Sir John RAINSFORD of Bradfield

Born: BEF 1482

Died: 1559, Bradfield, Essex, England

Father: John RAINSFORD (Sir)

Mother: Anne STARKEY

Married 1: Elizabeth KNYVETT BEF 1503

Married 2: Alice ? AFT Feb 1508

Married 3: Winifred De PYMPE (dau. of John De Pympe and Phillippa St. Leger)

The details in this biography come from the History of Parliament, a biographical dictionary of Members of the House of Commons.

Born by 1482, only son of Sir John Rainsford of Bradfield by Anne, dau. and coheiress of Sir Humphrey Starkey of Wouldham, Kent. Married first, by 1503, Elizabeth, dau. and h. of Edward Knyvett of Suffolk, perhaps secondly to a woman named Alice; and thirdly Winifred, dau. and heiress of John Pympe of Nettlestead and Phillipa St. Leger, Kent, d.s.p. Suc. family 1521. Kntd. 1 Jul 1523. J.p. Essex 1523-30, 1536-d.; commr. subsidy 1524, benevolence 1544/45, musters 1546, relief 1550, goods of churches and fraternities, Colchester 1553; other commissions 1530-54; sheriff, Essex and Herts. 1537-8; bailiff, manors of Kirby, Thorpe and Walton, Essex by 1545; keeper, Clacton, Weeley and Wix parks, Essex by 1553.

The elder Sir John Rainsford, of an established Essex family, was successively esquire and knight of the body to Henry VII; he served both Henry VII and Henry VIII as a captain in the French wars and was liberally rewarded for his services with grants of lands and privileges. It was probably in his retinue that his son and namesake saw service as a captain of foot in the war of 1513, and thence-forward the younger Rainsford devoted himself to the profession of arms.

Rainsford had been married by 1503 to the only daughter and heir presumptive of Edward Knyvett, an extensive landowner in East Anglia, but Knyvett died in that year leaving the greater part of his lands in trust for her stepmother Catherine for life, with remainder to his own heirs. This settlement greatly reduced the Rainsfords’ prospects, for Catherine, a daughter of Sir Henry Marney, was a youngish woman who was to be married again in 1509, this time to Thomas Bonham, and to survive until 1535. Rainsford's own position was still further weakened when his wife died in Feb 1508 leaving him childless and thus without even a life interest in the lands which her heirs had already sought to make sure of by petitions in both Chancery and Star Chamber. Hostilities between the rival claimants continued for a number of years and provoked several more chancery suits, but a compromise may have been reached eventually with Rainsford in receipt of an annuity of £20 and a life interest in two of the Knyvett manors. He may also have married again before 1518, for among the King's payments in that year was one of £15 for a half-year's fee to ‘Alice, wife of John Rainsford’; she could, however, have married a different man of that name who was later a gentleman usher. On his father's death, about the end of 1521, Rainsford had again to bear with the extensive and elaborate provision made for his stepmother and his two sisters, one of whom married Sir Thomas Darcy, a ward of his father's and a notable beneficiary by the will; and the other to Sir William Waldegrave.

In 1523 Rainsford was knighted for his part in the capture of Morlaix and made his first appearance on the Essex bench, having evidently cleared himself of serious charges brought shortly before in the Star Chamber. His accuser was a rascal named Richard Vynes, an ex-servant of the abbot of Colchester, who had earlier fallen foul of Rainsford's father and whose grudge against the family led him to accuse Rainsford of committing a murder within the sanctuary of Colchester abbey. Rainsford's answer to the circumstantial evidence against him was that he had been conversing with the victim when two men entered and killed him after a struggle in which Rainsford's efforts to protect him failed because he was unarmed at the time; not realizing the seriousness of his wounds, Rainsford had tried to succour him and was thus found with the body. Vynes further charged Rainsford with having harboured in his retinue at Tournai a tailor who had previously committed a murder in London. This was not the first time Rainsford had been accused of murder: he had faced that charge in the King's bench in 1511 but had evidently been acquitted or pardoned. Guilty or not on these occasions, he seems to have been of a violent disposition. The principal Rainsford manor, Bradfield Hall, was held in chief of the earls of Oxford, and Rainsford's father and the John De Vere, 14th Earl of Oxford had been joint stewards of the Barking abbey lands in 1520. In 1524 Rainsford accompanied the Earl on his armed expedition into Lavenham park against the countess, but perhaps not surprisingly the friendship did not last, and ten years later Rainsford was petitioning Cromwell for protection against John De Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford. In the meantime he had satisfied a private grudge against a neighbour, Henry Wilcox, who described Rainsford as ‘a very dangerous man of his hands and one that delighteth much in beating, mayheming and evil entreating your subjects’.

Rainsford was to sit in the Parliament of 1529 for Colchester. Its nearness to his home at Bradfield made it the obvious borough for him to represent, but as its tradition of electing townsmen had to be satisfied by his admission as an out-burgess his nomination probably owed less to his particular standing there than to his prestige and connexions in the county and at court. He might, indeed, have aspired to the knighthood of the shire, but that was shared on this occasion by two lawyers and officials, the Speaker-designate Thomas Audley and Rainsford's relation by marriage Thomas Bonham; to both of these he was socially superior but they commanded the greater support. Rainsford's fellow-Member at Colchester, Richard Rich, another lawyer, owed his nomination to the Earl of Oxford, and Rainsford may still have been close enough to the Earl to enjoy his backing. Rainsford's Membership of this Parliament, about which nothing but the fact is known, may not have been the limit of his experience in the Commons: he is unlikely to have sat before 1529 but was probably returned again for Colchester in 1536, in accordance with the King's request for the re-election of the previous Members, and could have sat in either or both of the Parliaments of 1539 and 1542, for which the names of the Colchester Members are lost.

