A tale of two Thomases: Thomas Felton, seneschal of Aquitaine, and Thomas Hoccleve, clerk of the privy seal office and poet .


By Philip Morgan

One of the frustrations of the project is the fact that we very rarely get the chance to see the documents behind the Gascon Rolls, so that what we have is an echo of the reality of life, both in the duchy and what’s going on at Westminster. That’s been one of the things that’s exercised me in the project. There seemed to me to be two cases, one very small, one a bit more significant, that are of interest in this context.

One of them is looking at the collapse of the principality after 1369 and looking particularly at the career of Thomas Felton, the seneschal of Aquitaine from 1364 to 1377, who of course went the whole gambit from being successful seneschal to being himself captured and ransomed later on in his career. As seneschal, he features on the Gascon Rolls when he is appointed, and we also have a sense of the retinue of about 300 men that accompanied him to that expedition.

There is, rather unusually, the surviving negotiations between his auditor, a man called Sir John Tilley and some of the members of his retinue, which included, you’ll not be surprised to learn, a group of Cheshire archers and men, particularly a member of the Leicester family of Tabley. We also have the indenture between John Leicester and Felton’s auditors for the contribution that Leicester made to that retinue of the seneschal. This material is rather interesting since it reveals the sub-payments, and so the nature of the companies that Leicester’s sub-retinue was made up of. All of this is dealt with at Southampton, so that’s where the audit takes place: this is Leicester not arriving back from Gascony but going again to the duchy at some point. And it’s just one phrase in the document that seemed to me to say a lot about the context that’s missing from the Gascon Rolls, and that is for the agreement of the auditor, which this document records. At the end after the dating clause we read ‘For which pardon the said John has given to the same lady of Felton’ (i.e. Thomas Felton’s wife), ‘a white horse’. So in order to have the audit completed, there’s been a little exchange of a bribe, in this case a horse.

This reminded me about some of the other opportunities that we’ve had but not been able to follow up yet, about documents that link to other documents. The most significant is the degree to which, or the way in which, most of the enrolments which we find on the Gascon Rolls have at some stage gone through the Privy Seal office at Westminster before being enrolled in chancery and appearing on the Gascon Rolls themselves. The warrants are very familiar source for military service because the National Archives C 81 class has been used by those trying to reconstruct military service. The Privy Seal clerks themselves, that is, the people who are responsible for sending the warrants out, include people who are interesting to other people, to other historians and literary scholars, whereas in the Gascon rolls project we are mostly concerned with the nature of the administration.

The most interesting of these men is the poet, Thomas Hoccleve, who serves as a Privy Seal clerk in the last quarter of the 14th century and at the beginning of the 15th century, and who interestingly had a formulary book compiled, British Library Additional manuscript 24062.This is of considerable interest to literary scholars who’ve been looking for the handwriting of the poet Hoccleve. The formulary book is not all in Hoccleve’s hand, but it’s an office copy for use in the Privy Seal office, which Hoccleve has commissioned.

Characters like Hoccleve have a day job, which is working in the royal administration, and their hobby is their poetic output. One assumes they are not paid for their poetry, and they are paid rather badly for their Privy Seal work as well!

Hoccleve’s formulary book contains a section on the forms of instrument to be used in enrolments on the Gascon Rolls. We find a section of protections, another on letters, and a section on the Gascon Rolls. So we have a quite interesting group of, as it where, the original letters which went through the Privy Seal office which it would be possible to compare with their final enrolments on the Gascon Rolls. Although Hoccleve’s formulary book is well known to literary scholars, it is less well known to historians. It presents an opportunity in terms of what would be called data linkage between different sources, and stands as a future research possibility that comes out of what we’ve been able to do on the project.

In the small number of entries in Hoccleve’s formulary that we have been able to compare with the Gascon Rolls, they’re not entirely the same, but of course this is not uncommon in formularies. The idea was to provide models for scribes to do, and it was customary for them to disguise the source by making some changes. However, Hoccleve does include in his formulary some real documents in full - the challenge of Louis, duke of Orleans to Henry IV, for instance. He also has a section on enrolments for the Chester chancery which are also going through the Privy Seal office, at a time of course when the king is also the earl of Chester. So that’s why Hoccleve is seeing them as opposed to it being the earl of Chester’s administration. And those two can be compared to the originals in TNA Class CHES 2.

Who wrote the Gascon rolls then? Probably clerks of the third and fourth grade.

They do not seem to be Gascons since they have some difficulty with Gascon place names.

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