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Sir John Shilston: Doccombe's Tudor Upstart

Updated: May 10, 2023

The marriage of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon 1515

Attributed to Jan Gossaert (1478–1532). Date circa 1516. Collection Woburn Abbey.

Mary was King Henry VIII's sister and the recent widow of only six weeks of Louis XII of France. Charles was the Duke of Suffolk, the King's 'closest friend' and the brother-in-law of a Doccombe tenant, Sir John Shilston. Their granddaughter and so Shilston's great-niece was the 'Nine Days Queen', Lady Jane Grey.

How had a mere Doccombe tenant joined such exalted company? As usurpers of the throne the Tudors needed to build their own base of support and assistance in ruling and controlling their newly won kingdom. Alongside trusted great churchmen and nobles willing to serve the new dynasty, 'newly raised' men or 'brilliant upstarts' with ability as soldiers, lawyers, financiers or churchmen, owing their positions to their new masters and showing ruthless loyalty were increasingly promoted.* To make a start these 'lowborn henchmen' needed to impress a patron with contacts at court. Fans of 'Wolf Hall' will recognise this career path in the case of two men named appropriately in this forum for St Thomas Becket - Wolsey and Cromwell#. Doccombe has its own local boy of relatively 'simple birth' who rose some way up the Tudor ladder.

* See 'Henry VII's New Men and the Making of Tudor England' by Steven Gunn (OUP Oxford 2016)

# See 'Thomas Cromwell: A Life' by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Allen Lane 2018)

Born sometime between 1467 and 1481, John Shilston was the son of Thomas, gentleman, and Alianore into a family long established in Devon: the name probably a toponymic originally connected to Shilston in Drewsteignton Parish, just across the River Teign from Doccombe’s woods. His father’s Inquisition Post Mortem in 1499* lists 1650 acres of property spread across 11 manors, including Shilston, Throwlegh and Gydlegh all within 5-10 miles of Doccombe. However, as the younger son John enjoyed only the profits during his life of five houses and 740 acres in the county settled on him by his elder brother, Robert (1467-1509).

*C 142/14/146 National Archives

Soon after John acquired a tenancy of his own at Doccombe manor.

‘Thomas Boughdon surrenders his tenancy. He held the tenancy by Indenture for a term of years of 2 tenements of Leghne & Wilwallon which he now relinquishes & allows to John Shylston for the remaining period of his aforesaid term {taken in 1489 for 80 years & so 68 remaining}. Therehappenenth to the lord no farleu {exit or entry fine} as is seen in the aforesaid indenture.’

Doccombe Manorial Court Roll March 1501

Leghne & Wilwallon were 2 tenements that made up what was known as Le Lane, later Leign and today Leign Farm. Unlike the other tenements that were let for lives, these 2 tenements were held for a period of years at the discretion of the lord. They had the highest rent at 21s 2d (2x the average) and 3½ ferlingates or c.105 acres plus an acre of orchard - 2x average though half the tenements had less than 40 acres. Grazing rights on Mardon Common were for 60 sheep, 3 ‘bovates’ and 2 horses.

Leign Farm today

Leign Farm is situated at the east end of the combe (narrow valley) where the Doggebrooke (Doccombe stream) runs through the middle of the old manor. It is bordered to the north by Mardon Common and to the south by St Thomas Cleave (steep wooded valley) woods.*

* See a video of a recent Leign Farm sale brochure (Jackson Stops) at:

The new tenant soon made a more dramatic appearance in the manorial court records.*

‘John Shylston assaulted Oliver Clotteworthy with a tethering-pole& drew blood. Fined 9d & distrained from having the pole. Oliver Clotteworthy assaulted John Shylston with a measuring pole. Fined 3d. Oliver Clotteworthy wool tucker & formerly of Teyngton Drewe {now Drewsteignton – about 7 miles from Doccombe} broke by force into the Doccombe house of John Shilston & assaulted his servant Joan Smyth, verbally abusing & maltreating her & had carnal concubinage with her etc. {i.e. sexual assault}. Oliver Clotteworthy made a pledge to pay a fine to the lord. The Portreeve was ordered to have Oliver appear at the next court to pay his fine.’ {He does not appear again!} * Doccombe Manorial Court Roll, April 1502.

