COWLEY, Thomas (d.1422), of Oxford and Cowley, Oxon.

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

prob. s. of Thomas Cowley of Oxford and Cowley by his w. Agnes. m.(1) bef. Jan. 1406, Juliana, da of John Bereford† (d.1361) of Oxford by Agnes, da. of John Bost†, wid. of John Hampton and William Dagville† (d.c.1399) of Oxford, 1da.; (2) aft. Apr. 1416, Anne or Agnes (d.1437), 2s. 1da.1

Offices Held

King’s attorney and coroner in KB 27 Nov. 1398-1 Oct. 1399, c. Easter 1400-d.2

J.p. Oxon. 28 Nov. 1399-Jan. 1406, Oxford 8 Jan. 1400-c.1403, Kent 8 July 1420-d.

Commr. of inquiry, Oxford July 1402 (treasons by Welshmen), Oxon. Feb. 1404 (escapes of felons), June 1406 (concealments), Oxon., Berks. Jan. 1414 (lollards); array, Oxon. Sept. 1403; to raise royal loans, Oxon., Berks. June 1406.

Tax collector, Oxon. Nov. 1404, Dec. 1405.


Probably a son of Thomas Cowley, an Oxford inn-keeper who served as bailiff in 1362-3, the subject of this biography followed him as owner of land at Cowley, Iffley and Littlemore as well as of property in the town itself. Indeed, theirs was a family with mixed town and country interests. In addition, our Member secured substantial holdings in Oxford through marriage to the twice-widowed Juliana Bereford, who had inherited from her father John, the former mayor, a number of properties, including ‘Black Hall’ in St. Giles’s parish, Battes Inn, a tavern near Carfax and houses in All Saints’ parish. Furthermore, her second husband, William Dagville (four times mayor and six times MP) had been one of the wealthiest inhabitants of late 14th-century Oxford. Cowley retained these properties of his wife’s until 1413, when some of them were settled by Juliana on her son, Thomas Dagville, who agreed to pay the Cowleys 18 marks annual rent for Croxford’s Inn and its four adjacent shops.3

In the meantime, Cowley had forged a career for himself in the King’s bench, where he started off as a clerk and deputy to Edmund Brudenell*, the King’s attorney. He shared a royal grant of forfeited goods worth £20 in October 1397, and secured appointment as Brudenell’s successor a year later, obtaining tenure of the attorneyship for life in April 1399. As a consequence of Richard II’s deposition later that year, Cowley seems to have lost his office, but only briefly, for he regained it a short while after Henry IV’s accession. Possibly the transition was made easier for him by his association with the King’s half-brother Henry Beaufort, bishop of Lincoln, for whom he had acted as an attorney when Beaufort had accompanied Richard II to Ireland. Certainly, he maintained this important connexion, in 1402 witnessing a charter of Beaufort’s at Oxford. In November 1399 Henry IV had granted him an annuity of £10 at the Exchequer, which he was to receive for life in addition to the annual fee of £10 paid him as King’s attorney in the King’s bench.4

Cowley’s position in the lawcourts led to his appointment to a number of royal commissions in his native county, most notably to the local bench. He also became involved in the affairs of the town of Oxford, although not being on the best of terms with some of the inhabitants, for in 1401 he was engaged in a personal dispute with Oriel college over a quit rent. Elected MP for the borough early in 1406, in October of the same year, during the Parliament’s third session, he was appointed, no doubt because of his legal knowledge, to be one of the corporation’s attorneys who were to negotiate with the university’s representatives in their dispute over cession of actions. One of the factors recommending him as an MP may well have been his connexions. He was once described as ‘nuper serviens’ to Thomas Haseley*, an influential figure at Westminster, where he was then a clerk of the Crown in Chancery; and he was closely acquainted with John Wilcotes, who sat for Oxfordshire in the Parliament of 1406 as well as on many other occasions. Both Haseley and Wilcotes subsequently agreed to act as trustees of Cowley’s lands.5

