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John Winchcombe alias Smallwood
(Died 1519)

Died: February 1519 at Newbury, Berkshire

It was the cloth trade of Newbury which produced its popular hero, the prosperous clothier, who for so long a period has been widely known by the familiar appellation of Jack of Newbury, described by Fuller, the Church Historian, as "the most considerable clothier England ever beheld."

From Winchcombe's will, we find that he is described as "John Smalwoode the Elder alias John Winchcombe" and it is probable that on his becoming a person of importance, he dropped, as was frequently done, his proper patronymic, and assumed the name of his birthplace, Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. This town was also once known for its extensive clothing trade and the name of Smalwoode occurs in the registers of the parish. Respecting his character, parentage and early days, we have no information; but there is a tradition current at Winchcombe that he was a novitiate in the monastery there and, being wearied of the seclusion and restrictions of the cloister, escaped from his confinement and made his way to Newbury. Here he was apprenticed to the wealthy clothier, whose widow he afterwards married, and became not only possessed of a wife, but of a flourishing business; from which time his life seems to have been one of uninterrupted success.

Some of the principal facts in the life of Winchcombe were in current circulation in Newbury at the close of the sixteenth century. For, when that prolific pamphleteer and novelist, Thomas Deloney, made him the subject of a romance, he appears to have founded his story partially on well ascertained facts and partially on details derived from local traditional sources. Jack's chief exploit, as narrated by Fuller, in his "Worthies" was the active share he took in the war then raging between England and Scotland. James IV, as ally and brother-in-arms of the French King, invaded Northumberland in the summer of 1513. This was during the absence of a large part of the English army in France and an order was issued for all able-bodied men throughout the country to equip themselves for war. Jack's quota was four men, armed with pikes, and two horsemen for King Henry's service and he answered the call by marching north at the head of fifty tall men, well mounted, and fifty footmen with bow and pike, "as well armed and better clothed than any." Whether he reached the north in time to take part in the Scottish defeat at Flodden is doubtful, but an old and, probably contemporary ballad, describes the prowess of the Newbury men in glowing terms and circumstantial detail. Although we have no actual evidence to show that the Newbury men did such special service at Flodden, a considerable number of levies were raised in the town at the time, and may have so distinguished themselves.

On the King's return from France, Jack is said to have had the honour of entertaining him and Queen Katherine at his house in Newbury. This he did in splendid fashion, covering the floor in the finest blue cloth, but refusing the honour of knighthood. The King and the Court were certainly at Newbury in September 1516. On the 10th, Wolsey wrote a letter from Newbury to Sir Richard Jerningham and it is highly probable that if the King was there, Wolsey was there also. Three days afterwards, the Court removed to Ramsbury (Wilts), so that there was ample time for the visit to Winchcombe.

The King was also at Newbury in 1518, the year mentioned by Deloney, when on his way from Abingdon to Southampton - the Court leaving Abingdon on the 8th June and arriving at Southampton on the 10th, which would allow for a halt at Newbury. But Jack's crowning work was his carrying to a successful issue the Clothiers' Petition, when, by reason of the wars, many merchant strangers were prohibited from coming to England. Also, our own merchants, in like sort, were forbidden to have dealings with France and the Low Countries, so that the cloth trade had fallen very low. The deputation seemed, at first, likely to miscarry, for Wolsey, to whom they were referred, put the matter off from time to time, being of the opinion, as was not unlikely, that "Jack of Newbury, if well examined, would be found to be infected with Luther's spirit." Jack in his turn exasperated the Cardinal by saying, "If my Lord Chancellor's father had been no hastier in killing calves than he is in dispatching poor men's suits, I think he would never have worn a mitre." But the King took the matter up and the clothiers got their order, "that merchants should freely traffic one with another and the proclamation thereof should be made as well on the other side of the sea as the land." The Steelyard merchants, being joyful thereof, made the clothiers a great banquet, after which each man departed home, carrying tidings of their good success, so that in a short space, clothing was again very good and poor men set to work as before. Such are the most trustworthy of the legends about this popular hero, the others, though characteristic and quaint, are too doubtful to be seriously stated.

Jack of Newbury died in 1519. By his will, dated 4th January that year, he is described as residing in the parish of St. Nicholas, Newbury, and, after committing his soul to "Almighty God, to Our Blessed Lady St. Mary the Virgin and to all the Holy Company of Heaven," he directs his body to be buried in "Our Lady Chancel," in the parish church of Newbury, by the side of his first wife, Alice, and "a stone to be laid upon us both." He bequeaths to the mother church of Salisbury, 11d, to the High Altar of the Church of Newbury "for offerings negligently forgotten," 11d and makes bequests to the several other altars in the church. To his wife, Joan, he bequeaths 100 marks sterling, also his "household stuff" together with his cattle, wood, corn, hay and other effects; also half his plate. He further bequeaths to her for life, and afterwards to his son, John, his interest in lands and tenements he holds of the Dean and Chapter of Windsor, reserving to his said son, John, the racks and tenters in a close called "Culverhouse." To the parish church of Newbury, he bequeaths the sum of 10, "towards building and edifying the same." Then follow bequests to his friends and servants, including 40s to William Dolman, "besides all things of his covenants." To Sir John Waite, parson of Newbury, for tithes "negligently forgotten," that is for tithes of his movable goods and chattels at the time of his death, 40s. He directs that an annual obit stall be kept for him and his friends departed at a cost of 10s, to be distributed among the officiating priests and clerks, during the term of 22 years; and that masses be sung for him "by an honest priest" for one whole year. The residue of his estate, he bequeaths absolutely to his son, John, whom he appoints sole executor and, as overseers to his will, his friends, John Waite, Rector of Newbury; Sir Robert Wright, curate; Robert Shepway, Roger Bennet, John Tunnell and Thomas Harrison, with several others. The will was proved by his son and executor, at Lambeth, 24th March 1519.

Little now remains of the ancient brick and timber abode of the princely Winchcombe, which comprised the block of buildings in Northbrook Street, now partly occupied by Marks & Spencer and bounded by two lanes, each leading to the Marsh, to which place Winchcombe's factory and stores extended. The "racks" and "tenters" for drying and stretching the cloth are referred to in Winchcombe's will, as standing within a close called "Culverhouse," ie. Pigeonhouse Close, Culver being the old English name for a pigeon or dove, and was evidently part of what is now known as the Marsh, or in that locality. A fifteenth century gable with an oriel window and carved barge-board at the north-west end of the house is still standing. Within the house, a massive stone chimney piece, seven feet wide, was discovered in 1882, and the rooms were found to have been originally panelled with oak wainscotting.

Some interesting carvings were discovered many years since in taking down a portion of the contiguous buildings, which undoubtedly originally formed part of Winchcombe's house. On one of these, divided into ten panels is a bust, supposed to represent the renowned Winchcombe, within a raised circle, accompanied by the floriated initials LW. The two panels on either side bear the Iinen pattern ornament. In the middle panel of the lower compartments is a shield, suspended by a strap and buckle with a monogram IS for John Smallwood, and the panels on either side contain portrait busts supposed to represent Jack's two wives, Alice and Joan. The outer panels bear eaglets, one carrying in its beak the Tudor Rose and with wings closed; the other holding in is mouth a berry, and with wings erect. Another carving from the same house represents the Trinity, under the figure of a single head with three faces-an artistic " confusion of substance," which was prohibited by a Bull of Pope Urban VII.

Edited from Walter Money's "History of Newbury" (1905)


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