Four maidens, 8000 ducats: the Saga of Drapers’ Hall

drapers hall mod

Drapers’ Hall today

On 28th July, 1540, Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII, was led out to the block on Tower Hill and beheaded. This brought to a close a remarkable rise and career, from blacksmith’s son in parochial Putney, “ruffian… in his young days” and his unusual travels in Italy and the low countries, to being a successful member of the bar in London, chief secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and ultimately Master of the Rolls and chief minister of the Tudor state.

The year 1540 also saw the death of a certain merchant called Thomas Hoell, then resident in “Syvill in Spayne”. A man of apparent great wealth, he left in his will the following bequest;

“Item, I comaunde myne executours that I leve in Syvell that incontynent after my deathe , doo send to the citie of London 12,000 duckats of golde by bills of Cambio [bills of exchange], for to delyver to the house called Drapers’ Hall, to delyver theyme to the wardeynes thereof, and the saide wardeynes as sone as they have received the same 12,000 duckats, to bye therewith 400 duckats of rent yerely for ever more, in possession for ever more.

And it is my will that the saide 400 duckats be disposed vnto foure maidens, being orphans, next of my kynne and of bludde, to theire marriage, if they can be founde, every one of theyme to have 100 duckats; and if they cannot be founde of my lynnage, then to be geven to other foure maydens, though that they be not of my lynnage, so that they be orphanes honest and of good fame, and every of theyme 100 duckats, and so every yere, for to marry foure maydens for ever.

And if the saide 12,000 duckats will bye more lande, then the saide 12,000 duckats to be spent to the marriage of maydens, being orphanes, increasing the foure maydens aforesaide, as shall seme by the discretion aforesaide of the master and wardeynes of the saide house of Drapers’ Hall, and that this memoria to remayne in writing, in the booke of memoryes in the saide howse, in suche manner as it shall at no tyme be undon for ever.”

Hoell was leaving a sum of money to be used to buy land which would produce an income that would pay for dowries for orphan maidens, in order to buy them a good marriage. The money was to be applied to orphan maidens of his own lineage, and after paying out to all such women of his lineage, to then be paid to “orphanes honest and of good fame”. They were entitled to a marriage portion of 100 ducats each, or approximately £25.

Determining the modern value of the sum is particularly difficult because of the countervailing tendencies of inflation in the prices of goods and services in Tudor England, alongside deflation in the price of labour. However, I would estimate the £25 to be equal to approximately £50,000 in modern buying power. It would be an amount that could buy a very respectable marriage with perhaps the first son of a moderately prosperous country yeoman or city merchant. It would certainly save these women from a life of destitution. (continued below)


Venetian ducat

Hoell entrusted the money to the Drapers’ Company, one of the ‘livery companies’ or guilds of London. The Drapers, the company of wool and cloth merchants, were first formally organised in 1361 and received a royal charter of incorporation in 1438. They are third in the order of precedence of livery companies, just below the Mercers and Grocers and above the Fishmongers and Goldsmiths.

The livery companies were not just fraternal organisations; they had responsibility for regulating the prices, business practices and even moral conduct of their members. They were associated with particular churches in the city where their members would worship. Like most medieval collegiate institutions, the activity of the companies were based around an inn that would include a great hall, a chapel and possibly a library (much like Oxbridge colleges and Inns of Court).

The city government of medieval and early-modern London was dominated by the livery company oligarchy and, in fact, the livery companies continue to enjoy considerable power in the City of London’s mind-numbingly complex electoral system (see short video below for the fascinating details…).

In the event, the Drapers’ received 8,720 ducats from Hoell’s executors. Hoell’s death coinciding with Cromwell’s death in 1540 meant that Cromwell’s property, which had now came on the market, could be snapped up by the Drapers. Austin Frairs, or the monastery of the Augustinian Friars, had rented out property on the southern side of the friary, on Throgmorton Street, to various court notables.

