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William de Kildesby Part 1 William de Kildesby Part 2 William de Kildesby Part 3

A man named William Kilsby: how the search began ...

Some years ago, whilst idly browsing the Internet, I discovered that a man named William Kilsby had held the office of Keeper of the Privy Seal under King Edward III, in the mid-1300s. This aroused my interest, because of the obvious question – did he originate from Kilsby village?
I initially dismissed this possibility – for how could a boy born in the depths of the Middle Ages, in a humble Midland village of mud huts, far removed from the centre of things, possibly have risen to become the holder of one of the most senior posts in the government of the country? The idea seemed ridiculous! ... however, it nagged away at me, until one day I decided to look in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), to see whether it held an entry for William Kilsby. And this is what I found ...

Extract from the ODNB 

 Edward III and the Black PrinceWilliam Kilsby (more correctly, Sir William de Kildesby), administrator, probably came from the village of Kilsby, Northamptonshire, though his parentage and early history are unknown. He first appears as a King's Clerk and the recipient of several church livings in the king's gift, soon after Edward III came to the throne in 1327. Kilsby was Receiver of the Chamber from January 1335 to July 1338, during which time he developed a Chamber administration that could respond quickly to the financial needs of war, and allow Edward to field armies in Scotland and France. Kilsby himself took part in the battle campaign of 1335 in Scotland, with ten men-at-arms.
Kilsby was promoted to be Keeper of the Privy Seal on 6 July 1338, when King Edward was about to embark for Flanders for his war against France. It was Kilsby who arranged for co-ordination between the administration that accompanied Edward overseas and the regency government in England, to ensure a steady flow of cash to finance the king's military ambitions. From 1338 to 1340 Kilsby had custody of both the Privy Seal and the Great Seal of England, and was Edward's closest adviser in Flanders. With his staff of six clerks, Kilsby also engaged in diplomacy as well as the duties of the privy seal, and he was promoted to the rank of banneret knight (a senior knight, permitted to display his banner on the field of battle) with a large force of men-at-arms and archers. Throughout these years Kilsby was indispensable to King Edward, not only through the offices he filled, but also through his energetic work in raising loans, standing as surety for royal debts, arranging transport, raising troops, witnessing charters, and even investigating other royal officials on the King's behalf.
1340 marked a critical turning point in Kilsby's career, however. William Melton, archbishop of York, died on 5 April. King Edward wished Kilsby to have this post, but the cathedral chapter elected William Zouche (a colleague of Kilsby, who had also held the Privy Seal for a time). Edward then wrote to the pope on Kilsby's behalf, delaying the appointment. At the same time, Edward's ambitious war campaign in France began to founder for want of funds. In April 1340 he had appointed John Stratford, archbishop of Canterbury, to be chancellor and head of the regency government in England, with the specific responsibility of raising money for the war. But the effort failed, Stratford resigned, and Edward stormed back to England in November, determined to punish the ministers whom he blamed for his financial failure. Various officials were summarily arrested, but Edward's anger focused primarily on Stratford.
Kilsby accompanied Edward on his return, then led the king's attack on the archbishop. In April 1341 he and John Darcy arraigned Stratford before the Londoners at the Guildhall and then before the Commons. The lords in parliament turned against the royal counsellors, however, forced Kilsby and Darcy to withdraw, and gave Stratford a hearing. But the storm passed quickly. Kilsby did not lose his office, and was reconciled with Stratford in the autumn of 1341. In the winter campaign in Scotland in 1341–2, Kilsby served again as a banneret, with seven knights and fifty-three esquires.
Banner of Sir William de KildesbyKilsby's hopes for high church office ended in April 1342, when Zouche was finally installed as archbishop of York. Then on 4 June Kilsby was replaced as keeper of the privy seal, ending his administrative career. However, he did not lose the king's favour, and pursued a military career for the rest of his life. He served as a banneret with a large retinue in the Brittany campaign in 1342. Afterwards, he went on pilgrimage to the holy sepulchre, and then to the shrine of St Catherine in Sinai. In 1345 he fought alongside the king at the famous battle of Crécy, with a personal force including 1 banneret, 7 knights, 73 esquires, 68 mounted archers, and 11 archers. He went on to fight at Caen, then on again to the siege of Calais, where he died somewhere between 7th and 30th September 1346.
Because of his highly visible role in the controversial finances and policy making of the initial stages of what would become the Hundred Years' War, William Kilsby attracted the opposition of some lords during the crisis of 1340–41. But his influence on Edward cannot be doubted, nor can Edward's trust in him, as one of a small group of key servants who fashioned royal policy in these years.

