You are in [Themes] [Town and Manor] [The Case of the Missing Charters]


The previous article on the Origins of the Town and Manor, covering the period from Domesday to the mid 1500s, explains how the townspeople of Hungerford came to claim rights of the markets and fairs, herbage and pannage, and the rights of free fishing in the river Kennet, given by John of Gaunt in the late 1300s. By the mid 1500s, 200 years of "John of Gaunt" rights began to break down.

One of the most important milestones in Hungerford's history was "The Case of the Missing Charters", which began in 1565, and ended with the decision of a Duchy of Lancaster Inquiry in September 1573. It was a turning point in Hungerford's history, and led to a further 40 years of legal wrangle between the town and the Duchy before the sale of the Manor in 1612 and the Feoffment of 1617.

John Youll bought a mill stone at Southampton, 1565:

In 1565, John Youll (Youle, Yewle or Ewle), the tenant miller at the Queen's Mill (now Mill Hatch, 7a Bridge Street) travelled to Southampton to buy a new mill stone. After paying for it, he was asked to pay a toll for it, but he refused, saying that he dwelt in Hungerford which was free of all tolls by Charter of the Duke of Lancaster. (Jim Davis adds "By Royal Charter in 1267, the possessions of Edmund Earl of Lancaster were freed from a variety of dues - this extended to all the Earl's possessions, which included Hungerford. The inhabitants also had the Charter of John of Gaunt, which gave them similar rights in addition to the free fishing, or at least, so they said.)

Youll was one of the youngest burgesses, aged about 25 years at the time. Back home in Hungerford, at the next Hocktide Court in the spring of 1566, he stood up and related his experience at Southampton. He asked the assembled company if he had been correct. The ancient charter was produced from the Town Chest, but, unfortunately, no-one was able to read the text!

So the Constable, John Lovelake (Lovelack or Lovelocke), took them away to have them transcribed. It seems doubtful that the John of Gaunt Charter was ever seen again.

The town's dispute with Brian Gunter, 1568-9:

Three years later (1568-9), the officers of Hungerford had problems with the farmer at Hopgrass Farm, Brian Gunter, who, they alleged, had been illegally grazing stock on Freeman's Marsh – which was town land. When the matter couldn't be settled, they took the case to the Duchy Court.

This was very ill-judged. Only a Borough could act as a corporation and bring a legal action such as this. The effect of acting in this way brought the whole question of the town's status to the notice of the Duchy Court.

Photo Gallery:

088- town mill c1900
088- town mill c1900

The Town Mill, Bridge Street, c1900, run by John Youll in 1565

hopgrass may 1990-01
hopgrass may 1990-01

Hopgrass Farm from Freeman's Marsh, May 1990, farmed by Brian Gunter in 1568

town chest
town chest

The Town Chest or Coffer. An earlier chest played a key part in "The Case of the Missing Charters"

- The Town Mill, Bridge Street, c1900, run by John Youll in 1565.

- Hopgrass Farm from Freeman's Marsh, May 1990, farmed by Brian Gunter in 1568.

- The Town Chest or Coffer. An earlier chest played a key part in "The Case of the Missing Charters".

John Lovelake's property dispute, 1572:

In the autumn of 1572, the same John Lovelake, who had been Constable in 1565, was involved in a property dispute with Richard Mayle. This was a long time before banks provided vaults for the safe keeping of documents, and in the 16th century it was common for important deeds and documents to be kept in the Town Chest. The Town Chest in those days was actually a "little chest" with two locks, kept inside a larger chest with one lock. These keys were entrusted at each Hocktide Court to "one of the most ancient men of the said Towne, that hath been Constable". Any Burgess might have access to the chest, but only by order and in the presence of two witnesses, one of whom must be the Constable.

The John Lovelake was probably the man who some ten years before had taken bow and arrows to the "backside of the Church" when the right of fishery was disputed there by George Essex of Hopgrass. He was felt to be very worthy of trust and the Charter was handed over to him. Seven years later John Youll said in evidence that that was the last seen of the Charter.

