Cheshire feuds

Cheshire was a hotbed of violent gentry rivalries. The violence wasn’t confined to Cheshire itself: in 1539, two killings occurred in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The first: on 10 February 1539, a coroner’s inquest was held over the body of gentleman Richard Cholmeley of Cheshire, who lay “feloniously murdered” near St Paul’s. The inquest reported that two weeks before at mid-morning he’d entered the cathedral churchyard, minding his own business.

Old St Paul’s – source

As he peacefully walked by the church, Cholmeley was suddenly beset by five men: John Mainwaring, Robert Jones, Thomas Potter, William Edwards, & Hugh Griffith. They attacked Cholmeley and gave him a wound on the back of his head that penetrated to his brain. Cholmeley was taken to a nearby house where he languished for more than a week before dying. In the meantime, the killers bolted, running to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, about 3 kilometres away.


The jurors also stated that the week before Randall Mainwaring, gentleman of Swanley, Cheshire, had met with the five men in a tavern to order the killing. The five killers were from Cheshire originally and were Mainwaring retainers; John Mainwaring was presumably a relative. He and another of the five were servants in the household of the baby Prince Edward, positions they’d gained through patronage.


This was, in other words, an assassination, probably commissioned in Cheshire, with the order for the hit conveyed by Randall Mainwaring and then carried out by metropolitan henchmen. Or at least that’s what the coroner’s inquest report suggests. Though coroner’s inquest reports can never be taken at face value – for instance, the fight was likely not as one-sided as the report indicates – assassination is a plausible scenario, as the Mainwarings and Cholmeley has been engaged in an ongoing feud.

The murder was a settling of scores in a dispute that had rumbled for years between Richard Cholmeley and Randall Mainwaring. The two men hated one another – not just because they were in different political factions in Cheshire politics, but because they were closely related. Interestingly, you’d never know they were related from the hefty paper trail their quarrels left in legal records. I found it out only when I stumbled across it in 16th Century pedigrees, which show multiple relationships by marriage.

1- Randall Mainwaring’s wife was Richard Cholmeley’s sister.

2- Randall Mainwaring’s patron & namesake (and pres relative) was Sir Randall Mainwaring of Over Peover, major power in Cheshire politics circa 1539. Plausibly he’s the one who ordered the hit on Richard Cholmeley – even though he was married to Richard ‘s mother.

And to get even more convoluted and soap-opera-ish, Richard Cholmeley’s mother (Mrs Sir Randall) was née Elizabeth Brereton; she was the sister of Sir William Brereton, one of the men executed with Anne Boleyn for (allegedly) treasonously committing adultery with her.

Before his death, Sir William Brereton had been patron to both his nephew Richard Cholmeley and Randall Mainwaring. As the marriage relationships between them suggest, up until the mid-1530s the Mainwarings and the Cholmeleys had been closely allied with one another. But as Cholmeley was murdered on the order of his brother-in-law, likely with the consent and quite possibly ultimately at the behest of his stepfather, obviously something had gone wrong by 1539.

We can trace the enmity at least a couple of years before 1539: in 1537, two years before the assassination, Randall Mainwaring and Richard Cholmeley had a mini-battle with one another when Cholmeley (allegedly) ambushed Mainwaring as he returned to Cheshire from London.

A minstrel in Sir Randall Mainwaring’s household, John Holden, gave some fascinating testimony about an encounter with Richard Cholmeley on the morning of this affray. Holden was a story-teller, and his deposition reads like the script for a film. Holden was lodging at an inn in the town of Cholmondeley, where Richard had his chief residence. Woken up early in the morning by a lot of noise, he left his chamber, looked out, and saw Richard Cholmeley on the drawbridge, “booted and spurred,” with 10 other armed men on horseback.


Cholmeley spotted Holden and called out (presumably derisively) “how fare my father and my lady mother?” He then tossed Holden, his stepfather’s household musician, two gold coins and bid him “play to the field”: to pipe his (Richard Cholmeley’s) men into battle.

From the town of Cholmondeley, Richard rode north towards the main road from London to Chester (the current A51), collecting his brother and more men along the way. Later that same day, Holden noted, he viciously attacked and gravely injured his brother-in-law Randall Mainwaring.

Usually when historians find family relationships among people they’re researching, they assume this is evidence they were part of the same faction or alliance. That is, of course, often a reasonable inference, as kinship bonds were crucial to clans and factions. But sometimes the closeness of family relationships heightened factional enmity, as betrayal of some kind becomes part of the mix. In this case, we don’t know why Cholmeley fell out with the Mainwarings. Whatever it was, the hostility culminated in his death in 1539 in St Paul’s churchyard, far from Cheshire.