What a discovery!

 This was stirring stuff! And moreover, it looked as though William Kilsby did after all originate from Kilsby – though the official biography does not confirm this absolutely.
Annoyingly, however, there were no details of Kilsby’s early life. At the point where his official biography commences, he is already working as a King’s Clerk, and probably at least 25 to 30 years old. Since he died in 1346 (probably aged about 45-50), this means that his official biography has left out over half of his entire life!
By now my curiosity was fully aroused, and I wanted to know more! I needed answers to questions that are not even posed in Kilsby’s official biography. For instance:

  1. How did he become a King’s Clerk?
  2. What was he doing before he rose to this position with the king?
  3. How did he come to leave Kilsby?
  4. How did he manage to gain the advanced education that he evidently received to enable him to manage all these complex affairs of state?
  5. What connections can he possibly have possessed, in order to help him to climb the greasy pole of public office?

A challenge

Here indeed was a challenge! Where could I possibly start to look?
These questions occupied me for 6 months, during which I spent scores of hours trawling the Internet, collecting and reading my way through a huge pile of historical material, visiting archives up and down the country, corresponding with other historians and archivists, and discussing with specialist historians in London, Lincoln, Oxford and elsewhere.
So – did I find complete answers to my questions?
In most cases, I was able to answer the questions posed above. The answers are, predictably, much longer than the questions – so this story will be divided into several short instalments, in order to give a clear picture of the history of this remarkable man, who was born in Kilsby village just over 700 years ago.
The next section gives answers to some of the above questions – but to whet your appetite, I will just remind you that Kilsby village had a special relationship with Lincoln cathedral for many centuries …

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The Story of William Kilsby (part 2)

The previous section summarised the star-studded career of William Kilsby (more properly, Sir William de Kildesby), close adviser to King Edward III in the 1330s/1340s, and then posed some basic questions that are completely ignored in his official biography:

  1. How did he become a King’s Clerk?
  2. What was he doing before rising to this influential position with the king?
  3. How did he come to leave Kilsby?
  4. How did he gain the advanced education to enable him to manage these complex affairs of state?
  5. What connections did he make, to help him climb the greasy pole of public office?

Part 1 ended with a reminder that Kilsby village had a special relationship with Lincoln cathedral for many centuries – and this is where we take up the story again.

Kilsby's early manorial history

Coventry's medieval cathedralIn 1043AD, Earl Leofric of Mercia founded a monastery in Coventry (roughly where Coventry Cathedral now stands). To fund the upkeep of his new monastery, he had false charters forged, illegally claiming that he owned the lordships of over twenty villages (including Kilsby), in order to divert the tithes of these villages to Coventry. The deception was uncovered around 1105AD, when the lordship of Kilsby was handed back and became the property of the diocese of Lincoln (at that time this was a massive territory, including our present diocese of Peterborough plus much more) – so from 1105 onward, the lord of Kilsby was the current bishop of Lincoln, until the Crown seized all monastic possessions at the Dissolution of Monasteries in the 1530s, when Kilsby's lordship became Crown property (but that is another story).

The Lincoln link

Lincoln cathedralAs the Bishop of Lincoln would have been lord of Kilsby in the 1300s, I felt my search should begin at Lincoln cathedral – and sure enough, I immediately picked up William de Kildesby’s trail, for he appears in the registers of bishop Henry Burghersh (bishop of Lincoln from 1320 until his death in 1340). An entry in the bishop's registers on 15th Jan 1325 reads:

"Institution of Adam de Branby priest to vicarage of Barnetby, vacant by death of Roger de Dalton; patron, prior and convent of Newstead on Ancholme. Inquisitor and induction, dean of Yarborough. Present, Walter de Stauren, John de Wy, William de Kildesby."