This early criminal record did not seem to hinder his progress that began when he was recruited into military service by Lord Fitzwaren of Bampton who raised about 100 troops from Devon for his relative Viscount Lisle, a commander of Henry VIII’s first foreign venture. Incidentally Thomas Denys of Holcombe Burnell (Longdown)* about 6 miles from Doccombe also took part in the same campaign. He became Cardinal Wolsey’s chamberlain, good friends with the Courtenays (lords of Moretonhampstead manor), an MP alongside Shilston in 1529 and Lord Farmer of Doccombe.

* See Blog post on him

A captain on the expedition to Guienne in 1512, and again in the campaign against Tournai during 1513, Shilston is listed in the accounts* when the soldiers were paid off at Dover: 2s a day for service and 9d a day for the journey to their homes for those on horseback:

‘Sir John Gleneham (rec. by Sir John Shylston), John Cokkes (in margin Lord Fitzwaren, rec. by Sir John Shylston. Sir Edward Belknappe, Sir Wm. Evers (rec. by Rowland Thyrlwall or Tyrell?)58. Sir John Shylston, Sir James Framyngham (signature Jamys Framlyngham).' * Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1, 1509-1514 November 1513, 22-30 Pages 1084-1102

Some helpful income at a time when Doccombe’s manorial court was ordering Shilston to undertake repairs to his ‘hall-house and bake-house’. More significantly, military service brought Shilston to the attention of Charles Brandon, Viscount Lisle, magnate, courtier, and soldier, indeed the campaign’s ‘High Marshal and Lieutenant of the Whole Army’. The other captains and Lord Fitzwaren were related in some way to Brandon but John soon made up for this by marrying Anne Brandon, the Viscount’s sister. And notice in the above document that he has been knighted, no doubt through Brandon’s patronage.

Henry VIII tilting in front of Katherine of Aragon

The 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll is a painted roll of 36 vellum membranes sewn together. It is almost 60 feet long and 14​3⁄4 inches wide. The Roll depicts the joust called by Henry VIII in February 1511 to celebrate the birth of his son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, to Catherine of Aragon, on New Year's Day of that year. The Roll is one of the most ancient and most prized possessions of the College of Arms in London. It is believed to be the work of Thomas Wriothesley's workshop.

What a patron to impress and become related to! A large and athletic young man, Brandon was about the only member of Henry VIII's entourage capable of standing up to the king in a tournament and was soon recognized as the king's principal favourite. Moreover, his father was William Brandon, Henry Tudor's standard bearer at Bosworth Field in 1485 reportedly killed there by Richard III himself. His mother died in childbirth and, upon his grandfather's death in 1491, the orphaned boy went to the royal court. In Shilston’s second campaign, Brandon so distinguished himself at the sieges of Thérouanne and Tournai that the king created him the first Duke of Suffolk (one of only three English Dukes) thus also excluding the ducal ambitions of the De la Poles who had the last significant Yorkist claims to the throne.

The Battle of Spurs 1513

This horizontal format painting commemorates Henry VIII's early military triumph in France. On 16 August 1513 the French troops of Louis XII were defeated outside the besieged town of Therouanne where John Shilston earned a knighthood. A combined army of English and Imperial troops overwhelmed the French forces trying to relieve the siege. The speed with which the French cavalry retreated gave the event its name: The Battle of the Spurs. In this depiction Henry VIII is depicted on horseback at the centre of the melee. The French Chevalier Bayard kneels before him in surrender. Probably painted for Henry VIII to be set into the walls of Whitehall palace. Flemish school; artist unknown. Royal Collection Trust.

