- Simon Walker
Abberbury family (per. c. 1270–c. 1475), gentry, of Donnington, Berkshire, was for several generations a highly successful family. The rise and decline of the Abberburys is typical of the volatility of the fortunes of many later medieval gentry families. Established as early as 1208 as one of the leading freeholding families in the north Oxfordshire village of Adderbury, they owed their initial rise from the ranks of the substantial peasantry to Master Thomas [i] Abberbury (d. 1307). An Oxford graduate and ecclesiastical lawyer, Master Thomas already held a benefice in 1269 and pursued a successful career in the diocesan administration of York before transferring to the service of Edward I's notorious minister, Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. As the bishop's agent in his many questionable land transactions, Master Thomas used his position to acquire two substantial groups of properties, one located around his birthplace in north Oxfordshire, the other at Donnington, near Newbury, Berkshire. On Thomas's death both groups of estates passed to his brother, Walter Abberbury (d. in or before 1316), who further consolidated the north Oxfordshire lands of the family, and then to Walter's son, Sir Richard [i] Abberbury (d. 1334). Richard Abberbury, elected MP for Oxfordshire in October 1328 and appointed as sheriff for Oxfordshire and Berkshire in 1333–4, was the first lay member of the family to achieve some local prominence, but after his death a series of minorities and a reorganization of the family lands, which settled some of the Oxfordshire properties on a cadet branch, reduced the Abberburys' prominence once more. Following the death of Sir John Abberbury (c. 1316–1346), Richard's son, at the siege of Calais, the family estates were eventually inherited by John's nephew, Sir Richard [ii] Abberbury (c. 1330–1399). It was his ability and success, in war and at court, that firmly established the Abberburys as one of the leading gentry families of the Thames valley.
Sir Richard was a follower of Edward, the Black Prince. His service with the prince at Nájera and in the principality of Aquitaine, where he acted as seneschal of the Limousin, was rewarded with the grant of a retaining fee of £40 p.a. and appointment as 'first master' to the prince's son and heir, Richard of Bordeaux. When the young Richard became prince of Wales in 1376, Sir Richard acted as his chief steward of lands and, following the prince's accession to the throne, Abberbury was immediately appointed a knight of the new king's chamber. Apart from a brief spell of disfavour in 1387–8, when he was removed from the royal household by the lords appellant, Sir Richard remained active at court throughout Richard II's reign: a chamber knight until 1387, he also acted as chamberlain to Anne of Bohemia, the king's first wife, and as chief of her council until her death. Such service brought him a substantial income in grants and annuities—amounting to over £200 p.a., to add to the yield of his own estates, which was perhaps £150 p.a.—and allowed Sir Richard to acquire several new manors in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, with the result that by the 1390s the Abberburys were among the largest landowners in an area notably lacking in resident magnates. Nowhere was this new prominence more forcibly stated than at Donnington itself, where Sir Richard built a comfortable but still defensible castle, established and endowed a dependent priory of the Crutched Friars, and founded an almshouse for thirteen of his indigent tenants.
From his marriage to Agnes, a younger daughter of Sir William Shareshull, Sir Richard had four children, two sons and two daughters, all of whom made solid matches among the local gentry. His sons, Sir Richard [iii] Abberbury (d. 1416) and Thomas [ii] Abberbury (d. 1416), followed their father into royal and princely service. Sir Richard the younger began his career in the service of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and rose to be chamberlain of the Lancastrian household during the duke's Castilian expedition. During the 1390s he gravitated towards the royal court, however, and was several times employed on diplomatic missions by Richard II, besides serving as knight of the shire for Berkshire in January 1394 and 1397. Thomas took longer to establish himself, but after a spell as an esquire of the royal household his future seemed secured by his appointment as master of the horse to Richard II's second wife, Isabella, in 1397. By the time of their father's death, early in 1399, a courtier dynasty seemed in prospect.
Yet the next few years brought the start of a swift decline in the fortunes of the Abberbury family. Thomas's career was cut short by the usurpation of Henry IV for, once Queen Isabella was returned to France in 1402, he was given no further employment at the Lancastrian court. The case of Sir Richard [iii] is more puzzling: he left England early in 1400 and seems subsequently to have returned only for the briefest stays. In 1408 he is described as 'on pilgrimage, beyond the great sea' (TNA: PRO, E 28/24/8); in 1415 he began to sell up his entire inheritance, disposing of some estates to his nephew, Sir Richard Arches, but selling the bulk of his lands to the rising star of local politics, Thomas Chaucer. Whether this change of life sprang from a fervent spirituality, political disgrace, or a principled unwillingness to serve a usurping king is unclear, but it is plain enough that the surviving members of the Abberbury family were unable to sustain their social position in the face of such a wholesale loss of influence and income. Richard [iv] Abberbury (d. after 1473), son of Thomas [ii], sought to rescue the situation in 1448 by re-entering the estates formerly granted to the Crutched Friars but his scheme, apparently instigated by William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, failed; by 1465 the Berkshire lands of the family were reduced to a single tenement in Newbury. For the cadet branch of the family in Oxfordshire, who had never risen so high, the experience of decline was less dramatic but hardly less inexorable: John Abberbury of Cotesford (d. after 1421), descended from a younger son of Walter (d. in or before 1316), had been MP for Oxfordshire in 1394 and 1397 and was still acquiring lands early in the fifteenth century. Yet, here too, a gradual liquidation of the Abberbury estates was soon in train; by the 1450s even the family's original free tenement at Adderbury was lost to them.
Though the Abberburys' rise and fall was replicated many times among the gentry families of later medieval England, their transformation from one of the leading families of Oxfordshire and Berkshire to modest burgesses of Newbury within a single generation was unusually rapid. What lay at the root of their change of fortune remains imponderable but their history encapsulates many of the opportunities and pitfalls the later medieval gentry were required to negotiate.
- TNA: PRO, C.133/26/8; C.135/37/20; C.135/81/4; CP 25(1)/189(14)/20, 46
- S. Walker, ‘Sir Richard Abberbury and his kinsmen: the rise and fall of a gentry family’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 34 (1990), 113–40
- muniments, New College, Oxford, 10347, 10354, 10370–10373, 14025, 14034–14036
- The diplomatic correspondence of Richard II, ed. E. Perroy, CS, 3rd ser., 48 (1933)
- F. N. Macnamara, ‘Donnington Castle and its ancient lords’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 4 (1898), 49–60
Wealth at Death
£150–£200 p.a. in c.1400: TNA: PRO, C 133/26/8; C 135/37/20; C 135/81/4