Here then is our William de Kildesby, working as a clerk to the bishop and acting as witness to a routine piece of diocesan business. He is new to the organisation, performing minor clerical tasks and learning as he goes. We can guess that he probably journeyed up to Lincoln in the autumn of 1324 (before winter made roads impassable) and spent the closing weeks of the year finding his feet, being allocated a corner of the scriptorium floor below the bishop's quarters on which to sleep, queuing for gruel in the bishop's kitchens and being taught his duties by the older clerks.
William de Kildesby appears with increasing frequency in the bishop's registers over the following years, and he rises steadily in the bishop's organisation.
This lucky piece of detective work provided answers to my first three questions above – for when Edward III came to the throne in 1327, it was bishop Burghersh whom he selected as his treasurer (in those days most government posts were filled by clerics, for they were the only available body of educated and literate administrators); and in the following year Burghersh was promoted to become Edward's chancellor, the most powerful man in the land after the king himself.
I now knew how William de Kildesby managed to enter the king's employment – in his brief time as bishop's clerk he had clearly made himself indispensable, so that Burghersh took him to London with him as a personal clerk in his retinue. In fact Burghersh himself had served as a King's Clerk for several years prior to his elevation to Edward's side ... so it would have been natural for the bishop to recommend young de Kildesby as suitable to become one of Edward's Chancery clerks. As we have already seen, William de Kildesby rose rapidly in the king's favour – he was given more and more responsibility, and was also showered with church livings that were in the king's gift (including a number of rich prebends in several dioceses), to provide the funds to maintain his ever-wealthier lifestyle as a trusted royal administrator and diplomat.
Incidentally, in the early 1330s the king's correspondence begins to mention one Robert de Kildesby, also a King's Clerk. I felt certain that this must be a close relation of William de Kildesby – and sure enough I eventually discovered (in a document dated July 1341 in the Calendar of Papal Registers, of all places!) a letter from the pope stating clearly that William and Robert de Kildesby were brothers.
At this point, I still had not answered the last two questions that I posed above. But the answers were about to be revealed ...

The early years in Kilsby

Having established the link between William de Kildesby and bishop Henry Burghersh, I glanced through the list of previous bishops of Lincoln - where to my delight I saw that Burghersh's immediate predecessor was bishop John de Dalderby (bishop of Lincoln from 1300 until his death in 1320). This was another lucky piece of detective work, for I already knew from previous research that during the childhood of William and Robert de Kildesby in the early 1300s the priests in Kilsby were:

  • 1305-1316: John, son of Alan de Dalderby
  • 1316-1334: Robert de Dalderby
    (Incidentally, the priest who took over from Robert de Dalderby in 1334 was William's brother, Robert de Kildesby! – but more of this later)

These two priests were almost certainly relatives of bishop Dalderby. I also discovered that bishop Dalderby was renowned for his insistence that priests should be well educated, and that he took great care over the education of young men training for the priesthood, giving many dispensations to allow young priests to study at the recently-established university colleges in Oxford and Cambridge.
Searching at Lincoln through the records of bishop Dalderby and his predecessor Bishop Oliver Sutton, I found two further pointers:Daventry priory

  1. Bishop Dalderby and bishop Sutton had passed as fit for the priesthood many young men who were educated at Daventry Priory.
  2. Bishop Dalderby’s itineraries took him to Kilsby on an amazing eleven occasions in the period 1305-1319 – often staying in Kilsby for several days, and on one occasion for eleven days. By contrast, he visited not a single one of the other local villages in this area, and even Daventry Priory was only visited twice. It was obvious that the two de Dalderby priests at Kilsby were close relatives of the bishop.

The final piece of the puzzle is environmental rather than theological. The early 1300s were beset by misfortune – failed harvests due to continuous rainfall through 1315-16 during which an estimated 10-15% of all peasants died, followed by sheep and cattle epidemics in 1317-18 which resulted in the death of livestock and plough-oxen, so that fields went unploughed and crops unsown even after the floods dispersed. The life of peasants at this time would have been unimaginably hard, with Death a constant spectre at every man’s hearth.
It is not difficult to combine these snippets of information into a connected tale, with the following key elements:

  • William and Robert are born around 1295-1300 in our little village, which at that time would have consisted only of mud and timber huts, with the church as the only stone building (probably just a nave and chancel at that date, lacking the south aisle and with either no tower or only a low one).
  • They are highly intelligent, and their parents realise there may be a chance for them to escape the dangers of a peasant’s life, by training for the priesthood and finding a better life as educated clerics or secretaries.
  • By a great stroke of good fortune, their village priest (who is responsible for their earliest schooling) is closely related to the powerful bishop of Lincoln – William and Robert are almost certainly chosen to wait on the bishop during his frequent and extended visits to Kilsby.
  • Through the influence of priest and bishop, the boys are offered a chance of higher education by the monks of Daventry Priory; Kilsby is close enough to Daventry for the boys to walk there and back every day, and we can imagine them trudging along the highway, reciting their lessons to each other on the way.
  • The famines and epidemics of the 1310s only strengthen their determination to escape the peasant life – their parents may well have died during the famines and epidemics of these desperately hard times; education is their only chance to escape grim poverty and early death.
  • From Daventry Priory, they gain a “dimissory” note from the bishop certifying that they have passed an oral examination in Latin and are sufficiently educated to proceed to “minor holy orders”.
  • By now (c1320-22) they are street-wise and hardened opportunists, ready to make the most of any chance that presents itself.
  • William, the elder, has developed a talent for pleasing his masters; through the continued influence and patronage of the Dalderbys, he is offered a place in the clerical organisation of bishop Burghersh.