Lovelake, although no longer Constable, clearly still had influence in the town, and he persuaded his daughter Agnes to go to Thomas Hamlin (or Hamlyn), the Keeper of the Keys, and obtained the keys to the Town Chest. A week later he also obtained the keys of the Town Hall.

Lovelake took the Coffer back to his own house in order to obtain documents relating to his property dispute - but he had no right to have the Chest at his house - and it seemed he was responsible for losing other documents.

The Duchy of Lancaster inquiry, January 1573:

In January 1573, the Surveyor of the Duchy lands held a special court to make enquiries about the local manor customs, particularly fishing rights. The main objective was simple: the Crown needed every source of income and would do its utmost to ensure that rights and revenues were not diverted elsewhere.

The townspeople needed to prove they were entitled to the fishery, but the necessary charters were missing, including the Simon de Montfort Charter and the John of Gaunt charter.

Other later Royal charters were still held, including:

- Richard II (1377-1399)
- Henry IV (1399-1413)
- Henry V (1413-1422)
- Henry VI (1422-1461)
- Henry VIII (dating from 1520) and
- Edward VI (from 1553)

But where were the earlier Charters? Had they been stolen? People remembered John Lovelake had taken some documents away, and it was alleged that, along with William Butler, he had "fraudulently disposed of them".

The problems determined at the January 1573 Inquiry led to an official complaint being filed in the Duchy Court in London. In turn this led to the even more significant Special Commission Inquiry of June-September 1573.

The Duchy of Lancaster Special Commission, June-September 1573:

A Special Commission was ordered to consider a complaint brought by Nicholas Passion and others against John Lovelake and William Butler; the charge was "embezzling and conveying" of charters and other documents. The Commissioners, Thomas Parry, Griffith Curteis, Anthony Bridges and John Tull, sat in Hungerford on 20th July and 11th September 1573. Statements were given by a number of people, from which the following is learned:

In 1572, John Lovelake was living in one of the two houses that had been left to the town c.1501 by a priest called Warnewell, along with 16 acres (or 12 acres) of land in Sanden Fee. The property had been put in trust under the terms of Warnewell's will, "one Whitmore and others of the Towne being feoffees". Some dispute seems to have arisen. Circa 1570 Thomas Lovelake, of Sonning Eye, and Thomas Gennyns had entered into a bond of £100 to Richard Mayle, the tenant of the other house, and others not to "vex or trouble" the town with reference to this property. This bond, and apparently other documents relating to the property, were deposited in the Town Chest. One was a copy of Warnewell's will.

Lovelake obtains the Town Chest:

About 15th October 1572, Lovelake asked his daughter Agnes to go to Thomas Hamlin (Hamlyn), the Keeper of the Keys, and obtain the keys to the Town Coffer, claiming her father had authority from William Butler, the Constable, and from Thomas Seymour, who was probably Port-reeve and was to be Constable the next year. Hamlin unsuspectingly handed over the keys. A week later, about 23rd October, Lovelake also obtained the keys of the Town Hall from William Beache, the caretaker "and withheld it from the said Beache by the space of two days and two nights".

Soon afterwards (Richard Mayle's statement said it was "about All-hallowtide" or 1st November) Lovelake met Richard Mayle, who is described as a broadweaver and "a very poor man". He invited Mayle to come back to his house where they would both see the deeds to their houses. That evening Lovelake and Mayle opened the small chest by candlelight, and examined various documents. Mayle had evidently seen the chest before and immediately noticed that three documents were missing. He asked Lovelake what had become of them, and Lovelake replied that they were in the custody of the Vicar.

This seems to have been a fabrication, for the Vicar, whose name was Edward Brouker (or Bronker), stated that he had called at Lovelake's house on 27th December, and "was greatly surprised to see the little box standing in his hall window". He had asked him how it came to be there and Lovelake had replied that it was "by consent of the masters of the town".

