The Woodforde Family

A History of the Woodforde Family from 1300



The Office of Steward of Northampton

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  agreements. 

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.

Robert's staunch 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.


Comments and contributions to this site are welcome.
Please email us

Stephen Butt 2004 - rev 29/02/04



Robert the Steward

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 fraternity:‑ 

" Longstrap a dangerous theife got out of the  Towne gaole to night. "  11 November 1637.

" 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 December 1637.

In addition to petty crime,  he was also witness to crimes and allegations arising from domestic and marital disputes:

" 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 family.