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The Tesdale family

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The Tesdale family

(see long history)

The history of Abingdon before the twentieth century is largely a story of family dynasties which rose and declined, cooperated with or opposed each other, and often intermarried. The Tesdales were among the most important of these.A John Tesdale came ‘from the north’ at some time in the later fifteenth century. His son, also John, became a monk at Abingdon Abbey and rose to be prior by the time of its dissolution in 1538. He was also master of the Abbey’s school, which survived the dissolution and from which the present Abingdon School is directly descended.

A significant fact about the Tesdales is that they settled at the manor of Fitzharris, which was on the boundary of Abingdon and, arguably, looked as much outward to the county as inward to the town. The most notable family member, Thomas (1547-1610), showed early promise when he started a successful malting business at Fitzharris as a teenager. He was twice elected to be mayor though he never actually served. But he spent a large part of his career as an unusually entrepreneurial farmer at Glympton in Oxfordshire where he made his fortune by growing and processing woad, an expensive dyestuff which mostly came from France. That fortune was largely expended after his death for the benefit of his native town. Part of it went to Abingdon School – now refounded by the munificence of John Roysse – developing the scheme to provide scholarships for poor Abingdon boys, the ‘Bennett boys’ from the name of his step-uncle who originated it, and providing the means to employ a second schoolmaster to teach them. And, perhaps even more important, a large sum went towards the foundation of Pembroke College in Oxford which was to be where Abingdon School leavers would go to train for the ministry. Thomas Tesdale’s wealth and connections led to him moving in exalted circles – his trustees included a future archbishop, a judge who was of the Bennett family, and the head of an Oxford college.

After Thomas Tesdale’s departure from Abingdon, several cousins became active in local affairs, to be followed as time passed by their sons. This coincided with a period of conflict both in the Corporation and in Christ’s Hospital as family factions strove for control of their lucrative endowments. The Tesdales were hampered in this by their adherence to Puritan principles in religion at a time when these were not acceptable among the national authorities. Whenever there was a flareup of hostility in the local political arena, appeals went to the Privy Council or to the Court of Chancery which most often ruled against the Tesdales and their friends.

By the 1630s, the Tesdales had lost their position in Christ’s Hospital although they remained influential in the Corporation and in St Helen’s Church. There continued to be Tesdale mayors until after the Civil War. But after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Puritanism was proscribed, and any further public activities were out of the question. Tesdales were frequently fined for attending unlawful assemblies, and in 1671 Tesdale boys were expelled from Abingdon School. Tesdales remained in Abingdon until well into the next century and seem to have prospered, but they were never again represented in its ruling bodies.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2018


(see short history)

The Tesdales were one of the three great families who were prominent in the history and development of the town of Abingdon, roughly contemporaneous with the Mayotts and earlier than the Tomkins.[1] Their most notable member was Thomas (III) (1547-1610), aggressive and entrepreneurial, who became very rich and spent much of his life away from Abingdon. Nonetheless, he was a great benefactor of the town, leaving funds to the benefit of Abingdon School and its pupils. He was also instrumental in the foundation of Pembroke College, Oxford, which would preferentially accept Abingdon students. Other members of the family were very active in local politics, usually at the centre of a faction that united pursuit of profit with Puritan principles in religion. This ensured that after the establishment of a Church of England hegemony in the 1660s they would be excluded from public office and, although Tesdales are noted in Abingdon until well into the eighteenth century, they would not again enjoy their earlier prominence.


Members of the Tesdale family mentioned in this article.

Source: See Footnote 1





A John Tesdale came to Abingdon at an unknown date ‘from the north’. At some time before 1496 his eldest son, John (II), was a monk at Abingdon Abbey taking the name of Clyffe. John (II) was prior at the time of the dissolution and died two years later in 1540. From 1504 until his death he was master of the Abbey’s school which survived the dissolution and of which the present Abingdon School is a direct descendant.

John (II) had a younger brother Thomas (I) whose guardian he was after their father’s death. Thomas (I) was brought up at West Hanney but migrated to Abingdon as a young man, settling at the manor of Fitzharris, then an Abbey property, in about 1506. Fitzharris, on the north-east boundary of Abingdon, was a much bigger estate than it is today, with multiple dwellings and extensive farmlands, some of them detached and scattered.[2] The family was obviously already well to do. It was Thomas (I) who became the progenitor of the various cousinages which would make their mark on the town.

