(Note that there are numerous spellings of Wellesbourne's name)
When, in February 1538, Henry VIII’s ministers dissolved Abingdon Abbey, they realised that they would need a representative resident in the town. The man they chose was the courtier John Wellesbourne, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, in which role he was a close companion and intimate body servant of the king.
Wellesbourne was a Buckinghamshire man, born in or about 1498. In the early 1530s a connection with Abingdon was established through his brother Oliver who worked as a bailiff on abbey estates in the region and who had married an Abingdon woman, Joan Humfrey. John Wellesbourne was mentioned as a friend of the abbot. The brothers jointly held property at Culham.
On his arrival at the time of the dissolution, Wellesbourne had first to oversee the demolition of the abbey buildings and to help the ex-abbot and his senior monks settle into retirement at Cumnor. But his function thereafter was essentially that of an estate steward: he had to maintain and if possible to improve the property, and he had to deal appropriately with the tenants for whom he was the direct representative of the landlord. The property included the town of Abingdon, the neighbouring manors, and the river both up- and downstream of Abingdon with rights to fishing and fowling. The tenants included the populations of Abingdon and the outlying villages. The landlord, of course, was now the king. Wellesbourne’s position in the king’s Privy Chamber added legitimacy to his representative role.
Wellesbourne’s duties as a steward do not seem to have been too onerous. His way of safeguarding the property was to take leases on much of it in his own name; this especially concerned the river, fisheries and mills. He made use of Oliver who found his bailiff functions expanding greatly and was referred to as ‘the king’s friend’. As the king’s representative, John Wellesbourne kept open house in the way that feudal lords had been expected to do. One of the criticisms of the monasteries was that they no longer practised the tradition of indiscriminate hospitality, although this was becoming generally obsolete. Wellesbourne provided daily six or eight ‘messes’ – tables for four people – which cost him £7 a week. He could report to Thomas Cromwell that ‘the town and country say they were never better contented than now’, and added ‘they have cause’.
It is not clear how much time Wellesbourne actually spent in Abingdon; he sat in the parliament of 1539-40, he had his own estates at Mixbury and Fulwell in Oxfordshire to look after, and in his correspondence continually pleads to return to his duties in the Chamber. In 1544, the king planned an invasion of France and Wellesbourne answered the call for soldiers, raising a force of 80 billmen and 20 archers. Many richer men did no more. His reward was to be knighted by the king before the walls of Boulogne.
Henry VIII died in November 1547 and his Chamber was dissolved. Wellesbourne seems already to have been ill, and died in the following April.
In 1546, Wellesbourne had made what seems to have been a shotgun marriage to a local woman, Elizabeth Lawrence of Fulwell, who was within two months of giving birth to their first child, John. A second son, Edward, followed within a year. There was also an illegitimate son, Arthur, apparently a few years older, whom Elizabeth was enjoined in her husband’s will to bring up and educate.
John Wellesbourne comes over in his correspondence and in the details of his career as a well-meaning, amiable, but unimaginative man. He was necessarily a personage of some significance in Abingdon in the years after 1538, but it is not obvious that he did anything of importance for the development of the town and the benefit of its inhabitants. Under his stewardship, the fulling mills, on which he had a lease, fell into disrepair. An effort by a Burford businessman to set up a clothing manufacture came to nothing, and a few years after his death the buildings of the town were said to be dilapidated. But these were matters on which he had no training, aptitude, or instructions from his superiors. The best that can be said of him is that, as far as can be known, he was an honest steward who refrained from asset-stripping and left scope for the more beneficial activities of men like William Blacknall and Roger Amyce in the next generation.
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