About 8th or 9th January 1573, Lovelake called on the Rev Andrew Skynner, Vicar of Kintbury, and produced from under his gown a linen bag (one witness said two bags). He produced some documents, "laid aside those as made for his purpose," and put the rest back in the bag again. He then asked the Vicar to decipher the documents he had reserved, telling him that Henry Edes, of Charnham Street, was trying to get his property from him, and that he wanted to secure his right to it.

Shortly afterwards he called at the vicarage again, and asked if he had accidentally left "the charters of Hungerford" there. The Vicar told him that he had seen nothing of them, on which Lovelake remarked that he had been afraid lest Skynner's maidservant might have given them to John Hall, the "farmer of the vicarage", to whom she was related. Lovelake put the same question to Hall himself, who is described as "of London" but was evidently a good deal at Kintbury, but Hall told him he knew nothing of them.

Duchy of Lancaster Court at Hungerford, January 1573:

A day or two after this the Surveyor of the South Part of the Duchy of Lancaster (South of the Trent), Edmund Twynho, held a court at Hungerford. He appears to have been very active in his duties and had reclaimed some land in Hungerford for the Crown that had been held back from the dissolution of the Chantries. He required the Jury to make presentments on "certain important matters". None of the witnesses mention the exact day, but one says it was "about Twelfth­tide." In the course of the proceedings the Surveyor asked to see the Town Charters. The Jury applied to Hamlin, the Keeper of the Keys, and learned from him to their surprise that he had given the keys to Lovelake. They immediately went to Lovelake's house, but found that he was not at home.

The Jury can't produce the documents: The jury were in a very awkward position. If they did not make their presentment that day they were liable to a fine of £2 each.

After some delay John Fawler (or Fowler), one of the jury, appears to have got round to some adjoining property and saw Lovelake "in his backside" - that is, his yard, or garden. Fawler demanded of him the keys of the Chest, and Lovelake answered, "You shall have them."

In the meanwhile the rest of the Jury had consulted the Vicar and learned that the Town Coffer was in Lovelake's house, which fact they "did greatly mislike". It would appear that the vicar and Fawler now entered the house and saw the little box. Lovelake was informed that it must be taken at once back to the Town Hall. This was done and Lovelake was told, "You have done more than was ever done before in the town."

The box was now opened and examined and it was found that some papers were missing. "They be all safe in the coffer", said Lovelake. "No, they are not". "Yes", said Lovelake "I will find them there", but after "searching and tumbling for a time, "he failed to do so".

John Fawler said, "We must not be dealt with like this - you had the box in which the Charters were wont to be in, standing on your table when master Vicar and I were at your house".

Lovelake then went home and returned with certain documents, but they were not the ones required. "They were all in the Coffer within this fortnight," said he, " and that I will depose; howbeit I will make better stir for them."

Four of the jury, Thomas Seymour, Nicholas Passion, John Fawler and Humphrey Allen, now went to the Constable, William Butler, and "required him in the Queen's name to have diligent search made" for the missing documents. Butler told them that it "was no part of his office," and added with suspicious readiness that he had never seen the charters himself. He sent, however, for Lovelake, and they "communed together on the matter."

The jury now had to return to the Surveyor, declined to make a presentment, and were presumably fined.

Anthony Hidden of Eddington, who was present, seems to have called Lovelake aside and expostulated with him. "You have not used yourself well," he said, "for it is said that you have conveyed the Charters and evidences of the Town and Church lands, the which you have in your keeping". Lovelake replied that two Charters touching the liberties of the town might have been "conveyed away by reason of the weakness of the house". Did he mean his own house, or the Town Hall, which had been presented some years before as " ruinus and utterly dekeyed"? As to the Church papers, he declared "I have them safe enough, but will not deliver them until the Jury have given their verdict, for I do suppose that they shoot at something of mine".