Thomas (II) was his second son, born in about 1507. He was educated by his uncle Clyffe at the Abbey school, and is named as one of the contractors who carted away re-usable stone when the Abbey buildings were demolished in 1538.[3] His first wife Cecilia (or Cicely) and five of their six children died in the epidemic of 1545. He remarried twice, having two children with his second wife Joan Knapp who also brought him six children from her two former marriages, and two with the former Agnes Bennett, who provided a further ten stepchildren. This was not imprudence on Thomas’s part; both the widows were wealthy. One of the Bennett stepsons, Richard, would marry the surviving child of Thomas (II) and Cecilia and their progeny would later work closely with Thomas (III).[4] Thomas (II) became a governor of Christ’s Hospital in 1554; he was only the second person to be elected to that body after the initial group who had been named in its charter the year before.[5] He died in 1556.

A younger brother, Richard (1516-1602), is usually described as a saddler, but was linked with the entrepreneurial Blacknalls, leasing the Abbey Mills and taking a licence from them to run a fishing business in the Thames upstream of Abingdon. He was accused with William Blacknall in 1570 of leading a sort of punitive expedition against the villagers of Radley who had blocked off one of his fishing grounds.[6] He also became a governor of the Hospital and was master in 1590.

Thomas (III) was the son of Thomas (II) and his second wife, Joan Knapp. After his father’s death he was brought up by his uncle Richard and his step-brother, the Richard Bennett mentioned above. He was a senior pupil at Abingdon School in 1563 when it was re-founded by John Roysse. Obviously a precocious youth, he developed a malting business based at Fitzharris while still a teenager and married in 1567 at the unusually early age of twenty. His bride was a young widow, Maud Little née Stone, originally from Henley. There were three children all of whom died young, and the fact that they were baptised and buried at St Helen’s rather than St Nicolas’ is taken by A E Preston as early evidence of the Puritan orientation that the Tesdales as a family would later show. St Nicolas’, no doubt mindful of its origin as an Abbey church, was always more traditional in its religious orientation.[7]

We can read something of Thomas (III)’s character in an incident of 1571. Also living at Fitzharris was Richard Smith, whose father, also Richard, had been a servant of Queen Elizabeth and remained closely connected to the Earl of Leicester, High Steward of Abingdon.[8] A dispute had arisen between two county families, the Norreys of Rycote and the Untons of Wadley, near Faringdon, over the parliamentary representation of Berkshire. This led to a serious affray in the Abingdon market place between supporters of the two sides. One Norreys follower was killed and several seriously injured. Most of the thirty-three men named as aggressors were Unton tenants, but two Abingdon participants were Richard Smith and Thomas Tesdale. Although it is not clear from the records, Smith and Tesdale were most likely fighting on the Norreys side, which had the support of Leicester. Smith was not indicted – no doubt he benefitted from high level protection – but Tesdale was. In the end, all those involved were formally pardoned.[9]

Thomas (III)’s participation in this premeditated violence is all the more surprising in that he was already a solid citizen of the town, making a career in its government. He had become a secondary burgess in 1569 and was bailiff in 1571 and again in 1574. In 1577 he became a governor of the Hospital and was master in 1580. In the same year, he became a principal burgess – a full member of the Corporation – and was selected to be mayor in the next year.

By then, however, he had moved away from Abingdon.

