SKELTON, John (d.1439), of Skelton, Cumb.

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. and h. of Nicholas Skelton (d. aft. June 1401), of Whitrigg. m. (1) at least 3s. inc. John; (2) by Feb. 1401, Alice, da. of Sir John Ireby*, and wid. of Geoffrey Tilliol* (d.c.1400) of Torpenhow. Kntd. by Feb. 1404.1

Offices Held

Collector of customs, Cumb. 4 June 1397-16 Mar. 1401.

Dep. warden of the west march towards Scotland for Edward, duke of Aumâle, by 6 Nov. 1398.2

Commr. to take an oath from Robert III of Scotland Jan. 1399;3 receive the earl of Northumberland’s castle of Cockermouth, Cumb. into the King’s hands June 1405; of inquiry, June 1406 (concealments), Jan. 1412 (persons liable for taxation), Mar. 1417 (treasons and felonies), Feb. 1419 (escapes and concealments), Feb. 1427 (damage to a watercourse at Carlisle), Apr. 1431 (persons liable for taxation); to raise royal loans June 1406, July 1426, May 1428; take into the King’s hands the lands of Sir William Threlkeld*, Cumb., Westmld., Yorks. Feb. 1409; of array, Cumb. Apr. 1418.

Controller of the castle of Bordeaux by 6 Dec. 1399-bef. 25 Dec. 1401.

Sheriff, Cumb. 22 Oct. 1404-5, 15 Nov. 1408-4 Nov. 1409, 26 Nov. 1431-5 Nov. 1432.

J.p. Cumb. 3 Dec. 1420-July 1437.

Escheator, Cumb. and Westmld. 13 Nov. 1423-6 Nov. 1424.


The Skeltons were an old and distinguished Cumbrian family, several of whose members represented the county during the first half of the 14th century. They owned the manors of Braithwaite, Hensingham and Skelton, as well as land in Arkleby, Kirkbampton, Linethwaite and Langlands, and thus occupied a leading position among the local gentry. John’s father, Nicholas Skelton, served as a serjeant-at-arms to Richard II and was granted a pension of 1s. a day by Henry IV, although he seems to have gone into retirement at the very beginning of the 15th century. John himself first appears in June 1387 when he took on the lease of a purpresture at Armathwaite in the royal forest of Inglewood. The grant was revoked nine years later in favour of one of the foresters, but John managed to prove his superior title and was re-instated. Meanwhile, in 1392, Richard, Lord Scrope, accused him of poaching on his estates at Brignall in Yorkshire. Two successive royal commissions were set up to investigate these charges, but, as was so often the case, no further action was taken, and John escaped unpunished. As a member of the royal household, Nicholas Skelton was called upon to serve in the army which Richard II led to Ireland in September 1394, and he entrusted John with the supervision of his affairs while he was away. John himself became one of the King’s esquires at some point during the next two years.4 He was thus drawn into the circle of one of Richard II’s favourites, Edward, earl of Rutland (cr. duke of Aumâle in 1397), the son of Edmund, duke of York. Early in 1398, Aumâle was made warden of the western march towards Scotland, and duly appointed John as one of his deputies. In the following November, John offered financial guarantees that the English would observe the terms of a recent truce; and, two months later, he travelled across the border to take similar oaths and pledges from Robert III of Scotland. His expenses remained unpaid, however, so that he was later obliged to petition the newly crowned Henry IV for satisfaction. But his services were rewarded in other ways, thanks to the good offices of his patron, the duke. In January 1399, for example, Aumâle surrendered to him the farm of five closes in the royal forest of Inglewood, which had been promised to him after the earl of Westmorland’s tenancy expired. The existing rent was more than halved in the following April; and from then onwards John stood charged with only £7 p.a., payable directly to the Exchequer. Not surprisingly, he agreed to act as an attorney for the duke when he left England in the spring of 1399 on King Richard’s second expedition to Ireland. Both he and his father, who was evidently now considered too old to fight, were similarly named by John Waltham, bishop of Ossory, another member of the royal army. But this ill-considered venture presented Henry of Bolingbroke with an ideal opportunity for a coup d’état, and within a matter of weeks Richard was deposed.5