What documents were missing?

There was considerable discussion as to which papers were missing and a great measure of disagreement. Allegations of irregularities in the appointment of the Jury were also made. It is impossible to say what or how many documents were missing. None of the other witnesses mentions the "evidences of the church lands" of which Anthony Hidden speaks. The vicar refers to three :-

  1- A charter of Simon de Montfort, granting to the free inhabitants of Hungerford the right of herbage and pannage in Balteley Wood
  2- A grant by "one Brendnoll, knight," of his mead called Wydmaeshe (Woodmarsh) to the townsmen of Hungerford. This may have been the William de Britnole, or Bretegnol, who held Sandon Fee under Simon de Montfort in the reign of Henry III, or it may have been one of the same family.
  3- The Lovelake and Gennyns bond described above, which it would be to Lovelake's advantage to get hold of and destroy.

Richard Mayle says that more documents had disappeared since the three he missed at All­-hallowtide, but he only mentions the bond and a copy of Father Warnewell's will.

John Youll, however, says that the documents included two "under the Great Seal of England". These may have been the two which, as we shall see were afterwards restored, and may have been identical with the letters patent of Henry VI and Edward IV still among the borough documents.

It will be thus seen that at least seven documents are referred to by the various witnesses, without including the charter of John of Gaunt, which is evidently thought by John Youll, the only witness who mentions it, to have been abstracted by the same party some years before.

John Youll seems to have been the spokesman of the jury in refusing to make a presentment. This seems strange, seeing that he was not the foreman. But he himself declares that the foreman, John Burche, was of East Garston, four miles from Hungerford; the family seem to have lived at Maidencourt in that parish. Burche was in London, and another witness says that he had taken important documents with him.

Youll also makes the startling statement that Henry Edes, of Charnham Street, was appointed by the Surveyor to be one of the jury without being sworn, and that he actually took the place of the foreman in Burche's absence. It must be borne in mind that the proceedings in cases where the claims of the Crown were involved were notoriously corrupt and unjust at this period of our history, and the officials of the Duchy of Lancaster were evidently bent at this time upon destroying the special rights and privileges claimed by the town of Hungerford.

Youll goes on to assert that Edes would not come to an agreement with the other jurors upon various points, and that he endeavoured to persuade them to "make void" the lease of Richard Mayle's house, to misrepresent the value of the rental and other dues paid by Mayle and himself, and to report that Preys Close "with eleven acres of land thereto belonging" was his own freehold, whereas it was held of the Chantry land by Nicholas Passion.

The jury is served with write of Privy Seal, and have to attend in London: Not long after this, apparently about the beginning of February, a Royal Pursuivant arrived in Hungerford, and served the recalcitrant jurors with writs of Privy Seal. They had to go to London for several days, and Youll says that their expenses amounted altogether to £24. He says that Edes and Burche, who seem to have been acting in the interest of the Duchy, did not receive writs; but they appear to have gone to London like the others.

Most of the jurors put up at the White Hart Inn in the Strand, and on 10th February they were visited by Rev Skinner, of Kintbury, They now learned for the first time of Lovelake's suspicious visit to Kintbury Vicarage. Soon after this they were also visited by John Hall, who told them that not long before he had met Lovelake on Hungerford Common Port Down, when Hall asked him, "Are the charters of Hungerford found again?". Lovelake significantly answered "I have them safe enough!"

The jurors now saw how dishonest Lovelake had been, and were confirmed in their impression by the fact that Mayle had told them on 6th February of his visit to Lovelake's house, and that Beach, the caretaker of the Hall, had sent for some of them on his deathbed and explained to them how he came to let Lovelake have the keys.

