Old Worlds and New

Old Worlds and New

It used to be thought that the Wars of the Roses killed off the old noble families of England and replaced them with new, and it is true that many of those who had been active in the government of Somerset in the early 15th century—the Brookes and the Bonvilles, the Carents and the Stourtons—had a century later been replaced by others. Premature death, the failure of heirs or the headsman’s axe each played their part, but the changes in family fortunes were not confined to the time when Lancaster fought York. Indeed, the Luttrells could demon­strate that although Sir James was executed in 1471 for his support for Queen Margaret at Tewkesbury, his family estates were later returned to his son and heir. Sir Giles Daubeney, whose family had held South Petherton since the 13th century, only lost his lands for a short time when he joined the Duke of Buckingham’s rising against Richard III in 1483. In 1485 he returned to serve Henry VII as ambassador abroad and military commander at home, leading the king’s troops against the Cornish rebels at Blackheath in 1497. Political good fortune was, however, no match for natural selection. Giles’s son, Henry, by inclination fitted for military pageantry of Henry VIII’s earlier years, attempted with less success a life of political intrigue and spent almost his entire substance to become earl of Bridgwater, a title he produced no son to inherit. His enemies, several very bitter, referred to him as the good earl of Waterbridge, meaning, of course, quite the opposite.

Perhaps the most tragic family story of all was that of the girl born at the castle at Farleigh Hungerford in 1473. Margaret Plantagenet, the only surviving daughter of George, duke of Clarence, became sole heir to the royal house of Plantagenet when her brother the earl of Warwick was executed in 1499 for having a better title to the throne than Henry Tudor. She was heir, too, to the earls of Warwick and of Salisbury, both holders of land in Somerset, the great flowers of the English medieval nobility. No matter how faithfully she served the king, she was the mother of Cardinal Pole, possibly the greatest personal threat to Henry VIII’s throne. So Margaret perished, without trial, in the Tower at the age of sixty-two.

Somerset gentlemen on the whole seem to have forsworn national politics and their dangers, and a remarkable number of them rose to commanding heights in the law in the later Middle Ages. Two of the Hodys of Woolavington and Gothelney, Sir Richard Chokke (d. 1483), of Long Ashton, Sir John Newton (d. 1488), of Sutton Wick, and Thomas Tremaile (d. 1508), of Blackmoor in Cannington, each became a senior judge in the royal courts and above political intrigue. But lawyer could soon become country gentleman: Alexander Popham of Huntworth, chief steward of the lands of Buckland priory at its dissolution, was a lawyer by profession. His son, Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice who presided at the trials of Essex, Raleigh, and Guy Fawkes, invested in an estate at Houndstreet in Marksbury and other land in Wiltshire, and was buried in the state befitting a peer of the realm at Wellington. The Pophams were leading country gentry in Somerset in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The men who governed the county under the Tudors were not, however, necessarily new men for a new style of government. Wadhams and Sydenhams, Gorges and Rodneys had been in Somerset for generations. Pouletts had lived near Bridgwater long before one married the heiress of Hinton St George. The Trevelyans of Nettlecombe were comparative newcomers, for John, the Cornish Chough, had married the Ralegh heiress in 1452. Neither were the Phelipses the nouveaux riches they were once thought to be, for Thomas Phelips had been farming at Lufton since at least the 1460s and was living at Montacute by 1501. The Homers, too, were substantial tenants of the abbots of Glastonbury at Leigh on Mendip a century before Jack Homer was able to find £1,831 19s. 11 1/4d. in 1543 to buy the former Glastonbury manors of Leigh, Mells, and Nunney.

The Gentry in the Mid 16th Century
The Gentry in the Mid 16th Century

But newcomers there undoubtedly were. John Wyndham came from Norfolk in the 1520s to marry one of the Sydenham heiresses at Orchard, settling at the newly-extended house, Orchard Wyndham, which his descendants still occupy. Sir Edward Rogers came from Devon to turn the dissolved nunnery at Cannington into a country house; Sir Ralph Hopton moved from Suffolk when he acquired the site and lands of the old Charterhouse at Witham.

