SWINBURNE, Sir William (d.1404), of Capheaton, 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

s. and h. of William Swinburne (d. by Mar. 1363) of Capheaton by Joan, da. of Sir Robert Ogle of Ogle. m. by Jan. 1386, Mary, da. and coh. of Sir Alan Heton (d.1388) of Ingram, wid. of Sir John Strother of Felton and Longframlington, at least 1s. 2da. Kntd. by 5 Jan. 1386.1

Offices Held

Collector of taxes, Northumb. Mar. 1380.

Conservator of a truce between England and Scotland to July 1386.2

Commr. of array, Northumb. Mar. 1392; to audit the accts. of ministers of Robert Waldby, late abp. of York, Glos., Lincs., Notts., Northumb., Yorks. Feb. 1398; survey land, N. Wales Mar. 1402.3

Steward of Hexhamshire, Northumb. for the abp. of York, bef. 20 Apr. 1398.4

Dep. justiciar of Chester by 22 Aug.-aft. 28 Dec. 1399; receiver-general for Sir Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) as King’s lieutenant in the lordship of Denbigh, N. Wales by 11 Aug. 1400-aft. 12 Aug. 1402; steward of the lordship of Denbigh and constable of Denbigh castle 20 Dec. 1400-aft. 28 Feb. 1401; constable of Beaumaris castle by 8 Apr. 1402-bef. 12 July 1402.5


William Swinburne’s ancestors had lived for many years at Capheaton, where they owned extensive estates. They also acquired the manors of Chollerton and Great Heaton, which were settled upon William’s father and mother during the lifetime of his grandfather and namesake, Sir William Swinburne. William’s father died at some point before March 1363, while he was still a minor, leaving his mother, Joan, the daughter of Sir Robert Ogle, to manage the family affairs. A quarrel had by then arisen between Joan and her kinswoman, Agnes Swinburne, who was likewise trying to protect the interests of a young son, although they managed to reach a compromise over the payment of rents at Chollerton which was to last until the two boys came of age and could arrange matters for themselves. William had probably achieved his majority by February 1371, when he attended the baptism of (Sir) John Widdrington* near Morpeth while on his way to serve with the garrison at Roxburgh. That he was recognized as capable and trustworthy from an early age is evident from a lease made to him in 1374 by John, earl of Salisbury, of the castle and barony of Wark, right on the Scottish border. Yet despite his prowess as a soldier, which was repeatedly proven in skirmishes and raids over the next 30 years, Wark fell into the hands of the enemy in June 1386, and he himself was briefly taken prisoner by the Scots.6

Meanwhile, in May 1378, William was confirmed in possession of unspecified ancestral estates in Tynedale and Redesdale. He was later able to augment these holdings when his relative, Sir Thomas Swinburne*, the bulk of whose property lay in Essex, sold him his maternal inheritance in the Northumbrian villages of Stamfordham and Heugh. William agreed to pay 50 marks for the land on the condition that he might be allowed a few weeks in which to change his mind or alter the terms of the sale. The transaction must have been completed to his satisfaction, as subsequently, in 1399, he bought out that other half of these properties which had gone to Sir Thomas’s kinsman, William, Lord Hilton. We do not know exactly when he married Mary, the widow of Sir John Strother, but his connexion with her family evidently dated from 1381, if not before. In December of that year he and two other of his many relations, his cousin, Sir Robert Ogle, and Sir Thomas Blenkinsop*, had joined with the influential northern landowner, Sir Ralph Euer*, and the earl of Northumberland in pledging securities of £300 that they would surrender certain goods which had belonged to the late Alan Strother. An assignment of dower in Longframlington, Felton, Thirston, Moneylaws and the surrounding countryside was made to Mary in January 1386, by which date she and William, who had recently been knighted, were man and wife. She was, indeed, a valuable prize, for in addition to the customary third of her husband’s estates, she also held land in Langton, Newton and Kirknewton which Henry Strother had settled upon her as a jointure in 1351 when she married his son. Furthermore, as one of the three daughters and coheirs of Sir Alan Heton, she stood to inherit a share of other widespread estates in Northumberland. Her sister, Joan, was, in fact, married to Sir Robert Ogle, and was the mother of the two shire knights, John Bertram* and Sir Robert Ogle*. Not long after Sir Alan’s death, in the spring of 1388, a partition was made which left Mary and Sir William with holdings in Ingram, Lowick, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Unthank and Tritlington. Some rents had been lost through devastation by the Scots, but even after certain re-adjustments were effected, in 1394, to compensate for this, Mary’s income must still have been quite considerable. Sir William remained on friendly terms with the Strothers, and in 1389 Margaret Strother (whose husband, the abovementioned Sir Thomas Blenkinsop, had just died in enemy hands) made him her attorney to take custody of various ‘treasures and jewels’ with which she had planned to ransom him and Margaret, the mother of Sir Thomas Gray*, from captivity in Scotland.7