Far from harming John’s political career the Lancastrian usurpation soon brought greater opportunities for advancement. Indeed, Henry IV’s anxiety to win over his predecessor’s adherents made him particularly open-handed so far as rewards and offices were concerned. Although some of the closes which he was leasing in Inglewood forest were granted to Sir Henry Percy, who had actively supported the new regime, John was kept on for another two years as collector of customs in Cumberland, being at the same time employed as controller of the castle of Bordeaux in France. He cannot have spent all this period overseas, since by February 1401 he had married, as his second wife, Alice the daughter and sole heir of the late Sir John Ireby, and was then called upon to give evidence in Chancery about the deceased’s failure to execute a royal commission years before. A few months later he was still busy securing his title to the outlying Ireby estates, having already gained control of the manors of High Ireby and Embleton, which formed the bulk of Alice’s inheritance. It is possible that he spent at least part of the following year in France with his former patron, the earl of Rutland (who had lost his dukedom, but had been made lieutenant of Aquitaine), although he was back in the north by the late summer of 1402 to take up arms against a threatened Scottish invasion. The crushing defeat sustained by the enemy at Humbleton Hill on 14 Sept. was made all the more devastating by the capture of a number of important prisoners, most notable of whom was their commander, Murdoch, earl of Fife (the son of the then regent of Scotland, the duke of Albany). He and another Scottish nobleman, William, Lord Graham, were actually taken prisoner by John Skelton, who clearly expected to make a substantial profit out of their ransoms. Henry IV’s orders, issued a week later, that none of the captives were to be ransomed or released, came as a great blow, for even though the King promised to respect the rights of the English captains, many, including the earl of Northumberland and his son, Sir Henry Percy, felt a distinct sense of grievance. The earl’s resentment as he travelled south to the Parliament which met at Westminster on 30 Sept. was no doubt shared by John, who also attended as a shire knight for Cumberland. He must have given whole-hearted support to a request made by the Commons to the King on 16 Oct. that Northumberland should be shown special favour because of his victory; and four days later he had the dubious satisfaction of seeing his own prisoner, the earl of Fife, presented with others before the King and Lords in Parliament. But whereas Northumberland and his son sought reparation by mounting an open rebellion against the throne, John (who was knighted, shortly after the battle of Shrewsbury, in August 1403) remained loyal and eventually received his reward.6

Although he was not returned to the next Parliament, in January 1404, Sir John did travel to London and was named by the two sitting Cumbrian MPs, the brothers (Sir) Robert and William Lowther I, as one of their mainpernors at the Exchequer. He performed a similar service for (Sir) William Osmundlaw*, and may still have been at Westminster in September, when Henry IV granted him an annuity of 40 marks for life from the revenues of Cumberland. Shortly afterwards, Sir John began his first term as sheriff there, and was thus in office during the second of the uprisings staged, in 1405, by Northumberland and his followers. He was, indeed, commissioned in June of that year to take seisin of the castle of Cockermouth, which had been confiscated from the rebel earl by Henry IV. Other, more personal, matters also commanded his attention at this time, as a result of an earlier arrangement whereby the impecunious Sir Robert Muncaster* had mortgaged his estates in and around Torpenhow to his wife’s first husband, Geoffrey Tilliol. Although the loan of 250 marks made by Geoffrey on the security of this property was not repayable for many years, Sir John decided to renegotiate the mortgage so that one of his two stepdaughters, Katherine Tilliol, could have the money straight away. Using his neighbour, Sir William Clifford, as an intermediary, he offered Muncaster a new advance of 255 marks for a term of 20 years, thus gaining control of the land in question for himself. He may already have planned to marry Katherine to Richard, his son and heir by a previous marriage, and cut out the claims of her sister, Joan, to a share of the profits. Later sources reveal that he settled some of the rents from Muncaster’s property upon the couple, being able in this way to avoid alienating any of his own inheritance, at least for the time being. One of the witnesses to these transactions was William Bewley*, whose daughter and coheir, Margaret, married another of Sir John’s sons, providing handsomely for him as well.7