Cromwell was living in the Austin Friars property by the early-1530s and invested considerable sums renovating it and acquiring adjacent properties. He spent over £1,000 building this fifty-room capital mansion, which included large kitchens, a chapel, three courtyards, an acre of gardens, stables, tennis courts and a bowling alley. This property was not merely a house for the Cromwell family but an “an administrative base and urban palace where he could entertain important guests, potentially even the king himself”.


Cromwell’s House w/ oriel windows from the Copperplate Map

In 1543, using the money from Hoell’s bequest, the Drapers’ Company purchased the Austin Friars complex (along with a number of other London properties in the attainted Cromwell estate) from the king. When the Drapers purchased the mansion from the king, they covenanted with the king to distribute the clear rents “to and for the marriage of poor maidens, being orphans”.

Instead, the Drapers turned Austin Friars into their livery company hall. While the original Cromwell mansion has long-since (and very sadly) been demolished, Drapers’ Hall remains on the Austin Friars site to this day. (continued below)

austin friars 1

At some point in the 1550s, former maidens related to Hoell learned about the bequest. As they would have been entitled to the £25 or so as their marriage portion, they and their husbands brought a complaint in the Court of Chancery against “William Chestre, knight and alderman of the citie of London and mayster of the … fraternytie … of drapers” along with the wardens of the company. The women bringing the claim were Crysly, Jane, Cristian, Katherine, Margaret, Florence, Anne, Eleanore, Jane and Maude.

They alleged that the Drapers had purchased lands rendering £105 a year in rents but were using the money to their own benefit rather than disbursing it according to the terms of Hoell’s will.

The litigation rumbled on for several years, with the women incurring legal costs, “to commission certeyne men of worshippe and learnyng to travayle for the determinacion and hearing of the same”. During the reign of Queen Mary (1553 – 1558), the Court of Chancery made a ruling, “that the examynacion and order of the premises dyd belong to the iurisdicion of the ecclesiasticall lawes … a supersedeas was dyrected to the said commissioners [plaintiff’s common lawyers] to surcease and no further to procede them”.


Crysly v Chester (1559) | C78/16 No.34

The plaintiffs then had to instruct new lawyers, civil lawyers from the Doctor’s Commons who practised in the Roman law church courts; “the said complainants dyd prosecute … the premysses before certeyne commissioners in that behalf authorised by and frome the late lorde cardynall Pole which sute [suit] so farre procedyd that the said mayster and wardens preydyng that sentence therein were near at hande to be gyven”. In other words, judgment was about to be given.

However, the Drapers found a legal argument to prevent proceeding to judgment. They “alledged that because the legacies and thynge testamentory aforeseid by the purchase of the messuage [house] lande and tenemente aforesaid were converted to a mere laye inheritaunce and that the yerely rente revenewes and proffytes appoynted to be payd out of for the same is not examynable or determynable in the ecclesiasticall courte under payne of a praemunire but is merely examynable and determynable in the kyng and quenes majesties courte of recorde … in dede upon consideracion of the premysses it seemeth to most learned men so to be. Whereby the said plaintiffs have been mervelously delayd and impoverisshed as by the bill of complaint remayning of recorde in this honourable courte”.

In 1559 the matter finally came to judgment before Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (between 1558 and 1579, no Lord Chancellor was appointed and Bacon acted as the head of the Court of Chancery).

Crook, James Wilson, active 1759-c.1789; Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509-1579), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal

Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal

The Drapers argued that to the best of their knowledge they had been giving money to orphan maidens, and than in any case they’d only received 8,720 ducats and that as a matter of law Hoell’s estate should have paid them the full 12,000 before they were under obligation to carry out the terms of the bequest. However, it seems that they knew the game was up and in their pleadings undertook to put the entire amount to the purpose set out in Hoell’s will.

