Saints and Sinners – The Finches, the Abbot of Colchester and the English Reformation

There are few families that can show that they are related to a saint. A selection of papers I recently found in the National Archives show that our family – the Finches of Redbourn – were related to the Abbot of Colchester, who resisted the English reformation and paid for it with his life. Subsequently, the Abbot was canonised for his support for Catholicism against King Henry.

The Decree Roll of 1552 which contains the ruling in the case of Locke versus Clare

What are the Documents?

The documents are an equity suit – a dispute in court where one party claims redress against another – and the case was heard in late 1552 or early 1553. The case was brought by John LOCKE who was claiming ownership of the manor of Brightlingsea in Essex. The manor had been – prior to the dissolution of the monasteries – part of the lands of the Abbey of St John the Baptist in Colchester. However another man – John CLARE – also had a deed that stated he had ownership of the same land. The Court of Chancery was asked to decide which claim was valid.

The story that the documents outline is as follows. In 1538, Henry VIII was pressing ahead with the break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Although many churchmen of the time acquiesced – however great their personal misgivings – a vociferous few refused to recognise Henry’s authority. Prominent among these was John BECHE, the Abbot of Colchester. He had been a continual thorn in Henry’s side by vigorously opposing the break with Rome. When Henry sent emissaries to demand the keys to the Abbey, John BECHE replied he would give in “but against my will and against my heart for I know by my learning that he cannot take it by right or law; wherefore in my conscience I cannot be content”. As a result, Henry decided to make an example of the troublesome Abbot and towards the end of 1538, it was clear that the game was up. Henry forced the dissolution of the Abbey and seized its lands; John himself was accused of treason for which the penalty was death. However, John BECHE tried one last attempt to foil Henry’s seizure of the Abbey lands. He quickly drew up a series of deeds, selling all the Abbey’s lands at knock-down prices to trusted folk that he felt would return the lands after (as he expected) the break with Rome was reversed. And therefore John BECHE sold the Abbey’s manor of Brightlingsea to ‘his near kinsman’ John FINCH, the son of John FINCH of Redbourn in the Co Herts deceased. But Henry was wise to this ploy and so he retrospectively nullified all deeds actioned by the Abbey that had taken place up to one year prior to dissolution. So as John BECHE sold the Abbey’s lands, he dated the sale one year earlier than that date on which it had actually taken place. This meant that John FINCH of Redbourn held what appeared to be a valid deed for the ownership of the manor of Brightlingsea.

20171129_164008 detail
Detail of the decree roll mentioning ‘the said John FFYNCHE the sonne

It appears that John kept the deed quietly in a safe place and did not draw attention to its existence. In the interim, John BECHE was captured, tried for treason and hanged, drawn and quartered on the 1st Sep 1539. Henry seized the Abbey’s lands and passed the manor of Brightlingsea to a John LOCKE as a ‘pension’, possibly meaning a payment for his involvement in the dissolution of the Abbey.

13 years later, in 1552, John FINCH died intestate and without children. His brother Nicholas (from whom I am descended) inherited the deed and sold it to John CLARE who owned several other manors in the vicinity. It was then that the existence of competing title deeds were recognised. Locke’s grant from Henry appeared valid but so too did Clare’s which predated Henry’s dissolution of the monastery and nominally bore a date prior to the period over which Henry had nullified the Abbey’s land transactions. John LOCKE took John CLARE to court, asking the court of Chancery in London to decide in his favour and outlining the irregular way in which the bond had been drawn up.

The notes made at the time record that the court doubted the validity of Finch’s bond suspicious of the fact that Finch was the Abbot’s ‘near kinsman’. They asked Clare to provide better proof that the date on the grant was valid, which he was unable to do. The court therefore issued a decree (which survives) deciding the case in Locke’s favour. The court also required that Clare’s deed be brought to the court so that it could be destroyed.

How were the Abbot and John Finch related?

We know from other documents that John and Nicholas FINCH were the sons of John Finch of Redbourn. John the father married Elizabeth BECHE about 1505 and their children were born over a period of 20 years. It is almost certain that the Abbot, John BECHE, was closely related to Elizabeth. The youngest son of John and Elizabeth FINCH, Alban, was born as a posthumous child in 1524, after the father John had died (his will is 1524). If Elizabeth BECHE was giving birth to Alban after ~20 years of marriage, she was probably about 40 years old when her youngest child was born and about 20 when she was married. This puts her date of birth to be ~1485.

It is estimated that Abbot John BECHE was about 60 when he was executed in 1539. This puts his date of birth ~1480. We can therefore suppose that John and Elizabeth BECHE were brother and sister, and therefore that John and Nicholas FINCH were the Abbot’s nephews.

Abbot John BECHE’s Legacy

John BECHE’s refusal to give in to Henry was widely respected. His pectoral cross, apparently worn when he was executed, was subsequently revered and is now held at Buckfast Abbey. He was made a Catholic Saint in 1895.

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