Richard Skelton Richard Skelton actually succeeded his father as sheriff of Cumberland in November 1405, and was consequently responsible for returning Sir John and his friend, (Sir) Robert Lowther, to Parliament four months later. Sir John had particular reason to seek election at this time, since although he had been promised that Murdoch of Fife would either be restored to him as a prisoner or else that he would be given full compensation for the lost ransom, no firm agreement had yet been reached. Claiming that Murdoch was also acting as a hostage for his other prisoner, Lord Graham, to the tune of 350 marks, Sir John seized the opportunity to petition for redress and was at last successful. His record of loyal service to the government clearly influenced Henry IV’s decision to award him a second annuity of 100 marks specifically to cover his losses; and on 20 Apr. 1406, during the first recess of the Parliament, orders went out for payment of the initial instalment. By February 1407, Sir John had not only been granted the lease of certain royal property in Cumberland at a rent of £4 8s.4d. a year, but had also recovered the tenancy of those closes which Henry IV had once entrusted to the traitor, Sir Henry Percy. They were, however, to be shared with another lessee, Thomas Strickland II*, whom Sir John evidently regarded with some suspicion. At all events, whereas Sir John offered Strickland securities of £200 that he would abide by the terms of their agreement, he himself demanded a pledge of £300 from his partner. Two further assignments of land in the north-west were made by Henry IV to Sir John in the following summer, both being intended to offset part of the fee due to him as compensation for his lost prisoners. Some problem must have arisen over the payment of the rest of the money, because in 1412 new arrangements had to be made for the allocation of £51 a year to Sir John from the cloth subsidy in Somerset and Dorset. The grant to him shortly afterwards of the custody and marriage of John Levington, a royal ward with estates in Cumberland, may also have been intended to atone for delays in this quarter. By May 1408, Sir John had been elevated to the status of a King’s knight, and was thus well placed to secure a pardon for one of his former servants who had been involved in treasonable exchanges with the earl of Northumberland in Scotland. Given his own financial and political dependence upon the Lancastrian regime (which had by then once again employed him as sheriff of Cumberland), it is extremely unlikely that he himself condoned such activities, especially as the fall of the Percys had so manifestly proved to his advantage.8

The accession of Henry V in March 1413 saw no marked change in Sir John’s career, which continued very much as before. He was confirmed in receipt of his two royal annuities, and was able to use his influence on behalf of his son, Richard. The latter took on the wardship of the Levington estates in 1416, as well as becoming the farmer of certain royal demesnes at Carlisle on a long, 40-year lease. Sir John himself was often to be seen in Carlisle during this period. He attended no less than ten of the county elections held there between 1413 and 1426, attesting his own return to the Parliament of 1422, which proved to be his last. Moreover, in October 1419, six weeks after the death of William Strickland, bishop of Carlisle, he became guardian of the temporalities of the see, which he administered until the succession of Bishop Whelpdale in the following spring.9 Sir John showed no less concern over the welfare of his second son and namesake, whom he placed in the service of his former benefactor, Edward, earl of Rutland (duke of York from 1402 onwards). The latter fell at the battle of Agincourt, in 1415, but not before granting his new esquire an annuity of 20 marks from the customs at Hull. John Skelton junior remained in France where he did well for himself out of the spoils of war, and eventually joined the retinue of Henry V’s youngest brother, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, at a somewhat larger fee of £20 a year. Given that Richard Skelton also spent some time campaigning under the duke’s banner, this connexion may well have influenced Sir John’s political sympathies during the early years of Henry VI’s reign. It quite probably accounts for his appointment, in 1431, as sheriff of Cumberland, since Gloucester was then desperately seeking support against his rival, Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, and had no doubt for this reason secured John Skelton junior’s promotion to the rank of King’s esquire.10

Sadly for Sir John, his eldest son, Richard, died shortly before 1430, seised of a substantial part of the family estates which had already been settled upon him and his issue. Richard’s widow, Katherine, who, as we have seen, was also Sir John’s stepdaughter, subsequently married James Kelom, and obtained guarantees worth 40 marks from Sir John that she might enjoy uninterrupted possession of her own inheritance. But at least by now John Skelton junior had begun to play an important part in family affairs. Together with his father he was named among the Cumbrian gentry who were to take the general oath of May 1434 that they would not support anyone who disturbed the peace. In the following year Sir John made over to him one of his leases of royal property in Inglewood forest, and subsequently negotiated a joint tenancy in survivorship for them both of other closes which he himself farmed from the Crown. Finally, on 3 Feb. 1439, the two men were permitted to share Sir John’s old annuity of 40 marks on similar terms.11

