‘The equal of most of the gentlemen of England’
THOMAS HABINGTON, the respected Worcestershire chronicler who lived through the same tumultuous period in English history, said of William Sheldon: “In our age for wisdom, estate and authority in our county he equalled most of the gentlemen of England”, yet he never received a title.
At a meeting of the Privy Council in July 1554 it was agreed that, whereas William Sheldon esquire was to have been made a Knight of the Bath – probably alongside many others as part of the celebration of the approaching marriage of Queen Mary – “he shall now, in consideration of his small ability and living, be spared and forborne from receiving that Order”.
We have already seen that ‘small ability and living’ was most certainly not a fitting description to apply to William, but no reason was offered for the change of heart, although his earlier connections with the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine Parr, and the by-then disgraced Seymour family can hardly have counted in his favour.
Neither can we ignore the fact that William had largely turned his back on religion, which would not have endeared him to the fiercely-Catholic Queen, Mary I, and her entourage. She had ruthlessly set about reversing the English Reformation begun by her father, Henry VIII, and reinforced by her half-brother Edward VI, who she succeed as monarch upon his death at the tender age of 15 in 1553.
The new queen was given the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ by her Protestant opponents and with some justification since the 283 ‘martyrs’ she sent to be burnt at the stake or beheaded during her short reign were dwarfed only by the thousands her father had dispatched during his 38 years as king.
William’s upward momentum briefly stalled but fortunately for him Mary’s reign lasted just five years and Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558 heralded a rather more pragmatic attitude towards religion, enabling William to regain his upward momentum.
Seemingly, William was able to prosper in such dangerous times because he never openly declared for either side of the religious divide. Indeed, one notable clergy, the Anglican Bishop of Worcester, Edwin Sandys, described William in 1564 as being “indifferent in religion or else of no religion”.
Between 1535 and 1564 William held many Crown appointments. He was commissioner for the muster of troops back in his home county in 1539, and in 1547 he was receiver in the Court of Augmentations, which was set up after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and collected the sums received in respect of the monastic estates in eight Midlands counties.
When the Court was dissolved in 1553 and replaced by the Exchequer Court he retained his post, with fees of £100 plus porterage. He was appointed to survey the lands of the bishopric of Worcester in 1560, and was Collector of Loans for the county in 1562.
William was always to new ventures in which to invest his money. The Sheldon family had long owned large flocks of sheep, building their wealth over several generations from both the farming of sheep and from ‘wool stapling’, a term used to describe a dealer who buys wool from the producer, sorts and grades it and then sells it on.
In Tudor times, the credentials of wool staplers were established by royal appointment and the best-known English staple was in Calais, clearly demonstrating the importance of William’s marriage to Mary Willington to the developing Sheldon finances.
William’s growing property portfolio included holdings in Birmingham, by then a growing town, and its markets made a useful centre for some of his commercial operations.
William was also among those who took full advantage of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which took place between 1536 and 1541. As receiver for the collection of moneys due from the sale of monastic estates in eight Midland counties, William was ideally placed to spot potential future investment opportunities.
He was meticulous in not taking advantage of his position and never purchased lands directly from the crown, but nonetheless he was able to store away valuable information for the future. He recruited one of his younger brothers, Francis, to aid him in his acquisitions and together they added a number of former monastic lands and properties to their holdings.
In 1544, together with Francis, he acquired properties in Worcestershire for £1,804, most of which they resold, and then in 1546, with another brother, Baldwin, he purchased the manors of Eckington and Tenbury, which they also sold subsequently.
In 1545 he leased for 21 years the manor of Shrawley, where his niece Christian Sheldon lived subsequently on her marriage to John Severne. He was granted the reversion by Henry VIII, but sold it in 1558, retaining the lease and the advowson and Shrawley wood.
In 1550 his cousin Nicholas Heath obtained from Edward a licence to sell property in Blockley parish to William. William’s role in the Court of Augmentations put him in a favourable position for making further acquisitions, but although he continued to buy lands none of his purchases was from the crown, and most of them were not of former monastic property, suggesting that he did not abuse his position.
His father-in-law, William Willington, had bought the manor of Barcheston in 1507, and had settled there, depopulating the village to provide pasture for his sheep. In the Midlands, there was a good deal of such forcible eviction of tenant farmers and even whole villages in the first half of the 16th century.
William had purchased the manor of Weston in Long Compton parish, three miles south of Barcheston, and close to John Ingram’s estate in Little Wolford. Weston had been depopulated in about 1510 and enclosed, in a similar manner to Barcheston, and in 1545 William obtained a licence from the king to empark 300 acres, to be called Weston Park. He wished to use the land for hunting, but as this was a royal prerogative he had had to obtain permission.
The manor house became William’s home for a time, but his son Ralph (V) later replaced it with a much larger building. After the death of his father in 1546, William inherited Balford Hall in Beoley. In 1544 he acquired further land in Beoley which had belonged to Alcester monastery, and five years later he bought the manor from John Neville, Lord Latimer.
Many of William’s contemporary land dealers in the Midlands bought large tracts of land, which they ‘emparked’, force-evicting tenant farmers and, in some cases, whole villages, in order to retain the land for their exclusive use. His father in law, William Willington, had done just such a thing when he secured the manor of Barcheston in 1507, depopulating the village to provide pasture for his sheep.
All that remains to remind us of the existence of the village is the bizarre sight of a church standing in the middle of open countryside, looking down on a large open field which is still known to this day as 'Old Town'.
William and the other six husbands Willington's seven daughters all had their eyes on father-in-law's grand estate and it was perhaps inevitable that there would be ructions over who should inherit it. It was probably also inevitable that William, as a legal man, should be at the heart of the what developed into a almighty family squabble, which at one point boiled over into a near pitched battle and then became the subject of five years of claim and counter-claim in the courts.
But more on that in the next chapter of William's extraordinary life.
FOOTNOTE: The manor house and estate at Barcheston remains to this day a lavish, upmarket home which, when it went on the market some two years ago, had a guide price of £1.85 million. Semi-derelict when the Britton family purchased it in 1981, together with eight acres of garden, orchards and paddocks, by the time it was sold two years ago it had become a substantial family home of nearly 5,000 sq ft, with four reception rooms, five bedrooms, three bathrooms and three attic rooms.
You can read and see more about the the present-day Barcheston at http://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/90793-90793#oj1zz1GiSJlpm2ZU.99