Back in Devon further rewards came also for Shilston with the help of Brandon’s patronage:

'Sir John Shilston. To be keeper of the park, master of the hunt, bailiff of the lordship or manor, keeper of the chief mansion and keeper of the woods of Dertyngton, Devon; with herbage and pannage, windfalls, and wages (specified); from Michaelmas 5 Hen. VIII., for life.' Del. Westm., 4 Feb. 5 Hen. VIII. S.B. Pat.5 Hen. VIII. p. 2, m. 12. [4715.]

Made a Devon J.P. in 1515, he appears on a Commission of The Peace listing* in some illustrious West Country company:

'26 June. 625. COMMISSION OF THE PEACE. Devon.—H. B[isho]p. of Exeter, Hen. Earl of Wiltshire, Rob. Willoughhy Lord Broke, John Bouchier, Lord Fitzwaren, Ric. Eliott, Lewis Pollard, Sir Peter Egecombe, Sir Edw. Pomery, Sir John Basset, Sir John Kyrkehem, Sir Th. Denys, Sir John. Shilston, Wm. Courteney, Wm. Carewe, Roger Greynfeld, Jas. Chudleygh, John Rowe, Rob. Yoo, John Gilbert, Th. Stukeley, Wm. Wadham, Ric. Reigne, John Crokker, And. Hillarsedon, John Caileway, Ric. Coffyn, Edm. Larder and John Asshe. Westm., 26 June.' * Pat. 7 Hen. VIII. p. 1, m. 2d.

Continuing to impress he was endorsed by the king himself as Devon’s sheriff for the following year:

'7 Nov. S. B. 1120. SHERIFF ROLL. [Devon.]—[*] Sir John Shelston {sic}, ..., Sir Edw. Gorge. Signed by the King, top and bottom. Those persons were chosen sheriffs whose names were pricked by the King, and are marked above by a prefixed asterisk.' Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII: November 1515, 1-15, Pages 291-306, Volume 2, 1515-1518

We can only speculate if Shilston was present at one of the most spectacular events of Henry’s reign. Brandon took seventy of his ‘followers’ when attending the king at the Field of the Cloth of gold at Guines near Calais in 1520 and played a prominent role alongside the king in the jousting that formed part of the festivities. Margaret of Austria's agent with the English army reported that Brandon was a 'second king' (LP Henry VIII, 1/2, no. 2171).

Brandon’s stewardships of royal estates, keeperships of royal houses, and offices in Wales were all steadily increased but his weakness was the complete lack of correlation between his land-holding and his military revenue. He managed to raise a large retinue of 1831 men, mostly through his offices in Wales. Moving up to North Wales and the Welsh marches where Lisle was chamberlain, Shilston became commander of loan, Anglesey in 1522; under steward, manor of Bromfield, Denbighshire 1522 (including stewardship of the 'king's new coal mine'); and Justice in North Wales. John used the positions to help Brandon’s recruitment drive.

'1522: Mem., that on the 23rd Sept. 14 Hen. VIII. Richard Owen, Griffith ap Hoell ap Tudor and others, granted for the county of Anglesea, before Sir John Shilston, Sir Wm. Gruff and Ric. Sneyd, 800 marks for the furnishing 400 demilances, and to find 100 archers on horseback and 200 footmen. If any refuse to contribute the sum to which they are assessed, the Chamberlain shall direct subpœnas and other processes against them without taking a fee.' Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 3, 1519-1523, pp. 1084-1101

Shilston saw action himself in France again in 1522 and 1523 when Henry had no qualms about appointing Brandon to command an army of more than 11,000 men to invade northern France. He was to co-operate with an army from the Habsburg Netherlands under Floris, count of Buren, to strike deep into France with the aim of exploiting the rebellion of Charles, constable of Bourbon. He reached Calais on 24 August, but problems of supply, plague, and co-ordination with his allies delayed the junction of the armies and the effective start of the campaign until 1 October. There after progress was stunning. On 18 and 20 October Ancre and Bray fell, opening the way across the Somme. On 28 October Montdidier surrendered. French sentries at Pont-Sainte Maxence, halfway from Montdidier to Paris, saw Suffolk's outriders. Chains were strung across the streets of Paris, the rich evacuated their goods to Orléans, and the bells of the city fell silent, ready to signal the English attack. But Suffolk and Buren, under orders to meet with Bourbon, headed not south but east towards Champagne, where the constable's campaign had petered out long before. They took more towns and castles, but by November 11th they were at Prémont, almost back on the borders of Habsburg territory. Then the coldest night in living memory froze their tired army into mutinous retreat. Suffolk stopped at Valenciennes, hoping to resume the campaign in the spring, but it became evident that his allies' priorities lay elsewhere. By mid-December he was at Calais and early next year he was home.

