FLETE, William (d.1444), of Rickmansworth, Herts. and London.
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Family and Education
s. of John Flete by his w. Alice. m. (1) by 24 Sept. 1410, Alice; (2) Isabel. s.p.1
Commr. to buy wheat and malt for victualling Harfleur, Norf., Suff. Jan. 1416; of inquiry, Herts. June 1416 (wastes), July 1420 (John Hede’s estates in Aldenham), to raise royal loans Nov. 1419, Apr. 1431, Feb. 1434; distribute a tax rebate Dec. 1433, Feb. 1434; of kiddles, Bucks., Herts., Mdx. July 1438.
Collector of a royal loan, Herts. Jan. 1420; assessor of a tax Jan. 1436.
J.p. Herts. 12 Feb. 1422-9.
Escheator, Essex and Herts. 24 Jan.-17 Dec. 1426.
This Member’s family took its name from the town of Flete in Holland, Lincolnshire, and although William left the area while still a boy, he maintained close connexions with it until his death. His parents’ decision to apprentice him to their kinsman, the mercer, Symkyn Flete (d. by 1421), was in accordance with an established tradition, since from the late 13th century, if not before, successive generations of Fletes had prospered in London. He was thus connected on the one hand with such eminent local landowners as Sir William Flete (d. by 1425) who served on many royal commissions in Lincolnshire, and on the other with a powerful group of city merchants, including Everard Flete†, sometime warden of the Mercers’ Company, and a second namesake of his, the wealthy fishmonger, William Flete (d. by 1422).2 One branch of this distinguished and prolific family prospered in the service of the Crown, and it was no doubt through the influence of another relative, Simon Flete (d. by 1430), that the MP obtained his first royal commission in 1416 for the victualling of Harfleur. Simon, a receiver of the King’s chamber, had by then been made controller of the town, and shortly afterwards he settled all his estates and possessions in England in trust upon the subject of this biography. His career was crowned with further success, for he rose to become a councillor and keeper of the privy wardrobe to Henry VI.3 John Flete (d.1412), a Lincolnshire j.p., and his kinsman, William, were also loyal retainers of the house of Lancaster, holding office, respectively, as keeper of the royal bedchamber and as one of the King’s clerks.4
Even in an age noted for its litigiousness, Flete stands out as an unusually quarrelsome and sometimes overtly belligerent character. Indeed, most of the evidence about his colourful life derives from trade disputes and lawsuits. He is first mentioned in January 1402, when he and other London merchants were summoned to appear before the royal council at Westminster in response to allegations of piracy made by the Flemish towns. His offence went unpunished, although far more hostile treatment was meted out to him some years later by the Genoese, who confiscated a valuable consignment of wool and other commodities intended by him and his partners for the Italian market. Together with Drew Barantyn*, William Waldern* and other entrepreneurs engaged in this venture, he received royal letters patent in February 1413 permitting the seizure of Genoese goods in English ports to the value of their lost merchandise (£24,000) as well as an additional £10,000 in estimated costs. This brought them into conflict with other Italian merchants who claimed to have been unfairly victimized; and, despite the indiscriminate confiscation of foreign vessels which followed, they had still not been adequately compensated by June 1420. Flete then agreed to accept a compromise figure of £7,333, but even so he and his colleagues did not recover the entire sum for a further seven years. In desperation he and Barantyn took the law into their own hands by robbing a Piedmontese factor of cloth worth £500; and as late as 1428 Flete himself was still at odds with several Genoese merchants, presumably as a result of these protracted trade wars.5
