Low dealings in high places

Geoffrey Hindley 


n the Great Deddington Skirmish (News' first number) John Somerton and a company of Deddington men took ‘direct action’ against the unscrupulous Mr. Big. John Aston of Somerton.  This month we open an investigation of a case in North Oxfordshire of the 1430’swhich leads straight from one of the local big shots to corruption at government level.

The stake was the rich manors of Stanton and Barton St. John and the inheritance was disputed by Clemence Lydeyard (now St. John) and the well-connected Thomas Seyntcler. Both traced descent back to a Roger St. John. The crucial document in the dispute was a 60-year old Chancery record and a critical fact documented in it was the age of Roger St. John in 1354. Seyntcler asserted that his ancestor had then been forty; Clemence and her husband John claimed that the document had critically given the age as twenty-four, but that it had been tampered with by Thomas’s lawyer, Banbury-born Robert Danvers.  In June 1433 a hearing was held in the Star Chamber. Danvers had to clear his name and, at the same time, clinch his client’s case.

Scyntcler had retained Danvers, a rising young attorney in the capital, back in 1431. The lawyer’s first move was to go to the Chancery offices in the Tower of London and have a copy made of the vital documents.  While there he also, claimed the Lydeyards, altered the original.  It was indisputably ‘newly erased and rewritten in fresh ink’. Danvers was outraged, and he had John Frank, controller of the Chancery records to back him.  Lesser fry followed.  Robert Poleyn, assistant chancery clerk, testified that when the copy was made the original showed the age of the long dead Roger St. John as forty (i.e. XL) ‘in ancient script with nought erased, suspicious or defective’. But, Poleyn now recalled that William Brocket, an exchequer clerk, had recent access to the document.

Now Lawyer Danvers had only to establish a link between Broket and Lydeyard.  The ground was already prepared. Letters supposedly from Lydeyard but in fact written byDanvers, had been sent to Broket asking for assurances ‘by letter whether the clerks of the Tower might in any way espie you in razing the acid record.’  Astonishingly Broket not only did write back but in so doing tacitly implicated himself in the falsification.  Having got this remarkable correspondence accepted as evidence Danvers now called Broket to the stand.  There he freely admitted that he had gone to the Chancery Offices; had asked for the St. John document; had got Robert Poleyn out of the room by asking for additional papers; and then ‘being alone, with his finger nail erased the number x1 which was in the document when he came and restored and blotted the same number, to make it the more suspect’.  Danvers had not only cleared himself, he had also neatly established that the original document, like his copy, supported his client’s contention as to Roger St. John’s age.

Broket was sacked, the Treasurer being, understandably enough ‘in diverse ways troubled about the said William’s examination concerning the erasure.’  Why he should have ruined his career for an unknown Oxfordshire gentleman is not made clear.  Danvers made no charges of bribery against him.   Nor is it clear why John Frank, a senior government official, should have been involved.   Least of all is it clear why Lydeyard should have conducted so much mismanaged plotting merely to ‘falsify’ a document in his enemies’ favour.  In the next number all will, as they say, be revealed.

Originally published in the Deddington News December 1976, p.23