Circumstantial evidence: proving the age of the Brokholes heiresses 1426-7

Michael Hicks discusses CIPM xxii.829-30, two proofs of age which bear on the legal dispute central to the Armburgh papers, one of the few surviving letter collections from medieval England.

Late medievalists knew of only  four significant letter collections – those of the Celys, Pastons, Plumptons and Stonors – until the publication in 1998 of the Armburgh correspondence. [1. The Armburgh Papers. The Brokholes Inheritance in Warwickshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, c.1417 - c.1453, ed. Christine Carpenter (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1998).] Like the others, this focused on a major lawsuit, this time for the widely scattered but not particularly valuable Brokhole inheritance. The coheiresses of Sir Geoffrey Brokhole and his widow Ellen (d. 1419) were their daughters Joan, wife in turn of Thomas Aspall and Robert Armburgh, and Margery, wife of John Sumpter senior. Ellen Brokhole died in 1419. Margery, her husband, and in 1420 their son John Sumpter junior were all dead. If that had terminated Margery's line, her sister Joan would become sole heiress to the whole estate. [2. Ibid. 4-6.] Actually however Margery left two young daughters Christine and Ellen Sumpter, whose existence was a surprise to her sister Joan. The Armburghs contested their claim. The Armburghs conceded that John and Margery had indeed begotten a Christine and an Ellen, but both had died. [3. Ibid.183] The Christine and the Ellen alive in 1420, they alleged, were too young to be children of John and Margery Sumpter. They were actually bastards of John Sumpter, a notorious philanderer, and therefore ineligible to inherit. [4. Ibid. 63, 183.] The Armburghs sought repeatedly to discredit them, without success. The modern editor Professor Christine Carpenter set the dispute in the context of politics both at the centre and in the localities that favoured the case of the girls, and sided therefore with Armburgh, [5. Ibid. 6-9] but unfortunately all contemporary jurors backed the Sumpters and so therefore did the present writer as reviewer. [6. Review in English Historical Review cxiv (1999), 1297.] In Robert Armburgh's favour, let it be said, the IPM of their brother John Sumpter in 1420 gave their ages as fifteen and fourteen, [7. CIPM  xxii.538-9.] whereas Christine's proof dated her birth to 13 August 1411 and Ellen's to 21 March 1413, discrepancies of six years. The witnesses to their baptisms however confidently proved their legitimate births and age in 1426-7.

Both girls were born in Colchester, where their father apparently had a house in 1411: it is not recorded in his IPM. He was apparently lodging in Colchester in 1414. [8. CIPM  xxii.53, 829, 830. Unless otherwise stated, these are the sources for what follows.] As Christine  and Ellen had an elder brother John, they were not heiresses at birth. On their father's death John, Christine, and Ellen were  placed in the custody of John Leventhorp and Robert Darcy, [9. CFR 1413-22, 204] who strangely had not arranged their marriages before their ages were proved. Perhaps the insubstantial nature of their expectations or their dubious legitimacy reduced their eligibility? Their godparents were local: in Christine's case, John Pod, Christine wife of Thomas Goderston, and Mary wife of Simon Fordham;  Ellen's godparents were William Colchester, Prior of  St Botolph's Priory in Colchester, her maternal grandmother Ellen wife of Sir Geoffrey Brokholes, and Joan wife of William Pod.

Christine was born at Colchester on the night of 12/13 August 1411 and was christened on 13th in the church of St Mary on the Wall by the rector John Cannon. Twelve witnesses aged between 40 and 51 testified. Only William Skilman was among the multitude actually attending the ceremony or the reception afterwards at the Sumpter's house. Robert Podney, a parishioner, was actually in church attending mass at a side altar. The other witnesses are less impressive. Although not actually present at Margery Sumpter's labour- men never were at childbirths! – William Saunder heard her screams and was told next morning of Christine's birth by his wife Joan (who presumably was in attendance). Parnell Hovard told her husband William, who testified in 1426, that she had been in the church for another errand and had witnessed the christening.  Two other witnesses that day attended funerals in other Colchester churchyards. William Bardolf buried his wife Hawise in the churchyard of St Nicholas' church and Richard Willey his son William at St Botolph's churchyard. Thomas Mildwell  dined with John and Margery Sumpter on the day of her churching, 14 September, not the regulation forty days from the birth. The other depositions are even less precise. Thus Robert Stalam married his wife Christine in another church on 23 April 1411, Alice stepdaughter of Robert Fuller married Robert Slade of Colchester on 29 June 1411, Thomas Granger weaver leased Whitears tenement from Whitsun 1411, and John Fordam apprenticed his son John to a London mercer on 3 June 1411, all before Christine's baptism on 13 August that year. That John Cook was macebearer to the bailiffs of Colchester that year, leaving office at Michaelmas 1411, fixed the approximate date, although he did not testify to anything about the birth or baptism.

Ellen was born in Colchester on 21 March 1413 and was baptised at St Botolph's Priory.  Again neither the godparents nor anybody attending the christening testified. That day at St Botolph's Edmund Packard buried his son Edmund, but the other events cited - John Falcon's burial at Colne  and the sealing of  an apprenticeship indenture and two conveyances of property in Colchester, took place elsewhere than in the church. John Star was arrested on 10 April under a writ to appear in court at Westminster. No doubt the deeds and writ could be produced as stated, but they did not relate directly to the birth or baptism of Ellen.  Three witnesses remembered the great storm of 9 April 1413 that destroyed the North Bridge and King's Mill. Thomas Colchester and Richard Pack were terrified and John Goss scavenged stones from the bridge in company with his master John Wiley, one of the receivers of Colchester,  yet all this happened three weeks after the christening which they did not claim to have observed. Their testimony is however the best surviving evidence for the storm. Even more vaguely John Sander recalls that his apprentice John brought merchandise that day from Flanders via Orwell haven.   John Mendham attended Margery Sumpter's churching on 13 April 1413, again well within the prescribed 40 days.

Two witnesses, Thomas Grainger and William Bardolf, featured in both proofs. The weaver Grainger buried his wife on the day of Christine's baptism and apprenticed John Beld on the day of Ellen's. William Bardolf apprenticed his son to a London mercer on the first occasion and married his wife Joan on the second, neither in Colchester. The two apprenticeships surely generated documentary evidence. These coincidences are not too far-fetched to be believed.

If these were the best witnesses in Colchester that could be found for baptisms only fifteen and fourteen years earlier, perhaps Robert Armburgh had a point in his doubts about their validity. Neither the priest, parish clerk, godparents, nor many of the guests or others in the church testified to what supposedly happened. Of course priests never did.  On the other hand, these two daughters had an elder brother at birth and were not born heiresses. There was no pressing reason to document their births, especially as,  if legitimate, nobody could have foreseen Armburgh's accusations of bastardy and the need therefore to prove their legitimacy. Nor was their inheritance particularly large. Even if Carpenter is correct that undue influence was exercised on the Sumpter side, there are no grounds in the proofs themselves for discounting them. If they were indeed fraudulent, surely determined fraudsters could have done better than this. The witnesses did not claim to have seen what they had not. And however fictional the memories, the proofs served their purpose in the lawsuits that followed.