‘To our blessed Lady and to all the saints of hevyn’: the pre-Reformation will of Thomas Fowle

(Update 26th February 2014: for corrections to some of the information in this post, please see this post and those that follow.)

Despite its brevity, the will of my 15 x great grandfather Thomas Fowle of Lamberhurst, Kent, who died in 1525, is interesting for a number of reasons. Its preamble reminds us that during Thomas’ lifetime England was still a Catholic country and, judging by his will, he was a faithful son of the Church. Although, as stated in the will, Henry VIII had been on the throne for sixteen years when it was written, the crisis of the royal divorce which precipitated the split with Rome would not occur until two years after Thomas’ death.

The last will and testament of Thomas Fowle (1525)

The last will and testament of Thomas Fowle (1525)

Unlike his Protestant descendants, who simply trusted their souls to God their Creator and (especially if they were Protestants of the more Calvinist variety) hoped for salvation solely through the merits of Christ their Saviour, Thomas Fowle bequeathed his soul ‘to almighty god, to our blessed Lady and to all the saints of hevyn’. A further sign of Thomas’ Catholic piety is the fact that he leaves money to the Church and that priests are both beneficiaries of and witnesses to his will.

Of particular interest is the church where these priests are located, and where Thomas asks to be buried. One of the witnesses to the will, William Carnell, is described as parish priest and ‘curet’ of Saint Margaret’s church in Southwark. Thomas wishes to be buried in the churchyard there and he bequeaths money to the ‘high master’ of the church and to the church itself. Why would a resident of Lamberhurst, on the borders of Kent and Sussex, and some fifty miles from Southwark, have such a strong association with its parish church?

I’ve discovered that the church of St Margaret was granted to the priory of St Mary Overy by Henry I, and presumably the ‘high master’ in Thomas Fowle’s will was the master or prior of that establishment. We know from other sources that, fourteen years after Thomas’ death, his grandson Bartholomew would be serving as the last prior of St Mary Overy before its dissolution. When Thomas wrote his will, Bartholomew, who was born in 1509, would have been sixteen years old. Was he already a junior brother, or perhaps a pupil, at the priory in Southwark? Without further information, it’s difficult to know whether Thomas Fowle’s connection with the priory was on account of his grandson, or whether that connection preceded Bartholomew’s involvement, and perhaps was one of its causes. Was Thomas a benefactor of the priory, and did his family’s association go back even further than his own time?

Thomas Fowle will screenshot

There are one or two other questions arising from Thomas Fowle’s will. If my transcription is correct, who is the ‘gosteley fader’ to whom Thomas bequeaths 12 marks (see above)? Can we translate ‘gosteley’ as ghostly, i.e. spiritual, and does ‘fader’ mean father? And if so, is this a reference to a confessor or spiritual mentor at the priory, suggesting an even closer relationship with that institution? Or is my transcription entirely fanciful? And what is a ‘morowe masse priest’ – does this simply mean ‘morning’? Incidentally, the honorific ‘sir’ before a priest’s name was quite normal (see, for example, the parish priest Sir Christopher Trychay who is the subject of Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath) and did not indicate the possession of a knighthood as it did in later periods.

London Bridge from Southwark, with St Mary Overy in the foreground (1616, by Claes Van Visscher, via wikimedia.org)

London Bridge from Southwark, with St Mary Overy in the foreground (1616, by Claes Van Visscher, via wikimedia.org)

These questions are intriguing, especially given the continuing connection between my maternal ancestors and Southwark, even after the dissolution of St Mary Overy. Following that event, the local parishes of St Margaret and St Mary Magdalene were united and were given use of the former monastery. The parish was thenceforth known as St Saviour’s (it became Southwark Cathedral in 1905) and it was there that my 9 x great grandfather Magnus Byne, a great-great-great grandson of Thomas Fowle, married his first wife Anne in 1640. As I’ve noted before, there are other links between the Byne and Manser families and Southwark which are difficult to explain. Perhaps further research into the Fowle family’s history will throw some light on these questions.

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