The jury returns to Hungerford:

They were anxious to get back to Hungerford and call Lovelake to account, but it would appear that the Duchy authorities would not allow them to go without making a presentment; so on 11th February 1573, the day after their interview with the Vicar of Kintbury, they reluctantly did so, but it contained nothing definite about the loss of the Charters. Meanwhile they intimated to the Duchy officials their determination to proceed against Lovelake.

A contemporary copy of the presentment made under such trying circumstances is preserved among the town documents. It is a lengthy and interesting document. The boundaries of the various townships are given after the old form handed down from Roman or Saxon times, and it constitutes the principal authority for the ancient bounds to the present day.

There is also a very lengthy list of the Crown and manor tenants, and their respective quit-rents. There are other interesting particulars, but nothing bearing definitely on the circumstances under which the charters had been lost. The name of Henry Burche, the young East Garston farmer, who was only twenty-eight years of age, and whom the Duchy authorities seem to have employed as their tool, stands first as foreman. Then comes that of his ally Henry Edes, also a yeoman; John Fawler, a draper; John Mawkes, a husband­man, of Kintbury; Thomas Seymour, a yeoman (and Constable soon after); Robert Weighte (or Wayte), a cooper; John Youll; George Clidesdale (one of the Hiddens of Eddington); Richard Mytton, "shearman", or cloth-trimmer; Anthony Harvey, yeoman; Richard Curr, a husbandman or tenant-farmer, probably of Sanham Green; William Grove, glover; and John Dolman, innholder, complete the list.

Some charters are returned:

On 18th February 1573, after the jurors had returned home from London, the Constable summoned them to the Town Hall, and asked, "Have you any tidings of the Charters?". Lovelake and Butler were present. On receiving their negative reply, Lovelake said to Butler "Do you deliver them their Charters?". Butler then produced two documents and handed them to the jurors, who naturally asked how he came by them. "My wife found them," said Butler, " in a chest in my chamber that my apparel lieth in, but how they came there I know not." The jurors made it clear that they did not believe him and Butler added "I wish the ground may open and I may be an example to all men if I know aught thereof".

Some of the jurors and the Vicar now spoke to Mrs Butler. She admitted that she knew how the Charters came into the house, but would say nothing more. Since the Constable only returned two documents it was clear that several were still missing.

At Hocktide, early in April 1573, a Duchy Court was held in the Parish Church, as was often the custom. Butler was present, and reiterated his statement with regard to the documents. But the burgesses showed their opinion of the matter by electing as Constable Thomas Seymour, who had been a strenuous opponent of Butler's, and the name of Butler disappears from the list of Constables for over a hundred years.

The Duchy Inquiry, July-September 1573:

Nicholas Passion and the others who were acting on behalf of the Crown now joined Butler's name with that of Lovelake in their complaint. Commissioners were appointed, and an inquiry opened at Hungerford on 20th July 1573. The witnesses on both sides were interrogated in a manner which would seem extraordinary today. It was strange indeed that with the exception of George Lovelake, brother to John, none of the people who gave evidence belonged to Hungerford. Much of the evidence given was very vague and largely hearsay. but there is no record of anything like cross-examination.

Much of the proceedings seemed to concern the contents of the Town Chest. Edward Brouker, vicar of Hungerford, was called. He declared that "the deeds, charters (etc) of the borough hath been of long time put into one little chest with two locks (which was) placed in one great chest with one lock, that stood in the Town Hall. The keys were entrusted at each Hocktide Court to "one of the most auncient men of the said Towne, that hathe bene Constable." The key of the Town Hall was in the keeping of the man who had to ring the bell and wind up the clock. Any burgess might have access to the documents in the chest, but only by order and in the presence of two witnesses, of which the Constable must be one.

John Youll said "the small chest or coffer was "safe and sound with iron" and if the chest was to be opened it should be done in the presence of the Constable with at least three others."

It seems clear that Lovelake had taken the chest to his house to examine the contents privately, but no-one seemed sure of what documents should have been in there in the first place. The conflicting testimonies, hearsay and malicious back-biting must have been extremely tedious for the Commissioners.