Flete’s relations with his own commercial associates were no less acrimonious, and he was perpetually at loggerheads with other English merchants throughout his life. His return to the Parliament of November 1414, for example, seems to have been engineered so that he could personally oversee the terms of a petition submitted to that body by the Company of the Staple of Calais. It was a common enough practice for the Staple to have at least one semi-official representative in the Lower House, but Flete took advantage of his position to secure the inclusion in the document of a demand for the restitution of goods which had been removed from his own house in Calais without due process of law. His long association with Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, Henry V’s uncle, may also have played some part in his election to the Commons both in 1414 and later, in 1423, when provisions were enacted for the repayment of a substantial sum advanced by Beaufort to the Crown. Without doubt, Flete’s work as one of the bishop’s leading financial agents at Calais sometimes worsened rather than helped his relations with the mercantile community there. According to evidence later submitted by him in the court of Chancery, Flete suffered from the ‘grete malice’ of his fellow staplers, most notably Hamon Sutton*, the mayor, whom he accused of repeatedly attempting to frustrate his appeals for justice. In December 1424 the earl of Warwick was appointed to investigate a complaint made by Flete over the seizure of his wool at Calais, but the outcome of this inquiry remains unknown. Notwithstanding the ill-feeling which he and his erstwhile business associates continued to harbour towards each other, Flete played a prominent part in the negotiation of at least three major loans requested from the Calais Staple by the government. In 1430 he was sent by the royal council to discuss ‘certains matieres’ with his colleagues, who advanced 3,500 marks repayable to Flete and three other agents by the following Michaelmas. Although the debt fell into arrears, Flete agreed to treat for further loans in both 1434 and 1436, when he acted as Bishop Beaufort’s personal envoy on a mission doomed to failure.6
Much of Flete’s considerable wealth was invested in land, and it was through his purchase of an estate in Hertfordshire that he came to represent the county in Parliament. He first acquired a title to property in the Rickmansworth area shortly before 1401, when the failure of one of his debtors to repay a loan of 100 marks led him to foreclose upon a mortgage. In September 1410 he and his wife were confirmed in possession of the manor of Britwell in Rickmansworth, together with other holdings in Watford and Cassio which they settled upon feoffees (including Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham). Six years later they added the manors of Moor and Ashleys (also in Rickmansworth) to their rent-roll, but not without another round of litigation, begun by Flete in an attempt to gain redress from an allegedly dishonest lawyer. Claiming to have begun negotiations for the purchase of these properties in 1406, Flete accused his counsel of fraud and demanded damages of £100. Since the case was eventually heard by Bishop Langley in his capacity as chancellor of England, our Member may well have obtained a favourable verdict. In July 1426, Flete and his feoffees were granted a royal licence to crenellate the manor of Moor and enclose 600 acres of surrounding parkland.7 Flete’s success in consolidating a large and valuable estate brought him further problems, which his harsh and grasping disposition did nothing to allay. From about 1416 onwards he and the abbot of St. Albans were locked in a bitter feud, described by the abbey chroniclers in vivid, if less than impartial, prose. The quarrel dragged on because of Flete’s refusal to acknowledge that he held the Rickmansworth property as a demesne tenant of the abbey and was thus liable to pay rent and perform homage to Abbot Whethamstead. His stubborn resistance led the monks to embark upon a campaign of personal abuse in which he was villified as a second Elkanah—bigamously espoused to the sins of pride and deceit. Their view of Flete as
vir parumper duplex in animo, unusque ore ac alius in opere, et propterea inconstans instabilisque in omni cogitatu suo ... etiam vir potens plurimum in operibus, subtilisque valde in operibus ...
