This website had its origins in my curiosity about a reference to the Langworth family in the will of my maternal 12 x great grandfather Magnus Fowle, a yeoman farmer of Mayfield, Sussex, who died in 1595. My ancestor’s will includes a rather hostile comment about his neighbour Arthur Langworth, brother of Dr John Langworth, the ‘church papist’ whose religious sympathies I discussed in the previous post. This animosity might lead us to conclude that Magnus Fowle did not share the Langworth family’s well-documented Catholic sympathies (three of Dr Langworth’s children, for example, married into known recusant families). However, another brief reference in Magnus’ will paints a rather different picture, and in this post I want to take that as a starting-point for discussing another prominent recusant family with links to my own family history. In doing so, I’ll be drawing on material already published on my family history blog, Past Lives.

An old map of east Sussex

An old map of east Sussex (Ashburnham is at bottom right of the image)

The very first beneficiary named in Magnus Fowle’s will turns out to be the most intriguing: ‘I give to Elynor Ashbourneham the daughter of Mrs Isabell Ashbourneham Twentie Shillings in gold.’ The Ashburnhams were an ancient Sussex family, associated with the village whose name they bore, which was near Battle and about fifteen miles from Magnus’ home in Mayfield. The Isabel Ashburnham mentioned in Magnus Fowle’s will was almost certainly the widow of John Ashburnham who sat in Parliament for Sussex in 1554. Isabel was the daughter of John Sackville of Buckhurst in Kent. John and Isabel Ashburnham had six children, of whom the Eleanor Ashburnham mentioned in my ancestor’s will was the fourth. Apparently she died unmarried. Intriguingly, after her husband’s death in 1563, Isabel Ashburnham spent her later years in Lambeth and in 1584 was buried at St Mary Overy in Southwark, a church which had powerful associations for my Fowle ancestors. Bartholomew Fowle, said by some sources to have been the brother of Magnus’ father Gabriel, was the last prior of the Augustinian house at St Mary Overy at the time of its dissolution in 1539. I plan to write about Bartholomew in another post.

St Mary Overy, Southwark, by Wenceslas Hollar

St Mary Overy, Southwark, by Wenceslas Hollar

It would appear that the Ashburnhams remained loyal to the traditional Catholic faith, at least initially, despite the upheavals of the sixteenth century. John Ashburnham junior, the son and heir of John and Isabel, and the elder brother of Eleanor, had an accusation of recusancy laid against him in 1574. By 1588 he had amassed so many unpaid fines that his estate at Ashburnham was sequestered by the Crown and later farmed out by Queen Elizabeth to her master cook, William Cordell. It was only recovered when John died and his son, another John, who presumably did not share his father’s religious scruples, became head of the family. The estate was forfeited again during the Civil War, due to the family’s support for the King, but returned to them at the Restoration. (Ashburnham House was eventually sold off and partly demolished in the 1950s. It’s now a Christian conference centre: I remember spending a weekend there in the 1970s). I wonder if it was the family’s loss of their estate that prompted Isabel Ashburnham’s move to Southwark, and perhaps Magnus Fowle’s generous gesture towards her daughter? The question still remains as to why a yeoman farmer was leaving money to a member of a distinguished gentry family. At the same time, I can’t help wondering whether Magnus’ association with the Ashburnhams indicates that he shared their religious principles. Although we know that his father Gabriel, a master at the Free Grammar School in Lewes who died in 1555 during the reign of Queen Mary, remained true to the traditional faith, I have no evidence that Magnus was a recusant. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t sympathetic to those who were brave enough to risk all for the religion of their (and his) forefathers, especially if there were long-standing links between the two families, perhaps connected with their shared patronage of the priory of St Mary Overy. The preamble to Magnus’ will provides few clues to his religious affiliation. Certainly there isn’t the appeal to Mary and the saints that we find in his grandfather’s will, but neither is there any sign of the sole dependence on the Passion and merits of Christ that we find in those of some of his more ardent Protestant descendants. Instead, there is a simple evocation of the Trinity, which Michael Questier claims was often a feature of Catholic wills at this period.