Like other chartered towns, Abingdon had no mechanism for a freeman to avoid taking on an office to which he had been duly elected. The Corporation sent its town clerk to consult a leading lawyer. Tesdale was let off on payment of a fine of 40 shillings, half of which had to be spent on the lawyer’s fee. He was nonetheless elected mayor again in 1586, and again had to pay a fine. The Corporation noted ‘sufficient causes with some other secrets to us known’ to discharge him, but he remained on the burgess list for several years after.[10]

It is often stated that Thomas (III) first moved from Abingdon to a place called Ludwell near Kidlington and then moved again to Glympton, but this is probably an error.[11] Ludwell was a hamlet near Kiddington not Kidlington and within or close to Glympton, three miles from Woodstock. By 1586 he was leasing the manor at Glympton. He was not content with traditional agriculture. According to Francis Little, a younger contemporary, ‘he traded in sowing and making of woad … and was held to be the greatest dealer therein that was in the whole realm; whereby … he attained to a great estate’.[12] Glympton, on the River Glyme, was particularly suitable for woad-growing, and that may have been why he chose it. Production of woad, the standard blue dye of the time, was expanding in England as the traditional French suppliers were hampered by the religious wars in that country. The industry could be profitable, but needed serious amounts of capital for milling and fermentation equipment and a large skilled workforce.[13] Thomas (III) might have reached the status of a landed gentleman, but was not giving up his entrepreneurial activities.

How did Thomas amass his capital? It probably came from an unusual series of transactions shortly before he left Abingdon. As A E Preston describes it, his lease at Fitzharris would run out about 1603, but the Corporation granted him a further lease of seventy years to begin at that date. He would have to pay the rent, starting immediately. The Corporation then agreed that he could transfer the lease to the Bostock family. We don’t have all the details, but the presumption is that the Bostocks got the Fitzharris lease, Thomas got a large lump sum from the Bostocks, and the Corporation got their extra rent paid year by year by Thomas out of the profit he would make from the money. The Corporation or the Bostocks or, most likely, both of them became stakeholders in Thomas’s business activities. In spite of his personal absence from Abingdon, Thomas’s continued connection with the town was assured. It does seem that everyone was happy. Both Thomas and Lionel Bostock presented the Corporation with silver objects to a weight of 20 ounces in gratitude for their consent and goodwill.[14]

Thomas now also began to use his wealth to further his own brand of Protestantism. The rector of Glympton was not an enthusiastic preacher, and Thomas financed weekly ‘lectures’ – unofficial sermons – that were given by eminent Oxford academics whom he paid at the generous rate of £20 per year. It does seem that he was beginning to make an entry into academic circles.[15]

It was by his legacies – he had no living progeny to provide for – that Thomas (III)  assured his place in the history of Abingdon and especially in that of Abingdon School.[16] Working with his Bennett cousins who had endowed a fund to finance six poor boys at the school, he added the means to employ an ‘usher’ who would be responsible for teaching them and also act as general assistant to the headmaster. The ‘Bennett boys’ in their distinctive black cassocks would long be a familiar sight in Abingdon and, at least in their later years, formed a distinct stratum within the school, destined more for apprenticeship into artisan trades than for professional or mercantile careers. The Bennett endowment was merged with the school’s general funds only in 1870, with the move from the town centre to its present site in Albert Park. [17]






Alabaster monument to Thomas and Maud Tesdale in Glympton Church

Photo by Motacilla; Used under Creative Commons licence.






More significant were the funds Thomas left to enable boys from the school to study for the ministry. He gave to the care of his ‘trusty friends’ George Abbot, Bishop of London and future archbishop; his kinsman Sir John Bennett, a judge in the ecclesiastical court of Canterbury; and Henry Airay, Provost of Queen’s College in Oxford the sum of £5000 for the perpetual maintenance of thirteen scholars from Abingdon School. Six of these were by preference to be of the poorer members of his own family and the remaining seven to be chosen by preference from among the Bennett scholars.

There would be many complications and delays, but the legacy, augmented by a gift from Richard Wightwick, rector of East Ilsley, would result in 1624 in the foundation of Pembroke College in Oxford which still exists and honours Thomas (III) and Wightwick as its co-founders.[18]

After the departure from Abingdon of Thomas (III), other members of his family achieved prominence and, indeed, notoriety. Those who remained included his uncle, Richard, and three cousins who were sons of another uncle, John (III) (c. 1505-78.) Two of these, Anthony (1539-1610) and Christopher (1541-1631) would enter Abingdon politics in the 1580s and, throughout their careers, be at the centre of the factional conflicts that split the town’s ruling élite.