Returning back to the Welsh marches, Suffolk’s deputy and brother-in-law Sir John Shilston ran the lordships in cosy co-operation with the local elite. Riding roughshod over opposition from lesser men he took no notice whatsoever of the Council in the marches; Shilston’s spat with Clotteworthy in Doccombe suggested a violent temperament and this surfaced at times in his career beyond the manor. He was the defendant in a Court of Requests case of 1523-4* over his alleged extortion and abuse of his power over the wardship of two orphans as under steward of Bromfield manor in the Welsh marches. The plaintiff Elyse Decka, had obtained judgment against him before the commissioners for the marches of Wales, but complained that Shilston had ignored this and had said ‘in open audience if there came an hundred such commandments to him he would not obey’. Shilston had further threatened that ‘if he tarried or dwelled in Bromfield the space of seven years he would tread on his skirts for his busy [law]suit making’, a threat he had already made good by false imprisonment and menace of assault since the litigation began. Decka, a yeoman of the guard, saw the king at Hereford and Henry VIII signed a directive which Shilston was brave or foolhardy enough to ignore! Summoned before Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with executive and judicial responsibilities over much of northern England, Shilston impudently demanded: ‘What is [it] for me to be steward of Bromfield if the King’s commissioners should break any order that I had made?’ More delivered a typically stinging rebuke: ‘The King’s commissioners be set there to order you and all other great officers and all the King’s subjects in those parts’. * REQ 2/bundle XII/#154 National Archives

It was no wonder that Shilston was replaced when Suffolk lost all his Welsh offices in 1525. Though their successors were apparently far worse than anything in Shilston’s day with disorder and maladministration.*

* See 'Charles Brandon: Henry VIII's Closest Friend' by Steven Gunn (Amberley Publishing 2015) * See entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography also by Professor Gunn: (Sign in with your library card)

In 1529 he failed to make Devon sheriff (perhaps the king remembered his insubordination in the Deka case?) but the Duke of Suffolk was by now a leading Councillor, and it was doubtless at his nomination and influence that Shilston was chosen one of the 2 MPs for Southwark Borough*, where he may have lodged in Suffolk’s house, Suffolk Place, a large palace decorated with fashionable terracottas. Incidentally the two shire members for Devon were Sir William Courtenay (Lord of Moretonhampstead) and Sir Thomas Denys (Lord Farmer of Doccombe); while Thomas Cromwell was MP for Taunton Borough.

He can only have attended the first session of the first parliament in six years. The King summoned it in order to settle what was called his 'great matter', his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, which the Papacy in Rome was blocking. It began in dramatic style with the new Chancellor Sir Thomas More’s attack on his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey – ‘the great wether [castrated ram] which is of late fallen as you all know, so craftily, so scabedly’.*

* See

In the first session (4/11/1529-17/12/1529) an Act was passed to prevent the Clergy being subject to separate canonical courts. Instead they were now to be tried in the same way as everybody else in England was and not be looked upon favourably by the courts. Did Shilston appreciate that this was the issue over which Henry II and his former Chancellor, Archbishop Becket, had become so fatally opposed and led to Tracy’s grant of Doccombe to Canterbury 350 years before?

He must have fallen seriously ill during the session as he made his will* while ‘visitid with sicknes’ on December 10th 1529 probably in Suffolk Palace – it was witnessed by Thomas Holmes, a servant of the Duke.

