Helen Spurrett and the Ropers of Eltham

What can the will of Helen Spurrett, widow of London haberdasher Nathaniel Spurrett and daughter of clergyman and poet Dr John Langworth, tell us about her life after Nathaniel’s death – and about her recusant connections?

The opening lines of Helen Spurrett's will

The opening lines of Helen Spurrett’s will

Firstly, Helen Spurrett’s will includes some useful information about her family. When Helen died in 1625, her only daughter Frances would have been about twelve or thirteen years old, having been christened in 1613. In her will Helen writes as follows:

I give and bequeath to my daughter Frances Spurrett three hundred pounds to be paid unto her at such tyme as she shall fully accomplish the age of sixteen yeares compleat and that in the meane while she be mainteyned wth the pfitt of the saied three hundred pounds or wth so much thereof as shall seemed to my Executor fit and convenient and when she shall happen to Marry then my will is shee shall have two hundred pounds more for her better preferment and augmentacon of porcon yf so my Annuities and other Goods can conveniently beare the same my debts and charges of funeralle defrayed.

Obviously Helen Spurrett had no idea that her daughter would enter a convent and end her days as a Franciscan nun. Helen also makes provision in her will for three of her siblings: her brother Thomas Langworth; her sister Mary Hawkins, the wife of Richard Hawkins; and Ann Purkell, the wife of Joseph Purkell. We shall have more to say about them in future posts. The other relative mentioned in Helen’s will is ‘my cosen Roger Owin’, whom I’ve been unable to trace. One of the witnesses to the will, Francis Unwin, seems also to have been a relative, probably of Helen’s late husband: he had witnessed Nathaniel’s will eleven years earlier.

The will also contains a reference to a recusant family mentioned in Nathaniel Spurrett’s will 0f 1614:

I give to Jane Woodworth widdowe the some of twentie pounds whereof there are give already paied her for recompense of the trouble and losses wch her husband fell into by reason of his being executor to my late husband Nathaniell Spurrett

This must be a reference to the widow of Matthew Woodward (the usual spelling), who was named as executor in the will of Helen’s late husband Nathaniel. As I noted in an earlier post, Woodward was a servant of the Catholic Viscount Montague and was himself imprisoned for recusancy. The sources I quoted in that post gave the name of Matthew’s wife (another convicted recusant) as Elizabeth, but perhaps he was married twice. The nature of the ‘trouble and losses’ that Matthew suffered in his role as Nathaniel Spurrett’s executor remain unclear, though Michael Questier’s Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England notes that Matthew Woodward died intestate; his widow would surely have been grateful for Helen Spurrett’s bequest of twenty pounds.

To date I’ve been unable to trace ‘Mr Ardent of Greenwich’ and his wife, who are to receive gifts from Helen Spurrett’s will, but I wonder if ‘Ardent’ is an alternative spelling for ‘Arden’. The Ardens were, of course, a prominent recusant family, though mostly in Warwickshire, rather than London.

However, there seems to be no mistaking the identity of ‘my Lord Winsor’, who is said to be responsible for one of the two annuities enjoyed by Helen Spurrett. An official document of 1624 includes the following entry in a list of local officials who are said to be ‘Popish recusants or non-communicants, that have given overt suspicion of their ill-affection in religion, or that are reported or suspected to be’:

The Rt. Hon. the Lord Windsor is certified to be a Commissioner of Peace in Buckinghamshire, and by common fame, to be a Popish recusant

Why someone of Baron Windsor’s rank should pay an annuity to the widow of a London haberdasher remains a mystery, unless it’s an indication of the Spurretts’ prominence in the recusant community. We learn that Helen Spurrett was in receipt of a second annuity, from a Mr Newell or Nevell. There was a noble family of that name, with Catholic sympathies, one of whom was the dedicatee of William Byrd’s collection, My Ladye Nevells Booke.

However, perhaps the most interesting recusant connection revealed by Helen’s will is with the family of her executor. Helen describes herself in the will as residing ‘in the Countie of Kent’, where she must have moved following the death of her husband Nathaniel. It’s possible that Helen and her daughter took up residence in the Canterbury area, where a number of siblings were living. However, the fact that her executor, his family, and at least one other person mentioned in the will resided in Eltham, closer to London, makes this a more likely location – especially as the family in question were famous for providing shelter to other recusants.

Sir Thomas More, from the portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Thomas More, from the portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger

Helen names her executor as Thomas Rooper of Eltham, son of Sir William Rooper. I’ve discovered that Rooper was an alternative spelling for Roper, and that this was in fact the famous Catholic family connected by marriage to Sir Thomas More. An earlier William Roper (1496 – 1578) married Margaret More, Sir Thomas’ daughter. It is his son Sir William Roper, of Eltham and St Dunstan’s, London, who is mentioned in Helen Spurrett’s will, as the father of her executor Thomas Roper. William Roper was married to Catherine Browne, from the same recusant family that supplied the Viscounts Montague. Thomas was married to Susan Winchcombe of Henwick. His elder brother Anthony lived at Well Hall, Eltham.

The first William Roper, husband of Margaret More

The first William Roper, husband of Margaret More

There are a number of references to Thomas Roper in Michael Questier’s book and it’s clear that the Ropers were one of the leading recusant families in southern England. Like the house of Viscount Montague in Southwark, referred to in the will of Nathaniel Spurrett, the Ropers’ home in Eltham seems to have attracted Catholics seeking refuge and protection. For example, it appears that William Colleton, one of the witnesses to Helen Spurrett’s will, was also a recusant (he is almost certainly the gentleman of Eltham who made his own will in 1640) and probably related in some way to the Catholic priest John Colleton who spent the last days of his life in the house of Sir William Roper, dying there in 1635.

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This entry was posted in Browne, Colleton, Hawkins, Langworth, Roper, Spurrett, Woodward. Bookmark the permalink.

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