In December 1585, there was a spat among the governors of Christ’s Hospital which resulted in the master at the time, Lionel Bostock, dismissing his kinsman Anthony Bostock for alleged misdemeanours. Richard was a governor, and Anthony Tesdale was brought in to replace Anthony Bostock. Christopher became a governor soon after. It would later be alleged that the whole matter had been engineered by the Tesdales and that Anthony Bostock had been innocent of the charges against him. The Tesdale brothers were now heads of a faction.[19]  They were soon being accused of irregular sales of Hospital property.[20]

In 1598, with Francis Little, effectively the head of the opposing faction, away attending Parliament as Abingdon’s representative, the Tesdales made their attempt to take control both of the Corporation and the Hospital. Lawrence Stevenson, a Tesdale son-in-law, seems to have acted as their agent and fixer; he was accused of offering £10 bribes to Corporation members and Hospital governors for their votes in elections. Corporation members who were not already Hospital governors were offered entry to that exclusive group. The incentive, at least as alleged by the Little faction, was to profit from access to Hospital and Corporation property.[21]

The Corporation and the Hospital were both effectively colonised by Tesdale family members and their allies, but when Little returned it was he who triumphed. He appealed to Chancery and to the Privy Council and got their support. One of the lesser members of the Tesdale party was dismissed.[22]

But the factionalism continued, flaring up at intervals. In 1614, Christopher Tesdale, newly installed as mayor, called a full meeting of the Common Council, including both principal and secondary burgesses. Three of the secondary burgesses were dismissed. At another meeting on the following day seven new ones were elected. It seems that the meetings were irregular and the first one was attended by only fourteen members when there should have been thirty for a quorum.[23] Unfortunately, we know nothing of the background to these events nor of the outcome of the dispute that ensued.

In 1628, the Corporation, with three Tesdales among its members, dismissed the Recorder of Abingdon, Charles Holloway and replaced him with Thomas Tesdale (IV), a son of Anthony.[24] This was serious, since by a tradition dating back to the time of John Mason in the previous century the Hospital’s auditor and the town’s recorder should have been the same man with a single salary for both functions. The case, along with other current points at issue, went to the Privy Council which commented pointedly on the troubling factionalism in Abingdon but failed to impose a resolution. Holloway continued to serve the Hospital and Tesdale the Corporation until the latter’s death in 1632.

The rules set up by Thomas (III) for selection of Bennett boys left it uncertain whether preference should be given to Tesdales who were not poor or to other boys who were. In 1633 there were no Tesdales among the Christ’s Hospital governors, and it was they who administered the Bennett scheme. John (IV) and Joshua Tesdale, sons of Christopher, sued the Hospital to have their sons made Bennett scholars. The Court of Chancery ruled against them; the plaintiffs ‘were men of competent estate to maintain and educate their children themselves’.[25] To an outsider, this might have seemed simply a collusive action to settle an ambiguity, but it was not. Throughout the period, children of other leading Abingdon families who were represented among the governors −  Mayotts, Littles, Lees, Paynes − were being accepted as Bennett scholars apparently without question.[26] Access to the Bennett scholarships had become a perquisite of office from which the Tesdales were excluded.

The factional struggle had by now become incorporated into the wider religious conflict of the time. The Tesdales supported an extreme Puritan vicar, Edward Roode, who arrived at St Helen’s in 1624. In 1627, with Joshua Tesdale one of the churchwardens, an attempt was made to take down the chancel screen, disapproved of by Puritans. The attempt was frustrated, and those involved were fined two shillings each.[27] Joshua Tesdale ceased to sign as a churchwarden, and was probably dismissed from the function. Roode himself was dismissed in 1629 after another appeal to the Privy Council.[28]

After his death Thomas Tesdale (IV) was replaced as recorder by Bulstrode Whitelocke who was connected by marriage to the Tesdale family.[29] In 1634, the mayoral election resulted in a tie between Benjamin Tesdale, another of Christopher’s sons, and John Mayott, a leader of the opposing party. Whitelocke declared for Tesdale, and Mayott complained to the Privy Council on the grounds that Tesdale and his friends were Puritans who failed to observe the prescribed church rituals. Whitelocke was summoned before the Privy Council to explain himself.[30]

