WADHAM, Sir John (d.1412), of Edge in Branscombe, Devon and Merrifield in Ilton, Som.

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

?s. of Gilbert Wadham of Wadham, Devon. m. (1) Maud, 1s.; (2) bef. 1385, Joan Wrothesley, 5s. (1 d.v.p.) 3da. Kntd. by Sept. 1397.2

Offices Held

Serjeant-at-law from Hilary term 1383; King’s serjeant by June 1387-May 1389.3

Commr. of oyer and terminer, Surr. Sept. 1383, Devon Feb. 1386, Wilts. Apr. 1387, Cornw. July 1389, Cambs. Aug. 1389, Surr. Feb. 1390, Essex Oct. 1390, Surr., Suss. Apr. 1392, Som. July 1392, Suss. Feb. 1393, Som. July 1393, Cornw. Sept. 1393, Dec. 1395, Som. Feb. 1396, Devon Dec. 1396, Aug., Dec. 1397, Som. Feb. 1399, Devon Dec. 1400, Sept. 1401, Som. Nov. 1401, Devon Dec. 1401, Dec. 1404; array Apr. 1385, Mar. 1392; gaol delivery, Ilchester Dec. 1386 (q.), Jan., July 1392 (q.), May 1395, Jan. 1397 (q.), Mar 1398 (q.), Exeter July 1387, Feb. 1388, Mar. 1398 (q.), Mar. 1399, Canterbury, Hertford, Colchester, Guildford June 1388, Guildford, Canterbury June 1389, Rayleigh Feb. 1390, Carlisle Mar. 1390 (q.), Winchester Oct. 1390 (q.), Guildford Apr. 1391 (q.), Feb. 1393 (q.), Feb. 1396 (q.), Dorchester July 1392 (q.), Newgate Dec. 1392, Oct. 1397, Canterbury July 1393, May 1394, Berkhampstead May 1394, July 1395, Bridgwater Nov. 1395; to enforce statutes relating to salmon fishing, Devon Mar. 1388; of inquiry, Som. May 1389, Devon, Cornw. July 1389, Devon Nov. 1389, Cambs. Dec. 1389, Feb. 1390, Cornw. Feb., Nov. 1390, Kent Apr. 1390, Feb., June 1391, Devon June 1391, Essex, Herts. Sept. 1391, Devon, Cornw. Feb. 1392, Som., Dorset Mar. 1393, Som. Mar., Nov. 1393, Essex May 1394, Suss., Hants Nov. 1394, Som. Oct. 1395, Devon Feb. 1397, Som. Nov. 1400, Devon Mar. 1401, Som. Dec. 1407, Dorset Mar. 1410; sewers, Kent Jan. 1390; to survey the Tresilian estates, Cornw. July 1389, Egham causeway, Surr. Dec. 1392, Mar. 1394; deliver a ward to Sir William Bonville I* Oct. 1395; examine suits from the husting ct. London Jan. 1397; of weirs, Devon June 1398, Som. Mar. 1401, Feb. 1404.

J.p. Devon 28 Nov. 1384-Jan. 1394, Nov. 1397-d., Suss., Surr., Mdx., Herts. 15 July 1389-Nov. 1399, Kent 15 July 1389-Apr.1399, Essex 15 July 1389-Oct. 1399, Dorset 18 June 1394-Nov. 1397, Som. 18 June 1394-d.

Justice of assize, Midland circuit 4 Feb.-June 1388, southeastern circuit 9 June 1388-May 1398.

J.c.p. 20 May 1389-6 May 1398.

Trier of petitions, Gascon 1390 (Jan.), 1390 (Nov.), 1391, English 1394, 1397 (Jan.), 1397 (Sept.)


It is curious that the origins of a man of such distinction as Wadham have been lost. He is consistently stated to have been the son of Sir John Wadham of Edge, but on what evidence cannot be traced.4 More likely, he was the John Wadham who received quitclaim of a rent in Wadham in 1383 in succession to his father, Gilbert, and that William Hankford, afterwards c.j.KB, our Member’s lifelong friend and associate, witnessed the deed, lends weight to this argument. If his origins are obscure, so, too, are the beginnings of his career as a lawyer. Where he received his education is not known, but by 1371 he was practicing in the central courts as an attorney. No doubt it was because of his profession that he was returned for Exeter to the Parliament of 1379, and within four years of that event he had become a serjeant-at-law. It is significant that by 1384 he was in receipt of a livery from Edward, earl of Devon, being then one of his legal counsel. Hankford and John Hill, together with other serjeants-at-law, were colleagues in the earl’s service.5 Promotion in his profession continued smoothly: by Trinity term 1387 he was pleading as a King’s serjeant, and his arguments occur frequently in the Year Book covering the next few months. While the Lords Appellant were in control of the government he was made a justice of assize, first on the midland circuit and then in the home counties, where he remained in office for over ten years. With this appointment went membership of the commissions of the peace in his circuit, and the other corollary, frequent appearances on commissions of oyer and terminer, gaol delivery and inquiry, not only in the same area but also in the West Country and as far afield as Carlisle.6