New or old, these families were the governors of Somerset under the Tudors and the Stuarts, often serving the Crown in matters of national importance. The Pouletts of Hinton St George were perhaps the most prominent. Sir Amias Poulett (d. 1538), builder of the ‘right goodly manor place of freestone’ at Hinton, who in his youth also rebelled against Richard III, fought for Henry VII, and was knighted at the battle of Stoke in 1487. One of the local gentlemen appointed to escort Catherine of Aragon on her arrival at Crewkerne from Plymouth when she first came to England in 1501, he went on the French expedition in 1513-14. Cardinal Wolsey is said to have confined Sir Amias to the Middle Temple in London for a time in petty reprisal for putting him as a young man in the stocks after a drunken brawl at Lopen Fair. Sir Hugh Poulett, son of Amias, served in France in 1544 and was knight marshal of the royal forces sent against the rebels from Devon and Cornwall, who in 1549 rose against the use of the new prayer book. From 1551 he was governor of Jersey, and under Queen Elizabeth was vice-president of the Council of the Welsh Marches. Sir Amias Poulett (d. 1588) followed his father as governor of Jersey, and served as ambassador in France, 1576-9. A protégé of the queen’s minister, Sir Francis Walsingham, in 1585 Amias was made a member of the Privy Council and appointed keeper of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was a stern guardian of the queen, and at her trial at Fotheringhay in 1586 he urged that she be executed because she represented a constant danger to the government, but he would not be party to a secret murder. Sir Amias’s grandson, created first Baron Poulett in 1627, was a leader of the royalist party when the county divided before the Civil War.

On the other side in the troubled years of Charles Is reign was Sir Robert Phelips, whose ill-written letters were for so long preserved at the great mansion at Montacute, which his father, Sir Edward Phelips, had built at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. The Phelipses were more modest than the Pouletts in their achievements until Sir Edward’s time, building on a foundation which had seen them in the service of the Brooke family in Somerset and Kent from the 1460s. Thomas Phelips (d. 1501) had enough local influence to be buried in the monastic church at Montacute. His grandson, Sir Edward, himself a younger son, had to make his own way. Obviously a successful lawyer, he took part in the trials of Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. Several times elected to parliament, he was Speaker from 1604 until 1611, and was later made Master of the Rolls. Montacute House stands as an obvious sign both of affluence and of political power.

Other houses in the county, often surrounded by grounds and deer parks which set them apart from the villages from which they sprang, are evidence of an emerging elite. There had been castles and fortified manor houses in the past, but by the end of Elizabeth’s reign the country house had emerged as an important feature of the landscape and as a response to the changing social demands and political aspirations of the gentry. The Justice Room at Fairfield or Poundisford, each with its external door, was so placed in relation to the hall and the withdrawing chamber that Thomas Palmer or William Hill could slip away from the company to deal with some miscreant brought by the constable for examination and probable imprisonment to await the next Sessions. The impressive wings at Brympton, Hinton St George and Ashton Court, with their suites of chambers for the comfort of family connections or political associates, are themselves, each from the same copy-book in the style of Inigo Jones, a reminder that Sydenhams and Pouletts and Smyths were linked with each other not only by marriage alliance, but by friendly rivalry. The formal garden walks at Montacute and the galleries there and at Barrington were for exercise and conversation in a society with leisure at its disposal and servants to make that leisure comfortable.

Further away from the house were orchards where, as at Nettle­combe, John Trevelyan cultivated his apples, pears and figs, and the gardens where grew the plants made so popular after Henry Lyte of Lytes Cary published in 1578 the Herbal which bears his name. Lyte’s pears, called ‘Somerton’ and ‘Gary Bridge’, might have been only of local fame, but the herbs he described for kitchen and still room were surely to be found at Nailsea Court, St Catherine and Newton Surmavile, at North Cadbury, Poundisford Lodge, and East Quantoxhead, houses where the gentry of Elizabethan and Stuart Somerset kept hospitality and ruled their county in the name of the Crown.

