This is the second post in a series about the Trenchfields, a family of mariners from the early seventeenth century, and more particularly about three of them called Thomas (and one called Caleb). In the first post, I introduced the man I think of as ‘Thomas snr’, the oldest Thomas I have encountered, an influential shipmaster in the Mediterranean and a naval commander for parliament during the British civil wars. This time, I want you to meet his relative, who I have titled ‘kinsman Thomas’, for reasons which will become obvious.
My foray into the family history of the Trenchfields began because it appeared that there was one Thomas Trenchfield in England during the summer of 1642 when, at the same time, another turned up in court in Venice – this is explained in the last post. Obviously, they couldn’t be the same person, and I am reasonably confident that the naval commander of the civil wars was indeed Thomas snr. Who, then, was the Thomas Trenchfield in Venice? Fortunately, we have Thomas snr’s will (The National Archives, PROB 11/197/441), which mentions his two sons, Thomas and Caleb. However, as I will explain in the next post in this series, it’s pretty likely that this Thomas (‘Thomas jnr’, in my uninspired nomenclature) was not the one in Venice in the early 1640s. Thomas snr’s will mentions yet another Thomas, ‘my kinsman Thomas Trenchfeilld’, hence the nickname.
The relationship between Thomas snr and his kinsman Thomas is not entirely clear, although the latter was probably the former’s nephew. In kinsman Thomas’s own will, PROB 11/258/444, which was written and proved in 1656, he refers to an ‘Aunt Trenchfeild’, which I would hazard was Thomas snr’s widow, Margaret (Thomas snr died in 1646), and to a ‘cousin Caleb’, probably Thomas snr’s son. On the other hand, terms such as ‘kinsman’ and ‘cousin’ were not quite so precise in the early modern period, so all we can say for certain is that kinsman Thomas was part of Thomas snr’s extended family. Some historians have argued that during this period, people’s lives and relationships tended to be focused within their nuclear family; this was, in part, based on the study of wills such as Thomas snr’s, in which extended family appeared rarely, and received less generous bequests compared with closer kin. This has been challenged by others, such as David Cressy in this article and more recently Naomi Tadmor in this one. As the main purpose of these wills was to secure the inheritance of specific assets, it is not surprising if a testator did not name all of their relatives, and they are therefore not always the best evidence to understand the relations between family members.
We can get something of a sense of this if we compare Thomas snr’s will with that of kinsman Thomas – which is no less interesting than the very individual testament of Thomas snr that I discussed in the last post, even though kinsman Thomas’s will is not really a will at all. It is a letter written from Livorno to his wife, Elizabeth, on 13 February 1656 (English style, which was ten days behind the European calendar: the letter is dated, as was conventional, 13/23 February). He must have died before 21 October 1656 (English style), because on that day Elizabeth, ‘the Relict and Principall Legatorie named in this will’, was granted administration of the deceased Thomas’s goods; the letter was clearly her proof, as it includes the sentence ‘what ever I have there at Lisbone or anie part of the world in case of mortalitie I freelie bequeath unto thyself…only ffive pounds to my brother John’. These two are presumably the Thomas Trenchfield and Elizabeth Paine who were married in Stepney in 1632 (found at this genealogy website, the fourth search result, but I haven’t yet checked the original documents, which are in the London Metropolitan Archives, probably P93/DUN/265 or P93/DUN/266). If this is right, they were married for about 24 years, although we don’t know how much of that was spent with Thomas away at sea. The letter thus gives us a different view on family ties than a normal will would, but also a glimpse of him as he went about his affairs – and of how much Elizabeth was involved in the business of trade and shipping.
In Thomas snr’s will, he left his kinsman Thomas £5, and 40 shillings to Elizabeth ‘to make a Ringe’, a fairly common style of bequest. Thomas snr also gave £5 to each of his sisters, Margaret, Mary, and Susan; but to his sons, son-in-law, and grandchildren he left much larger sums, which might seem to support the argument that extended kin were not particularly important. Looking at kinsman Thomas’s letter reveals a different story. He asks Elizabeth to ‘tender my due respects to our mother and Aunt Trenchfield, and love to Cosen Caleb and his wife’, to which he adds ‘Cosen Disray and all our good friends in generall as Captaine Hide and his familie’. Besides his brother John, he mentions two other brothers (or brothers-in-law?), Timothy (who may have been with him in Livorno, as ‘Timothie presents his dutie to our mother’) and ‘Welly’, all of which suggests a fairly strong sense of the family and neighbourly network around him and his wife.