The rest of William’s career has already been summarised, in the first part of this story and in the text above.
This might seem to be the end of the tale. However, I have not yet given you a very clear picture of William and Robert de Kildesby, other than saying that their grim early years made them into street-wise opportunists. There is much more to tell – tales of kidnap, forgery, threats and blackmail, rivalry and enmity, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and stories of battle with William’s banner proudly flying beside the king’s standard at Crecy in 1546. Moreover, you have yet to make the acquaintances of Alexander, Walter, John and Thomas de Kildesby ...
... so I will deal with all that in the final section.

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 The Story of William Kilsby (part 3)

In previous issues I have sketched an overall picture of the life and career of Sir William de Kildesby, and filled some gaps in his official biography. You now have a fairly clear idea of how he grew up, where he probably gained his education, and how he and his brother Robert got their first foothold on the slippery steps to wealth and power.

I have expressed the view that their grim early years made William and Robert de Kildesby into street-wise opportunists, and hinted at dark passages in their histories. It is now time to explore these aspects in more depth, and draw them forth from the mists of time, as men with unique characters and capabilities.

Robert de Kildesby

Robert first appears as acolyte priest at Thurleigh in 1333, from where he was transferred to Kilsby church in January 1334. He was probably already working as a King's Clerk by 1336, recommended by his elder brother William and with the patronage of Edward III's chancellor Bishop Burghersh, who had already given William his powerful support – for Robert was rapidly promoted to the incomes of the churches of Essendon, Bayford and Geddington in 1337 under the patronage of Edward's mother Queen Isabella, and was granted the further income of Swineshead later in the year. Incidentally, a certain Alexander de Kildesby also appears in 1337, admitted priest to the vicarage of Caistor through the patronage of William de Kildesby (who was prebend of Caistor) – Alexander was probably related to William and Robert, perhaps their younger brother.

Robert rose rapidly – by 1340 we see him in Antwerp on the King's business, and he was granted further benefices in Lichfield and Southwell dioceses to cover his increasing expenses. However, in 1342 Robert was convicted of fraudulently forging papers in the King's name purporting to grant him further church income in York diocese, showing that he was both devious and mercenary.

What stands out, time and again, is the role played in this era by kinship, patronage and loyalty. We have seen how Bishop Burghersh's patronage of William and Robert set them on the path to power; and reading between the lines of the official records it is clear that William and Robert constantly acted to support each other as Chancery clerks.

William's power struggles

William's powers had grown throughout the latter 1330s – he was routinely given authority to hold inquisitions upon state ministers and senior lords (which doubtless made him enemies in high places), to investigate and punish thefts and embezzlements of the king's property, to raise taxes throughout the kingdom and so on; he seemed to be everywhere – one minute in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the next in the Welsh marches, back in London, then off to Norwich to sail for Antwerp, at a continuing breakneck pace. By now he had his own extensive staff of clerks and body servants, in addition to bailiffs and local servants looking after his many possessions around the kingdom.

However, in 1340/1 William's ambitions suffered a fatal blow. Ordered by the king to prosecute Stratford for his failure to raise essential funds for Edward's wars in France, William fell foul of those lords whose enmity he had already aroused, and the lords sided with Stratford. On the surface the affair appeared to blow over quickly; but though William's enemies might smile upon him still, as politicians have always done, he had now aroused serious opposition. Only thirty years removed from the peasant's hovel, he can have had few real friends at court.

Worse was to come, and in the same year. We saw in Part 1 that William coveted the archbishopric of York, which the king had promised him, but that it was granted at the last minute by the clergy of York to ambitious William Zouch, in what was doubtless a subtle piece of political manoeuvring. Zouch lost no time in getting himself ratified as dean and archbishop-elect, and set off for Avignon to receive the pope's seal on his promotion ... and here William and Robert de Kildesby made another fatal blunder. Avoiding the war-zones of France, Zouch travelled to Avignon via the Netherlands and Switzerland – where he was kidnapped near Geneva to prevent him from reaching Avignon. Kildesby's hand in this was widely suspected, and though he took care to avoid any traceable connection, the mud probably stuck. A letter dated December 1340 from the pope at Avignon states "... that when on the 10th of the month [Zouch] was on his way to the pope about the election to the see of York, he was set upon in the neighbourhood of Geneva [by men] who dragged him and those with him off to a solitary place across the lake of Lausanne ... and that he was there despoiled and held to ransom". As if this were not enough, the pope then sent an envoy to London requesting "... Robert, brother of William de Kildesby to appear at the papal palace, and the messenger, on his arriving at London, was seized, by order of the said William and Robert, and thrust fettered into a dark prison, and although the king ordered him to be released, William and Robert, by false representations, accusing him of a homicide, which they said he had committed in those parts, obtained a writ from the king's court ordering him to be detained ...".

