William Greene the elder – of Limehouse?

In the last two posts I’ve been revisiting the will of William Greene the elder, a Stepney mariner who died in 1634 – and who I believe (but cannot yet prove) was my ancestor. Searching the parish registers, I’ve come across new information about William’s family that I want to share in this post.

We already knew that the Elizabeth Greene whom William names as the executrix of his will was his second wife. Her own will of 1652 confirms that her first husband was another mariner named Gregory Wood, whom she married at the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 12th September 1614. We don’t know for certain when Gregory died, but it seems likely that it was some time in the early 1620s – if the marriage of Elizabeth Wood and William Greene in December 1625 is the right one.

How do we know that Elizabeth Wood was not William Greene’s first wife? In his will of June 1634, William leaves ‘twentie pounds apeace’ to his grandchildren ‘beinge the sonnes and daughters of my three sonnes viz in number seaven that are now borne and living’. He names two of these sons – ‘William Greene and Bartholomew Greene both of the parish abovesaid [i.e. Stepney] in the Countie of Midd[lessex] Marriners’. We learn the name of the third son – ‘John Greene of New Castle Marriner’ – from his widow Elizabeth’s 1652 will.

So when William Greene the elder died in 1634, he had three adult sons, all working (like him) as mariners, and all with children of their own. This means that William junior, Bartholomew and John must have been at least in their early twenties by this date, and were probably somewhat older – that’s to say they were born by 1614 at the very latest, and almost certainly some years earlier. We know that one of the three sons, Bartholomew, married Anne Linage on 5th June 1628, so he must have been born by about 1608 at the latest. If William Greene of Ratcliffe, mariner, who had a son William in 1632 with a woman named Margaret, was William junior, then he must also have been born around the same time.

1720 map of the parish of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney

Early map of the parish of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney

I’ve made a thorough search of the records of christenings in the Stepney parish register in the closing years of the sixteenth century and the first decade of the seventeenth. The only records that match the sons of William Greene the elder are as follows. On 20th March 1599 William Greene of Limehouse had a son christened named William, and on 21st October 1603 (the year in which James I was crowned King of England) the same man had a son named John baptised. Between these two dates (on 9th September 1601) another son named Thomas was christened, but he died in infancy and was buried on 7th September 1603. Finding a baptismal record for Bartholomew Greene would make it certain that this was the right family, but I’ve discovered that many of the entries in the register for 1608 (i.e. twenty years before Bartholomew’s marriage to Anne Linage) have become smudged and virtually unreadable, which might explain my failure to find a matching record.

At this stage, I’m prepared to proceed on the basis that this is the ‘right’ Greene family. After all, Limehouse was the next hamlet along the riverside from Ratcliffe (see map above) and it’s perfectly possible that William Greene the elder moved from one place to the other as his family and perhaps his maritime business grew. Unfortunately, these early entries in the parish register don’t give mothers’ names, so we can’t be sure of the identity of William’s first wife. There are a number of candidates in the Stepney marriage records. For example, on 8th May 1588 (a few months before the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada) a man named William Greene married Dorothy Peerson, and on 21st October of the same year, someone of the same name married Felice Marshall – though these dates seem rather early for ‘our’ William.  On the other hand, the same parish register tells us that on 2nd February 1590, William Greene of Limehouse had a son named Arthur baptised. Is this ‘our’ William, and was Arthur his child, perhaps from an earlier marriage, who did not survive?

Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London

Much closer to the births of William, John and Bartholomew is the marriage, on 14th January 1595, of William Greene and Elizabeth Baker. This was just four years before the birth of William Greene junior. Frustratingly, the parish register gives no indication of either the groom’s address or his occupation.

If Elizabeth Baker was ‘our’ William’s wife, then this raises the possibility that both of his wives were called Elizabeth. But that’s not the end of the story: it’s possible that William Greene the elder actually had three wives, all named Elizabeth. In February 1614, William Greene of Ratcliffe, mariner, married Elizabeth Fearne at St Dunstan’s church. This is the first reference in the records to William Greene’s occupation, and the first to place him in Ratcliffe, so it seems almost certain that this is ‘our’ man.

Eleven years later, on Friday 2nd September 1625 (in the first year of the reign of King Charles I) Elizabeth, ‘wife of William Greene of Shadwell mariner’, died and was buried at St Dunstan’s. She was one of the countless victims of plague to be buried there in that month. As I noted in my last post, another Elizabeth, the wife of mariner Jonas James of Ratcliffe, a ‘good friend’ of William Greene the elder, was another victim of this epidemic and was buried at the same church just ten days later. One can imagine that this shared loss helped to seal the friendship between the two men. That is, if this is indeed ‘our’ William: Shadwell is not exactly the same place as Ratcliffe, but on the other hand in his will William gives his address as ‘Upper Shadwell’, despite the fact that his burial record places him in Ratcliffe.

Was the Elizabeth Greene who died in September 1625 William’s first or second wife? At this stage, we can’t be sure. We do know that, just over three months later, on 22nd December, someone named William Greene married Elizabeth Wood at the church of St Dunstan in the East. This seems an unusual location, though we know from her will that Elizabeth Wood née Wheeler had strong family ties to the City of London, and the date of the wedding seems to match.

John Boydell's view of Limehouse in 1751

John Boydell’s view of Limehouse in 1751

If my speculations in this post have any validity, then it would seem that the roots of the Greene family lie in Limehouse, and that we have managed to extend the family tree back to the 16th century and the reign of Elizabeth I. All I have to do now is prove that William Greene the elder was, in fact, related in some way to my ancestor Captain William Greene of Ratcliffe (1626 – 1686).

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