I’ve done a few posts now on interesting finds in my research (‘interesting’ is naturally a matter of taste – but this is my blog after all). This one is a departure, if only because it’s not a favourite from previous work, but something I came across recently, and got rather excited about. I’ve been discussing some research with Maria Fusaro, the leader of the project I worked on for the last two years, particularly relating to Thomas Trenchfield. He was a shipmaster, ship owner and trader who appears frequently in the court records of Venice during the first half of the seventeenth century, which Maria has been working with. He was also a fairly important figure in the London maritime community, as an Elder Brother of the Trinity House of Deptford.
The curious thing is, it seemed that we had found him in two places at once. At the start of July 1642, on the eve of civil war in England, Thomas Trenchfield was one of the naval captains who chose to support parliament (as shown in a letter to parliament – you can read more about mariners and the start of civil war in my article on the subject). He was then appointed rear-admiral, in command of a squadron sent to the northeast coast of Britain (see here) and we have him reporting in another letter to parliament in August. At the same time, Maria found him in July 1642 in a court case in Venice concerning the merchant ship Northumberland. He could not have got to Venice and back, and even if he could, why would he dash off to Venice if he was taking up a naval command?
My first thought was that this was a father-and-son combination with the same name, as was pretty common in the early modern period. However, it turns out to be a little more complicated than this, and figuring it all out has brought some unexpected results. There were three Thomas Trenchfields at the same time, and this is the first of a series of posts about them. Much of what we know about the relationships between these three – and Caleb Trenchfield, of the same family – comes from wills which survive amongst the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury at the National Archives – for a brief introduction and recommendations for further reading, see here.
The first will, PROB 11/197/441, was written in 1636 but not proved – submitted to the court after the testator’s death and declared legally valid – until 1646, and it is one of the most unusual wills I have seen. These are usually very formulaic documents, written to certain rules by a professional scribe; on the contrary, the will of this first Thomas, who I’ve come to think of as ‘Thomas snr’, is a very distinctive and personal document. It opens with the date, 22 August 1636, and a description of the testator as ‘I Tho: Trenchfeilde of the parishe St Mary Cray in Kent, Esq’. This already tells us quite a bit – where he lived, and that his voyaging and trading had evidently paid off, because he could now describe himself as ‘esquire’. Indeed, the will reveals that he owned four houses, two at Tower Wharf in London, and two in Kent, Walden Manor in Eltham (now a listed building, apparently with some surviving seventeenth century parts: if anybody happens to know the owners, I would love to get in touch!) and ‘my house and land called Trippes in the parishe of Chelffield and Orpington’ – possibly Tripes Farm today. He seems to have been very proud of these last two, listing each individual field belonging to them by name. Often mariners made wills before they went to sea, especially if they were engaged on a long voyage, but this will reads, to me, as though Thomas snr was intending to ‘retire’, although that’s not exactly what happened. He commanded a ship in a naval expedition in 1637 – if you have an EEBO login, there’s a contemporary account of this expedition here – and would take up command again in 1642. He was still rear-admiral in February 1646 (see here) and must have died at some point before September, when the will was proved by his widow Margaret.
Unlike most testators, Thomas snr tells us quite a bit about himself, at least at the moment that he made the will. He had ‘lived to the age of ffifty and six yeares’ at his last birthday, 14 December 1635, which would put his date of birth in 1579, and make him 66 when he died. His personal religious views are prevelant from the beginning: ‘I have from a full hand received the mercies of Allmighty God which I heere with all humility confesse and give him all humble and harty thankes’ (that’s just a taster). Thomas snr comes across as something of a puritan, a fervant kind of Christian who formed a fundamentalist, evangelical and often quite aggressive wing of the Church of England; the term ‘puritan’ has been much debated, since it began life as an insult, but it’s still quite a useful shorthand. Trenchfield tells us that ‘my place of birth…was att Ipswich and although not of Eminent yet of honest and Religious Parents my grandmother Jone Trenchfeild suffering death For Christs cause In the time of Persecution in Queen Maries Raigne’. Clearly, even later in life, this family memory still mattered to him, especially as Mary I’s reign ended in 1558, so his grandmother would have died at least twenty years before he himself was born. It shows both the lasting personal impact of the long Reformation, especially the violence it provoked, and the way in which Thomas snr placed his own family within the Protestant narrative that had come to dominate seventeenth-century understandings of the previous century, casting the last Catholic monarch as ‘bloody Mary’, a reputation she has never quite shaken off.
The will shows a similarly puritanical understanding of his own life, and the tone here strengthens the impression that he meant to be ‘done’ with the sea. He continues ‘my Course of lyfe and calling was for therty seaven yeares to goe to Sea therty of those yeares I had the Charges of good shippes with such good successe and such greate deliverances in the time of daungers that I shall ever account them miraculous mercyes Rec[eived] from the hand of Allmighty God…I never went to Sea in any shipp but I came home again in the same nor did never make voyage but with good benefitt to the interessed [i.e. interested parties, presumably merchants or ship owners]’. This language of ‘deliverances’ and ‘mercyes’ reflects a providentialist belief in divine intervention in the natural and human world, fairly ordinary amongst puritans, but it also represents an understanding of early modern seafaring which does not quite match many common ideas about it. If you’d like to know more about religion and the sea during this period, check out Sarah Parsons’s PhD thesis on this topic. Thomas snr recounts three of the ‘deliverances’, as he puts it ‘to the praise of his [God’s] greate name’, an escape from a storm off the coast of Norway, and two encounters against ‘Turkish pirates’ – probably North African corsairs, a regular feature of Mediterranean voyages – in which he overcame apparently overwhelming numbers. I don’t think I’ve seen this sort of storytelling in any other will, which makes Thomas snr look like a very forceful personality.
It seems, at least from his own telling, that Thomas snr had an eventful but profitable career, and this is certainly supported by his influence later in life, culminating in the role he played as a naval commander in the civil war. From apparently humble beginnings – and I hope to find out more about his background in Ipswich – he became a well known figure in maritime circles and grew quite wealthy, certainly compared with other seafarers, many of whom could not boast (as he did) that all their voyages had been successful. There is a hint of self-satisfaction in his surprisingly individual testament, even if he also put his success down to God’s intervention. I think this clear expression of his personal religious views is one of the more interesting aspects of the document. This was presumably part of the motivation that led him to give one tenth of his moveable wealth to the endowment of almshouses for ‘Poore Seamen and Seamens widdowes’. There are a few posts about the Deptford almshouses on the Trinity House History blog, and you can read about excavations of them in these articles (1, 2). Religion is probably important in explaining Thomas snr’s support for parliament in the civil wars, too, as historians now generally accept that religious belief was a powerful factor in driving people to war. Given that Thomas snr was 62 when the war began, and if I am right about his earlier intention to ‘settle down’, in taking up command again six years after he wrote this will he must have felt very strongly about the divisive issues of the day. This is not all that surprising, given how much his faith shaped how he saw – or at least, chose to document – his own life. His beliefs also influenced the provision he made in his will for his family; but we’ll come to that in another post.