The Sheldon who became ‘the richest commoner in England’
WILLIAM SHELDON (1501-1575) lived through one of the most turbulent periods of English history but had the good sense not to publicy commit himself to either side of the great religious divide that caused so many of his contemporaries to lose their heads – both literally and metaphorically.
He lived out an extraordinarily active life under three kings and three queens, seeing out his twilight years in the oft-described ‘golden age’ of English history in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
The eldest son of Ralph and Phillipa, his exact date of birth is unknown but he first put in appearance during the reign of Henry VII, in 1500/01.
Having been born into great wealth it would have been so easy for William to simply shut himself away from public life altogether and dedicate himself to enjoying the fruits of his father’s labours
But having been schooled in the importance of public duty by father Ralph, William embraced both civic responsibility – holding many public appointments between 1535 and 1564 – and entrepreneurial development to such a point that in later life he was dubbed by one contemporary chronicler as ‘the richest commoner in England’.
William had his portrait painted in 1560 by an unknown artist and thus he is the earliest Sheldon we know by appearance. Subsequent portraits of his son Ralph (1537-1613), show a strong family resemblance.
William’s story has many strands and consequently we will tell it across several articles. William took the Sheldon name to never-before attained heights of achievement in terms of power, wealth and influence.
Little is known about William’s early life and the first we hear of him is in the 1520s when he begins legal training at the Middle Temple in London, one of the four Inns of Court at the heart of the British legal system. Once qualified, he joined another of the ‘inns’, the Inner Temple, in 1528.
William marries into another family of great wealth
A year prior to that he had married Mary Willington, the fourth daughter and co-heiress of William Willington of Barcheston, Warwickshire, one of the largest sheep farmers and wool exporters in the county with his own premises in Calais, France, and London. Both parties were heavily involved in sheep dealing, exporting and in wool stapling.
Willington was himself a man of immense wealth, possessing, as the Sheldon historian E.A.B. Barnard records: ‘An immense amount of real estate.’
The marriage had advantages to both families, providing Willington, for instance, with legal advice and assistance. However, Sheldon gained far more from the arrangement, with the opportunity to further develop his own already-substantial sheep-farming interests while at the same time gaining access, via his new sisters-in-law, to the prominent and influential Midlands families of Catesby, Cave, Grevile, Holte, Middlemore and Mountford.
All seven of William Willington’s daughters married into prominent families. One married Sir Edward Greville of Milcote near Stratford, and their descendant, the poet Fulke Greville, was given Warwick Castle by King James I and was raised to the peerage as Lord Brooke. Another daughter became the grandmother of Sir Thomas Holte, who between 1618 and 1635 built the spectacular Aston Hall, now within the city of Birmingham.
The youngest daughter Catherine married Sir Richard Catesby’s only son William, one eventual outcome of which was that they became the grandparents of Robert Catesby, one of the conspirators in the notorious Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The Willington family seat at Barcheston in due course became an important part of William’s life and the subject of much dispute between family members, which culminated in an acrimonious chancery court case, of which we will learn more in a subsequent article.
Father’s influence helps William to become ‘knight of the shire’
William’s first public appointment came in 1532 as a justice of the peace back in his native Worcestershire, a position he occupied until his death 38 years later. That same year he made his first property acquisition, the manor of Weston-juxta-Chiriton in Warwickshire for £533 and for a time it became his family home.
In 1539 he took up the role of Commissioner for the Muster of Troops in his home county, but didn’t neglect his responsibilities in London, twice occupying the prestigious post of Marshall of the Inner Template in 1542 and 1544.
His father Ralph had been nominated but not selected as Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1541, 1542 and 1544, but he still had sufficient influence in county affairs to secure William’s election in 1542 as ‘knight of the shire’, the more senior of the two Members of Parliament for Worcestershire.
William was again MP from 1547 to 1552 and at various intervals to 1567, and he outdid his father by becoming Sheriff in 1547, 1556 and 1567.
William had been brought up a catholic and early in his marriage had stark notice of the perils awaiting anyone committing to the papist cause when one of his many brothers-in-law, the catholic priest Humphrey Middlemore, was executed for treason after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy in June 1535.
Nonetheless William was of sufficient standing in royal circles to be appointed in May 1544 Queen’s solicitor to Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, the only one of Henry’s wives to survive him.
That same year he added substantially to his Worcestershire land and property holdings, to the value of £1,804, which at a conservative estimate would be the equivalent of around £1,000,000 today.
By 1548 he had been made steward to Sir Thomas Seymour of Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, who had become Catherine Parr’s fourth husband barely three months after the death of Henry VIII in January 1547.
Sir Thomas was the brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife who died after giving birth to Henry’s only son. He was given the title Baron Sudeley by his young nephew, the new king, Edward VI.
William’s position as steward did not last long, however, because Catherine died in childbirth in September 1548. A year later Seymour was charged with treason and executed for plotting against his brother Edward, who was in effect Lord Protector of the Realm during the king’s minority.
There will be more on the remarkable life of William Sheldon in future articles.