Ashburnham House, before its partial demolition in the 1950s

Ashburnham House, before its partial demolition in the 1950s

The recurrence of similar names in successive generations of the Ashburnham family, together with contradictions between the available sources, can make understanding their story confusing. So it’s probably useful to begin with a simple account of their journey through the turbulent sixteenth century. William Ashburnham died in 1530. Since his son John (1), who was married to Lora Berkeley, predeceased him, William left his estate to his grandson, another John (2), who was born in about 1528. It was this John Ashburnham who married Isabel Sackville and served as Member of Parliament for Sussex under Queen Mary. John (2) and Isabel Ashburnham had five children: John (3), Thomas, Anne, Margaret and Eleanor – the latter being the beneficiary of Magnus Fowle’s will. Eleanor’s older brother John (3), who was born in about 1545, inherited the family estate on his father’s death in 1563. It was this John (3) who was accused of recusancy in 1574 and, because of unpaid fines, had his estate sequestered by the Crown in 1588. He married Mary Fane and they had six children: Katherine, John (4), Thomas, George, William and Mary. John (3) died in 1592. His son, John (4), seems not to have shared his father’s religious principles and successfully recovered the family estate. He married Elizabeth Beaumont, Baroness of Cramond and was knighted.

Sir John Ashburnham (1593) by Hieronymus Custodis

Sir John Ashburnham (1593) by Hieronymus Custodis

Or, to put it more simply:

William Ashburnham (1) died in 1530

John Ashburnham (1), son of William, married Lora Berkeley

John (1) and Lora had a son – John Ashburnham (2) (c. 1528 – 1563) – who married Isabel Sackville (1545 – 1592)

John (2) and Isabel had these children:

John Ashburnham (3) (1545 – 1592)

Thomas (1549 – )




John (3) married Mary Fane – they had these children:

Katherine (c. 1570)

(Sir) John (4) (1571)





The names in bold are those referred to in the Recusant Rolls – see below. It’s also helpful to see events in the Ashburnhams’ family history in the context of key national events, as in this timeline:

c.1528  Birth of John Ashburnham (2)

1530    Death of William Ashburnham

c.1544 Marriage of John Ashburnham (2) and Isabel Sackville

1545    Birth of John Ashburnham (3)

1547    Death of Henry VIII – accession of Edward VI

c.1552 Birth of Eleanor Ashburnham

1553    Accession of Queen Mary 1

559   Death of Mary – accession of Elizabeth I

1563  Death of John Ashburnham (2)

1568  Marriage of John Ashburnham (3) and Mary Fane

1571  Birth of (Sir) John Ashburnham (4)

1584  Death of Isabel Ashburnham

1592 Death of John Ashburnham (3)

I’ve managed to find the names of various members of the Ashburnham family in the Recusant Roll for 1592. According to one source:

The rolls recorded the punishments and fines of those who refused to conform to the Anglican doctrine. After 1581, recusancy became an indictable offence, so recusants often appear in Quarter Session records and the fines levied were recorded in the Pipe Rolls. After 1592 a separate series of rolls called Recusant Rolls was created which continued until 1691 (previously recusancy was recorded in the Pipe Rolls). The Rolls could include other dissenters or nonconformists and show the fines and property or land surrendered by the accused.

1592 was a critical year for the Ashburnham family. It was the year in which John Ashburnham (3), who had inherited but then forfeited the family estate on account of his recusancy, died. His death offered the prospect of the estate being returned to its owners, once John’s son and heir, John Ashburnham (4), conformed to the state religion.

