THORNTON, Roger (d.1430), of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumb.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
m. Agnes Wauton (d. 24 Nov. 1411), 7s. (6 d.v.p.), 7da.1
Collector of taxes, Newcastle Dec. 1385, Northumb. June 1421.2
Bailiff, Newcastle Mich. 1396-7; mayor 1400-1, 1402-6, 1416-17, 1423-6; alderman by 11 Apr. 1407.3
Constable of the Staple at Newcastle 16 Apr. 1399-1400.4
Commr. of inquiry, Newcastle June 1404 (seizure of a ship), June 1406 (concealments), Dec. 1409 (capture of a Scottish ship), Dec. 1409 (seizure of uncustomed goods); to raise royal loans June 1406; buy and ship coals to London Jan. 1422.
Collector of portage, Newcastle Feb. 1406.
Collector of customs, Newcastle 6 Apr. 1406-21 Mar. 1413, 5 July 1421-10 June 1425.
The origins of this remarkable burgess still remain obscure, for whereas one tradition has it that he came to Newcastle from the west, possibly growing up in the parish of Hartburn in Northumberland, another portrays him as the descendant of an ancient Yorkshire family which lived at Thornton near Bradford in the West Riding. At all events, the Thorntons had established themselves in Newcastle by the 1370s and soon began to prosper there. Roger may well have been the younger brother or son of John Thornton, who held office locally as a collector of customs and pontage, and who eventually, in 1382, became one of the town’s bailiffs. In the years preceding his death, in 1394, John was busy exporting cloth and leather. A royal pardon accorded to Roger Thornton four years later describes him as a resident of the town, where he had already made quite a name for himself in the spheres of commerce and local government.5
Roger Thornton grew extremely wealthy through trade. The antiquary Leland described him as ‘the richest merchant that ever was dwelling in Newcastle’; and the scope of his interests was, indeed, as impressive as that of many leading London factors. The customs accounts show that he exported wool in 1385, lambskins in 1389 and cloth four years later. By 1400 the scale of his operations was such that he received a royal licence with others to buy 2,000 sacks of wool for shipment to Flanders, although the consignment had to come from wool grown beyond the Tees, which was generally of a rather inferior quality, and, in the event, was left to rot on the quays of Newcastle because of new government restrictions. Two further licences for the export of 600 sarplars and 2,000 sacks were, however, issued to Thornton and his partners in 1408 and 1410, so they were able to salvage some of their losses. Even so, the Newcastle woolmen continued to face serious competition from the merchants of the Calais Staple, who were determined to retain their monopoly over English wool exports at all costs; and Thornton must have chafed at the limitations imposed upon him. His desire to operate in a more open market no doubt encouraged him to invest in the rapidly expanding coal and lead trade of the north-east. He regularly exported cargoes of coal in ships from both Newcastle and Schiedam; and in 1422 he was commissioned by the government to purchase 100 keels of sea coal in the north for sale in London. At some unknown date he actually acquired a messuage in ‘Secolelane’ in the City, presumably as a base for his dealings with the merchants of London.6
Even more money was to be made out of lead, which soon became Thornton’s chief commercial preoccupation. He was already exporting it as early as 1389, but his involvement really developed in 1401, when he negotiated a 12-year lease of the bishop of Durham’s lead mines in Weardale. (These mines also produced silver, which Thornton shipped overseas at a handsome profit.) In 1406, in consideration of his work for the Crown, he received a grant of lead, which he used as currency for other transactions. Even the marriage of his daughter, Isabel, to John, the son and heir of his parliamentary colleague, Sir John Middleton, was partly financed in this way. The contract of 1471 specified that he would pay £200 in gold together with eight fothers (nearly eight tons) of lead, receiving in return a lease of whatever estates were to be settled upon the young couple by the Middletons. Not surprisingly, his will consists largely of bequests of sizeable quantities of lead to neighbouring religious houses and churches. Yet in common with most medieval merchants, Thornton still sought to diversify his investments by trading in a wide range of commodities such as woad, madder and wine. In 1407, for example, he imported 49 tuns of wine into Newcastle, some of which undoubtedly found its way into the cellars of Durham priory. The accounts of the priory record purchases from him of red Gascon wine in 1404 and 1423, as well as noting payments for Spanish iron and lead from his warehouses. Yet not all of his ventures proved so successful. One serious reversal occurred in 1394, when he joined with a consortium of Newcastle merchants in loading the Goodyear with a valuable cargo of wool and wine. The ship was attacked by pirates from Wismer and Rostock, who not only seized the merchandise but also imprisoned some of Thornton’s associates. Despite their strenuous protests, it was not until 1405 that Henry IV sent an embassy to obtain satisfaction, and even then compensation remained elusive.7
