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The Farmers: bandit, murdered lawyer, executioner & spy

Updated: May 10, 2023

Moreton Church where one Doccombe Farmer was Rector - when not out cattle rustling on Dartmoor!


The lord of the manor i.e. the Prior (& after 1541 the Dean of Canterbury) was represented at the manorial courts by his Steward(s) or Farmer(s) who ‘supervised’ this distant manor & would probably come from Exeter. The manor was ‘farmed’ out to him for a fee which he made sure to recoup from the tenants, including his travel expenses.

The Farmers* were often quite prominent members of the local gentry & increasingly lawyers who could uphold the Lord’s interests both in the manorial courts & if necessary in the County Assize and Royal Courts. They had in particular to stand up to the Courtenays of Powderham, lords of Moretonhampstead Manor, & the even more powerful branch of Courtenay who were Earls of Devon. At least one Doccombe Farmer was caught in the cross-fire when the two branches of that family clashed.

* Note the term 'farmer' in the agricultural sense is comparatively modern. The term 'husbandman' was traditonally used for such a role.

Some of the notable ones included:

A bandit Rector!

Philip de Vautort was presented to the Moreton[hampstead]* church living in 1309 by the new lord of the manor, Sir Hugh Courtenay. In 1350 Vautort was given ‘power of attorney authorising him, our beloved in Christ the Rector of Moreton[hampstead], to act as agent for the Convent of Christ Church Canterbury in our manor of Doccombe in Devonshire.’ A potential conflict of interests when appointed to safeguard Doccombe against its neighbour and its lord/his patron Courtenay?

Once he actually came to Moreton about 30 years later, Vautort soon became very unpopular for levying too many fees on his parishioners who complained to the Bishop. But most disconcerting to Doccombites was probably when they heard that two royal commissions had already been issued to the Earl of Devon to investigate Canterbury’s new ‘beloved in Christ agent’ for being part of a notorious violent band of marauding Dartmoor cattle stealers & deer poachers. Unfortunately, we have no records for his period of office at Doccombe – perhaps not surprising when the Archdeacon’s report on Moreton church in 1342 found ‘the missal is incomplete, the synodal torn & defective, the wedding veil & funeral pall lost, the chrysm bowl not waxed, & the altar not dedicated.’

* For unknown reasons Moreton became Moretonhampstead c 1430.

Another murder victim!

By contrast the men entrusted to run Doccombe in 1429, Nicholas Radford & Henry Brok, were lawyers of considerable standing in the West Country. They acted on behalf of many of the great & good of Exeter and Devon as well as serving on Royal Commissions. Radford was twice ‘elected’ a Member of Parliament. Unfortunately, such a high profile came at a cost when Radford found himself caught up in a power struggle between Devon’s two most powerful families in the local variation of the War of the Roses. He was described as being ‘of counsel with Lord Bonville against Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon’.

On the night of October 23rd 1455 Radford was dragged out of his bed at Cheriton Fitzpaine by the Earl of Devon’s eldest son at the head of band of about 100 armed men. One of these men with a ‘glayve smote the said Nicholas Radford a hidious dedlye stroke overthwarte the face & felled him to the grounde’, & then ‘gaf him a noder stroke upon his heade behinde that the brayne fell oute of heade’. Another man ‘wyth a knyfe feloninolye cutt the throat of Nicholas’ while another ‘wythe a longe dagger smote Nicholas behinde on his bake to the harte’.

Plaque at Upcott Barton, Radford's Devon home

Thus began the Devon version of the War of the Roses in which the Earl of Devon and Radford’s murderers ended up on the winning side and so were able to obtain full pardons for every crime they had committed! Meanwhile Henry Brok carried on efficiently running Doccombe Manor for Canterbury judging by the manorial records for that time.

Soldier, MP & executioner! Sir Thomas Denys, lord farmer of Doccombe c. 1495-1561, was by contrast to Radford a more fortunate survivor. A lawyer from a well-established Devon family of Holcombe Burnell (aka Longdown) about 8 miles east of Doccombe, he lived to over 80 & served in many local and national roles under 8 different sovereigns. As a soldier, administrator and MP he deftly witnessed and sometimes took part in the religious settlements of four Tudor monarchs, managing to remain loyal (and keep his head!) to all of them.

The high mark locally of his career was his role in conciliating the Prayer Book Rebellion leaders of 1549 on behalf of Exeter. The low point came as Recorder of Exeter in 1532 when he supervised the burning at the stake for heresy of the Exeter schoolmaster, Thomas Benet, who had posted placards on the Cathedral door denouncing the Pope as Antichrist. The burning took place just outside the eastern walls of Exeter where his son Robert later built the Livery Dole Alms-houses on Heavitree Road in recompense. Robert followed him as Farmer of Doccombe in the late 1500s.

Woodcut of Benet's burning in Foxe's Book of Martyrs 1570

Such a man so involved in many roles may perhaps have never visited Doccombe, delegating to a Stewards as his deputy. Nevertheless, the fullest manorial records date from his time as Farmer. It is also an intriguing coincidence that Denys had connections with the local tin industry e.g. the Great Court of Devon Tinners in 1510 took place at ‘Crockerntorre in the presence of Thomas Denys, Esquire’ as the representative of the ’lord King Duke of Cornwall’. That coincides in time with evidence of tin-mining activities by Doccombe tenants & possibly in Doccombe Manor. The Chagford Stannary Court is mentioned a number of times in the manorial courts - usually trying to resist its debt collectors entering the manor at this time. Sir John Shilston of Leign, a Doccombe farm, left 10 ‘tynne works in the Countie of Devonshire’ in his will of 1531. In 1532 'John Bowden of Doccombe' was a jurate of the Great Court of Tinners in 1532 at the height of the Devon tin industry. Whether this can also be linked to the possible remains of tin working on Mardon is subject to further investigation.

A Spymaster’s choice?

Perhaps the most surprising & perplexing document found so far in the Canterbury Archives is a letter signed by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s principal secretary & so-called ‘spymaster’ from 1573 until his death in 1590. Walsingham wrote to the ‘Deane & Chapter of Canterburie’ on July 7th 1587:

...’Understanding by my good fr[i]end Captaine Hoord that upon the receipt of my le[tte]rs you have made him a graunt of the parsonage of Hempsteed & the mano[r] of Dockome, accordingly as he desyred..

However, the captain is required to serve ‘in her Majestie’s (secret?) service’ & he asks for a Mr Francis Alford instead to ‘travail therein’. Captain Hoord served as a soldier in Ireland 1580-2 & trained soldiers in Plymouth in 1584. Otherwise we know nothing about him or his or Alford’s connection to Doccombe – so far. But we do have Walsingham’s signature on a Doccombe document!

Walsingham's signature on his letter in the Doccombe archives at Canterbury Cathedral


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