After gentleman Randall Mainwaring of Cheshire ordered the assassination of brother-in-law Richard Cholmeley in London in 1539, Cholmeley’s killers fled to sanctuary at Westminster. This didn’t solve their problem. Though this was a Cheshire feud, the Mainwarings probably planned to execute the murder in London because their strategy involved sanctuary. It was risky, but John Mainwaring and the other accused killers probably thought that they’d get away with it through the sanctuary and pardon combination.

I’ve written a lot about the sanctuary and pardon combination; the basic idea was assassinate your patron’s rival; run to sanctuary; wait while your patron (who perhaps originally ordered the hit) lobbied for a pardon; emerge from sanctuary with pardon in hand; walk free. Easy-peasy.

So presumably Cholmeley’s five killers – John Mainwaring, Robert Jones, Thomas Potter, William Edwards, and Hugh Griffith – expected to wait in sanctuary while one or both of the Randall Mainwarings organized their pardons for them.

But that didn’t work. On 15 February 1539, five days after the coroner’s inquest, John Mainwaring and his four companions were seized from the Westminster sanctuary on the orders of Lord Privy Seal, Thomas Cromwell.


The five men appeared in court to face homicide charges. As might be expected, John Mainwaring pleaded sanctuary: his plea was recorded in English, which sometimes the recorders at King’s Bench did to indicate the unlearned nature of an accused person’s response to a charge.


Mainwaring said he’d taken sanctuary “and there I remained in God’s peace and the king’s until…by my Lord Privy Seal’s commandment I was fetched out, contrary to my will.” He asked to be restored to sanctuary, “according to the king’s grant there to the monastery of Westminster.” Mainwaring’s co-accused took a different tack: they also said that they had sanctuary privilege but emphasized they’d come out voluntarily. They seemed to assume that they were to give evidence to land the bigger fish who’d ordered the killing before being returned to sanctuary.

There was nothing technically wrong with these pleas of sanctuary – they had the right to claim sanctuary and (usually) those rights had been upheld in the courts. This time, though, things were different, and the accused must have known that as soon as they walked into court.

When the five accused came into court, there were four judges on the judicial bench. Two were expected: John Hales, baron of the Exchequer (the professional) and the mayor of London (ex officio). Two were unexpected: Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal, and Richard Rich, Cromwell lackey.

This was not normal: Cromwell did not sit on gaol delivery commissions, though no doubt as Lord Privy Seal he could if he wanted. He evidently did want in this case because he needed to assure that the (illegal) breach of sanctuary that he’d ordered would stand up in court. And that meant that when John Mainwaring pleaded that he should be restored to sanctuary because he’d been seized against his will by orders of the Lord Privy Seal, he was making that argument to… the Lord Privy Seal.

So when he made that plea the king’s attorney simply argued that it was “insufficient.” The justices concurred. The proceedings then moved directly to sentence: ie they skipped trial by jury, simply declaring the men guilty (though they’d all entered not-guilty pleas). The four men were sentenced to execution. Two were hanged on 19 Feb. in St Paul’s churchyard, the site of the slaying. The other two were sent to Cheshire for their execution to make sure the message was delivered to the home audience as well as in the metropolis.


These proceedings were, to put it succinctly, highly irregular. The Mainwaring gang was executed without trial, though interestingly the whole process is recorded on the King’s Bench roll as if it were normal.

It would be easy to see Cromwell – generally not a fan of sanctuary, though he himself had used it when convenient – as responding this way because he so much disliked sanctuary; but in other cases, even those connected to this specific Cheshire feud (as below), he was content to allow its use, even in 1539.

This, I think, was more specifically about the Mainwarings and Cheshire politics. Quite possibly Cromwell was especially enraged that two of the killers had been employed in the household of Prince Edward – and there’s some evidence that it was through Cromwell that they’d received those positions. Those two household servants were hanged in the prince’s livery – probably a pointed message to other royal household staff that they were not to take on side gigs as assassins for aristocratic patrons, especially when the assassination was contrary to Cromwell’s policy objectives.

Cromwell was also evidently tired of the ongoing Cholmeley-Mainwaring feud specifically and violence amongst the gentry in Cheshire more generally, as he tried to bring Cheshire more firmly under the crown’s (his) control in the later 1530s. It was typical that the “message” sent by the executions of John Mainwaring and his gang was confined to the underlings; Randall Mainwaring, the alleged procurer of the killing, was acquitted, Sir Randall Mainwaring, clan chief, never accused.

