The ravages of civil war weigh heavily on William Sheldon (1589-1659)
William Sheldon (1589-1659) was born into the golden Elizabethan age just a few months after the King of Spain’s attempts to clear a path for his invading armies were thwarted by Sir Francis Drake’s famous defeat of the Spanish Armada.
With England basking in the warmth of its stupendous naval triumph, William would have grown up enjoying the bountiful fruits of the labours of his industrious forebears.
But fortunes have a habit of changing dramatically over the course of a lifetime and so it proved in William’s case as he witnessed:
- The resurgence of Catholic persecution;
- The beheading of a reigning monarch;
- The destruction of his home and estates by marauding armies;
- The defining battle of the War of the Three Kingdoms taking place right on his doorstep.
In the rather calmer waters of his earlier life he had, in 1611, married Elizabeth, daughter of William, Lord Petre, of a large and prominent family in Tudor England whose various members had, despite their adherence to the Catholic faith, continued to hold high office through the successive reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.
The couple had three sons and two daughters, the eldest son, Ralph – later a respected antiquarian who became known as The Great Sheldon by fellow scholars – being baptised in the family chapel at Beoley on 10 August, 1623.
Daughters Elizabeth and Catherine were born in 1614 and 1617 respectively, while sons Edward and George came along later.
William invests in scheme to boost trade
William seems to have inherited some of the entrepreneurial spirit that typified so many of his ancestors, evidenced by his involvement in a scheme to improve navigation on the River Avon involving a series of locks and weirs, which made it possible to reach Stratford and to within four miles of Warwick.
The scheme received royal approval and a healthy grant from Charles I. The new, navigable stretch of the river became known as the Lower Avon, which greatly facilitated trade in those parts of Warwickshire and Worcestershire it served, allowing connection via the River Severn, into which it flowed, and from there access to the towns of Worcester, Gloucester and then on to the Severn Estuary, the growing port of Bristol and the wider world.
At various times during his lifetime William was harassed as “a Popish delinquent”, but matters came to a head during the 12 years of civil-war conflict when he found himself variously accused of concealing “moneys arising from his Beoley and Weston properties; that he had undervalued certain of his Worcestershire properties; that he had concealed two or three trunks full of money and treasure worth from £7,000 to £8,000 and that he had been associated with the Royalist forces at Worcester in 1645 and 1646.”
William’s home ransacked by marauding soldiers
Sheldon historian Barnard credits 19th century amateur historian, Mr J M Woodward, with the discovery of a since-lost manuscript among Beoley estate records, detailing some of William’s travails:
“Copy of a Paper left by William Sheldon, Esq., who lived in Oliver’s (Cromwell) time:
“That before the war, £1,050 was taken from me out of my lodging in London, whereof £600 I borrowed at interest for 1 o ct (one per cent). I had promiss of the publick faith, but never reed, any recompense for ye same.
“That in September 1643, my house at Weston, in Warwickshire, was ransacked, and my cattle and goods taken away by souldiers, to a great vallow.
“That in December following, my house at Beoley, in Worcestershire, was burnt to the ground, and all my goods and cattle there plundered by the souldiers to a very great vallow, besides the incurable loss of my chiefest evidence and court rolls consumed in the fire.*
“That immediately after, all my flock of cattle for my pro- vision of housekeeping was taken from us at Weston by a party of souldiers by means whereof I and my wife were inforst for our refuge and safety to goe to the city of Worcester, and after a short stay there, finding the inconvenience of living in a garrisson, removed to a small ffarme house in the parish of Clifton upon Tame, in the Co. of Worcester, where wee remained about 8 months, until all our goods and horses were also taken away by a party of souldiers and the house threatened to be burnt, whereupon my wife and myself not knowing whither to goe by reason of Sir W. Waller’s souldiers had then lately before taken away all our provision and stock of cattle at Weston, compounded for with the committee of Warwickshire, were fors’d to returne back to Worcester.
“And after a short stay there and long before the said city was besieged, wee returnied to Weston, there remaining ever since with the allowance and approbation of the city of Coventry. W. SHELDON.”
Shakespeare First Folio purchase held in Washington library
It seems that William was also a man of some literary taste, with his early purchase of a copy of the famed Shakespeare First Folio, which eventually passed into the possession of The Great Sheldon.
This copy exists to this day, one of 235 preserved by prestigious libraries, museums and private collectors around the world. The leather-bound Sheldon copy, still proudly displaying the Sheldon coat of arms on both the front and back covers, is one of 82 included in the the largest collection of First Folios in the world belonging to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. They were acquired by Henry and Emily Folger between 1893 and 1928.
William died at Weston on 6 April, 1659—shortly before the resignation of Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector—aged 70, and was buried in the Beoley vault, near to his wife, who had died some two years previously.
‘Faithful to an unhappy king and loyal to the religion is his sires’
His memorial, in Latin, is inscribed on a flat marble ledger in the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley Church. It reads as follows:
“To God, the best and greatest
This marble covers the body of William Sheldon, esquire, whose flame aroused by death returned to Heaven and there amid its kindred stars it burns and shines. He, devoted to his aged father, faithful to an unhappy King, loyal to the religion of his sires, succeeded late in life to a rich estate. Suddenly deprived of it on account of his inviolable loyalty to his King, he never mourned for it, but with equanimity bore its loss during his life. He pleased God by his uprightness; his contemporaries by his courtesy; the poor by his generosity; the world by his goodness.
He had one wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Baron Petre, a most affectionate spouse, a tender mother, a woman to be revered, by whom he begat children, some who predeceased him, others who survived him; some who went to Heaven before him, others who followed.
Ralph, his eldest son, married Henrietta Maria, daughter of Thomas Viscount Rocksavage; Edward lived unmarried, honoured amongst strangers.
George married Frances, daughter of Thomas More of Gubbins in the county of Hertford; Elizabeth married Thomas Gascoigne of Barneboe.
While he lived he was exposed to varying tides of adverse fortune, but he died aged 70.
This memorial of his parent, worthy of marble, his heir has transmitted to posterity.
Having read these words, stranger, go, and take them as an exemplar for thine own life.”
On a marble slab below the memorial there is another inscription, in Latin, along the following lines:
“Heer intomb,d A Sheldon lyes
Whom not envyes’ himself denyes
Nor suspicion ere could doubt
Verteous, loyall, wise, devout.
Hee in these oreturning times
Ownd his standing to noe crimes.
Some by others faults arc knowne
High to rise, hee by his owne.”
FOOTNOTE: Edward Sheldon lived out his days as a Benedictine monk at Douai in Flanders.