I’ve obtained a copy of the Recusant Roll for 1592. It’s written in legal and abbreviated Latin: I took Latin ‘O’ Level some forty years ago, so my knowledge of the language is a little rusty, but with the help of a dictionary I’ve been able to make some sense of the document. The Roll is organised by county, and in the section dealing with Sussex I’ve found two long passages which appear to detail the sequestration of the estate of John Ashburnham (3) and its occupation by ‘Willelmus Cordell magister coquus coquine domine Regine’ – William Cordell, Queen Elizabeth’s master cook – and (I think) its return to the Ashburnhams on John’s death.

There are two brief references to Eleanor Ashburnham in the Recusant Roll. In the first ‘Ellionara Ashburneham’ appears in a list of recusants fined £40. Eleanor’s name comes after that of one Eleanor Parker, a spinster of Willingdon, a village about fifteen miles south-west of Ashburnham; she is said to be ‘de eadem’ – of the same – and also a spinster. There is a similar reference a few pages further on in the document. The first list in which Eleanor’s name appears includes three other members of the Ashburnham family: Mary and Katherine Ashburnham, both said to be of Ashburnham and both spinsters, and William Ashburnham of Dallington, which was about five miles north of Ashburnham. Mary, Katherine and probably William were all the children of the recusant John Asburnham (3) who died in 1592. Clearly, they did not share the desire of their brother John (4) to conform to the Church of England, but instead maintained their father’s recusant principles.

There is a reference elsewhere in the document to a William Ashburnham of Ashburnham, but I’m not sure if he is identical with William of Dallington. There are also two references to a Thomas Ashburnham, who is probably another sibling of Mary, Katherine and William, but it’s also possible he was Eleanor’s brother of that name, who is mentioned in their mother Isabel’s will of 1584.

To summarise: we know that in 1592, three years before her name appears in Magnus Fowle’s will, Eleanor Ashburnham, the unmarried, middle-aged daughter of John and Isabel Ashburnham (she was probably about 40 years old at the time), was fined for holding fast to her late brother’s recusant principles. She was joined in this by two of her nieces and at least one of her nephews, and perhaps by her own brother. It’s worth noting that Eleanor’s nephews and nieces would have been in their late teens or early twenties at the time. They were all born in the reign of Elizabeth I and thus represented a new generation determined to hold on to the faith of their ancestors, despite the increasingly heavy penalties for doing so. If Eleanor Ashburnham was still being fined £40 on a regular basis three years later, when Magnus Fowle wrote his will, it makes his bequest to her of ‘Twentie Shillings in gold’ more understandable. It also makes it more likely that Magnus was sympathetic to Eleanor’s religious stance, even though he felt unable, for whatever reason, to adopt that stance himself and face the legal consequences.

The Vale of Ashburnham, by JMW Turner

The Vale of Ashburnham, by JMW Turner

I’m not an expert on Tudor history, but what I’ve read in the works of Eamon Dufy and other writers on this period makes me wary of assigning definitive religious identities to my sixteenth-century ancestors. When Magnus Fowle was writing his will, the separation from Rome under Henry VIII, the brief restoration of Catholicism under Mary, and the renewed separation under Elizabeth, were fairly recent memories. Magnus would have been baptised a Catholic, married in a church that was officially Protestant, perhaps christened his children in a restored Catholic ceremony, and was buried in a Protestant churchyard – and it’s perfectly possible that all of these ceremonies occurred in the same parish church. The divisions between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’  identities were yet to harden, and the character of the separated ‘Church of England’ was still in the process of development. A (growing) minority identified themselves as proudly Protestant, and on the other side the recusants, like Eleanor Ashburnham, were defiantly Catholic. But most people, whatever their sympathies, probably kept their heads down and quietly conformed to whichever religious regime was currently in power. As we’ve noted in earlier posts, there were many at this time who were described as ‘church papists’  – that is to say, people who attended or even, like Dr John Langworth, officiated at services of the official Anglican church, in order not to attract heavy fines or other penalties, but secretly maintained their Catholic faith and practices. I wonder if my ancestor Magnus Fowle was one of them?