In his will of 1595, my 12 x great grandfather Magnus Fowle of Mayfield, Sussex, left twenty shillings in gold to Eleanor Ashburnham, the daughter of John and Isabel Ashburnham. I’ve discovered that John Ashburnham was Member of Parliament for Sussex and that Eleanor’s brother, another John Ashburnham, was a Catholic recusant who forfeited his estate under the Elizabethan penal laws. In my last post, I speculated that Magnus Fowle might, at the very least, have been secretly sympathetic to the recusant cause, particularly as his father Gabriel had been a loyal Catholic and other members of his family had connections with the priory of St Mary Overy, Southwark – where, intriguingly, Isabel Ashburnham was buried in 1584.

Elizabethan family

Elizabethan family

I’ve done some more research on the Ashburnham family and what I’ve discovered has strengthened my feeling that Magnus Fowle shared their religious convictions. The recurrence of similar names in successive generations of the Ashburnham family, together with contradictions between the available sources, can make understanding their story confusing. So it’s probably useful to begin with a simple account of their journey through the turbulent sixteenth century.

William Ashburnham died in 1530. Since his son John (1), who was married to Lora Berkeley, predeceased him, William left his estate to his grandson, another John (2), who was born in about 1528. It was this John Ashburnham who married Isabel Sackville and served as Member of Parliament for Sussex under Queen Mary.

John (2) and Isabel Ashburnham had five children: John (3), Thomas, Anne, Margaret and Eleanor – the latter being the beneficiary of Magnus Fowle’s will. Eleanor’s older brother John (3), who was born in about 1545, inherited the family estate on his father’s death in 1563. It was this John (3) who was accused of recusancy in 1574 and, because of unpaid fines, had his estate sequestered by the Crown in 1588. He married Mary Fane and they had six children: Katherine, John (4), Thomas, George, William and Mary.

John (3) died in 1592. His son, John (4), seems not to have shared his father’s religious principles and successfully recovered the family estate. He married Elizabeth Beaumont, Baroness of Cramond and was knighted.

Sir John Ashburnham by Hieronimo Custodis

Sir John Ashburnham by Hieronimo Custodis

Or, to put it even more simply:

William Ashburnham (1) died in 1530

John Ashburnham (1), son of William, married Lora Berkeley

John (1) and Lora had a son – John Ashburnham (2) (c. 1528 – 1563) – who married Isabel Sackville (1545 – 1592)

John (2) and Isabel had these children:

    John Ashburnham (3) (1545 – 1592)

Thomas (1549 – )




John (3) married Mary Fane – they had these children:

   Katherine (c. 1570)

(Sir) John (4) (1571)





(The names in bold are the members of the family mentioned in the Recusant Rolls – see below.)

It’s also helpful to see events in the Ashburnhams’ family history in the context of key national events, and alongside those in my own family tree, as in this timeline:

c.1528  Birth of John Ashburnham (2)

             Birth of Magnus Fowle

1530    Death of William Ashburnham

c.1544 Marriage of John Ashburnham (2) and Isabel Sackville

1545    Birth of John Ashburnham (3)

1547    Death of Henry VIII – accession of Edward VI

c.1550 Marriage of Magnus Fowle and Alice Luck

            Birth of Agnes Fowle

c.1552 Birth of Eleanor Ashburnham

1553    Accession of Queen Mary

1559   Death of Mary – accession of Elizabeth I

1563  Death of John Ashburnham (2)

1568  Marriage of John Ashburnham (3) and Mary Fane

1571  Birth of (Sir) John Ashburnham (4)

c.1575 Marriage of Agnes Byne and Edward Byne

1584  Death of Isabel Ashburnham

1586  Birth of Stephen Byne 

1592 Death of John Ashburnham (3)

1595 Death of Magnus Fowle

I’ve managed to find the names of various members of the Ashburnham family in the Recusant Roll for 1592. According to one source:

The rolls recorded the punishments and fines of those who refused to conform to the Anglican doctrine. After 1581, recusancy became an indictable offence, so recusants often appear in Quarter Session records and the fines levied were recorded in the Pipe Rolls. After 1592 a separate series of rolls called Recusant Rolls was created which continued until 1691 (previously recusancy was recorded in the Pipe Rolls). The Rolls could include other dissenters or nonconformists and show the fines and property or land surrendered by the accused.

1592 was a critical year for the Ashburnham family. It was the year in which John Ashburnham (3), who had inherited but then forfeited the family estate on account of his recusancy, died. His death offered the prospect of the estate being returned to its owners, once John’s son and heir, John Ashburnham (4), conformed to the state religion.