was, none the less, hastily revised in 1428, when, having finally submitted to arbitration, he agreed to accept most of the abbot’s demands. As an earnest of his good intentions, he settled the manor of Eastbury (the ownership of which had been another bone of contention between the two parties) upon the abbey; and, against a background of rejoicing appropriate to the return of a lost sheep to the fold, Whethamstead received him into the lay fraternity of the chapter. The eloquent expression of remorse attributed to Flete on this occasion appears to have been genuine (or convincing) enough, for in the summer of 1429 he witnessed a compact between the abbot and some of his tenants, and two years later he attended the meeting held at St. Albans by Whethamstead and the bishop of Ely to discuss measures for the suppression of heresy.8 It is hard to tell how far Flete’s uncharacteristic surrender to the abbot was brought about by the difficulties he was then facing on his own estates, but the reaction of his tenants to years of victimization had by then reached serious proportions. In about 1425 certain farmers in Watford petitioned the chancellor about the ‘wronges and oppressions’ committed by Flete in the area, pointing out that his seat on the local bench gave him virtual immunity in this respect. Matters reached a head in 1431, when his tenants from Bushey, Watford and Rickmansworth marched up to the Parliament house at Westminster, where they made a vociferous protest against his ruthless behaviour and deposited seven ploughshares as a token of their servitude. The undisguised glee with which this incident was reported in the St. Albans abbey chronicle suggests that Whethamstead himself may not have been unconnected with the incident, especially as the participants are there described as ‘tenants of the abbey’. Flete immediately sought redress against this ‘disclaunderyng and hurtyng of his goode name and fame’, although his reputation had been too skilfully and consistently undermined for such an attempt to prove successful.9
Even though they inevitably absorbed most of his attention, Flete’s Hertfordshire estates did not represent the whole of his investment in property. On the contrary, his territorial interests were diverse; and as befitted a city merchant he spent quite large sums on building up his possessions in London. These were said to be worth £5 11s. a year in 1412, but by the time of his death they produced almost six times this sum, of not more. Flete then endowed a chantry in the church of the hospital of St. Mary, Elsing Spital, with rents, tenements and shops to the yearly value of £30; and his executors eventually obtained a second licence to part with a slightly less valuable estate in London for the same purpose.10 At some point before 1412, Flete acquired a small amount of land in Hendon, and he may later have added to his holdings in Middlesex. From December 1415 he was, moreover, the recipient of £6 13s.4d. a year, assigned to him from the late Sir Roger Trumpington’s estates in Bedfordshire and Leicestershire. Flete was himself the owner of property in Holbeach, Whaplode and Flete in his native Lincolnshire, which he may perhaps have inherited from one of his many kinsmen. In 1425 Richard Baynard* offered Flete securities of 700 marks that he and his co-feoffees would convey the manor of ‘Lucyes’ in Flete to him and a distinguished group of trustees comprising John Hotoft*, John Fray* and Ralph, Lord Cromwell, evidently as part of a more complex transaction involving the ownership of land in Great Tey, Essex. Whatever his title to this particular property (which was, indeed, settled upon him shortly afterwards, and had evidently been mortgaged to raise money for the ransom of Sir John Cornwall’s stepson, the earl of Huntingdon), we may certainly regard Flete as one of the wealthiest landowners, and—in view of his commercial activities—almost certainly the richest man to represent Hertfordshire during our period.11
The survival of so much highly coloured evidence about the more turbulent side of our Member’s career tends to obscure the less dramatic but equally important round of business which preoccupied him at other times. His connexion with Croyland abbey in Lincolnshire probably dated back to his youth, and he agreed to act as a proxy for the abbot in the Parliaments of 1410, April 1414 (when he himself was sitting) and 1425. Although his relations with his neighbours appear, perhaps understandably, to have remained rather distant, he occasionally became involved in their affairs. In 1419, for example, he joined with Sir William Bourgchier* and John Hotoft in assuming the trusteeship of certain property in Essex; and three years later he offered sureties at the Exchequer on behalf of John Leventhorpe*, together with his own feoffee-to-uses and patron, Bishop Beaufort. Flete himself acted as a trustee from time to time, usually in London, where he was clearly better liked. In 1426, for instance, he was a party to the settlement of the late Richard Whittington’s* estates in the City, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. From the beginning of the 15th century onwards, Flete was engaged in several complex financial transactions, the exact nature of which is now hard to understand. As has already been noted, he was prepared to offer loans on the security of property, doing so twice (in 1421 and 1428) for the Buckinghamshire landowner, John Cheyne*, to whom he advanced a total of £325; and at least once for the ransoming of the earl of Huntingdon, towards which he contributed over £100. Another of his many influential clients was Richard, earl of Salisbury, from whom he received a consignment of plate, in 1438, in return for a cash loan of 200 marks.12
In contrast with his eventful earlier years, the last part of Flete’s life passed quietly, as he divided his energies between his country estates and the City. In 1434 he was one of the representatives summoned from Hertfordshire to attend a meeting of the royal council. When, two years later, the government approached several prominent landowners for a loan towards the war-effort, Flete personally offered £100 rather than the lesser sum of 100 marks initially asked of him. It is clear from his will, which contains a reference to his current apprentice, Richard Lesyngham, that he continued to do business as a mercer until he died. A series of recognizances in sums totalling over £466 offered by Flete and a commercial associate to the keeper of the rolls in 1443 probably concerned some mercantile dispute, although they may have been made by him in his capacity as an executor of the distinguished mercer, William Cavendish. Be this as it may, Flete remained active until his death, shortly before 10 May 1444. He was buried in the chapel of the hospital of St. Mary, Elsing Spital, to which, as we have seen, he proved a more than generous benefactor. The task of executing his will, which was proved in the following September, fell, inter alios, to the lawyers, John Fray and Robert Frampton, and his widow, Isabel. Both of Flete’s marriages appear to have been childless and most of his remaining bequests were made to relatives in Flete.13
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. PCC 28 Luffenham; CCR, 1409-13, pp. 167-8; CPR, 1452-61, p. 251.