Just over a year after his appointment as a justice of assize, Wadham was elevated to the bench of the court of common pleas, receiving, besides the usual fee of £40 p.a., an additional 50 marks to help maintain his dignity. His promotion was an outcome of Richard II’s assertion of his right to rule by the advice of men of his own choosing. Thus, at a time when the members of the judiciary were compelled to submit to re-appointment, Wadham was one of five new judges (three of them from Devon or Somerset), selected. But no evidence has been found to suggest that he, at any rate, was partisan in the political debates of the period. His new post brought him into Parliament again, this time by personal summons, and he acted as a trier of petitions in six of the Parliaments of the 1390s. His term on the bench lasted for nine years until May 1398, when he received a grant of a pension of £20 from the issues of Somerset and Dorset ‘for good service’ while a j.c.p., and at the same time he was ‘discharged at his own request’ from being an assize judge. There are no grounds for believing that his resignation was prompted solely by the political events of the previous few months, yet he cannot have been completely unaffected by them.7

It is unlikely that Wadham acted in person on many of the commissions on which he was placed during his term as a judge: a number of writs of supersedeas were issued on his behalf after his failure to act as required. But he must have served at least on those of gaol delivery when he was named as one of the quorum, and certain other commissions seem to have been important enough to warrant his personal intervention. For example, the commission to examine the activities of Sir John Drayton*, former captain of Guînes, named Wadham along with the treasurer, the earl of Northumberland, the steward of the Household and other royal councillors, which suggests that his knowledge of the law deemed his presence necessary. It is also clear from the details surviving of a case he heard as a j.p. in Devon in 1391 that Wadham’s position as a judge by no means excluded him from work outside his circuit. One of the earl of Devon’s retainers had been indicted for murder, and Sir William Sturmy*, another j.p., had approached the earl in an attempt to prevent a disturbance, whereupon Devon had not only threatened Sturmy but had also abused Wadham as a ‘false justice’. When, notwithstanding, the trial proceeded, Sir John Grenville* brought a messuage from the earl to Wadham, charging him to ‘sit more uprightly without partiality in this session than he had in the last’. These are the words of one who had failed to influence the course of justice, and the earl’s attempts to save his retainer ‘in spite of the teeth of the said John Wadham and William Sturmy’, resulted in his appearance before the King’s Council and a stern warning to respect the law in future. Wadham’s appointment as an arbitrator in one of Sir Philip Courtenay’s* disputes only a few months later, and his connexion with other members of the Courtenay family, perhaps suggest that the earl’s words are not to be taken as a sign of any deep-seated grudge against him, although Earl Edward may well have resented the show of independence displayed by his former counsellor.8

Wadham’s retirement from the bench in May 1398 allowed him to devote more attention to his estates. These lay in Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Gloucestershire. An incomplete survey of 1412 valued his holdings at £82 p.a., and the inquisition after his death in the same year put the figure at just under £115. Very little of his property had been acquired by inheritance or marriage; in fact, most had been purchased piecemeal over the years, starting in 1376 when he was still a young man. Thus, in Devon he had acquired half the manor of Harberton, the manors of Silverton and Lustleigh and over 300 acres of land in Branscombe and elsewhere. Silverton and Harberton he had purchased from Cecily Turberville, sister of John, 3rd Lord Beauchamp of Hatch, the former estate in 1386 and the latter, which he held jointly with his colleagues on the bench, John Hill and William Hankford, in 1390. In Somerset his holdings were much larger and reflect the transfer of his interests from Devon. The bulk, situated in the south of the county and near the Dorset border, consisted of properties forfeited by Sir John Cary†, chief baron of the Exchequer, who had been exiled in 1388 by the Merciless Parliament, and comprised the manor of Hardington Mandeville, a moiety of the manor of Chilton Cantelo, and premises in the parish of Trent (now Dorset) sold to him and Hankford by the Crown for 600 marks in July 1389. Of course, their title became less secure after the reversal of Cary’s attainder in 1398, and Wadham was also temporarily dispossessed by Sir Robert Chalons*, although the latter’s claim was rejected in 1402. Sir John’s manor of Merrifield, which he had likewise purchased from Cecily Turberville, seems to have become his chief residence towards the end of his life. In Dorset, he held the manor of Haydon, only a few miles from Trent, and lands in Blackmoor. In Gloucestershire, he drew an annual rent of 22 marks from two-thirds of the manor of Sandhurst, which had been conveyed in 1397 to him and his wife for term of their lives by William Beaumont.9

