Life as a Tudor gent: the 16th-century diary of Humphrey Newton

History tells us much about the lives of the people who ruled in the 1500s, but what of those further down the social scale? Deborah Youngs examines a rare personal notebook from one of the lesser gentry.

This article was first published in the May 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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In St Bartholomew’s church, Wilmslow (Cheshire) lie the tombs of Humphrey Newton (1466–1536) and his wife Ellen (d1536). Tucked away in niches in the north chapel, their effigies show two well-dressed gentle folk, their eyes raised to heaven. Both were born into an England suffering the upheavals of civil war (the Wars of the Roses). They grew up to see Henry VII establish the Tudor dynasty, and spent their final years knowing that Henry VIII had married Anne Boleyn and had made himself head of the church in England.

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We know much about the ruling figures who governed, fought, loved and divorced during the 15th and 16th centuries. What, though, of those further down the social scale, those living far away from the court, tucked away in a small corner of England?

It is usually difficult to find out about these individuals because few personal records of their existence survive. Humphrey Newton, however, was a gentleman who wrote a commonplace book – a type of notebook – in which he jotted down a variety of things he wanted to keep. His notes cover a 20-year period from 1497, when Humphrey first inherited the small estate of Newton in north Cheshire. Through the book we gain a fascinating insight into the daily life and interests of a local gentleman.

Love and marriage

The house at Newton became home to a growing family. Marriages among the English gentry were not meant to be love-matches, but rather partnerships intended to enhance family wealth and ties. Humphrey’s wife was an heiress of a nearby estate and the Newtons had to pay handsomely for this union. Indeed Humphrey was still paying instalments to his father-in-law several years into the marriage.

While family advancement was the priority, however, it does not mean that Humphrey and Ellen entered into a loveless union. Early Tudor gentlemen at least knew the language of courtship. One of the earliest sections of Humphrey’s notebook contains his attempts to write love poetry including a four-line verse where the first letters of each line spell ‘Elyn’:

Ever lasting love to me I have tane
[taken]…
Lend me your heart and be you
steadfast…
You have my heart ravished & tame
Never to forsake you while my life will
last…

Shakespeare it isn’t, but the sentiment seems sincere: the couple were married for 46 years, an exceptionally long time in an age of low life expectancy. That they died within six weeks of each other in 1536 perhaps hints at the strength of that bond.

Ellen certainly did everything to earn a gentleman’s affection. Throughout Humphrey’s 20s and 30s, the Newton household was filled with the noise of children. Ellen gave birth 11 times in 16 years, and parenthood dominated her adult life. She would not have been unusual among her social class where large families were the norm. Nor, unfortunately, would she have felt unusual when four of her children died in infancy. Yet luckily four healthy sons (as well as three daughters) survived into adulthood and had children of their own.

Between births Ellen found the time to assist Humphrey with the household management. Like most English gentlemen, Humphrey’s income and status came from land. Newton was a working farm, and an important family business. Rents were collected from tenants; crops, fish and animals were farmed to feed the household or to sell to local markets; and the estate was maintained with fences mended, ditches dug and weeds cleared.

Humphrey would not have got his own hands dirty; he employed a small team of servants and labourers to run the estate, drawn from neighbouring homesteads. He was, nevertheless, an active supervisor who kept detailed accounts of his income and expenditure, and regularly checked up on his servants’ work.

This included making note of their misdemeanours: he recorded those who had lost sheep, had spoilt the cheese and ale and, in the case of Ralph Rider, had lost a pitchfork and sickle. The costs were deducted from their wages, and no one was allowed to get cash for free. Poor Thomas Astill had to repay part of his wages when he went to his mother’s funeral and missed the day’s ploughing. Despite his hard nose for business, however, Humphrey did inspire loyalty and even attended his servants’ weddings.

Like other gentry landlords Humphrey needed to draw on trusted officials because he was not present on the estate every day. He had other duties to fulfil, including the general protection and expansion of the family’s assets. Land was a valuable commodity, and 15th-century England was a very litigious age. Few landholders avoided quarrels over boundaries and titles.

Humphrey was engaged in a number of local disputes, a few of which lasted for many years. He took his sister-in-law to court over a dispute concerning his wife’s inheritance, and he was not averse to using strong-arm tactics. One of his neighbours accused Humphrey of sending over 20 armed men – including Humphrey’s youngest son and several farm-hands – into a neighbouring wood to cut down trees and redirect a river.

Keeping the peace

Every sensible landowner, therefore, had a working knowledge of the law, but Humphrey’s legal skills were sufficiently advanced to be of value to others. Humphrey was employed as a steward on several large estates in Cheshire and Staffordshire. The steward was a key estate official whose most important function was holding the manorial courts. Riding around the North West making sure justice was done, Humphrey presided over a variety of matters such as debt, trespass, petty larceny and murder.

Communities were reliant on the skills of local men to administer justice, and Humphrey can be found offering legal advice to neighbours, businessmen, and also family members. One of his clients was his cousin, William Rode, a wealthy townsman who became mayor of Congleton in 1503–4. Humphrey acted for him on several occasions, even travelling down to London on his behalf. Rode called Humphrey his “trusty cousin” but Humphrey was less impressed, complaining that Rode was one of those clients who never paid up.

To undertake such legal work Humphrey needed to be literate in English, Latin and French, but his use of the written word was not only for practical reasons. During quiet, leisurely moments at Newton, Humphrey read widely and copied out interesting excerpts that he wished to remember or pass on to his family. His notebook contains medicinal recipes, local prophecies, and snippets of history. Like other readers of his day, he was fascinated with King Arthur and the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer.

There is a strong moral edge to the material, something favoured by the English gentry, and particularly appropriate for a father of a young family. The Newton household was to be a haven of good manners. In an attempt to ensure this, Humphrey attached to a wall in his hall an ABC of suitable behaviour that would act as ‘house rules’. Family members were expected to be moderate in their manner, and not be too hasty, jealous, drunk, or indeed joke too often.

Swan for supper

Mealtimes were important for the gentry family. Early Tudor society placed emphasis on communal eating, and the sharing of food was an important opportunity to display hospitality and good breeding. The Newtons tucked into beef, veal and even swan on a few special occasions. In more regular supply was rabbit, kept in the estate’s warren. Obviously it had to be caught first, and Humphrey carefully noted two methods for catching rabbit: one used a scented glove, while the other employed a stuffed female rabbit skin as a decoy.

For the Newtons, meals were also a time for the expression of religious belief, and religious contemplation. Prayers were said before and after meals, while God’s blessing was beseeched at births, marriages and deaths.

Humphrey Newton shows us just how varied the life of a country gentleman could be in the decades around 1500. In any one day he might be totting up his wage bill, presiding over local misdemeanours, educating his sons, or copying out a new poem.

As we’ve seen, he travelled regularly around the North West and on occasion made longer journeys, notably towards London. His everyday life was not focused on the high politics of the age, but rather on his family’s present and future needs. Thankfully he had his notebook at hand to remind him of what he needed to do. 

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Deborah Youngs is today associate professor in Medieval history at Swansea University. Her book Humphrey Newton (1466–1536): An Early Tudor Gentleman is published by The
Boydell Press. To find out more, click here.