The Office of Steward of
The office of Steward is first mentioned in the records of
the town of Northampton during the fifteenth century. The Steward acted
as the clerk to the bailiffs at the Court of Record and as the mayor's
clerk at the Court Leet. He was appointed by the mayor and aldermen and
was paid by fees only. Robert Woodforde obtained the post of Steward
after agreeing to pay a pension to his predecessor. The Court of Record
(or Court of Husting) sat once every three weeks and was held before the
mayor, the bailiffs and the steward.
In addition to his clerical duties at this court, the post
of Steward enabled and allowed the diarist to undertake the clerkship of
other courts in villages near Northampton, and to accept commissions for
private legal work including the drawing up of leases, wills and
In the villages, Robert Woodforde's only regular commitment
during the time‑span of the diary was Grafton Court which he attended
monthly. In addition he occasionally attended the Court Leet at
Broughton, Wilby, Stoke, Pottesperry, Alderton, Slapton, and Blisworth,
the Court Baron at Kettering, the Sessions at Wellingborough (when
transferred there from Northampton), and the assizes at Daventry.
puritan beliefs, which demanded much self‑discipline, self‑analysis and
self‑denial provided a most suitable mental framework for his work as a
steward and lawyer. He was painstaking in his preparation of documents,
frequently working through the night in order to complete a lease or
will. His scrupulous attention to detail enabled him to detect subtle
errors in the legal documents drawn up by other clerkes. His analytical
mind was able to follow the drawn-out debates in Westminster Hall and to
judge with considerable accuracy the likely outcome.
His own religious convictions, though condemning evil and
wickedness, do not lead the diarist also to condemn the criminal. Where
a diary entry records the acts of a criminal or the sentence awarded or
carried out, Woodforde has frequently added a prayer that the Lord would
change the heart and the ways of the wicked. Although he does not condone
the actions of any lawbreaker, the diarist is more often concerned
about the harshness or injustice of the legal machinery and refers to the
lawbreaker in such terms as "the poore man".
The puritan community at All Saints provided many of the men who served in
the elected roles of mayor or bailiffs, and in consequence in each twelve
month period Robert Woodforde was forced to serve under a new elected
body, some of whom were his friends and others with whom he had a more
distant relationship. Despite the presumed formality of the court, the
payment to him of sums due to him for attending court as Steward appears
to have been rather informal. During a year in which there had been some
personal disagreement or conflict of personalities between the diarist and
the Mayor of Northampton, Robert frequently complains that he was forced
to wait for payment, and that consequently he was short of the money
necessary to feed and clothe his growing family.
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© Stephen Butt 2004 - rev
Robert was paid on the basis of the amount of business dealt with
by the court in any one day. Hence the diary contains many entries
which record whether a particular court had been favourable or
unfavourable in terms of remuneration and where the diarist seems to
present the paradox of a godly puritan praising God for providing
enough lawbreakers to assure him of good earnings:
" I prayed and went to the
Court which doth somewhat increase blessed be god. "
12 November 1638
During the outbreak of the plague in
1638, it appears that almost all communal activities (with the
notable exception of church services) were attenuated. The diary
entries which record that a court was small would imply that even
the level of general lawlessness and criminality had been reduced by
the intensity of the sickness.
A considerable degree of latitude
appears to have existed in terms of the payments received by the
diarist in attending the village courts. On several occasions money
is owed to him. Having received no payment for attending the Court
Leet at Broughton on several occasions, he visited the Lord of the
Manor, Mr Pentlowe, on 8 September 1638 with the intention of
receiving settlement for his previous duties. His hand‑to‑mouth
existence meant that when he was refused payment, the diarist did
not know how he was to honour his own debts:‑
I went to Broughton before I came home but Mr Pentlowe could
spare me no money although he owes me about 11 or 12 pound
.... I ingraved R.W. uppon an Ashtree in the little mount in
Mr Pentlowe's closse here at Wilby. I am now in trouble ...
but the Lord is able to send inlargment."
However, occasionally even the
well‑ordered life of Robert Woodforde is seen to be fallible, and
the diary records several instances of legal documents being lost:‑
" one Warren of harleston
wanteth a bond that hath bene formerly in the Court here but
neither I nor Crutchley can find it Lord I pray thee deliver
me from this feare if it be thy will for the Lords sake.
In the role of steward, Robert was witness to the
questioning and sentencing of petty criminals and in the diary there
are various references to the activities of the criminal
" Longstrap a dangerous theife
got out of the Towne gaole to night. " 11 November
" Longstrap is againe taken."
14 November 1637.
" Mathew Longstrap for
Burglary, & Thomas Nicholson for pursecuttinge were condemned
to day. & one John holman burnt in the hand. " 13
In addition to petty crime, he was
also witness to crimes and allegations arising from domestic and
" The devillish plot ag(ains)t
... one Mrs Clarke by one folwell of fosters booth was layd
open to day at the Sessions to day, folwell had procured one
fenikine his man to say he saw another in the act of
incontinence with her, which fenikine afterward confessed the
truth & cleared her name." 22 May 1638.
In the summer months of 1641 the
diarist agreed to act on behalf of several men in the village of
Wilby, possibly as a result of a request from his mother. However,
the legal action apparently went against the Wilby men and Robert
Woodforde was held to blame:‑
" I am busy in p(re)paringe
the declar(ation) (of) Wilby men adb. Mr pentlowe & I have
much indeavored and agreement but in vayne & meet with many
wrongful aspersions ... Lord pardon my faylinge in any
kind ... "
1 December 1640
" I heare of imputacons upon
me still by Wilby men, Lord p(ar)don them & comfort me."
6 December 1640
" oh my god whereas there have
bene difference betweene Wilby men & me, & that I have
receaved much wrong from them (as I remember havinge done the
busines about their Leases with all ...integrity of spirit
accordinge to the best of the knowledge & skill bestowed upon
me & havinge done what I could ... Lord give me hart to beare
iniuryes with all patience ... "
28 July 1641.
In the closing pages of the diary it seems that some form of
reconciliation had taken place. The diarist appears to have been
very sensitive to any incident or accusation which would have
tainted his character and his standing in the eyes of the mayor and
bailiffs. To him, the role of steward was an extension of his
puritan faith and his way of life. It was his "calling" as well as
his sole means of providing food and sustenance for his growing