The Cressy family and Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench

In 1483, Matthew CRESSY & his wife Anne took several parties to court asking for rights that Anne was due to her as the granddaughter of Sir John FORTESCUE, Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in 15th Century England. However, there is no mention of Anne on any of the family trees of Sir John Fortescue. So how was Anne Cressy and the wider Cressy family related to one of the most influential legal minds in the late Middle Ages and what were the family connections of Anne Cressy?

Sir John FORTESCUE (~1394-1479)

Sir John FORTESCUE was born ~1394 and it is assumed he was born at Norreys in the parish of North Huish in Devon. He was the second son of Sir John FORTESCUE senior (who was a local nobleman who would become a soldier in France in the 1420s) and Eleanor NORREYS, daughter and heiress of William NORREYS from whom the house called ‘Norreys’ came into the possession of John senior and Eleanor. They also had a son Henry FORTESCUE who would in the fullness of time become Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland.

Sir John Fortescue was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, and returned as MP for Tavistock, Totnes and Plympton Earle in the 1420s. He was elevated to Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1441, a role which he held until 1460. He married about 1422 to Isabella JAMYS, the daughter and heiress of John JAMYS. They had three children who survived to adulthood: Martin, Maud and Elizabeth (Fig 1). Martin died in 1472, before his father, and hence Sir John’s eldest surviving male heir was his grandson, John Fortescue.

Fortescue was at the centre of the political wrangling associated with the Wars of the Roses in the 1460s and 1470s. He lost his position on the King’s Bench for his support for Lancastrian King Henry VI when Yorkist Edward IV ascended to the throne in 1461. Rather than take up arms in the support of Henry in the War of the Roses, Fortescue took up the pen, making reasoned and logical arguments in favour of Henry’s claim in a series of pamphlets, which damaged support for Edward IV. When Lancastrian support collapsed after the death of Henry in 1471, Fortescue submitted to the Yorkists. It is indicative of Fortescue’s influence that he was not simply executed (as Edward had with other intransigent enemies), but rather coerced him into rewriting his earlier statements about Edward’s claim to the throne.

After appeasing Edward IV, Fortescue went into retirement, investing his energies into rebuilding his manor house in Ebrington. He died there in December 1479 and was buried in Ebrington church in Gloucestershire; his monument is visible there today. Fortescue is remembered for the way he codified the interplay of Crown and State, replacing an ad hoc relationship (driven largely by the competing wills of King and Nobility) with a logical agreed structure underpinned by tenets of good governance. Several modern legal principles can be traced to Fortescue, including that “one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death, than that one innocent person should be condemned, and suffer capitally“. It is argued that Fortescue was one of the most influential people in constitutional law, not only in England, but also, following English influence globally, many of the legal systems in the world.

Matthew CRESSY (~1432-1501)

Matthew Cressy’s birth can be determined from his mother Alice’s will in 1433 (Archdeaconry Court of St Albans) in which she mentioned her son Matthew and daughters Isobel and Elizabeth. Matthew died in 1501, suggesting he was an infant at the time of his mother’s death. Matthew married around 1465 Joan, the daughter of Edmond PERYENT of Digswell in Hertfordshire. They had a son Edmond born around 1475 (named after his grandfather), but unfortunately Joan died 29 Jan 1478, whilst Edmond was still an infant.

Matthew married a second wife, Anne, around 1480. From 1483, he & Anne appear in a series of equity suits alongside co-complainants Reginald LEIGH & Mary his wife and Anne and Mary are described as the granddaughters of Sir John Fortescue. They appear to be claiming bequests made to them by their grandfather Sir John Fortescue in his will in 1479. There are several cases and the defendants include a) Sir Henry VERNON of Haddon Hall, b) another Sir John Fortescue (1460-1503, the son of Martin Fortescue, who was Sir John Fortescue’s eldest son) and c) William WAYNFLETE, Bishop of Winchester and his servant Thomas DANVERS.

