Recusants and iron masters: reflections on the will of Magnus Fowle

What do we learn from the will of my 12 x great grandfather Magnus Fowle, a transcription of which I posted the other day? First of all, we discover when he died: the will was written on 30th July 1595 and proved on 11th May in the following year, so Magnus died some time between these two dates. We can also conclude that Magnus’ wife Alice predeceased him, since she is not mentioned in the will. The executors of the will are named as Magnus’ daughter Agnes, who married Edward Byne (they were my 11 x great grandparents), and her son, another Magnus. From this I gather that the latter must have been the eldest son of the family, and that he must have been an adult by this time, which means he was probably born some time in the 1570s. I also conclude that Agnes was the only surviving child of Magnus Fowle, and that he had no male heir.

Magnus’ will informs us that, in addition to his residence in Mayfield (or ‘Maughfield’),  Sussex, he also owned land in the villages of Ringmer and Glynde, some fifteen miles away and close to the town of Lewes. These are almost certainly the properties left to him by his father Gabriel Fowle in his will of 1554. Magnus seems to have had a connection, not only with these parishes, but also with Retherfield (or Rotherfield), Southover near Lewes (where his father lived) and Lewes itself, since he leaves money to the poor people of all these places. In addition, Magnus leaves money to six current or former servants, another sign of his generosity, and perhaps of his wealth and social status.

Ashburnham today

Ashburnham today

Magnus Fowle’s will introduces to a usefully large cast of characters. I’ve been able to find out a little about some of these, and they certainly offer plenty of opportunities for further research. The first-mentioned beneficiary turns out to be one of the most intriguing: ‘I give to Elynor Ashbourneham the daughter of Mrs Isabell Ashbourneham Twentie Shillings in gold.’ The Ashburnhams were an ancient and notable Sussex family, associated with the village whose name they bore, which was near Battle and about fifteen miles from Mayfield. The Isabel Ashburnham mentioned in Magnus Fowle’s will was almost certainly the widow of John Ashburnham who sat in Parliament for Sussex in 1554. Isabel was the daughter of John Sackville of Buckhurst in Kent. John and Isabel Ashburnham had six children, of whom the Eleanor Ashburnham mentioned in my ancestor’s will was the fourth. Apparently she died unmarried. Intriguingly, after her husband’s death in 1563, Isabel Ashburnham spent her later years in Lambeth and in 1584 was buried at the church of St Mary Overy in Southwark – the very church where Magnus Fowle’s grandfather Thomas was buried, which he generously endowed in his will, and of which another member of the Fowle family, Bartholomew, was the last prior.

It would appear that the Ashburnhams, like Thomas Fowle and his son Gabriel, were loyal to the traditional Catholic faith, and remained so (at least initially) despite the upheavals of the Reformation. John Ashburnham junior, the son and heir of John and Isabel, and the elder brother of Eleanor, had an accusation of recusancy laid against him in 1574 – in other words, he refused to attend services of the now-Protestant Church of England. By 1588 he had amassed so many unpaid fines that his estate at Ashburnham was sequestered by the Crown and later farmed out by Queen Elizabeth to her master cook, William Cordell. It was only recovered when John died and his son, another John, who presumably did not share his father’s religious scruples, became head of the family. The estate was forfeited again during the Civil War, due to the family’s support for the King, but returned to them at the Restoration. (Ashburnham House was eventually sold off and partly demolished in the 1950s. It is now a Christian conference centre: I remember spending a weekend there in the 1970s).

I wonder if it was the family’s loss of their estate that prompted Isabel Ashburnham’s move to Southwark, and perhaps Magnus Fowle’s generous gesture towards her daughter? The question still remains as to why a yeoman farmer was leaving money to a member of a distinguished gentry family. At the same time, I can’t help wondering whether Magnus’ association with the Ashburnhams was a sign that he shared the same religious principles as his father and grandfather? I have no evidence that he, too, was a recusant – and I mustn’t be swayed by my own fascination with recusant history and a desire to identify a recusant ancestor. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel a secret sympathy for those who were brave enough to risk all for the religion of their (and his) forefathers, especially if there were long-standing links between the two families, perhaps connected with their shared patronage of the priory of St Mary Overy? The preamble to Magnus’ will provides few clues to his religious affiliation. Certainly there isn’t the appeal to Mary and the saints that we find in his grandfather’s will, but neither is there any sign of the sole dependence on the passion and merits of Christ that we find in those of some of his more ardent protestant descendants. Instead, there is a simple evocation of the Trinity: it would take someone with more theological and historical expertise than I have to interpret the significance (if any) of this.