* PROB 11/24/42 National Archives

Suffolk Place Southwark

Suffolk House in Southwark, Surrey, town house of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, (c. 1484-1545). Seen here centre left with round turrets situated on the west side of Borough High Street, the main thoroughfare from London Bridge and the City of London to Canterbury and Dover, as taken by the pilgrims to St Thomas Becket’s tomb. Directly opposite is St George’s church where Sir John Shilston was buried after probably dying in the house where Emperor Charles V, Henry VIII, and Edward VI among others were entertained.*#

* See Suffolk Place, Southwark, London: a Tudor palace & its terracotta architectural decoration by Terence Paul Smith et al (MOLA 2014)

This etching with hand-colouring is in Brayley’s ‘History of Surrey’ 1844 (British Museum – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence) based on original drawing in blue pencil by Anton van den Wyngaerde (1525-1571), Sutherland Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Shilston died childless as after asking to be buried in nearby St. George’s Church, Southwark, he divided most of his property between his wife, whom he made sole executrix, his nieces Agnes and Elizabeth (daughters of Robert), a ward and his servants.

Here is transcription of Shilston's will:

Its salient part for Doccombe reads:

Item I will that Dame Anne my wife shalhave all my tytle terme interest and possessions of and in all my lands and ten[emen]ts lying w[ith]in the manour of Doccomb[e] in the Countie of Devonshire named Mylleland and Le Laigh or knowen by any other name wherein I have estate for term of yeres ...’ {39 years remained on the 80 years’ lease}

Dame Anne was also the recipient of at least 10 tin workings around the edge of Dartmoor. A list of them with notes on their possible location using the pioneering research of Dr Tom Greeves* on the Dartmoor tin industry is here.# Access to Shilston’s Inquisition Post Mortem (see below) when the National Archives reopen may also help.

* The Devon Tin Industry 1450-1750. An Archaeological & Historical Survey by T.A.P. Greeves (Unpublished PhD Thesis Exeter University 1981)


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Another point of note is the legacy to his wife of ‘the warde and mar[r]iage of Elizabeth Shilston daughter and heire of Robert Shilston’, Sir John’s niece. Wardships and marriage contracts were a valuable source of income. The will shows that Shilston had successfully fought off an earlier challenge from Elizabeth’s mother for this:*

Chancery pleadings addressed to Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Cardinal as Lord Chancellor. Plaintiffs: William Trywynnard, gentleman, and Jane, his wife, late the wife of Robert Shilston. Defendants: Sir John Shilston. Subject: Detention of deeds relating to lands, rents, and services in Prankerswyk (Pancrasweek about 40 miles from Doccombe on the Cornish border) and abduction into Wales of Johane and Elizabeth, daughters of the said Robert. Devon. Date: 1515-1518.' * C 1/448/46/IMAGE 80 (Mutilated)

Elizabeth married Sir Peter Courtenay of Ugbrooke; a daughter married into the Clifford family and their descendant Lord Clifford lives today at Ugbrooke House where he kindly met an MHS group on a tour there. Sir Peter and Lady Elizabeth have a splendid tomb in Chudleigh parish church.

St Martin & St Mary's church, Chudleigh, Devon - monument to Sir Piers & Lady Elizabeth Courtenay (detail)

Another ward or perhaps an illegitimate daughter is also referred to in the will:

‘Item I will that one Jaine whiche was gyven me and now remayning w[ith] my sister Cawfyn shalhave xxli {£20} to hir mar[r]iage. ...if my said wife dye within the said terme that than the said lands and ten[emen]ts {i.e. Leign} to remayne to the said Jaine which ys in the Custody of my sister Caffin.’

Shilston died a few weeks after writing his will. A writ of ‘diem clausit extremum* (to ascertain the lands of which ‘on his last day he died seised’, and whether they could be reclaimed into the king's hands) was issued on January 23rd 1530. * C 142/51/89 (unavailable during the current closure of the National Archives)

Doccombe's 'Tudor upstart' had made a modest ascent up the pyramid of state and society but unlike some of his more illustrious contemporaries he had not fallen back down and he had not lost his head!


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