The bills of complaint and the answers fill in the details about the few years after John Fortescue’s death. The documents explain that Fortescue’s will (which has been lost but which was proven by the Bishop of Winchester) bequeathed interests in Ebrington Manor to his two granddaughters Mary and Anne in trust to be released on their marriage. Ebrington was a substantial manor house with lands where Sir John had lived. With these bequests, Mary and Anne were significant heiresses and they were married within a few years (i.e. 1481 or 1482) to Reginald LEIGH and Matthew CRESSY respectively. Since their bequests were still in trust, the daughters were probably not yet adult (i.e. >25), putting their dates of birth no earlier than 1460. Very soon after their marriages (i.e. in 1483 or 1484), Anne and Mary sought their bequests, asking their husbands to act on their behalf. They claimed first against the Bishop of Winchester and his servants in the probate office, who had proved Sir John Fortescue’s will. A few years later (1490) the sisters started claims against Sir John FORTESCUE (1460-1503) the younger, grandson of Sir John FORTESCUE (~1397-1479), for a debt of £10 which corresponds to a suit for assault against John KYTE and Richard HYGONS who were servants on the manor of Ebrington. Some years later (~1495), the sisters also made a claim against Sir Henry VERNON for lands in Derbyshire.

The final decrees from the suits has not been found (many were settled out of court) but, as we shall see, in later years, Matthew & Anne CRESSY and Reginald & Mary LEIGH held title to the lands in Calver and Bakewell, indicating that at least that half of their inheritance was released to them. The interests in Ebrington are less easy to trace, but again it is likely that a settlement was arrived at.

Who were Mary and Anne’s parents?

Fortunately the records allow us to identify the parents of the two heiresses. A key clue is the monumental brass in Harpenden to Matthew CRESSY and his two wives. The brass was regrettably destroyed during refurbishment of Harpenden church in Victorian times, but we are fortunate that the inscription was recorded by Sir Henry Chauncy, who published it in 1826. Chauncy stated that Matthew had married Joan PERYENT who was the daughter of Edmond PERYENT and Anne his wife, who was the daughter of Sir Thomas VERNON. However, although the author recorded the inscription accurately, he mistranslated the Latin and subsequent references have repeated the error. The inscription actually records that Matthew had wives: Joan, who was the daughter of Sir Edmond PERYENT, and Anne who was the daughter of Sir Thomas VERNON. Matthew married twice and the inscription records both wives.

Orate pro animabus Mathei CRESSY et Joannæ uxoris eius quondam filiæ Edmundi PERYENT Armig et Annæ dicti Mathei uxoris et quondam filiæ Thomæ VERNON armigeri quæ Joannæ obiij 29 Novemb. 1478.

Pray for the souls of Matthew CRESSY and Joan his wife once the daughter of Edmund PERYENT knight and Anne the wife of the said Matthew and once the daughter of Thomas VERNON knight, and which Joan died 29 November 1478.

From Chauncy Antiquities of Hertfordshire (1826) Vol 2 p 436. (but with my translation)

Hence this inscription tells us that Anne is the daughter of Sir Thomas VERNON. This is confirmed by a deed at Derbyshire Records Office which describes land “which came to Maria [LEIGH] as inheritance after death of Thomas Vernon esquire her father“. Furthermore, Sir Henry VERNON, one of the defendants in the suits initiated by Matthew & Anne CRESSY and Reginald & Mary LEIGH, was Thomas Vernon’s nephew.

So what is the link to Sir John FORTESCUE? Sir John had three children: a son Martin and daughters Elizabeth and Maud. The history of the Fortescue family records that Elizabeth married Edward WHALESBURGH and Maud married Robert CORBETT. Either Thomas Vernon married one of Elizabeth or Maud, or there is another daughter about whom we do not know. Fortunately this can be resolved since in 1456, there is a fine to Thomas WHALESBURGH and Maud his wife, with a remainder to Elizabeth, once the wife of Edward WHALESBURGH but now the wife of Thomas VERNON. Hence it was Elizabeth Fortescue, Sir John’s younger daughter, who married first Edward WHALESBURGH and then Sir Thomas VERNON, with the published histories recording only her first husband. From this we conclude that Mary and Anne are the daughters of Thomas Vernon and Elizabeth Fortescue.