Execution of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I by Franz Hogenburg

Execution of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I by Franz Hogenburg

Magnus Fowle was probably born in the 1520s and during his early childhood England was still a Catholic country. We know that his grandfather was a faithful Catholic and that another close relation was the head of an Augustinian priory. The dramatic events that led to the separation with Rome – the royal divorce, Henry VIII’s assumption of the title of Supreme Head of the Church, not to mention the dissolution of the monasteries that would have had a personal impact for the Fowle family – occurred while Magnus was growing up. We know that his father Gabriel remained loyal to the old religion and would have welcomed its restoration under Queen Mary. We don’t know what he would have thought of the burning of heretics that took place in Lewes and elsewhere in Sussex, including Mayfield, at this period, but mostly after his death.

I’m not sure of the identity of Robert Barham of Lamberhurst, who is left forty shillings in Magnus Fowle’s will, but we know that there are a number of links between the Barhams and my own family tree. For example, the first wife of my 13 x great grandfather Chrisopher Manser of Hightown, Wadhurst, who died in 1545, was Mildred Barham.

Magnus Fowle leaves ten shillings ‘to my sister Morfyn’ and twenty shillings to her children. Later in the will he appoints ‘my Brother William Morffyn’ as one of its overseers and awards him twenty shillings for his pain. The obvious implication is that Magnus had a sister who married a man named William Morfyn. So far, I’ve managed to find no trace of either of them, though Morfyn or Morfin is apparently a long-established name in both Sussex and Kent. However, this contradicts those sources that claim that Magnus only had one sister, Agnes, who married John Harman. More research is needed to clarify this.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer

Besides William Morfyn, Magnus Fowle names two other overseers of his will: John Motley and John Collett. I haven’t been able to identify the latter yet, but John Motley or Motlay was the parish priest at Ringmer: he graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1566 and was ordained a priest in 1575, serving as vicar of West Firle and Ringmer until his death in 1604. Perhaps Magnus’ association with Motley is evidence that he conformed to the Church of England, though it would be interesting to know where Rev Motley’s theological sympathies lay. Magnus leaves forty shillings to one ‘Michaell Marten sometime of Brightlinge’. This might be the Michael Martin who built the house known as ‘Shepherdes’ between 1554 and 1561, on the site of what is now Brightling Park.

The reference in Magnus Fowle’s will to a certain Arthur Langworth is intriguing. Magnus insists that, should his heirs at any time ‘bargayne sell alienate lease demyse grante or otherwise convey or assine’ any of his properties in Ringmer or Glynde ‘to Arthur Langworth to his heires or to anie of his name, or to anie other p[er]sone or p[er]sones whereby or by meanes whereof anie of my saide Landes or the inhertytance thereof maie come to the saide Arthure or to anie other p[er]sone or p[er]sones to his use,  or to the use of anie of his heries or of his name’, then John Motley and various other men ‘shall have full power and authoritie’ to enter those properties and (I think – the text is difficult to read here) turn them over to the use of the poor of the aforementioned parishes.

Who was Arthur Langworth and what did Magnus Fowle have against him? The first question is easier to answer than the second. Arthur Langworth lived at Broyle Place in Ringmer and his family are said to have had close links with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Langworth was the owner of ironworks, and this may be how Magnus knew of him. The Ashburnhams also made money from iron, for which the Weald of Sussex was  famous, as indeed did Magnus Fowle’s uncle William who apparently built his house at Riverhall, Wadhurst, with profits from his iron foundries – and my Manser ancestors at Hightown, Wadhurst were also iron masters. Arthur Langworth seems to have been involved in a number of property deals, so that may have been another possible cause of his breach with Magnus Fowle.

Iron works in the Sussex Weald (via

Iron works in the Sussex Weald (via

As for the men charged with ensuring that none of Magnus Fowle’s properties fell into Langworth’s hands: John Cornford was a yeoman of Ringmer. His father William had been the park keeper at Ringmer Park, which was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury until it was sold to him in 1546. The Cornfords owned the property until 1580 when John sold it to Lord Buckhurst. John Sheppard was a yeoman of Ringmer as was John Delve, whose will is dated 1613. Thomas Sharpe also seems to have been from Ringmer.

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