Wadham had also enjoyed at least two temporary grants of land from the Crown. First, in 1384, he and John Hill were given custody of the manor of West Kington in Wiltshire, and then, in 1390, with John Paulet he took over certain holdings in Devon and Somerset, ‘by advice of the chancellor and because the said John Wadham has informed the King touching his right in the facts of the case in regard to the [said] lands’. His legal knowledge could be put to other good use. A royal judge was a suitable choice to act as feoffee, witness or surety, and Wadham’s more prominent neighbours, such as the Courtenays, Sir William Bonville, Giles Daubeney* and Sir John Pomeroy*, all took advantage of his position and expertise when making business arrangements. As a lawyer, too, he was employed on at least four occasions to acknowledge the enrolment of private deeds on the close roll: in 1387 in St. Paul’s cathedral, in 1388 at South Molton (Devon), in 1391 at Shute (Devon) and in 1400 at his own home in Branscombe.10

It was, of course, only after his retirement from the bench that Wadham was available for election as a knight of the shire, and he sat again in the Commons in 1401. Over the next few years, although he retained his position on the commission of the peace in Devon and Somerset, he did little other work either for the Crown or for his neighbours. Indeed, after 1404 his public duties, with an important exception, virtually ceased, that exception being his appointment in December 1407 to inquire into the extortions of royal officials in Somerset, where only a man of his standing could be relied upon for an impartial finding. Wadham made his will in March 1411, more than a year before his death on 27 July 1412. He died a wealthy man, and cash bequests to his children and other relatives and for masses for his soul amounted to nearly £835. To his wife and two of his sons he also left an impressive array of household goods, quantities of silver plate and chapel furnishings, together with the contents of his cellar at Merrifield. Each of Wadham’s eight children save Robert, the eldest, who was already deceased, and Walter, who had entered the Church, received £100 in cash, with the proviso that ‘if any of my said infants die before they come of age or be promoted, the sum bequeathed to them shall be divided among my other infants’. Most bequests were of the normal kind: to friends, to local monasteries, including friaries, for mending bad roads in the area, repairing churches, and for tithes forgotten. Two, however, were more distinctly individual: he set aside 40 marks for four chaplains to pray for his soul for a year, and if this could be done at a lower price the residue was to be used for prayers for his first wife, for Cecily Turberville and others; and he left the derisory sum of 40d. to the prisoners in Ilchester gaol. William Hankford, his lifelong friend and colleague, acted as an executor. The will was proved on 12 Aug.11

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421


  • 1. Trans. Devon Assoc. lx. 187.
  • 2. Som. Med. Wills (Som. Rec. Soc. xvi), 52-55; Som. Feet of Fines (ibid. xxii), 16; CPR, 1396-9, p. 150; J. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 216; Reg. Brantingham ed. Hingeston-Randolph, 356, 583; CCR, 1381-5, p. 303; RP, iii. 348.
  • 3. Yr. Bk. 1378-9 ed. Arnold, p. xxxiii.
  • 4. This probably originates in J. Prince, Worthies of Devon, 587.
  • 5. CCR, 1381-5, p. 303; Reg. Brantingham, 184; E. Foss, Judges, iv. 25; Add. Ch. 64320.
  • 6. Yr. Bk. 1387-8 ed. Thornley, 19 et seq.; CCR, 1385-9, p. 629; CPR, 1385-9, pp. 469, 474; 1396-9, p. 366; JUST 1/1503.
  • 7. CPR, 1388-92, p. 43; 1396-9, p. 337; 1399-1401, p. 284; T.F. Tout, Chapters, iii. 455; RP, iii. 258, 278, 285, 309, 337, 348.
  • 8. CPR, 1388-92, p. 214; 1396-9, p. 62; Sel. Cases bef. King’s Council (Selden Soc. xxxv), 77-81.
  • 9. CP25(1)44/61/422, 62/16, 64/74, 65/81, 45/70/16; CFR, xiii. 216; Feudal Aids, vi. 417, 430, 515; CCR, 1385-9, pp. 90-91, 118, 157; 1396-9, pp. 267, 276; 1399-1402, p. 456; 1409-13, p. 290-2; CPR, 1388-92, pp. 80, 255; 1396-9, p. 150; 1401-5, pp. 41-42; Reg. Stafford ed. Hingeston-Randolph, 193, 219; Som. Feet of Fines (Som. Rec. Soc. xvii), 142, 152, 172-3, 175; ibid. (xxii), 16; Carts. Muchelney and Athelney Abbeys (ibid. xiv), 194; C137/87/39.
  • 10. CFR, x. 56, 334; CCR, 1385-9, pp. 420, 484; 1389-92, p. 511; 1399-1402, p. 283.
  • 11. CPL, vi. 508; Som. Med. Wills, 52-55; C137/87/39.