What do we learn from the last will and testament of Nathaniel Spurrett, the London citizen and haberdasher and husband of Helen Langworth, who died in 1614? The will confirms some of the details of Nathaniel’s family, including the fact that his father Anthony Spurrett, rector of Icomb, was still alive: he would outlive his son by two years. We also learn the name of Anthony’s third wife: Nathaniel bequeaths a silk mourning gown to Agnes Spurrett ‘my mother in law’ – a term that was often used at this period to mean stepmother. Nathaniel Spurrett leaves similar items to his brother George and his wife, who are also mentioned in Anthony Spurrett’s will, as is Robert Spurrett, who Nathaniel describes as ‘my poore kinsman’: perhaps he was a cousin or uncle?
It seems strange that Nathaniel makes no mention of his wife Helen, who certainly survived him. Perhaps he had already made provision for her elsewhere. As for their only daughter, Frances, who would have been less than a year old when her father died, Nathaniel writes as follows:
I doe will and bequeath unto my deare and onely daughter Frauncis Spurrett the somme of twoe hundred poundes of lawfull money of England to be putt out as soone as conveniently may be to and for the best profit of my saide daughter And the saide somme of twoe hundred poundes together with the benefit which thereof shall arise I will shall be paid unto my saide daughter when shee shall have attained to her full age of eighteen yeares
The witnesses to a will can sometimes provide useful clues to the testator’s family and friends. One of the witnesses to Nathaniel Spurrett’s will was John Langworth. At first I thought this might be his father-in-law, Dr John Langworth, but he had died in the previous year. Another John Langworth, son of Dr John Langworth’s brother Arthur, had died in 1611. The only other candidate I’m aware of would be the son of Adam, another Langworth brother, but he would have been only ten years old at the time.
Another witness who is likely to have been a relative was Francis Unwin. We know that the name of Anthony Spurrett’s first wife, and probably Nathaniel’s mother, was Margaret Unwin, whom he married in Worcester. I’ve found records for members of the Unwin family in the Worcester area, though not specifically for Francis. As for the other witnesses, there was a Walter Hill living in the parish of St Albans, Wood Street, London, in 1638, next door (perhaps significantly) to Haberdashers Hall. I haven’t found any confirmation of the identities of Edmund Jeffery Senior or Marmaduke Parkinson.
However, by far the most interesting name in Nathaniel Spurrett’s will, for our purposes, is that of Matthew Woodward, whom he names as his sole executor. Woodward is described in the will as a gentleman living in Montague Close, Southwark. Lying in the parish of St Saviour’s, formerly the priory of St Mary Overy, this was the London home of Anthony Maria Browne, the 2nd Viscount Montague, a leading member of one of the foremost Sussex recusant families. Browne had been arrested in connection with the Gunpowder Plot and spent a year imprisoned in the Tower of London. In Shadowplay, her book about the hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare, Clare Asquith describes how Viscount Montague’s grandfather had acquired Montague Close in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries:
Quick off the mark when it came to the division of monastic spoils, Sir Anthony had secured a prize site. The Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overies (St Mary ‘over the water’) was not only extensive, including church, hospital, refectory, dormitory, library and the outbuildings and gardens typical of ancient foundations dedicated to practical works of mercy, but it dominated the junction between London’s single bridge and the main routes to the south of England, where his own lands lay. Sir Anthony’s recusant descendants were to find the strategic position of Montague Close more useful still, for among its cluster of buildings, many of them sublet to relatives and retainers, were jetties and wharves that gave directly onto the river. For centuries these outlets to the Thames had been used for purposes other than the loading of spices, iron, fish and wool. St Mary’s had been granted the right of sanctuary, which meant that its precincts traditionally provided a safe escape route for London’s debtors. It was to become an invaluable resource for the Catholic underground. Although aware that the sprawl of the old priory was now the headquarters of a nest of papists, the authorities found this part of Southwark impossible to police.
(I have a particular interest in the history of this part of London, since one of my ancestors, Bartholomew Fowle (alias Linsted) was the last prior of St Mary Overy at the time of the Dissolution, and my other Fowle forebears seem to have maintained a close connection with the area.)
There are a number of references to Matthew Woodward in Michael Questier’s Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England. For example, we learn that in October 1609 George Birkhead, a Catholic priest who served as archpriest of England from 1608 until his death in 1614, asked an associate to direct his letters ‘to Matthew Woodw. at S mary overies’. From the same footnote we learn that Matthew was originally from Lodsworth in West Sussex, which was close to the Browne family’s residence at Cowdray House, Midhurst, and that his wife Elizabeth was a convicted recusant who had been excommunicated in 1601. Questier states that Woodward was employed as a bailiff at Montague House in Southwark.
A letter dated 22nd November 1610 from Benjamin Norton to Geoffrey Pole, and collected in Questier’s collection of Newsletters from the Archpresbyterate of George Birkhead, includes the following account of a raid on Montague House:
The book which you sent was likely to have bene taken on sonday last in a search at London wher ther were six preistes taken in secret places in one house which was sometimes called Montague house, and for names [?] sake it is more than much feared that the Lord Montacute wil be called in question. For the last night newes came to that purpose. your coosin Richard was taken at Mathew woodwards that morning, & payd sweetlie for it. Mathew and his wife (although nothing was found in ther house) are committed to the Clink, and the prisons ful, nether wil they be able to hold manie more, unles some preists be executed, which is generally expected.
Questier notes that Matthew Woodward appears to have been a conformist in religion until 1609. In 1610 the sacramental token book for St Saviour’s has a marginal note against Matthew Woodward’s name describing him as a recusant who refused to receive communion. However, in 1612 he was conforming again. Woodward’s uneven history of conformity is reminder that the division between Catholic and Protestant was not at all clear-cut at this period, and that those who were sympathetic to traditional religion had to maintain multiple loyalties in different contexts, often simply to survive.
We can imagine that the same might have been true of Nathaniel and Helen Spurrett. Both were the children of clergymen who conformed outwardly to the Church of England but who, certainly in the case of John Langworth and probably in the case of Anthony Spurrett, retained Catholic sympathies. Although, as I noted in the last post, it would be a mistake to read too much into the wording of will preambles, it’s worth noting that Nathaniel’s commendation of his soul to the Holy Trinity was a common feature of Catholic wills at this time. Nathaniel and Helen were married in one Anglican parish church and had their daughter christened in another. However they maintained close links with known recusants, such as Matthew Woodward, and, as we shall see, after their deaths their daughter Frances was placed into the care of exiled Franciscan nuns, among whom she would spend the remainder of her short life.