Analysing the will of Gabriel Fowle of Southover (c.1507 – 1555)

In the last post I shared my transcription of the will of my 13 x great grandfather Gabriel Fowle of Southover, Lewes, who died in 1555. In this post I want to explore what Gabriel’s will can tell us about his life and times.

Gabriel Fowle made his will on 27th January 1554. The fact that it seems to have been proved on 17th August 1555 suggests that the first date was probably ‘old style’ – when the year began on 25th March – and that the date of the will was in what we would consider 1555 – i.e. the same year that Gabriel died.

The home of Anne of Cleves in Lewes: an example of a Tudor house

The home of Anne of Cleves in Lewes: an example of a Tudor house

At the time of his death, Gabriel had two adult children. His daughter Agnes was married to John Harman and they had two children, John and Elizabeth. Even if these children were still infants, it means that Agnes was probably at least in her early twenties at this time, so would have been born some time around 1530. As for Gabriel’s son Magnus, he is made executor of the will, so I assume he was of age, i.e. over twenty-one, and was therefore also born by the early 1530s at the latest. The fact that Magnus’ wife Alice and his daughter Agnes are not mentioned in the will suggests that he was not yet married when his father died. Similarly, the absence of any reference to Gabriel’s wife, and the fact that he leaves items belonging to her to his daughter Agnes leads one to conclude that she must have died before him.

If Gabriel’s two surviving children were born in the early 1530s, then he was probably married at around that time, meaning that he must have been born by about 1510. This fits with the approximate date of 1507 given for his birth in a number of online sources, though I’m not sure if there is any documentary evidence for that estimate.

This means that Gabriel Fowle was born either in the last years of the reign of Henry VI or in the early years of the reign of his son, Henry VIII. During Gabriel’s childhood and youth England was still a Catholic country, and there is evidence both from Gabriel’s will and from other documentation that the Fowles remained loyal to the traditional faith. When the crisis surrounding Henry’s divorce from Catharine of Aragon occurred in the early 1530s, with such explosive consequences for the future of the nation, Gabriel would have been a young man, probably (as we have seen) married with a young family. The precise connection between Gabriel and Bartholomew Fowle, the last prior of St Mary Overy, Southwark, is still not clear, but one imagines that, for family reasons if nothing else, Gabriel would have been profoundly out of sympathy with the dissolution of the monasteries and the other events set in train by the King during that momentous decade.

Queen Mary (died 1558)

Queen Mary (died 1558)

By the time Henry VIII died in 1549 and Edward VI came to the throne, Gabriel Fowle was a middle-aged man. Edward’s reign, though brief, would have been a difficult time for the Fowle family, as the Catholic Mass was now made illegal and the Protestant prayerbook imposed on parish churches. Then, in 1553, two years before Gabriel’s death, Mary Tudor became queen and England reverted to Catholicism. Although Mary’s reign, and the restoration of the old faith, was also brief (Mary died in 1558), there would have been no inkling of this in January 1554/5, when Gabriel made his will. Hence his openness and confidence in leaving his ‘written masse book’ to his local parish church in Southover, Lewes and in bequeathing money for the upkeep of the high altar in Ringmer church. Gabriel’s traditional Catholic faith is shown in his request for ten priests to ‘say masse for my soulle & all crysten soules’, though there is perhaps a sense that times have changed in the qualifying phrase, ‘yf they can be gott’.  (As I’ve noted before, the infamous burning of Protestant ‘heretics’ took place in Lewes, as in other locations, in the very year of Gabriel Fowle’s death, but we have no way of knowing what he thought of this aspect of Queen Mary’s religious restoration.)

One priest in whom Gabriel clearly had faith was Dunstan Sawyer, the vicar of Ringmer, the village to the east of Lewes where he owned land, who is appointed as one of the overseers of the will. Sawyer was the incumbent at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer, from 1544, in the closing years of Henry VIII’s reign, until he resigned in 1555, the year of Gabriel Fowle’s death. During those ten years Dunstan Sawyer would have had to negotiate a bewildering series of liturgical and theological changes of direction, hiding away or selling off images and ornaments during Edward’s reign and reinstalling them under Mary, rather like Christopher Trychay, the vicar of Morebath in Eamon Duffy’s revealing study of a west-country parish during this period. We don’t know why Sawyer resigned, or what his religious opinions were, but Gabriel Fowle’s trust in him surely means that he was of the traditionalist rather than the reforming party. Interesting, Sawyer’s replacement at Ringmer, Andrew Puggesley (he would serve there until his death in 1560) was one of the witnesses to Gabriel’s will. At the time the will was made, Puggesley was still curate at St. Michael’s, Southover, which had been without a rector since 1551.

View of the church of St Michael, Lewes (via

View of the church of St Michael, Lewes (via

I haven’t been able to find out anything about Nicholas Aptoff or Aptoft of Ringmer Green, the other overseer appointed by Gabriel, though in the fourteenth century someone of that name was mentioned in a transaction concerning lands in Ringmer and Glynde, and a seventeenth-century document refers to a property in Ringmer ‘called Potters, formerly of Nicholas Aptoff, gent., dec’d’ .

As far as the other people mentioned in the will are concerned, I wonder if John Fitzherbert was related to the Henry Fitzherbert who would witness the will of Gabriel Fowle’s son-in-law, John Harman, half a century later? A few years after Gabriel’s death, a certain John Aptofte, executor of the will of Henry Fitzherbert of Ringmer, would be named as the defendant in a court case. As for Edward Pelham, he probably belonged to the noted Lewes family of that name, who owned property in the parish of St Michael. I’ve yet to find any trace in the records of Jane Bryan, the ‘old servant’ to whom Gabriel was so generous in his will.

There is no clue in his will, as far as I can see (unless it’s in some of the names I’ve yet to trace), as to Gabriel Fowle’s supposed position as master of the Free Grammar School in Lewes. The only source I have for this information so far is Renshaw’s book on the Byne family, which makes no reference to any contemporary evidence. For now, perhaps the only point in favour of this theory is that it would explain why Gabriel, whose family owned lands on the borders of Kent and Sussex, should be living in Southover, where the school was situated.

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