Sir John probably did not live to see the last of these three transactions enrolled in Chancery, since four days later Sir William Leigh released to Katherine and James Kelom the wardship of half the manor of Plumblands which had reverted to him ‘on the death of Sir John Skelton by reason of the nonage of Eleanor, daughter of Sir Robert Roos’. Eleanor was the daughter and heir of Sir John’s other stepdaughter, Joan; and by 1441 she had become involved in litigation with the Keloms over the ownership of her inheritance from Sir John Ireby, her maternal great-grandfather. Perhaps to atone for the early favouritism which he had shown to her sister, Katherine, Sir John had entailed most of his second wife’s estates upon Joan, and thereby sowed the seeds of a protracted dispute after his death. Eleanor Roos was supported in her claim by her uncle, John Skelton junior, who then enjoyed great favour at Court. He went on to represent Cumberland twice in Parliament and was three times sheriff of the county. He was well over 50 years old when called upon to give evidence, in September 1441, at the proof of age of his great-nephew, another John, to whom the bulk of the Skelton estates descended.12

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. CCR, 1399-1402, p. 307; CFR, xiii. 260; Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. tract. ser. no. 2, p. 176; E.T. Bewley, Bewleys of Cumb. 56. Skelton did not have two daughters, Katherine and Joan, by his second wife, Alice (Peds. Plea Rolls ed. Wrottesley, 372). They were, in fact, Alice’s daughters by her first husband, Geoffrey Tilliol, and one of them actually married Skelton’s eldest son (CCR, 1429-35, p. 121).
  • 2. Cal. Scots. Docs. iv. no. 512.
  • 3. Rot. Scot. ed. Macpherson etc. ii. 146.
  • 4. J. Nicolson and R. Burn, Westmld. and Cumb. ii. 340; C1/7/11; CPR, 1391-6, pp. 232, 497, 726; 1396-9, p. 562; 1429-36, pp. 271-2; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 349.
  • 5. CPR, 1396-9, pp. 519, 539, 541, 556; PPC, i. 100-1; Rot. Scot. ii. 146; Cal. Scots Docs. iv. no. 512.
  • 6. CPR, 1399-1401, pp. 51, 52; CCR, 1399-1402, pp. 307, 406-7, 572-3; Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. n.s. vii. 245; tract ser. no. 2, pp. 175-6; RP, iii. 485, 597.
  • 7. CPR, 1401-5, p. 411; 1405-8, p. 69; CFR, xii. 240, 244; Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. tract ser. no. 2, pp. 176-7, 179-80; CCR, 1429-35, p. 121; Bewley, 56.
  • 8. RP, iii. 597; Cal. Scots. Docs. iv. nos. 723, 759, 831, 832, 870; PRO List ‘Sheriffs’, 27; CPR, 1405-8, pp. 144, 294-5, 336-7, 340; 1408-13, pp. 412, 455; CCR, 1405-9, p. 249; CFR, xiii. 67, 260.
  • 9. CPR, 1413-16, pp. 229, 373, 399; CFR, xiii. 147, 289; C219/11/1, 8, 12/2, 4, 5, 6, 13/1-4.
  • 10. CPR, 1413-16, p. 386; Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. tract ser. no. 2, p. 177; CCR, 1429-35, p. 195; DKR, xliv. 597, 608.
  • 11. CPR, 1429-36, p. 383; 1436-41, pp. 66, 251; CFR, xvi. 263-4; CCR, 1429-35, p. 121; Cumb. and Westmld. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. n.s. vii. 247, 248.
  • 12. CCR, 1435-41, pp. 247, 284; HP ed. Wedgwood 1439-1509, Biogs. 770; Peds. Plea Rolls, 372; C139/107/42. The John Skelton who died on 24 June 1440, leaving a son aged 20, was a grandson of Sir John, and should not be confused with him: C139/100/43, 104/44; CCR, 1441-7, p. 5.