Don’t Meddle with my Business! A sixteenth century warning
The following letter, a transcript of an original in private hands and unpublished until now, throws light on both the workings of Stamford Town Council and its relationship with central government. It is also particularly interesting in showing how a key supporter of the Tudor monarchs protected his interests vigorously.
Context: On 15 January 1553/4 it was announced that Mary Tudor, the new queen of England, was to marry Phillip II of Spain. Almost exactly six months earlier, on the death of her half-brother Edward VI, there had been a failed attempt to overturn Henry VIII’s Act of Settlement of 1543 and place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Any suspicions and reservations which may have remained from Mary’s delayed accession were exacerbated by this marriage announcement.
Inadvisably Sir Thomas Wyatt, apparently outraged that an English monarch should consider such a marriage, tried to raise enough support to prevent the union of the two sovereign states. Initially, it appeared he had succeeded, and he moved with a small army from the west towards London reaching Ludgate and Temple Bar on 8th February, 1554. However, the many promises of troops, made by erstwhile supporters, did not materialise. The forces he had brought with him from his native Kent melted away and, crucially, royal resistance was active, determined and effective. So Wyatt had no alternative but to surrender at the gates of the City of London and trust to the mercy of the monarch and her advisers. Tried for treason on 15 March at Westminster, he was executed on 11 April.
John Russell, first earl of Bedford, our letter writer, lord privy seal and at the heart of the government, was more than aware of all that was going on. Though now well advanced in years, born about 1485 and nearing seventy, he had profited substantially in every sense from a close friendship with Henry VIII. Russell had been created earl of Bedford in January 1550, just three months after he refused to move troops to Windsor to help the then protector the duke of Somerset. Russell had been using them to suppress rebels in the south-west where he had very substantial land-holdings. This proved the critical decision in the power struggle between Somerset and Northumberland; Somerset’s protectorate fell apart less than a week later. Not only did Russell reap a title from Northumberland as a result, he acquired yet more property, notably Somerset’s Long Acre estate to west of the City of London, formerly the kitchen garden of the abbey of Westminster and including Covent Garden which lay just to the north of Cecil property on the Strand. A convinced supporter of state over church, he then found himself called upon to support Northumberland’s advocacy of Lady Jane Grey as queen of England which he did most reluctantly.
But Bedford moved quickly away from that faction backing Lady Jane Grey in the summer of 1553, and joined Sir William Cecil and others uneasy with what was being forced on the country. He preferred to continue his long-established relationship with the Tudor dynasty. Thus he was one of those who proclaimed Mary queen on July 19, 1553. Given that he had known her since the 1530s when his wife was one of Mary’s ladies and that he had been her supporter when such a course was dangerous, he had excellent credentials and was quickly pardoned for that reluctant support of Lady Jane Grey. Perhaps anxious to prove his loyalty beyond doubt, and to all, he insisted six months later on commanding loyal forces at the key river crossing of London Bridge during Wyatt’s rebellion.
So by February 1554, when this letter was written, Bedford was back in favour, a significant figure at court, a great landowner and, ultimately the founder of a great dynasty. He writes a letter both of reassurance and warning to the town of Stamford with which he has the closest of links. Just a couple of weeks or so earlier Sir Thomas Wyatt had been arrested and was now safely lodged in the Tower of London, awaiting trial. Hence Bedford writes, “But thankes be given, unto god, all things arre nowe in good quyetnes here.” From his privileged position, at the heart of government, he knows all is well under control and secure, and that troops from Stamford will not be needed. No doubt the news of Wyatt’s surrender had already reached the town, but this letter came from the highest echelons of government – Stamford should have been well aware that the steward of their town knew exactly what was happening where it mattered.
But clearly Bedford’s letter had another purpose: no one should consider usurping Bedford’s role in Stamford. In his letter he makes it clear he is in charge in Stamford also. The heading of the first meeting of the town council after Mary’s accession and after their equivalent of an annual general meeting, reads:
Staunford Monday namely the vjth day of the month of November in the first year of the reign of the foresaid queen  before Henry Lacy gentleman deputy of John Russell knight Lord Russell Lord Privy Seal, Earl of Bedford and one of the Council of the lady queen, head steward there .....
There can be no doubt of John Russell’s standing in the town; he had been head steward of the town since 1543 and his letter witnesses he did not regard his stewardship as a sinecure. The Alderman or Mayor, William Campenet a draper, and (Russell assumes) his fellows, have together made him aware what has been going on within the town, and he is grateful to them.
But also one can almost hear the earl rumbling, “What does Lord Willoughby think he is up to? He’s trying to exercise my responsibilities. We’ll have nothing of this.” Above all else, he writes, “the Manridden is under my leading.” This unfamiliar, and interesting word, essentially archaic though resurrected by a few historians recently, is defined most usefully by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “the men whom a lord could call upon in time of war” and thus “a supply of men for military purposes”. So it is absolutely clear that Bedford would himself have expected to call out the Stamford muster (and possibly other local forces) as steward of the town of Stamford. It presents us with a rare example in Stamford of the steward taking action and actual responsibility. Normally he, and others, had presided in absentia, using the services of a local deputy, over the swearing in of the town’s chief officer and magistrate, the alderman.
While he had been steward of the town for just ten years Russell’s links with the area were far closer. As the third husband of Ann Sapcote, and thus related by marriage to the Semark family of Thornhaugh his links to David and Richard Cecil, William’s grandfather and father were close. When Bedford died a year after this letter was written, in early 1555, Sir William Cecil in his mid-thirties was already well-established in the royal secretariat. Knighted by Edward VI in 1551, Cecil was poised to become Elizabeth’s secretary just three years later. It would be interesting to uncover the links between the rising courtier, the young William Cecil, and the experienced royal servant, Russell, during the key period from 1535 to 1550.
Note: a single oblique stroke shows where the text reaches the end of a line; the double oblique indicates an oblique stroke used by the writer as a form of punctuation. Capital letters and spellings are as in the original.
After my veary hartie commendations // I have receaved /your letter understandinge by the same that youe / thinke my Lord Willoughbye will muster men shortly / in Stampforde to serve the quenes ma[jes]tie // wherefore / I gyve youe harty thankes that you wold gyve / me advertisement therof // But thankes be given / unto god, all things arre nowe in good quyetnes / here so that his lordship shall not neede to / muster Anye men // Nevertheles when so / ever his lordship or any other shall muster men / there // I will that none within that my Office / do stirre or go with them, what so ever they be // / for the Manredden is under my leading / to do the quenes ma[jes]ti service when oratyor/ shall serve and no man shall have to / do therewith but I // and so I byd you all harty / fare well from the Court at West mynster / the xjth of February 1553
Your loving frend
[Signature in another hand, presumably Bedford’s]
The Address and endorsement [on reverse]
- Handwriting as main letter:
To my veary loving
frendes Mr Alderman
and his Bretherne of
the Towne of
- A new hand:
John Bedfords letter of thankes
to Stamford for letting him
to understand of my L[ord] Willoughbys
musteringe & that they shold
refuse to go with him or
any one but with him self