Although Rainsford was no reformer, to judge from his removal in 1526, with Bishop Tunstall's consent, of the host from Bradfield church to a specially built chapel at Bradfield Hall so that it should be safe from desecration, he was not averse to sharing in the distribution of monastic lands while lacking the touch needed for success. It was probably early in 1539 that he wrote to Cromwell asking for a lease of either the Whitefriars in Ipswich or the Greyfriars in Colchester, but in a blustering fashion which could have done nothing to advance his suit, and without any hint of a gift for the expected favour: in the event the Greyfriars was leased to Francis Jobson, and Rainsford's only consolation seems to have been a grant of the herbage and pannage of Grinsted and Weeley parks, of which Cromwell had been keeper, after the Minister's attainder and execution. In 1539 he was busy preparing the Essex coastal defences against the expected invasion. He had raised 100 men for the King at the time of the Northern rebellion, and had been among those summoned to the christening of Prince Edward in Oct 1537 and the reception of Anne of Cleves two years later. During the summer of 1541 the King stayed with him at Bradfield, and about this time he acquired for £500 the ex-monastic manor of Manningtree, Essex, and lands in Devon and Suffolk, although not without a hitch: his former parliamentary colleague Rich, now chancellor of augmentations, had the grant stayed ‘because the money was not paid’, but by Mar 1541 it had gone through. Rainsford raised 100 men for the expedition to the Netherlands under Sir John Wallop in the summer of 1543 and himself took part in the war as one of the army's five captains of foot; he served again in France in the following year, when he was in the King's ‘battle’. One of the Essex gentlemen appointed to attend the reception of the French Ambassador at court in 1546, he was excused this duty, possibly because of illness.

Rainsford remained in favour under Edward VI, perhaps through the influence of his erstwhile brother-in-law Thomas Darcy, by then Baron Darcy of Chiche and chamberlain of the royal household. He retained the keepership of Weeley park and the stewardship of the manor, which his father had held before him, and he consolidated his lands by the sale of his Suffolk properties in 1549 and the purchase of more lands at Bradfield and Manningtree in the following year. In June 1553 he bought other lands around Mistley in Essex worth £20 a year; as Mistley was only a mile or two from Bradfield, his principal seat, this last purchase was perhaps the outcome of a successful appeal to the Duke of Northumberland earlier in the year, when the duke had written on Rainsford's behalf to the commissioners for the sale of crown lands ‘for the old acquaintance that hath been between him and me ... [and] considering his old service’.

Although he was one of the witnesses to the letters patent altering the succession to the crown, Rainsford is not known to have played any active part during the brief reign of Queen Jane and he did not forfeit favour under Mary. In 1555 he was ordered to lend his servants to help Rich at the execution of Protestant heretics in Essex and received the thanks of the Council for doing so: the Council at the same time asked him to look to the affairs of the county, especially with regard to the punishment of ‘disordered persons’. When in Aug 1556 the same body bound Rainsford in 1,000 marks to stay within two miles of his London house, it is less likely that he was politically suspect than that he had become involved in another of his escapades, perhaps the one which led to a sword fight in London between a servant of his and one of John De Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford's. Two years later he was again ordered to appear, this time to explain his delay in providing a horseman for the Queen's service. Of the various chancery cases in which he had been involved since the time of Edward VI only one yielded a known result, and that went against Rainsford: it concerned his seizure of the person and lands of an infant whom he claimed as his ward by knight-service and it cost him £60 in damages.

A man of over 70 who had less than a year to live when Elizabeth came to the throne, Rainsford made a last appearance before the Council for refusing to yield a house in Chelmsford to his old associate Rich, who planned to occupy it at the time of the shire election to the Queen's first Parliament. He struck a happier note if Bacon's account of the incident is to be trusted when, on the morrow of her coronation he was egged on by other courtiers to ask the Queen to include among the prisoners to whom the ceremony would bring their liberty, the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who had been too long imprisoned in the Latin tongue and should be free to go abroad in English: ‘the Queen answered, with a grave countenance; it were good, Rainsford, they were spoken with themselves, to know of them, whether they would be set at liberty?’ This was one of a string of stories which were to circulate after Rainsford's death, some of them to be preserved in Sir John Harington's ‘Epigrams’, and which enshrine his reputation as a swashbuckling and lecherous humorist.

His own last contribution to his fame was the elaborate military display at his burial in St. Catherine Creechurch, London, on 20 Sep 1559. By his will, made 12 days earlier, he had left his disposable lands and goods for division between nine persons, among them his cousins Thomas Rainsford and Richard Starkey, the latter being also one of the executors. As supervisor he named his ‘especial and singular friend Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, to whom he left his best gown. His widow, who had brought him lands in Kent worth £65 a year, had become insane long before his death.


J. Hurstfield, Queen's Wards

W. S. Holdworth, Hist. English Law

W. M. Sturman, ‘Barking abbey’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1961)

Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii)

F. Bacon, Apophthegms Old and New

J. Harington, Epigrams

J. Craig, The Mint

Machyn's Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii)

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