ELMSALL, William, of Grimsby, Lincs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

Offices Held

Bailiff, Grimsby Mich. 1373-4; mayor 1377-8, 1390-1.1

Commr. of inquiry, Grimsby Sept. 1377 (breach of arrest of Scottish merchants’ goods); to prevent the departure of vessels May 1401.

Collector and assessor of a tax, Grimsby Dec. 1380.


One of the richest and most influential men in Grimsby, Elmsall first appears in 1372, when his ship La Marie de Grymesby, with its crew of seven mariners, was retained in the service of the Crown for the whole summer. Not until 1380, however, were the final accounts, sanctioning payments of £5 in expenses to Elmsall, actually completed. His commercial interests were many and varied, for like most Grimsby merchants he was prepared to trade in whatever commodities were readily available. His dealings in coal and turves (two staple sources of fuel) were, however, beset by difficulties. In 1374 he entered a contract for the delivery of turves dug from the banks of the river Ouse at Hook, but his source of supply failed and he had to go to court for satisfaction. Five years later, a local man was charged by him with stealing coal worth six marks which he was going to ship out of Grimsby; and at about the same time he became involved in a dispute with a shipman from Marsh Chapel over the carriage of coal to York where he employed a general factor to act on his behalf. His claim that the shipman’s keel went out with only half the cargo of coal which could have been transported and returned with insufficient merchandise was not fully upheld by the court (even though the master of one of his vessels was serving on the jury), and his claim for damages was reduced from 20s. to 40d. A far worse set-back occurred in January 1380, when a sentence of outlawry was passed against Elmsall because of his persistent refusal to appear in court when being sued in London by the executors of Robert Pountfreyt for a debt of 40s. A few months later he secured royal letters of pardon; but his initial success in evading the practical consequences of outlawry continued to disturb the authorities, and during the Easter term of 1386 proceedings were begun against him in the chancellor’s court for the wilful concealment of goods worth 100 marks during the time that he had been under sentence. He claimed that his effects had been settled upon trustees (including one Richard Elmsall) and could not, consequently, be seized but we do not know if this plea was upheld.2

In 1381 Elmsall was charged with attempting to evade the very strict rules imposed in the borough with regard to the purchase of herring from incoming ships. Although on this occasion he was exonerated, he did become involved in an altercation with the mayor, whom he refused to admit into his house. Notwithstanding his notorious contempt for any regulations which threatened his own interests, he twice performed jury service at sessions of the peace at this time. Another controversy arose in the following year, however, after he openly defied a government prohibition upon trade with Scotland. Having illegally contracted to sell 200 quarters of grain worth £33 6s.8d. to the Scots, he ignored a confiscation order produced by John Newland*, the mayor of Grimsby, and conveyed his cargo secretly out of the port by night. Needless to say, such a display of intransigence provoked immediate legal repercussions, although his assertion that the grain had been intended as part of the ransom of Ralph, Lord Greystoke, did secure him a writ of supersedeas and the charges against him were suspended. As one of the leading figures in the local community, Elmsall was called upon in March 1388 to take the oath in support of the Lords Appellant. Yet despite his position, he continued to show scant respect for the law; and just a few weeks later he was found guilty of forestalling four boatloads of herring and thus preventing other local traders from buying the fish at a reasonable price. This earned him and his associates (among whom was his former adversary, John Newland) a fine of 40s. each and further damages of £5. Elmsall’s various brushes with authority went beyond the confines of the secular courts. At some point before July 1389 he was excommunicated for contumacy by the abbot of Westminster. His contempt in ‘refusing to be justified by ecclesiastical censure’ led to the issue of orders for his arrest, but he managed to obtain a stay of execution pending an appeal both to the court of Canterbury and to Rome. He appears to have been successful, and it is interesting to note that in the following year he began an action for conspiracy and trespass against Thomas Seler, one of the chaplains at whose instigation the excommunication was pronounced. The latter was actually convicted and, because of his failure to pay the ensuing fine, was eventually committed to the Marshalsea until the issue of a royal pardon in May 1397.3

Elmsall was preoccupied with other legal business at this time. In June 1390, for example, an inquiry was held into his complaint that a ship of his named The Margarete bearing a cargo of malt and coal for sale at Sandwich had been damaged by another vessel, and that he had been obliged to pay additional customs duties as a result. His arguments were accepted by the commissioners, who exonerated him from any further charges. Elmsall ended his second mayoralty at Michaelmas 1391 with a personal debt of £18 16s.d.outstanding from the municipal funds, but no urgency was shown in the matter, and it was still overdue two years later. Not long afterwards he began a lawsuit against a local mason named William Paul for theft, but Paul used the same delaying tactics which Elmsall himself had deployed in the past, and was eventually outlawed for failing to defend himself in court. In 1395, the same year as his second return to Parliament, Elmsall again acted as a juror in Grimsby. His attempt, with other burgesses, to prevent William Welle* from making use of a communally-owned cargo boat which the townspeople kept for trade along the east coast resulted in yet another controversy, and in 1398 Welle actually petitioned the King for redress.4

Unlike most of his fellow burgesses, Elmsall was employed by the Crown as a commissioner and tax collector, which in itself is a reflection of his local standing. His last experience in the field of local government was in about 1402 when he served as a juror for the assessment of taxes in Grimsby. Six years later he obtained a second pardon for outlawry, which, on this occasion, had been pronounced against him during an action brought by one John Denyner of London for a render of 40s. Nothing is known of Elmsall after 1411, when he was found to owe arrears of £11 2s. to the churchwardens of St. Mary’s, Grimsby, a parish in which he owned at least two tenements.5

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


Variants: Elmshale, Helmesale, Helmeshale. A William Elmeshale was retained by John of Gaunt at Hereford in April 1390 at a fee of £2 p.a. payable for life; and this was confirmed by King Richard on Gaunt’s death. It seems unlikely, however, that this man was the Grimsby merchant (CPR, 1396-9, p. 568).

  • 1. CAD, vi. C4816; HMC 14th Rep. VIII, 288.
  • 2. C44/13/18; E364/13 m. 8; E. Gillett, Grimsby, 38, 41; CPR, 1377-81, p. 493; CIMisc. iv. no. 291.
  • 3. E364/16 m. 10v; C88/70/147; Lincoln Rec. Soc. lvi. 65, 154, 162; RP, iii. 403; CCR, 1381-5, p. 417; 1389-92, p. 85; CPR, 1396-9, p. 139; Gillett, 32.
  • 4. C88/68/5; SC8/299/14937; ClMisc. v. no. 265; CPR, 1391-6, p. 540; Lincoln Rec. Soc. lvi. 225, 235; South Humberside RO, 1/600.
  • 5. Feudal Aids, iii. 249; CPR, 1408-13, p. 7; South Humberside RO, 1/560/28, 35, 1/980/1.