The nakedness of the manipulation in this case is a bit stunning. Cromwell had from the beginning of his time in power “arranged” things in the courts, but he’d always made it look as if procedures were being followed. By 1539 he evidently felt that the mask could slip. This was not, however, either the end of sanctuary-seeking, nor even the end of the Cheshire feuds that year – though the next instalment would have a rather different dénouement!

About two months after the “Mainwaring gang” was summarily executed, another remarkably similar homicide unfolded. The similarities were not coincidental, as this second death was almost certainly connected to the first: a main protagonist in this drama, Sir John Donne of Utkinton, Cheshire, was the son-in-law of Sir Randall Mainwaring, the patron of the men who’d committed the first killing. But though the killing itself was remarkably analogous to the Cholmeley slaying in January/February, the outcome for the slayers was quite different – including a successful use of sanctuary after the denial of refuge for the Cholmeley killers.

There are two versions of this April 1539 homicide. It, like the first death, took place in St Paul’s churchyard. In version 1 from the coroner’s inquest report, Sir John Donne had gone with three retainers to the cathedral for a business meeting.

At the same time another Cheshire gentleman Thomas Holcroft and his men came into the cathedral and spotted Donne. Donne and Holcroft, in opposing factions of the Cheshire political scene, did not speak inside the church. But when Holcroft saw Donne and his men leave, he and his retinue hastened out of the church by another door and circled around to confront them outside. The two parties met on the stairs of the main south door to the church.


Holcroft challenged Donne by throwing down his cloak and an affray ensued. In the course of the fight, one of Donne’s men gave one of Thomas Holcroft’s men, Ralph Holcroft, a mortal wound. The inquest jurors thus found that Donne’s man had feloniously slain Holcroft’s man and that Donne and his other retainers were accessories. Donne and his men, as usual in such a scenario, fled to sanctuary at Westminster. Though they were accused of the death, the general tenor of the inquest report cast moral responsibility on Thomas Holcroft for inciting the quarrel, perhaps to set up a pardon.

The second version of the killing was different – and bears a (suspiciously?) close resemblance to the report on Richard Cholmeley’s death two months earlier. It’s from an appeal (private prosecution) of the killing by the victim’s closest relative, his brother. Not surprisingly, this appeal paints Donne and his men as intentional killers. They lay in wait in St Paul’s churchyard intending to assault Ralph Holcroft as he walked by the cathedral. He’d been in God’s peace and the king’s, minding his own business, when attacked.

There’s no mention of Ralph Holcroft’s patron Thomas Holcroft (presumably a relative) nor any other of T Holcroft’s men; according to this version Ralph was just walking by himself when for no reason at all Donne’s gang attacked him and stabbed him to death.

It is, of course, impossible to say which of these versions is more reliable (or if they’re both largely fictive). My money is on the coroner’s inquest version as closer to “what really happened.” My scenario: Holcroft spotted Donne and his men at the cathedral, in the very location that Cholmeley, one of Holcroft’s allies, had been killed not long before by Donne’s relatives, the Mainwarings. So Holcroft felt honour-bound to respond and the affray ensued.

Most striking to me about this case is the flight of Donne and his men to Westminster. As Mainwaring allies (or even just as Cheshire gentry) they could not fail to know that the sanctuary had been entirely unsafe as a refuge for Richard Cholmeley’s killers two months before. Yet Donne felt that he could trust it. We don’t know how long he and his men stayed there. We do know, however, that in July 1539, only three months later, Sir John Donne and Thomas Holcroft were both reappointed as Justices of the Peace for Cheshire (along with Sir Ralph Mainwaring).


Donne’s continued inclusion on the roster of JPs when he had an accessory to homicide charge over his head seems especially odd. It does seem to mean that no crown indictment for the homicide was proceeding and that he was not in Cromwell’s bad books. Ralph Holcroft’s brother’s appeal hadn’t yet been filed; that might have been motivated by Thomas Holcroft’s frustration at the crown’s lack of movement on the felony prosecution.

The ultimate result of that appeal was (as was usual) a private deal between Donne and the Holcroft family. This deal was arbitrated at the highest levels, by the Privy Council itself: Sir John had to pay Thomas Holcroft the relatively small amount of 100 marks (~£66) “for amends.” It’s notable, perhaps, that by the time this bargain was sealed Thomas Cromwell was no longer on the scene.


Both Holcroft and Donne went on to serve as JPs, MPs, and other forms of royal service for decades to come. In the end, no one was deemed responsible judicially for Ralph Holcroft’s death.


By the time this story wrapped up, Thomas Cromwell himself had died, the victim, one might argue, of the irregular proceedings he had used so often on others.

Sources: see my Seeking Sanctuary (OUP, 2017), ch 6.

Top image Leonhard Beck.

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