SWINBURNE, Robert (b.c.1376), of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumb.

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

Sheriff, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mich. 1420-1.

Commr. for victualling Berwick-upon-Tweed May 1423.2


Nothing is known for certain about Swinburne’s early life, except that, on his own testimony, he was born in about 1376 and evidently grew up in the north-east. He was present, in December 1401, at the baptism of Alan Fenwick’s son, Henry, at St. Michael’s church, Alnwick; and a few months later he served on a jury at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He had already by then begun trading as a merchant, his principal interest being in wool, sheepskins, coal and cloth which he shipped down the Tyne in substantial quantities, although he also dealt in commodities as diverse as soap, steel, dyestuffs and oil. Swinburne belonged to the consortium of leading Newcastle woolmen who tried, in the early years of the 15th century, to break the stranglehold of the Calais Staple by exporting their merchandise direct to friendly foreign ports. The staplers were not prepared to lose their hard-won monopoly without a fight, however, and a royal licence of 1400 permitting the Newcastle men to ship 2,000 sarplers of wool wherever they wished was revoked on their intervention. The wool was left to rot on the quays until, in June 1408, Henry IV relented sufficiently to permit Swinburne and his associates to dispatch a more modest consignment of 600 sarplers overseas. Even so, the limitations imposed by the authorities, together with the ‘obscurity and doubt’ of the royal letters patent, caused further delays, and it was not until the following November that another group of merchants obtained clearer and more specific licences from the Crown.3

Swinburne’s troubles were not confined to the commercial sphere, as by this date he faced criminal proceedings for the theft of £50 in cash and a quantity of cloth from a chaplain in Newcastle. He was eventually summoned, in February 1409, to appear before the barons of the Exchequer, but he seems to have avoided punishment. Despite the vagaries of the wool market, Swinburne was affluent enough to purchase two tenements in ‘Overflesshewergate’, Newcastle; and in March 1412 he was included in the delegation of leading burgesses who travelled to Durham for a meeting with Bishop Langley and his council. Attempts to end an acrimonious lawsuit between the bishop and the townspeople over the building by the latter of the tower at the Gateshead side of the Tyne bridge proved futile, as Langley doggedly insisted upon the full implementation of his episcopal rights. Swinburne had, however, acquired a taste for public affairs, which led him to accept a seat in the Leicester Parliament of 1414 and to attend the elections for Newcastle to at least eight of the subsequent Parliaments summoned between 1415 and 1433. An enfeoffment-to-uses of land in Bolam, Northumberland, in November 1415 refers both to Robert Swinburne the elder of Newcastle and to a younger man of the same name, who was quite possibly his son. It was almost certainly the elder of the two men who served as sheriff of Newcastle in 1420 and represented the borough in the Parliament of 1426, which again met at Leicester. We can be fairly sure, too, that it was he who was sued for debt at about this time for arrears of £16 due to Roger Thornton* as a collector of customs during the reign of Henry V; and who, along with William Ellerby*, was involved in litigation over a recognizance of £58 which they had previously offered to Henry Bowet (d.1423), archbishop of York. They insisted that the money had, indeed, been paid during Bowet’s lifetime, and that attempts by a fourth party to enforce the bond at common law after his death were fraudulent, but they were unable to prove their case in the court of Chancery, and were obliged to meet the defendant’s costs.4

Later references to Robert Swinburne, merchant of Newcastle, are, however, more confusing, and the problem of identification remains unsettled. The subject of this biography may well have received two royal pardons, in February 1431 and July 1432, for sentences of outlawry previously incurred for his failure to appear in court when being sued, respectively, for trespass and debt. He may also have acted as an attorney at this time for the delivery of property in Newcastle lately held by the wealthy burgess, Richard Richard Clitheroe; and it is possible that in about 1434 he secured a writ of supersedeas from Bishop Langley of Durham to delay proceedings for his arrest on unspecified charges. In this event, he, rather than his younger namesake, could well have offered the bishop securities of £20 some five years later, but it is now impossible to tell. A third royal pardon, issued in May 1440, reveals that one or other of the two men had been sued for arrears of £5 by a Newcastle butcher, but had refused to respond to any writs of summons. Neither is mentioned after this date, when it may be assumed that they were both dead.5

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. C139/31/74.
  • 2. Rot. Scot. ii. 237.
  • 3. C139/31/74; C143/433/19; E122/106/30, 40, 42, 107/35A, 215/11; CPR, 1399-1401, p. 358; 1405-8, pp. 457-8; 1408-13, pp. 39-40.
  • 4. C1/11/508; C219/11/7, 12/3, 5, 13/1-3, 14/2, 4; E143/20/1/12-16; Yorks. Arch. Soc. Rec. Ser. lvi. 384; Surtees Soc. cxxxvii. 65; CPR, 1422-9, p. 251; 1413-16, p. 379.
  • 5. CPR, 1429-36, pp. 94, 169; 1436-41, p. 462; Surtees Soc. cxxxvii. 190; DKR, xxxiii. 162, 163.