Being a man of many talents, Thornton proved himself invaluable as a conscientious royal servant and municipal official. Mayor of Newcastle nine times, he was regularly named among the 12 probi homines who chose the parliamentary representatives for the borough, being present at ten elections, if not more, between 1414 and 1427. He was also one of the delegates who travelled to Durham, in March 1412, in an unsuccessful attempt to settle a protracted dispute with Bishop Langley over the building of a tower by the townspeople on the south side of the Tyne bridge. In recognition of his work for the Crown as a customs officer and commissioner, Thornton received many generous rewards. In 1405, while mayor of Newcastle, he had kept the town secure against the rebel forces of the earl of Northumberland, reputedly at a cost of some 1,000 marks to himself. To make good these losses, he secured from Henry IV the manors of Acklam and Kirklevington in Yorkshire along with other, smaller properties confiscated from the earl. Although he later restored Acklam to a former tenant, Thornton retained Kirklevington until his death, 25 years later. His commitment to the Lancastrian regime was again acknowledged during the aftermath of Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham’s execution for treason in 1415. On this occasion he shared with William Massy the keepership of Scrope’s Northumberland estates, at an annual farm of £24. Other grants from the Crown included the goods and merchandise of certain Livonian traders, which he was allowed to keep in repayment of two loans of £100 each made in about 1410 to the prince of Wales and the government. That Thornton had already begun to accumulate sizeable estates of his own is evident from the award to him at the same time (in return for a fine of 250 marks) of a general pardon for ‘all acquisitions and alienations of lands held in chief and entries therein without licence and all debts, accounts and arrears’. Furthermore, in 1424, he secured from the Exchequer the lease of the manor of Riplington in Northumberland for the next ten years.8
Leland observed that Thornton was ‘first a merchant and then a landed man’; and his investments were clearly made out of the profits of trade. Between 1406 and 1411, for example, he built up substantial holdings in and around the manor of Netherwitton in Northumberland, while at the same date acquiring the manor of Byker from Sir Richard Arundel. Later in life, Thornton set aside some of his land in Byker to support such philanthropic ventures as the foundation of St. Katherine’s hospital in Newcastle, and a chantry at the church of All Saints there. Another opportunity for expansion came in November 1421, on the marriage of his daughter, Isabel, to the young John Middleton, whose family permitted him to farm their manors of Jesmond and East Swinburn, together with land in Cramlington, Crooked Oak and Newbiggin, for the next ten years. Thornton’s estates in Northumberland also included the manors of Great Benton, Stannington, Plessey and Shotton, as well as farmland in Belasis and Trenwell. His interests as a landowner extended into the palatinate of Durham, where, from 1409 onwards he set about consolidating his position. He began by purchasing property in Coldcoats, Ingoe, Whickham and Gateshead; and by 1411 he had taken possession of the manor of Redhugh and certain franchises in Axwell. His title to the latter was questioned in 1420, although he managed to retain hold of the manor of Axwell pending a decision in the court of his former adversary, Bishop Langley of Durham. Other piecemeal acquisitions included the manors of Swalwell and Ludworth and holdings in Herrington and Darlington.9 Thornton was, of course, much in demand as a trustee, and over the years he was a party to many conveyances of land by his fellow burgesses and local landowners, such as Sir William Swinburne’s* widow, Mary. His other associates in these ventures included John Wall* William Ellerby* and Robert Whelpington* all of whom were involved with him in financial transactions.10