In the early years of the 15th century, Cowley extended his territorial interests in Cowley and Iffley, to include, in the former, ‘Dogetsplace’ and ‘Byrtsplace’. The mill estate at Iffley, once held by his wife’s father, was acquired back from Thomas Freen of Winchester in about 1402, Freen being in Cowley’s debt for £113 13s.4d. In 1408 he and his wife obtained a licence from the bishop of Lincoln enabling them to celebrate mass privately in their houses at Oxford and Cowley for three years. Cowley apparently negotiated with Richard Courtenay, clerk (afterwards bishop of Norwich) to purchase his holdings in the vicinity and when, in July 1410, Courtenay took on an Exchequer lease of other lands nearby, Cowley stood surety on his behalf. Subsequently, he fell into dispute with William Crowell, husbandman of Littlemore, over land in which his father had once had an interest, and although the property was adjudged in 1412 to Crowell, the latter forfeited by breach of covenant and the estate was conveyed to trustees to Cowley’s use. However, the latter’s title continued to be challenged, and in 1416 and 1417 armed bands acting in Crowell’s interest tried to dislodge him. A judgement in the King’s bench awarded Cowley costs and damages, but worse attacks were made in the following year. By 1419 he had put the estate back in the hands of trustees, who included John Cottesmore, the future judge.6

Cowley’s difficulties at home were no doubt partly occasioned by his absence elsewhere. In 1419 he and his feoffees acquired a large estate in Kent, situated at Mottingham in Chislehurst; while his second marriage, contracted about the same time, brought him the manor of Howbery in Crayford as well as land in Sussex, at East Grinstead. It was probably on the strength of these holdings, as well as of his legal experience, that Cowley appeared on two Kentish commissions of the peace after July 1420.7

In his will, made on 15 Aug. 1422 as ‘of Howbery’, Cowley left all his property in Oxfordshire and Kent to his widow, with remainder to their son, Thomas. It is a measure of his standing that he could include among his executors the influential (Sir) John Pelham*, then engaged in the administration of the will of Henry IV. He died on 20 Aug. and was buried as he had requested in the church of the Friars Minor in London. Cowley’s widow, Agnes, who then married Roger Appleton, an auditor in the Exchequer, made her will on 1 May 1437 and apparently died later that year (although the will was not proved until May 1439). She was buried at Crayford next to her mother. For mutual love and affection, and in return for his great trouble and expense in paying off Cowley’s creditors, she left Appleton all Cowley’s estates for life, and also made him guardian of the heir. The Cowleys subsequently became an established gentry family in the area around Chiselhurst.8

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Authors: Charles Kightly / L. S. Woodger


Variants: Couele, Covele.

  • 1. Oxf. Hist. Soc. (ser. 2), xiv. 40-41; PCC 25 Luffenham, 54 Marche; VCH Oxon. iv. 68.
  • 2. Sel. Cases King’s Bench (Selden Soc. lxxxii), pp. xxviii, lxxxviii-xcii; vii. p. xxix.
  • 3. Oxf. Hist. Soc. xviii. 25; xxxvii. 16; (ser. 2), xiv. 40-41, 100-1, 110, 112, 168; xx. 105, 204; Bodl. Twyne ms 23, f. 372.
  • 4. Bull. IHR, xlvii. 157; CPR, 1396-9, pp. 211, 544, 553; 1399-1401, p. 128; 1401-5, p. 232; E404/17/82.
  • 5. Oxf. Hist. Soc. lxxv. 441; lxxi. no. 196; lxvi. no. 7.
  • 6. VCH Oxon. v. 86, 194-6, 200; CCR, 1402-5, p. 164; 1409-13, pp. 330, 338-9, 436; CFR, xiii. 185; Reg. Repingdon (Lincoln Rec. Soc. lvii), 108.
  • 7. E. Hasted, Kent ed. Drake, i. 191; ii. 278; CP25(1)113/289/265.
  • 8. PCC 25 Luffenham, 54 Marche; Coll. Top. et Gen. v. 285; CCR, 1435-41, p. 162; J. Weever, Funeral Mons. 128.