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A new order at home, new challenges abroad. Sir Amias Poulett and Henry, Lord Daubeney, almost certainly took Somerset men with them on their forays to France early in Henry VIII’s reign, and in the expedition of 1544 the contingent of over 200 men which Sir John Luttrell commanded at Boulogne probably included men from the estates in and around Dunster. Sir Hugh Poulett may well have taken some of his tenants on the same expedition, but John Witham of Taunton is the only ordinary soldier known certainly to have gone—first taking the precaution of making his will lest he did not return. Somerset men probably fought in Scotland under Sir John Luttrell at the battle of Pinkie in 1547 or under him and his half-uncle, Thomas Wyndham of Marshwood, in their exploits against the Scots and their French allies at Broughty Craig and Dundee.

The sailors of Minehead and Bridgwater were no strangers to the rigours of the Atlantic and Biscay, but the Bristol-based explorers of the Americas at once extended their horizons and brought them into conflict with Spain, hitherto unchallenged in the New World. In 1543 there were said to be eight substantial ships in Minehead, crewed by a total of 77 men. Four of the ships were Portuguese, and of the men 40 were away: Lady Luttrell’s 100-ton ship was in London, and another was in Ireland. Trade with Ireland, France and Spain, subject to the vagaries of peace and war and the depredations of pirates, had long been the accepted pattern.

But Somerset seamen had their share in the exploits which have become part of our national history. Thomas Wyndham commanded a squadron of three ships to Morocco in 1552, flying his flag on the Lion, of which John Kerry of Minehead was master. James Leach took the Emanuel of Bridgwater on Frobisher’s third voyage in 1578, and Thomas Wiars, a passenger on board, wrote an account of the voyage, including the supposed discovery of a sunken land called Busse., William Trevelyan of Nettlecombe, who proved ‘so much of a trial to his sober brother by his extravagance, served Drake in 1584. Sir John Trevelyan gave him ‘when he went to Ser Frances Drake to go in the vyadge with him at his goinge from my house and sent unto him more by Thomas Cavell to Plimoth the iuste sume of 50s’, together with another £3 and a cloak sent to William at Portsmouth. In 1594 William served, probably at sea, with Sir George Sydenham.

Almost certainly the William’ of Bridgwater was the 70-ton bark in the Lord Admiral’s division which waited at Plymouth in 1588 for the, Armada, and the defeat of Spanish sea power allowed such men as Thomas Gregory of Taunton to trade along the West African coast, in the 1590s. Amias Preston of Knowle St Giles was on the Spanish expedition in 1595, and Robert Crosse of Charlinch went to Cadiz in 1596; both were knighted for their exploits.

Thus. did Somerset men widen their horizons, and the scene was set for permanent settlement abroad. The inveterate traveller, Tom Coryate of Odcombe, patronised by Sir Edward Phelips, was familiar- with the Middle East, and died in India in 1617. He was to have few imitators, but religious and economic pressures or the prospect of profitable investment made settlement in the New World worth the risk of crossing the Atlantic. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a member of the Wraxall family, founded New Plymouth in 1628 and became Lord Proprietary of Maine in 1639. The New England coast attracted ordinary settlers like the Elliots from East Coker. Nicholas Dodge, also from Coker, founded a settlement called Block Island on Rhode Island; Richard Tucker of Stogumber and George Cleaves of Brompton Ralph established Stogumber in New Somersetshire, later Falmouth, Maine, in 1632. Richard Treat of Pitminster, one of whose ancestors had defied the manor court in Elizabeth’s time, left in 1637. He made a success of the venture and was one of the patentees of Charles II’s charter for Connecticut. His son and heir, also Richard, just a boy when he left home, was for 30 years governor of the new colony.

Title page of tract on floods, 1607
Title page of tract on floods, 1607

Emigration of Somerset families like these continued for two centuries and more, spreading the name of the county and of its towns and villages in English settlements throughout the world. Religious and economic pressures later in the 17th century sent such men as Benjamin Blake, the great admiral’s brother, to Carolina in 1682, where he acquired 1,000 acres/404.7ha of land, and where he left a son, Joseph, who served the colony twice as governor. Emigration of another kind was the consequence of defeat at Sedgemoor. Transpor­tation to plantations in Jamaica and Barbados was not in theory permanent, but many of Monmouth’s followers were left stranded after their exile had expired, and remained to grow tobacco, and to leave a memory still green.