More importantly in regard to Thomas snr, kinsman Thomas refers to ‘Consull Hobson’. This was John Hobson, the English consul at Venice, a substantial merchant and ship-owner, and a business partner of Thomas snr (of course, he had a son [edit: Maria informs me that he was in fact a nephew, and that she discusses the Hobsons in her forthcoming book] called John, who was also consul, and whose will of 1685 survives and also reveals a very large network of family and friends: PROB 11/381/67). Indeed, kinsman Thomas first appears in Venice as master of the Northumberland, a ship of which both Hobson and Thomas snr were owners, and which Thomas snr had previously commanded himself. This evidence considerably adds to the cursory reference to kinsman Thomas in Thomas snr’s will, and suggests that his (potential) uncle’s influence was fairly important in launching kinsman Thomas’s own career as a shipmaster. There is also a remarkable similarity in their careers, suggesting shared political sympathies in support of the parliamentarians and then the Commonwealth – like his namesake during the 1640s, in 1653 kinsman Thomas commanded a squadron in the navy, probably in the Mediterranean (see The National Archives, SP 18/37, fo. 240; SP 18/41, fos 148, 251; SP 25/72, fo. 31).
The letter does not tell us quite as much about kinsman Thomas’s own life and career as Thomas snr’s will does about him. We cannot be so certain about kinsman Thomas’s religious beliefs, for example – although his reference to his brother John, ‘who I heare is come home and I wish he were with me I might prevaile upon him to leade a new course of life And then I should once more be a loving brother unto him’, hints tantalisingly at a family spat with possibly moralistic overtones. There is rather more detail on current business deals. The letter opens referring to a copy of a previous letter he had sent, and both ‘serve to accompanie a second Bill of Exchange ffor the fore denoted one hundred and eighteene pounds fifteene shillings payable by Mr Rastell, The other being not accepted’. Thomas adds ‘I doe intreat our brother to procure it or use the course of Merchants in a timelie protest and send one copie of it hither to Mr Henry Mellish and Henrie Browne to seek my right here, and another to meet me at Venice…or in my absence to Consull Hobson’. These presumably refer to legal proceedings arising from some of their commercial activites. He ‘send[s] bills for Two thowsand one hundred peeces eight, ducketts five hundred of which is for our Shipps Accompt In which one fourth part is mine’, meaning that he was a partowner in the ship he then commanded (probably still the Northumberland), ‘and ducketts one Thowsand six hundred for our owne Accompt to remaine there till my arrivall’.
Pretty clearly, Thomas is giving this information to Elizabeth because he expects her to use it. He writes ‘Praie advise whether brother Welly have paid thee what he owes us…I heare he have made a voyage or two since I have bine abroad I should be gladd to meet brother John at Lisbone’. The impression that emerges is of a partnership in which Elizabeth was the key, active figure in London, managing financial matters there (and this matches recent thinking on the nature of female economic activity in this period – perhaps circumscribed in some ways, but vitally important nonetheless).The letter also contains some personal notes between the couple. Thomas writes ‘Make much of your self this Cold weather, and wish us some of your good Beere as we doe you such as these parts affoards’, this final comment presumably showing Thomas’s perspective on the local drinks. This may not have been the last letter Thomas ever wrote – its legal relevance comes from the statement about inheritance as much as its timing – but such sentiments are especially poignant because, within eight months of writing these lines, Thomas had died. This is one of the problems with using wills as historical sources: they might give us a lot of detail about people from the past, but it is largely confined to a single moment, and usually (and unsurprisingly) a moment towards the end of their lives. Even with unusual wills, like those of Thomas snr and kinsman Thomas, we get no more than a snapshot. On this note, I’ll finish here; the next post will take up the story with Thomas snr’s children.
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