Needless to say, Thornton ranked among the leading property owners in the town of Newcastle, where he bought many gardens, tenements and leases. His own mansion in the ‘Broadchare’ must have appeared sumptuous to his neighbours, especially as it was furnished with luxury goods from London. Indeed, with the passage of time and the spectacular growth of his commercial profits, Thornton actually began to invest in the London property market, purchasing four cottages and a house in ‘Thurnagrayelane’ and part of a messuage in Cheapside, as well as the above-mentioned base in ‘Secolelane’ where he transacted business. Evidence of his standing in the northern community is to be found in the marriage contracts which he negotiated for his two children: as we have already seen, the first of these brought his daughter a husband from one of the leading gentry families in Northumberland, while the second provided the Thorntons with a lasting and important baronial connexion. In February 1429, Thornton’s sole surviving son and heir, Roger, was betrothed to Elizabeth, daughter of John, Lord Greystoke; and although the merchant was obliged to settle an extremely large estate upon the young couple, the social cachet which he thus acquired must have seemed worth every penny. But not all of Thornton’s great wealth was employed in furthering his earthly career. From quite early on in life he had evidently felt a strong sense of civic responsibility which, coupled with a desire to ensure the speedy passage of his soul through purgatory, led him to spend generously on pious works. His most notable endowment was St. Katherine’s hospital in Newcastle, a work begun in 1402 with the award of a royal licence, and completed some ten years later. The hospital, which was clearly influenced by some of the impressive projects then being undertaken in London, was intended as a home for nine poor men and four poor women under the supervision of a chaplain. Despite the scale of his original grant of land and money, funds must have proved inadequate, for in 1424 Thornton obtained permission from the government to settle additional rents worth £7 p.a. upon his foundation, which he had by then placed in the care of the civic authorities.11
Roger Thornton made his will on 22 Dec. 1429 at his house in the ‘Broadchare’, and died on 3 Jan. following. He was buried beside his late wife at All Saints’ church, Newcastle, under a fine brass, executed in the Flemish tradition. He had already founded a chantry in the church, to which he now made a number of handsome bequests. Many religious foundations benefited from Thornton’s generosity; and houses throughout the north-east were enriched by gifts of money or lead. The magnificent east window portraying the 12 apostles at St. Nicholas’s church, Newcastle, which one local antiquary regarded as an example of ‘the later form of English architecture in its most just and beautiful proportions’, was but one of his endowments. In gratitude for the lead which provided him with a new roof for the abbey church, the abbot of Newminster arranged for daily masses to be said for the soul of his late benefactor. To his hospital ‘ye mesondieu of Sint Kateryne of my foundacion’ Thornton left £20 in cash, although enough goods and specie remained to make his son and heir, Roger, a very wealthy man indeed.12
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
- 1. Arch. Aeliana (ser. 3), xiv. 193-4. Although only two of Thornton’s children are known to have survived, the brass which he had made for his wife’s tomb depicts seven sons and seven daughters.
- 2. Ibid. n.s. xv. 190.
- 3. Ibid. (ser. 3), xiv. 192-3.
- 4. C267/7/36.
- 5. J. Brand, Hist. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, i. 2; Arch. Aeliana (ser. 4), xiv. 33; C67/30 m. 27.
- 6. J. Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, viii. 118; CPR, 1399-1401, p. 358; 1405-8, pp. 39, 216; 1416-22, p. 420; RP, iii. 465; CCR, 1429-35, p. 17; C139/45/33; E122/106/8, 15, 18, 24, 28, 30, 40, 42.
- 7. E122/106/18, 22, 30, 36, 38, 40; Surtees Soc. ii. 78-80; c. 393; ciii. 605, 609-11, 619; Arch. Aeliana (ser. 3), xiv. 196; CPR, 1405-8, p. 123; Brand, ii. 222-3.
- 8. C44/27/2; Surtees Soc. cxxxvii. 65; CPR, 1405-8, pp. 30, 42, 441; 1408-13, pp. 264, 407; CCR, 1429-35, p. 263; CFR, xiv. 132; xv. 73; Arch. Aeliana, (ser. 3), xx. 108; Feudal Aids, vi. 306; E149/144/12.
- 9. C138/59/54; C139/23/24, 45/33; C143/447/10; CP25(1)181/15/7; CPR, 1405-8, pp. 138, 165-6; 1416-22, p. 435; 1429-35, pp. 19, 20; CCR, 1405-9, pp. 87, 100; 1409-13, p. 61; 1419-22, p. 239; Hist. Northumb. ix. 51; R. Surtees, Durham, ii. 82, 245; DKR, xxxiii. 188, 204, 206; xlv. 256, 270-1; Feudal Aids, vi. 81, 89; Arch. Aeliana, (ser. 3), xiv. 196, 218.
- 10. C143/423/20; CP25(1)181/15 Hen. IV nos. 7, 8, Hen. VI no. 2, Newcastle, no. 2; Newcastle-upon-Tyne RO, Soc. of Antiquaries, Blackgate deed, no. B4/i/1 no. 1; Northumb. RO, Swinburne (Capheaton) ms, 1/149; Arch. Aeliana (ser. 4), xvi. 59.
- 11. C139/45/33; Arch. Aeliana (ser. 3), xiv. 196; C143/434/18; CPR, 1401-5, p. 20; 1408-13, p. 412; 1422-9, p. 213.
- 12. C139/45/33; Surtees Soc. clxix. 164-7; Arch. Aeliana (ser. 3), xiv. 197-8; (ser. 4), xvi. 73; E. MacKenzie, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 242.