It was Joshua Tesdale, now a Corporation member, who persuaded Bulstrode Whitelocke to stand for Abingdon at the parliamentary election of April 1640. He was defeated by the local magnate Sir George Stonehouse who ran an effective campaign with much treating of his supporters. In the following year, it was Joshua who was mayor as the Civil War began in earnest, and had to cope with the entry of a large Royalist garrison. John (IV) became mayor in 1648. The outcome of the second phase of the Civil War was still in doubt, and other Corporation members had accepted being fined rather than occupy that exposed position. John (IV) was faced with all the problems of an exhausted and impoverished town, and with a hyperactive County Committee set up by the parliamentary authorities imposing purges and trying to collect taxes.[31]  He himself was obliged to take on county-wide tax-gathering responsibilities in 1650 and 1652.[32]

The Tesdales, however, were now in decline. Their influence in the Hospital had ended with Christopher Tesdale, who had died in 1631. John (IV) was the last Tesdale mayor. After the Restoration Tesdales figure repeatedly among the religious dissenters prosecuted under the Clarendon Code that gave a religious monopoly to the established church, and three Tesdale boys were expelled from Abingdon School for their nonconformity in 1671.[33] At least one Tesdale family, that of Master Joseph, mercer and shopkeeper, a grandson of John (IV), survived and prospered into the eighteenth century. But they were never again active in Abingdon politics or government.

A comparison of the Tesdales with their competitors, the Mayott family, is instructive. Both divided into cousinages with differing fortunes; both had individual members who became very wealthy and moved in elevated, but different, social circles. The Tesdales in the sixteenth century had Thomas (III) who could count bishops and heads of colleges as his friends; Robert Mayott a hundred years later was a trusted friend and political agent for the Earl of Clarendon, Viceroy of Ireland and brother-in-law to the king. As far as we can determine average wealth of the more modest family members from tax lists −‘subsidies’ before the Restoration and hearth taxes after it −they were comparable.[34] Elias Ashmole, considering Abingdon in 1665, noted three Mayotts and one Tesdale as meeting his criteria for gentility.[35]

The great difference between the families was their participation in the governance of the town. Both had first appeared in Abingdon at about the same time, late in the fifteenth century, but they took up distinct positions in local society. John Tesdale became a monk; his relatives settled at Fitzharris, an Abbey property. Roger Mayott, by contrast, lived in the centre of town though he also farmed in the outskirts; he was a tenant of the Holy Cross guild. His immediate descendants became prominent in the guild. Thus it was that in the 1550s when the town acquired its first charters, Richard Mayott made the step from being a master of the guild to a governor of Christ’s Hospital and followed this by becoming the first mayor of Abingdon after its incorporation. The Tesdales were not part of this development. Fitzharris had links with the county rather than the town - hence the involvement of Thomas (III) and young Richard Smith in the murderous affray of 1571 − and with the Earl of Leicester, who was Lord Lieutenant of the county as well as High Steward of the town, and who used it as a convenient pied-à-terre for any of his supporters who needed one in the vicinity.[36] It was probably the earl’s influence, rather than that of Thomas (III) away at Glympton, that was responsible for the intense Puritanism of the later Tesdales.

It is not surprising, therefore, that all accounts of the factional strife in later 16th and early 17th century Abingdon portray the Tesdale faction as the outsiders, trying to beat, or at least join, the established élite at their profitable games. Their success was never more than partial. No Tesdale was a master of Christ’s Hospital after 1607, although Mayott names occur twelve times between then and 1659. Between 1556 and 1660, there were fourteen Mayott mayoralties versus only eight Tesdale ones, not counting the two occasions when Thomas (III) was abortively elected. It was the Mayotts and their friends whose traditional stance in religion allowed them to appeal when necessary to the Privy Council with a good prospect of success and who had the contacts that produced similar outcomes in the Court of Chancery. Neither family remained prominent in the political life of the town after the Restoration, but for the religiously orthodox Mayotts this was a matter of choice while the Puritan Tesdales were excluded - and suffered financially - for their beliefs.