The information shows that in 1480, Mary and Anne were exceptionally wealthy, well-connected heiresses. Not only were they the granddaughters of Sir John FORTESCUE, but also the daughters of Sir Thomas VERNON, and hence granddaughters of Sir Richard VERNON MP (~1390-1451), who had been Speaker of the House of Commons and one of the most influential landowners in Shropshire. They had bequests in trust from both sides of their family: Thomas VERNON was given the manor of Calver by his father soon after being born and this land was held in trust by the Vernon family when Thomas died and his daughters were still minors. It explains the equity suits against Sir Henry Vernon, the Fortescue family, the Bishop of Winchester (who had proved Sir John Fortescue’s will) and the actions against John Fortescue (1460-1503).

Figure 1: Family Tree of CRESSY, LEIGH, FORTESCUE and VERNON. Parties involved in equity suits described in the article are outlined in red.

It is less clear whether the granddaughters obtained their fair share of their interest in Ebrington Manor. In later years, the manor was held exclusively by John Fortescue (1460-1503), which hints that Anne and Mary lost their claim. However, a more likely outcome is that John came to a financial settlement with his cousins for which they passed their interests to him. The action for assault and debt is consistent with an agreement being brokered, and then John Fortescue (1460-1503) being slow to pay. Anne and Mary appear to have focussed John’s mind on payment by sending servants to the manor to seize their share of the rents from manor.

Both Anne CRESSY and Mary LEIGH went on to have families of their own. Anne’s eldest son, William CRESSY, became a significant land-owner in Harpenden, and we infer she had at least another son Thomas CRESSY and a daughter Alice. However, because Anne was Matthew’s second wife, the eldest son Edmond (who mother was Joan PERYENT) was Matthew’s primary heir and Edmond went on to own the manor house at Rothamstead. Matthew CRESSY died in 1501, after which Anne married for a second time to Oliver BUKBERD and thirdly to Thomas TRUST. She died in Harpenden in 1517 with a will proved 10 years later in 1527. Mary had a son William LEIGH, but Reginald LEIGH died around 1507 and afterwards Mary married Thomas LING (~1511, see below for these references). She died before the equity suit described below in 1533.

In 1533, the family found itself in the equity courts again. William LEIGH complained against his cousin William CRESSY, stating that lands that had been put in trust for him on the death of his father Reginald LEIGH were being misappropriated. The documents state that Reginald’s lands were taken into trust by a Ralph LEIGH (William’s uncle?) and William CRESSY. In ~1530, when William LEIGH tried to take control of his lands, he found that his family had wrapped up his inheritance as securities in loans and sales between his guardians Ralph LEIGH and William CRESSY. In his answer, Cressy claimed that these contracts between the guardians had been created to secure Leigh’s inheritance against possible misuse by the Crown, rather than to frustrate his inheritance. The dispute appears to have resolved since William LEIGH took possession of the lands in Calver and elsewhere in Derbyshire that had passed from his great-grandfather Sir Richard Vernon to his grandfather Sir Thomas Vernon’s and then to his mother Mary LEIGH (see deeds below). At this point, William Cressy passed his interests in Calver and Bakewell (that came via inheritance from his mother Anne) to his cousin William LEIGH, ending the Cressy family’s ownership of the lands described in the equity suits in the 1490s.

A Note on the Sources

Most of the sources are in the National Archives in London and many have been copied for open use by the Anglo-American Legal Tradition project and are available on the net. However some can only been seen in London. The indexes of feet of fines have been systematically completed by These project websites are being continually updated with new material and are worth rechecking regularly. Some of the references come from Derbyshire Records Office and part of their collection of deeds from Calver.