On the first day the witnesses examined for the plaintiffs included the Vicars of Hungerford and Kintbury, John Hall and Richard Mayle. On the same day witnesses were also examined on behalf of the defendants; but it is most significant that with the exception of George Lovelake (the brother of John) not one of them belonged to the borough. They included Henry Edes, of Charnham Street; John Burche, of East Garston; Thomas Lovelake, of Sonning; and George Clidesdale, of Hidden.

Their evidence was of the vaguest description. The prosecution was instituted, they affirmed, by Nicholas Passion and the rest out of "mere malice." Edes said that he had seen the contents of the coffer in 1565 and again in 1571. There had never been more than two charters there. These were not only there now, but were read in the Court of Survey at the commencement of the year, and Passion, Seymour and others then admitted that they were the only ones they had. Burche and George Lovelake said that certain documents had been taken out at Whitsuntide the year before for consultation with regard to a fishery dispute with Brian Gunter, the tenant of Hopgrass. They had been safely redelivered. Clidesdale declared that the jury were hindered in making the presentment mainly by the absence in London of John Burche. The rest of the evidence consisted mainly of vague allegations of malice.

On 11th September further evidence was heard on behalf of the complainants. Mr Hidden, of Eddington, deposed to his interview with Lovelake on the day of the Court of Survey. John Youll gave his evidence at great length and in a singularly graphic and vivid style, but it must be admitted that it contained a larger proportion of hearsay than would be admitted at the present day. His hearsay, however, except on one or two minor points, was in exact accord with the direct evidence of other witnesses. We are indebted to, the straightforward narrative of the young miller for a very large portion of the statements made above; nine other jurors confirmed him.

The court decided against the plaintiffs on the following grounds:-

  -1 that the burgesses of Hungerford were not a "corporation sufficient" to plead in that court. If a charter of incorporation had been granted by John of Gaunt, there would have been clear evidence of it elsewhere. (Hungerfordians always said that the Duchy of Lancaster copy had been lost in the Savoy Palace fire during the Peasants' revolt of 1382).
  -2 that there had been no proof of the removal of any documents. (There was no proof that any earlier charters had existed, so no one could be charged with stealing them.)
  -3 That even supposing that documents were missing, there was no proof that the town had sustained loss by their absence, and that, therefore, the prosecution was vexatious.

Clearly, the main concern of the Duchy Court was to establish the status of the town - and to downgrade it if possible, so that in future the Duchy could regain payments forom markets, fairs and fishing. It seems impossible to regard this decision as in accordance with the weight of evidence. However, it must be admitted that there were weak points in the town case, especially in the fact that there was no schedule of the documents to be produced and that, perhaps because they were mostly in Latin or Norman French, the witnesses seem to have had the vaguest ideas as to their nature.

A further 40 years of legal wrangle:

However, this was not the end of the story by many means.

The result of this case was the signal for the officials of the Duchy to try to prove that the Town's claim to the Hocktide Court, the market, the fishery and the pasturage were encroachments upon the rights of the Crown.

Once it was evident that Hungerford was not a corporation, then other liberties and privileges looked less secure. The Duchy of Lancaster officials attempted to regain control of the fishery, or at least to get some payment for it – and prevent the apparent 'poaching'.

The residents of Hungerford, having enjoyed the profits of markets and fairs, and free fishing for generations, were not going to give up the benefits lightly. A 'battle royal' commenced! For the next 40 years or so, a succession of legal wrangles, inquiries, and surveys was carried out.

The story continues in "The James I Grant (1612) and the Feoffment, 1617".

Other papers on The Case of the Missing Charters":

For further information on "The Case of the Missing Charters" see

- "The Missing Charters of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, part of "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford"

"The Case of the Missing Charters" by Julie Shuttleworth, part of "Elizabethan Hungerford"

- W. H. Summers (in his "The Story of Hungerford")