Both Thomas Tesdale (I) and Roger Mayott made their independent decisions about 1500 on where in Abingdon they would live and what they would do for a living. Neither can have imagined the effect that those decisions would have on their descendants as much as a hundred and fifty years later.


See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2018




[1] Genealogical information in this article is taken from tables in Douglas Macleane, History of Pembroke College (Oxford Historical Society, 1897), unnumbered pull-out pages. A much less comprehensive table in A E Preston, St Nicholas Abingdon and other papers (Oxford, 1929) differs significantly from this. The correctness of the data is thus open to question.

[2] A E Preston, St Nicholas Abingdon and other papers (Oxford, 1929), pp 402, 427, 433 and fold-out Fig. 4.

[3] Preston, St Nicholas, p. 413.

[4] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 413-415, 435.

[5] C D Cobham (ed), A Monument of Christian Munificence (Oxford, 1873), p. 104.

[6] The National Archives, STAC 5/S76/26

[7] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 420-3

[8] Preston, St Nicholas, p 428 fn 1; (accessed 5 June 2018).

[9] Manfred Brod, ‘The Abingdon affray of 1571’ in pp 9-10 (accessed 5 June 2018); Calendar of Patent Rolls 1569-72, p. 479; National Archives STAC 5/N10/11; STAC 5/N16/38; (accessed 21 July 2018).

[10] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 425-3

[11] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 433-5; Victoria County History Oxfordshire Vol 11 (1983), on Glympton, pp 120-131.

[12] C D Cobham (ed), A Monument of Christian Munificence (Oxford, 1873), p. 69

[13] Anon, ‘The Woad plant and its dye: A review’, Scottish Geographical Magazine vol 47 no 5 (1931), pp 276-283; Joan Thirsk, H.P.R. Finberg (eds), The agrarian history of England and Wales (1967-2000), Vol 5.2 p. 538; Vol 4 p. 17.

[14] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 432-3. Each gift will have been worth very roughly £1 15s, or 7 weeks’ work for an artisan.

[15] C D Cobham (ed), A Monument, p. 69: VCH Oxfordshire on Glympton, Vol 11, pp 120-131.

[16] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 434-44

[17] Nigel Hammond, A Record of the Tesdale Ushers & Bennett Scholars 1609-1870: A school within a school? (Self-published, 2004), especially p. 4 and the lithograph on p.8.

[19] Agnes C Baker, Historic Abingdon, Parliamentary History (Abingdon, 1963) p. 55.

[20] Abingdon, Christ’s Hospital Calendar of Deeds Vol, 2, Deed 920.

[21] Reading, Berks Record Office, A/AZ 3; Christ’s Hospital Archives 1034/14A-C, /17, /23.

[22] Mieneke Cox, Peace and War: the story of Abingdon 1556-1702 (Abingdon, 1993), pp 29, 37; Berks Record Office, D/EP7/84.

[23] Berks Record Office, A/Az 3.

[24] Manfred Brod, Abingdon in Context (Peterborough, 2010), p. 69.

[25] Griffith-Boscawen, Endowed Charities (County of Berks); Parishes of Abingdon St Helen and Abingdon St Nicholas (Charity Commission, 1908), p.18; Hammond, A Record, p. 31.

[26] Hammond, A Record, p. 39.

[27] Abingdon, St Helen’s Churchwardens accounts Vol 2 p. 43.

[28] Brod, Abingdon in Context, p. 65.

[29] Brod, Abingdon in Context, p. 69; Acts of the Privy Council July 1628-April 1629 p. 226 Item 651 9 Nov 1628; Berks Record Office, D/EP 7/71.

[30] Cox, Peace and War, p. 81; Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (1853) Vol  I p. 56; Ruth Spalding (ed), The Diary of Bustrode Whitelocke 1605-1675, (1990), p. 92, Berks RO, D/EP7 118 fo.33; Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1634-5, p. 217.

[31] Brod, Abingdon in Context, p. 99.

[32] C H Firth and R S Rait, Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum (1911) Vol ii pp 461, 657.

[33] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 119, 121, 127-8.

[34] The National Archives, E 179/75.

[35] Adrian Ailes - personal communication based on Ashmole notebooks in the National Archives.

[36] Preston, St Nicholas, pp 425-7.

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