, the pretender to the Castilian throne, and its crew held to ransom. In reprisal the Bristol merchants arrested a Spanish vessel, but received royal orders to release her so as not to prejudice the English alliance with Peter II. The following June, however, Canynges and Spelly successfully petitioned for compensation for the loss of La Clement together with goods worth £1,600, and also for losses from two other ships, to be taken from five Spanish vessels recently captured by the western fleet. Then, in July 1371, Canynges, described as a citizen of London, alleged that a ship freighted at Bayonne with wine and iron of his had been wrecked on the Goodwin Sands, and the merchandise stolen by Kentish men. Eight years later another belonging to him and John Canynges was seized when on a voyage to Calais and forcibly taken to Hartlepool. But at least in June 1384, the port authorities of London, Southampton and Bristol were ordered to make arrest of any French vessels then in harbour together with goods to the value of 1,500 marks, in reprisal for the seizure of La Rodecogge at Harfleur contrary to the current truce; and in the following May Canynges and his Bristol associates were granted a French boat and part of its cargo. Among English traders with whom Canynges had dealings were merchants of Salisbury and Weymouth, two of whom he sued for debt in the 1380s. His commercial enterprise was shared in his own lifetime by other members of his family and carried on by the next generation after his death. With the future prosperity of the family in mind, he left his interest in La Rodecogge to Simon Canynges, who, with John Canynges, continued to deal in cloth with Bayonne and in Spain. Such were the foundations on which John’s younger son, the more famous William Canynges† was to establish an impressive mercantile empire.7

Canynges was connected with a number of religious foundations. In July 1369 he obtained a royal licence to grant in mortmain to Witham priory lands worth £5 a year, with five messuages and four shops in Bristol, so providing for daily prayers for himself, his wife and others, including John Canynges. The statement in Ricart’s Kalendar that in the year 1376 William ‘builded the bodye of Redclyf church, from the crosse Iles downewardes’, has associated him with that church, too, but the entry, written in a 17th-century hand, may be questioned, since Canynges lived, died and was buried in the parish of St. Thomas the Martyr, held no known property in Redcliffe parish, and left a mere 20s. to the fabric of its church. Architectural evidence, moreover, points to the completion of Redcliffe church after Canynges died. He and his wife were members of the guild of the Holy Trinity at Coventry, probably as a consequence of his trading interests there, and later he was remembered in John Barnstaple’s hospital foundation at Lawford’s Gate, Bristol, completed early in the 15th century.8

Of Canynges’s property in Bristol little is known, save that he lived in Tucker Street and had holdings opposite ‘Hunden Lane’. In 1395 he made arrangements for his wife to have certain halls, cellars, shops and a house on Marsh Street. He made his will on 2 Oct. 1396. Among its provisions, he remembered the lame and bedridden within one mile’s radius of Bristol, and the need for repairs to the road between Lawford’s Gate and Ridgeway manor, Gloucestershire. He died before 10 Nov. In February 1399 his widow Agnes procured a licence to grant the reversion of her Bristol properties to Glastonbury abbey. She later disputed with John Canynges (probably her stepson) the possession of muniments relating to property formerly William’s which John had purchased in 1400.9

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. CPR, 1367-70, p. 278; E.E. Williams, Chantries of Wm. Canynges, 45; Some Som. Manors (Som. Rec. Soc. extra ser. 1931), 63-64.
  • 2. Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xix. 114-17; xxvi. 127-9.
  • 3. Glos. N. and Q. ii. 224-5; Add. 5766B; Bristol Wills (Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. 1886), 6, 41; Little Red Bk. Bristol ed. Bickley, i. 133, 189-95; G. Pryce, Mems. Canynges Fam. 38, 55; Williams, 44-51, 85; CPR, 1381-5, p. 266; Some Som. Manors, 63-64; CIPM, xiv. 268.
  • 4. Little Red Bk. i. 51, 114; Gt. Red. Bk. (Bristol Rec. Soc. iv), 2, 94, 173-6; Overseas Trade (ibid. vii), 300-2; Staple Ct. Bks. (ibid. v), 60; CPR, 1385-9, p. 244; CIMisc. iv. 189; C47/33/5 nos. 21, 24.
  • 5. CCR, 1360-4, p. 433; 1364-8, p. 484; 1369-74, p. 317; 1374-7, p. 206; CIMisc. iv. 374; Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. liii. 84-85 (erroneously referring to accounts of 14 and 15 Ric. II as being of Edw. III); CPR, 1361-4, p. 410; 1381-5, p. 213; CFR, viii. 93, 212; x. 328.
  • 6. E101/339/2; Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. lxvi. 71-72; Overseas Trade 34, 180-2, 185-6, 189, 193, 197-8, 200-1; E122/16/21, 26, 40/12, 17; CPR, 1367-70, pp. 137, 212; 1381-5, p. 569; CCR, 1369-74, p. 169; 1377-81, p. 150.
  • 7. CCR, 1364-8, p. 255; 1369-74, p. 30; 1381-5, pp. 340, 382, 547; CPR, 1370-4, p. 176; 1381-5, p. 368; E.M. Carus-Wilson, Med. Merchant Venturers, 80-82, 85; R. Surtees, Durham, iii. 101.
  • 8. CPR, 1367-70, p. 278; 1408-13, p. 360; Ricart’s Kalendar (Cam. Soc. n.s. v), 36; Archaeologia, xxxv. 279-97; Reg. Holy Trinity Guild Coventry (Dugdale Soc. xiii), pp. xxii, 88.
  • 9. Gt. Red Bk. (Bristol Rec. Soc. ii), 293; (ibid. iv), 214, 234-5; Bristol Wills, 48; CPR, 1396-9, p. 471; Little Red Bk. ii. 214; Overseas Trade, 303-4.