Tales from the archives – November 2019

Former owners of Bowthorpe

While doing some research for Heritage Open Day I found the www.historyofparliamentonline.org website and some interesting information about one of the previous owners of Bowthorpe, which I thought I would share with you. So, here is a very brief history of the life of Sir William Elmham.

Sir William Elmham came from Suffolk and was a colourful character. He and his second wife, Elizabeth, owned the Bowthorpe estate between 1376 and 1409, although he spent most of his time on the continent. He also had a long, turbulent and exciting career in which he was involved in many of the important military, diplomatic and political events of his age. He owed at least some of his wealth to his lifelong service to the Crown, and his early reputation was made as a soldier. He left England in November 1364 to join the forces of the Black Prince and there proved himself an effective leader in the field, and he quickly became ranked as an important military captain. In 1371, Elmham served at sea under the command of Lord Bryan, one of the King’s admirals, and in recognition of his military services, in 1372, he was granted by Edward III’s ‘special grace’ a charter of free warren on his lands at Westhorpe and Fring, as well as the right to hold markets and fairs at both places.

In February 1375, he was appointed governor of Bayonne, and before his death in 1376 the Black Prince granted Elmham an annuity of £100, charged on the revenues of North Wales. In October 1379, he was sent to Bury St. Edmunds to restore order, following disturbances caused by opposition to the papal nomination to the abbey. Sir William’s capability as a commander led to his appointment in 1380 as admiral of the King’s northern fleet. This involved arresting ships for royal service, investigating cases of piracy and patrolling the North Sea. The autumn of 1380 found him busy in East Anglia requisitioning vessels to sail to the West Country for the passage of the Earl of Buckingham’s army to Brittany. However, in 1381, he was involved in restoring order during the Peasants’ Revolt.

In May 1383, he enlisted as a captain in the army destined to invade Flanders under the command of Bishop Henry Despenser of Norwich (who, incidentally, was a kinsman by marriage of his wife). At first the ‘crusade’ met with success but later failed, and this was attributed to the actions of Elmham, Sir Thomas Trivet and Sir William Faringdon. After his return to England there were widespread allegations of treachery, coupled with general dissatisfaction about the waste of public money expended on the ‘crusade’. Bishop Despenser was promptly impeached, but his captains, including Elmham, remained loyal to him. Nevertheless, it was ordered that he and the others were to be committed to prison, but barely two months later Elmham was issued with a full pardon. In 1386 there were rumours of an invasion from France were strong enough to warrant his assignment to keep watch at Great Yarmouth with a band of 75 armed men.

Sir William Elmham was unswerving loyal to the Crown. In 1399, described as a ‘King’s knight’, he was granted for life two tuns of wine a year from the royal customs duty of wines in East Anglian ports. Then, in July 1399, he raised a body of men to help the Duke of York to resist the usurper, Henry Bolingbroke. When panic seized the royalist ranks and caused many to flee to Bristol, he refused to defect. On 28 October, the new King, Henry IV, ordered that Sir William’s horses and harness be restored to him along with the grants of wine and the annuity bestowed on him many years before by the Black Prince. He also continued to be called ‘King’s knight’. In August 1401, he was among the few men from East Anglia to receive a summons to attend a great council.
Elmham died on 16 April 1403 and was buried in Bury St. Edmunds abbey. His wife survived him by several years, but unfortunately none of their children survived. In 1409, she was troubled by major lawsuits brought by the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Countess of Hereford over the wardship of her great-nephew, and it was at this time that she sold Bowthorpe. Elizabeth had been left a very rich woman, and she left Thomas Beaufort 1st Duke of Exeter, all of her property in Norwich, on condition that he paid 100 marks or provide for a priest to pray for her soul for 10 years.

Until next time,
Rebecca Domek, Three Score

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