I’ve obtained a copy of the Recusant Roll for 1592. It’s written in legal and abbreviated Latin: I took Latin ‘O’ Level some forty years ago, so my knowledge of the language is a little rusty, but with the help of a dictionary I’ve been able to make some sense of the document. The Roll is organized by county, and in the section dealing with Sussex I’ve found two long passages which appear to detail the sequestration of the estate of John Ashburnham (3) and its occupation by ‘Willelmus Cordell magister coquus coquine domine Regine’ – William Cordell, Queen Elizabeth’s master cook – and (I think) its return to the Ashburnhams on John’s death.

There are two brief references to Eleanor Ashburnham in the Recusant Roll. In the first ‘Ellionara Ashburneham’ appears in a list of recusants fined £40. Eleanor’s name comes after that of one Eleanor Parker, a spinster of Willingdon, which was about fifteen miles south-west of the village of Ashburnham, and she is said to be ‘de eadem’ – of the same – and also a spinster. There is a similar reference a few pages further on in the document.

Elizabethan village scene: Joris Hoefnagel, 'Fete at Bermondsey', c. 1569

Elizabethan village scene: Joris Hoefnagel, ‘Fete at Bermondsey’, c. 1569

The first list in which Eleanor’s name appears includes three other members of the Ashburnham family: Mary and Katherine Ashburnham, both said to be of Ashburnham and both spinsters, and William Ashburnham of Dallington, which was about five miles north of Ashburnham. Mary, Katherine and probably William were all the children of the recusant John Asburnham (3) who died in 1592. Clearly, they did not share the desire of their brother John (4) to conform to the Church of England, but instead maintained their father’s recusant principles. There is a reference elsewhere in the document to a William Ashburnham of Ashburnham, but I’m not sure if he is identical with William of Dallington. There are also two references to a Thomas Ashburnham, who is probably another sibling of Mary, Katherine and William, but it’s also possible he was Eleanor’s brother of that name, who is mentioned in their mother Isabel’s will of 1584.

To summarise, we know that in 1592, three years before her name appears in Magnus Fowle’s will, Eleanor Ashburnham, the unmarried, middle-aged daughter of John and Isabel Ashburnham (she was probably about 40 years old at the time), was fined for holding fast to her late brother’s recusant principles. She was joined in this by two of her nieces and at least one of her nephews, and perhaps by her own brother. It’s worth noting that Eleanor’s nephews and nieces would have been in their late teens or early 20s at the time: they were all born in the reign of Elizabeth I and thus represented a new generation determined to hold on to the faith of their ancestors, despite the increasingly heavy penalties for doing so.

If Eleanor Ashburnham was still being fined £40 on a regular basis three year later, when Magnus Fowle wrote his will, it makes his bequest to her of ‘Twentie Shillings in gold’ more understandable. It also makes it more likely that Magnus was sympathetic to Eleanor’s religious stance, even though he felt unable, for whatever reason, to adopt that stance himself and face the legal consequences.

The Ashburnhams aren’t the only people named in the Recusant Roll with a connection to Magnus Fowle. In his will Magnus grants 40 shillings to ‘old John Tyshurst…sometime of Brightlinge’. There are references in the Recusant Rolls to ‘Johannis Ticeherst’ and also to a ‘Willelmi Tyshurst’. These occur in the sections dealing with the sequestration of the Ashburnham estate, so it’s unclear to me whether these men were fellow recusants or beneficiaries of the sequestration.

Even more intriguing are the references in the same sections of the document to Johannes Murfyne or Morfyne, always in association with one Thomas Palgrave. Is it too fanciful to suppose he could be a relation of William Morfyn, Magnus Fowle’s brother-in-law, who was appointed as one of the overseers of the latter’s will? If so, it would bring the accusations of recusancy right into the heart of Magnus’ family.

I’m not an expert on Tudor history, but what I’ve read in the works of Eamon Dufy and other writers on this period makes me wary of assigning definitive religious identities to my 16th century ancestors. When Magnus Fowle was writing his will, the separation from Rome under Henry VIII, the brief restoration of Catholicism under Mary, and the renewed separation under Elizabeth, were still fairly recent memories. Magnus would have been baptised a Catholic, married in a church that was officially Protestant, perhaps christened his children in a restored Catholic ceremony, and was buried in a Protestant churchyard – and it’s perfectly possible that all of these occurred in the same parish church. The divisions between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’  identities were yet to harden, and the character of the separated ‘Church of England’ was still in the process of development. A (growing) minority identified themselves as proudly Protestant, and on the other side the recusants, like Eleanor Ashburnham, were openly and defiantly Catholic. But most people, whatever their sympathies, probably kept their heads down and quietly conformed to whichever religious regime was currently in power. We know, for example, that there were a large number of ‘church Catholics’ at this time – that is to say, people who attended services of the official Anglican church, so as not to attract heavy fines or other penalties, but secretly maintained their Catholic faith and practices. I wonder if my ancestor Magnus Fowle fell into that category?