By now a figure of some consequence in northern society, Sir William owed his growing influence not only to his wife, but to other important personal connexions as well. In 1384, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, retained him at a fee of £20 p.a. as a member of his affinity, and continued to pay the annuity until 1397 if not later. Although far less powerful than the duke at a national level, Henry, earl of Northumberland, exercised far greater authority in the north by virtue of his dominant position as a landowner. He, too, demanded Sir William’s allegiance in terms which brooked no argument, commanding his attendance at ‘march days’ (when the English and Scots met to discuss their grievances) and other quasi-military gatherings. On one occasion he wrote sharply to Sir William, expressing his surprise and annoyance at the latter’s failure to appear when summoned to a love-day at Kershope Bridge. ‘We wish to compel you to do right and justice, so take this to heart’, he added somewhat ominously; and on another occasion Sir William was tersely reminded that any further disobedience could well result in forfeiture or worse. (‘And know indeed, in case you are unwilling, we shall distrain your body and goods to recompense ourself.’) Although relations between the earl and Gaunt were often tense and difficult—a fact which may well explain Sir William’s rather fraught relationship with Northumberland—one or other of the two magnates could, nevertheless, be relied upon for help in emergencies. For example, when Sir Henry Heton threatened to disrupt arrangements for the partition of the Heton inheritance, Sir William promptly appealed to Gaunt’s son, the earl of Derby, asking him to use his influence with Northumberland so that Sir Henry could be restrained. Far more serious problems arose as a result of violent confrontations between Sir William and certain tenants of Edmund, duke of York, in the bailiwick of Tynedale. At all events, his ‘raiding, plundering, oppression and extortion’ incurred the wrath of the duke, who took from him securities of 500 marks, in February 1390, that he would submit to his judgement and behave peacably in future. However, Sir William’s energies were usually directed against the Scots, for despite his frequent (albeit reluctant) presence at meetings with delegations from across the border, he could not himself resist the prospect of an illicit raiding party into enemy territory. At some unknown date, he and his friend, Sir Thomas Gray, planned such an expedition with some members of the Percy retinue and other local gentlemen, all of whom were sworn to secrecy.8

During the 1390s, Sir William extended his estates even further by leasing property from others. In the summer of 1392, for example, he contracted with the collegiate church of Windsor to farm the lands and tithes of the parish church of Simonburn (where some of his ancestors were buried) at a rent of 26 marks a year; and at the same time he agreed to pay (Sir) John Widdrington £5 p.a. for the use of his demesnes at Haughton. Naturally enough, the electors of Northumberland chose to return him to Parliament, in 1395, although somewhat surprisingly this marks his only known appearance in the Lower House. That he continued to occupy a leading position in county society is evident from his acquisition, in 1396, of land in Whittington, and the award to him in the following year of a royal pardon freely excusing ‘all manner of escapes by felons, forfeitures, judgements or decrees, transgressions, negligences and misprisions, etc.’. Further letters of pardon were issued in his name in November 1398, by which date he had been appointed to audit the accounts of Robert Waldby, the late archbishop of York. This commission not only gave him the opportunity to purchase outright for £36 all the debts still owing to Waldby in Hexhamshire, but also to take over the stewardship of the archiepiscopal liberty there. Sir John Clavering*, the bailiff, complained to Richard II that Sir William had acted ‘with false and rashly assumed authority’, and he was promptly ordered either to relinquish the post or else defend his action before the royal council. Despite this brush with the authorities, Sir William was named in the autumn of 1398 as one of the parties to a truce on the west march between the English and the Scots. He also had the satisfaction of marrying his daughter, Joan, to John, the son and heir of the wealthy northern landowner, Sir Robert Lisle*.9