The brothers were getting out of their depth.

William's later career

With powerful enemies such as archbishops Zouch and Stratford and the lords in general, William's fall was inevitable, even with Edward's support. It is clear that Edward still valued him, and wished to retain his services – but there was little scope now for William as a politician; he made a short pilgrimage to the Holy Land to allow tempers at home to cool, then left the church and pursued a military career for the rest of his life. As we saw in Part 1, he served in many campaigns in England, Scotland and France, and raised his banner alongside Edward's in battle. But a warrior's life holds more tangible dangers than those of a politician, and he died shortly after the battle of Crecy, probably of wounds inflicted in that conflict.

Robert de Kildesby clung to political power for a while, but without William's support his career was limited, and he died in 1351 without attaining William's dizzy heights, though he was probably comfortable enough.

The other de Kildesbys

We have met William, Robert and Alexander de Kildesby; it is now time to make the acquaintance of four other de Kildesby men of the same era who also rose to positions of influence in the wider world:

  • Walter de Kildesby: defence attorney in 1348 to John de Stratford, archbishop of Canterbury (ironically, William de Kildesby had prosecuted Stratford in 1340 at the king's command!); attorney to an archbishop was a position of great responsibility.
  • John de Kildesby: a monk, appointed in 1352 as custos (warden) of the hospital or hermitage of St Mary Magdalene by Sherburn in Elmet, just north of Pontefract. By 1360 he had long deserted his post and was replaced. The Black Death devastated England in 1348-9, and by the mid-1350s the hospital was a centre for plague victims, which probably explains why John de Kildesby ran off!
  • Thomas de Kildesby: presented in 1355 to the vicarage of Stoke Curcy in the diocese of Bath and Wells.
  • William de Kildesby jun: granting a commission of oyer and terminer (an investigative court) in 1353, King Edward nominated among the junior commissioners one William de Kildesby. Since "our" William died in 1346 this is clearly another man – and he would probably have been about 20 years younger than "our" William. It is tempting to suspect that he may have been a son of Sir William de Kildesby.

It is likely that all these men gained their positions of power as a consequence of William de Kildesby's influence.

Status of Kilsby village

As the birthplace of this group of men, and the former seat of priests with family connections to the bishop of Lincoln, Kilsby's status during the mid to late 1300s may have rivalled or even exceeded that of Daventry; and the reflected glow of status probably persisted until the end of the century.

Kilsby was converted into a prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral in 1380AD, to allow the bishop to add it to the stipend of his Precentor. The first Vicar of Kilsby, William Sherman, was appointed in 1386 but had to wait to take possession of the living until 1390, when 27.5 acres of arable glebe were set aside for the vicar, plus the ‘small tithes’. A vicarage house was built at the SE of the churchyard, plus a prebendal house for the Precentor's duty visits – probably in the grounds of the present Kilsby Hall alongside Church Walk. A glebe terrier of 1650 by Cromwell’s Commissioners describes: ‘All that Prebend howse in Kildesbye built of rough Stone and covered with Thatch, wherein is a hall, Kitchin, fowre Chambers, being five baies of building; There is a barne and stables nyne baies with two gardenes and grasse Yarde, and Two fold yardes.’ So the prebend house built in 1390AD was still habitable in 1650AD, and this description tallies with the layout adopted in the fourteenth century.

In a previous article in the Kronickle I described the rare and prestigious Penn-tiled floor installed in Kilsby church in the 1390s. As I consider these events – construction of a prebend house, provision of a tiled floor for the church – it seems very likely to me that these ‘status’ structures erected in Kilsby in the late 1300s were probably a long-term consequence of the fame brought to our village by the de Kildesby men whose histories I have described in these articles.

Men of dazzling talent

Here we are, finally, at the end of the story. William and Robert de Kildesby were men of dazzling talent, destined to rise far above the humble hut in which they were probably born in Kilsby in the 1290s. It would be wrong to judge them by today's society values, for they were shaped by the age in which they lived – and if they appear to us ruthless and self-seeking, violent, deceitful and thieving, it is because they grew up in a world in which poverty, famine and early death could only be balanced by patronage, loyalty, and a strong right arm.

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