- 2. PCC 28 Luffenham; Beaven, Aldermen, i. 264; Cal. Wills ct. Husting, London ed. Sharpe, i. 547; CPR, 1405-8, p. 472; 1416-22, p. 294; 1422-9, pp. 242, 273-4; Corporation of London RO, jnl. 2, ff. 40, 62; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, p. 140.
- 3. CPR, 1399-1401, p. 88; 1405-8, pp. 387, 411; 1416-22, p. 71; 1422-9, pp. 74-75; CCR, 1413-19, p. 297.
- 4. CPR, 1399-1401, pp. 29, 387; 1408-13, pp. 447, 482; CCR, 1402-5, p. 293.
- 5. CCR, 1402-5, p. 27; 1422-9, pp. 405, 454; CPR, 1408-13, p. 461; 1413-16, p. 90; PPC, ii. 270-1; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, p. 221; J.H. Wylie, Hen. IV, i. 380-1; C1/6/30, 69/215.
- 6. RP, iv. 56; C1/16/448; E404/47/149, 191, 345, 54/321; DKR, xlviii. 280; G.L. Harriss, Cardinal Beaufort, 126-7, 266, 271.
- 7. C1/5/53, 84, 101; VCH Herts. ii. 281, 375, 381; CCR, 1409-13, pp. 124, 167-70; 1413-19, pp. 118, 120-1; CPR, 1422-9, p. 351.
- 8. J. Amundesham, Chron. S. Albani ed. Riley, i. 22-23, 37, 64, 263-74; ii. pp. xli-xlii; VCH Herts. ii. 463.
- 9. C1/11/280, 20/157; Amundesham, i. 60-61.
- 10. Arch. Jnl. xliv. 65; CPR, 1452-61, pp. 251, 283-5.
- 11. C1/19/195; CP25(1)145/156/25; Feudal Aids, vi. 489; CCR, 1419-22, p. 214; CPR, 1416-22, p. 37; 1422-9, pp. 261, 263.
- 12. E210/9641; SC10/44/2170, 45/2211, 48/2390H; CCR, 1405-9, p. 342; 1419-22, p. 135; 1422-9, pp. 196, 393; CFR, xiv. 437; Essex Feet of Fines, iii. 270; Corporation of London RO, hr 134/116, 154/21, 169/7.
- 13. PPC, iv. 213, 322; CCR, 1441-7, pp. 132-3; Cal. P. and M. London, 1413-37, p. 282; CFR, xvii. 276; PCC 28 Luffenham; Corporation of London RO, hr 173/35-36, 184/12. By a curious coincidence, one of our Member’s namesakes in the City also left a widow named Isabel, who came from Cheshire and died in c.1455. This William Flete was buried in the Charterhouse, where his brother, John, was a monk (Guildhall Lib. London, 9171/5, ff. 190-90v).