As a former retainer of John of Gaunt, Sir William welcomed the triumph of the Lancastrian cause in the summer of 1399. He was, indeed, one of the first to benefit from Henry of Bolingbroke’s return from exile, being made a deputy justiciar of Chester in August of that year. The Lancastrian usurpation was effected with the support of the Percy family, and Henry IV gave many rewards to the earl of Northumberland’s son, Sir Henry Percy, ‘Hotspur’. These included first the command of the royal armies in Wales and then, in 1402, the lieutenancy of both North and South Wales. Hotspur employed Sir William in various capacities in the lordship of Denbigh throughout this period, most notably as receiver-general of his revenues there. The two men were already fairly close, as in November 1399 Sir William had offered securities for Percy as farmer of the Monbourcher estates. Sir William seems to have divided his time between Wales and Northumberland. In December 1400, for instance, he was in the north helping to raise money for the ransom of a neighbour in Tynedale, whereas two years later we find him in Chester recruiting men for service against the Welsh. He had returned to Chollerton by June 1402, when he leased to his son and heir, William, who was still a minor, his three manors of Capheaton, Stamfordham and Heugh at an annual rent of 100 marks. Sir William probably remained in Northumberland from this date onwards. Within a matter of weeks he had surrendered his offices in Wales, and henceforward he devoted himself to more personal affairs. We do not know if he gave active support to the government during the Percy rebellion of 1403, although he clearly showed no enthusiasm for the rebel cause. He survived to see the marriage of his second daughter, Elizabeth, to her kinsman, Robert Horsley, in September 1403, and also to rent the manor of Nedderton in Northumberland from Walter Skirlaw, bishop of Durham.10

Sir William died shortly before 7 Aug. 1404, the date of a marriage contract between his young son, William, and Sir John Widdrington’s daughter, Elizabeth, which was negotiated by his widow and her kinsman, John Strother*. The latter had previously acted as Sir William’s receiver in Wales, and appears to have assumed informal powers of wardship over the boy. In October the dowager Lady Mary settled her share of the Swinburne estates upon trustees, who confirmed her in possession for life. She still had to pay annual instalments of £37 to the Horsleys under the terms of her daughter Elizabeth’s marriage settlement, although her financial situation was eased in 1410, when William and John Strother (who were presumably acting on behalf of the heir) granted her the manor of Williamstone with extensive appurtenances and a suite of rooms in the manor-house at Houghton.11

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. Northumb. RO, Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/79, 97, 4/22, 23, 29, 84; CIPM, xvi. nos. 592-4; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 16; CFR, x. 250.
  • 2. Rot. Scot. ed. Macpherson etc. ii. 84.
  • 3. DKR, xxxvi. 206.
  • 4. Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/96.
  • 5. DKR, xxxvi. 379, 442, 462; Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/109, 111-16; J. Hodgson, Hist. Northumb. ii (1), 215.
  • 6. Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 4/22, 23, 79-84; Hodgson, ii (1), 215; Arch. Aeliana, iv. 329.
  • 7. Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/78-80, 107, 149, 4/26, 29, 5/64; Hist. Northumb. xii. 308, 314; Hodgson, ii (1), 215; CIPM, xvi. nos. 592-4; CFR, x. 250; CPR, 1391-6, p. 488.
  • 8. Arch. Aeliana (ser. 4), xi. 79; Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/81, 83, 91, 101, 102, 104, 105.
  • 9. Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 235-6; Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/86-90, 95, 96, 98; Cal. Scots Docs. iv. no. 512; C67/30 m. 8; CPR, 1396-9, p. 292.
  • 10. CPR, 1399-1401, p. 49; Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/108, 110, 117, 4/89; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 16.
  • 11. Newcastle-upon-Tyne Rec. Ser. vii. 16, 213; Swinburne (Capheaton) mss, 1/119-33, 145, 147.