Reference: C1/65/234, 235 Plaintiffs: Matthew Cressy and Anne, his wife; and Reynold Legh and Mary, his wife, grand-daughters of John Fortescu, knight. Defendants: William [de Waynflete], bishop of Winchester, Thomas Frowyk, knight, Thomas Davers, and Thomas Lymeryk. Subject: Legacies out of the issues of the manor of Ebryghton [Ebrington]. Gloucestershire. 2 documents. Date: 1483-1485. Images here of 234 and 235.

Reference: C1/124/53 Plaintiffs: Matthew Cressy and Anne, his wife, granddaughter of Sir John Fortescu, knight. Defendants: John Kyte and Richard Hygons. Subject: Assault on complainants’ servants, poundbreach, and rescue of a distress for rent in the manor of Ebrington, Gloucestershire. 2 documents. Date: 1486-1493, or 1504-1515 [most likely ~1490 to coincide with the following]. Image here.

Reference: CP40/931/561d Plaintiffs: Matthew Cressy, Gent., and Anne his wife. Defendant: John Fortescue, Gent., of Dartington, Devon, son and heir of Martin Fortescue, Gent. regarding a debt of £10. Date: 1490.

Reference: C1/196/39 Plaintiffs: Matthew Cressy and Anne, his wife, and Reynold Leigh and Marie, his wife. Defendants: Sir Henry Vernon, knight. Subject: Detention of deeds relating to thirty-eight messuages and land in Monyash, Chelmorton, and Calver. Derbyshire. Date: 1493-1500. Image here.

Reference: C1/846/27-28 Plaintiffs: William Leygh of Eggynton (i.e. Eckington ?), esquire. Defendants: William Cressy, gentleman. Subject: Detention of deeds relating to the manor of Calver, and messuages and land there and in Bakewell, fraudulently conveyed to Ralph Leche, his guardian, instead of to himself. Derbyshire. 1533-1538.

Deeds at the Derbyshire Records Office:

Reference: D7676/Bag C/1197 Title: Grant. Description: Thomas Lynford, esquire, to Sir Richard Vernon and John atte Borgh. Manor of Calver, in trust for Thomas Vernon, son of Sir Richard. Calfore. Date: 22 Sep 1423

Reference: D5236/6/24 Title: Bargain and sale. Description: Grant by Maria Legh widow of Reginald Legh late of Blakebroke esquire to Richard Vernon senior, John Tunsted, John Shalcross, Thomas Bagshawe and Ralph Bagshawe gents of all manors, messuages, lands and tenements etc in demesne of Calver, Chelmerton and Monyasshe which came to Maria as inheritance after death of Thomas Vernon esquire her father. Witnesses: John Frances, John Blount Gents, Thomas Walker, William Bradburne, Roger [-] Wler and many others. Date: 24 Oct 24 Hen VII [1508].

Reference: D5236/8/16 Description: Bond in £100 by Mary Legh of Burton super Trent widow and Thomas Lyng of Burton “yeoman” to Robert Legh yeoman [Mary’s son] to comply with indentures of same date. Date: 12 Oct 24 Hen VII [1508].

Reference: D5236/6/25 Description: Quitclaim by Thomas Lyng of Burton on Trent (Staffordshire) gentleman and [Maria] his wife to William Legh’ of Eggynton’ esquire concerning property in [Calver], signed at Burton. Date: [24] Jun [?3] Hen [VIII] [?1511]

Reference: D7676/Bag C/1205 Title: Quitclaim. Description: William Cressy, gentleman, to William Legh, esquire, and Rowland Shakerley, citizen and mercer of London. The manor of Calver or Calfore, and a moiety of the messuages, meadows, etc. therein, recently bought from Cressy. Date: 14 Apr 1543.

Reference: D7676/Bag C/1207 Title: Bargain and sale. Description: William Legh, esquire, and William Cressy, gentleman, to Rouland Shakerley, citizen and mercer of London. Manor of Calver, with the land, rents, etc., now in the tenure of Stevyn Matteley and Richard Matteley. Date: 28 Jan 1543.

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