Sir Nicholas ordered that the £84 a year should be paid out to four orphans, £21 each, and £21 apportioned to the maintenance and improvement of the property, and that this should continue “forevermore”. Sir Nicholas also ordered that the plaintiffs should receive their £21 each. In future, the Bishop of Llandaff and his staff were charged with identifying worthy maidens to receive the £21 payment and would issue a certificate upon which the Drapers would pay out the £21, and they would also receive a quitclaim from the Bishop’s staff extinguishing liability for that particular £21 for the year. He also ruled if further ducats were received to make up the 12,000 total, this could be applied to an increase paid out to the maidens but that the amount paid should not exceed £25 each per year.

In researching this case, I wondered about when and how the trust came to an end. I assumed that at some point in the late-19th century, the idea of buying a husband for worthy orphan maidens would become hopelessly anachronistic and that the object of the trust would be frustrated under the cy-pres doctrine and the money would have to be put to a different use. I concluded that while this might have been more difficult prior to the Charities Act 1960, a cy-pres variation of the terms of a trust must have still been possible under non-statutory equitable doctrines by application to the Chancery Division of the High Court (or to the Court of Chancery prior to 1875).

I did a search for relevant cases and found a case heard before the Master of the Rolls in 1843, almost 300 years after the complaint was heard before Sir Nicholas Bacon. While it was not a cy-pres application, it was still very interesting indeed. (continued below)


Court of Chancery sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall in the 19th-century

Upon an information filed by the Attorney-General, on the certificate of the Charity Commission, the Court of Chancery under Lord Langdale MR inquired into Hoell’s bequest. The Charity Commission had noted in an inquiry in the early 1840s that the surplus now produced by Hoell’s bequest amounted to over £2,000 a year. The Drapers were still spending £84 a year on buying husbands for worthy orphans (a fairly modest gift given the inflation of the intervening years) but were applying the surplus to the company’s accounts. While a significant proportion of Drapers’ Company general funds (perhaps the substantial majority) were spent on charitable activities anyway, it was still the conclusion of the Attorney-General and the Charity Commission’s lawyers that the company was obligated to spend the entirety of the revenue arising from Hoell’s bequest on charitable purposes specified in his will. (continued below)


Law report for AG v The Drapers’ Company

The Solicitor-General, Mr Pemberton Leigh and Mr Blunt, representing the Attorney-General, argued that under the terms of the will, the company was not entitled to take any benefit. Further, their covenant with the king upon purchase of the Austin Friars mansion and their answer in the 1559 case bound them to apply the entirety of the revenue of the investments to the charitable objects.

Sir Thomas Wilde, Mr Kindersley and Mr Lloyd, for the company, argued that under Sir Nicholas’ decree, the objects of the charity were expressly limited to £100 each year and that it could therefore be inferred that the company was entitled to the surplus. They also argued, “every presumption ought, at this distance of time, to be made in favour of the defendants who were shewn by constant usage to be entitled to the surplus”.

Lord Langdale disagreed with the company’s reasoning, and ruled that the entirety of the surplus should be applied to the charitable object. However, he also ruled that this would apply from the issuing of the information in the Court of Chancery, rather than seeking an account of moneys all the way back to 1559. It would seem that, as of 1843, money was still being expended by the company to purchase husbands for the orphan maidens, but I cannot believe that it continued for much longer after this. While the charitable object of providing a marriage portion was presumably frustrated by changing social mores, it would seem to me that given the company’s fortune was made in large part by Hoell’s bequest, they have a particular duty to apply their wealth to the advancement of working-class women as Thomas Hoell had intended so many years ago.

It would appear that is exactly what is happening, and the Howell bequest still exists as a discrete trust. Today it provides funding to girls schools in North Wales, and has disbursed £2.2 million in the last decade. It’s quite extraordinary to think that an otherwise little-known merchant could be bringing positive change to the lives of beneficiaries half a millennia later.

I leave you with some pictures of Drapers’ Hall courtyard and garden, an oasis in the bustling City of London, but before I do.

***If you enjoyed reading this blog and appreciated others such as A Day in the Life of a 15th-Century Barrister and Litigation by Ambush! Paston v Jenny (1471), I would humbly beseech you to generously consider making a donation to my legal book fund, which will help me to continue blogging about late-medieval and legal history issues.






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