The 15th Century Ancestor.

I almost spat my coffee across the train carriage when I saw my name in a 15th century manuscript. I’d been working on City of London Letter Books for a project and had taken a few generic digital images of the pages to explore. They showed the paper and ink up close: annotations in page corners, notes in margins and illuminated lettering. My plan was to go through them on the commute home. It was time to myself for a bit of creative thinking before I walked through the front door to a world of chaos. One of the images was a list of names. I casually zoomed in on the list and my phone took me straight to the name “John Benge”. I was stunned and for the rest of the journey home, obsessed that my name, Benge, was part of 15th century London and in official documents. There are almost 150 names on the list. It is unlikely I would have methodically read through them all, but serendipity took me straight to his name.  

John Benge listed in the right-hnd paragrpah, 6th name down.

I have an unusual surname and rarely see it today, let alone in an historic context. When you come across someone who shares the name, you always say hello, introduce yourself and carry out a brief bit of background family history to find the connections. The other odd thing was that it was spelt in the same way. 15th century spelling was more phonetic, without the grammar and spelling rules. There were numerous ways to spell one name.

Thus, my obsession. Who was this John Benge, listed in a City of London Letter Book on 19th December 1419? So many questions went through my mind. Was he an ancestor, who lived and worked in the City of London, as I do? Well, I work in the City of London and commute there. What did he do, was he important, where did he live? The next day I showed my colleagues in the archive. Word went round. By lunchtime my archivist colleagues had discovered that John Benge was a brewer and owned an inn just north of St Paul’s Cathedral, on a road called the Shambles. The following day, I had a copy of his will, along with his wife Alice’s. My basic questions were answered, but it revealed more questions. The main one being, why was he in a Letter Book?

The Leter Book in question.

A letter book is not quite what it sounds. It is the record of daily business for the City of London.  Various documents relating to business were bound into a large book for the Town Clerk. The Town Clerk ran the corporation, today the same role is Chief Executive and Town Clerk. In this case the list of names were brewers in the City of London. They were petitioning the Lord Mayor, who at that time was Sir Richard Whittington (yes, “Dick”), to establish a Worshipful Company of Brewers. It can be a slow progress becoming a livery company and the Brewers had been an established group of traders for a good 100 years. They eventually gained the Royal Charter in 1438.

The Brewers

John Benge must have been quite a successful man with social status to be part of this fraternity. Within the archives of the Worshipful Company of Brewers are the early Minute Books. These are like the Letter Books and were put together by the Clerk of the Company, William Porland. Again, they show details of accounts and meetings. John Benge is regularly mentioned usually in context of a payment for membership, dinners, and breakfasts where much of the business and networking was carried out.

I had a thought about this, Benge and brewing, and is something that needs a bit more of investigation. The surname Benge is prolific south of London, around the Kent and Sussex borders. This is good farmland and synonymous today with hops. Hops were introduced to England much later in the 17th century, but it could be possible that this area was already specialised in growing the raw materials for brewing, ie the grain. If so, were there extended family-business links between John, Alice and potentially the Benges of Kent and Sussex, the growers of brewing grain? That network could then extend to the brewing fraternity in London.

The Wills

A lot of information can be discovered in wills, such as people’s possessions, religion, servants, and trusted friends. Wills reveal what people’s lives were like, and John’s and Alice’s wills gave me the basic information. John Benge ran an inn called le Cowpe super le Hoope, (the Cup on the Hoop), which was situated behind St Nicholas Shambles. The Shambles was where the Grey Friars established an abbey, and where the “butchers quarter” would be found. It was on the route to and from the north, which farmers would take to walk their stock to sell in Smithfield market. The butchers would do their trade and sell it on to the population of London. Today’s Smithfield Market still occupies that spot, and is still today the country’s largest wholesale meat market. John had a wife Alice, and possibly a son or another relation, William, although there is no direct evidence for this. John left his business to Alice, and his will lists “all the grains, tools, containers and wood”, and “all the stock and household goods in my hall, chamber, parlour, kitchen and buttery”. He left quite a bit of money to the rector and priest of St Nicolas Shambles to celebrate mass for his soul and the funeral. He was buried within within the church, “My body to be buried in the church of St Nicholas Shambles in St John’s chapel where I sat during services.” Being buried in the Chapel was important for the afterlife. The closer to the rood and the alter, the closer your body would be to heaven. It was also important to be remembered by the living to pray for you as you made your way there, through purgatory. Keeping your tomb visible within the church helped to ensure that.

As well as asking the church to say prayers for his soul, he also asked his neighbours, the Friars Minor to offer Placebo and Dirige prayers paying them 13s 4d. That is quite a bit of money. His executors, along with Alice, were Thomas Bloy, butcher (bocher), who was co-executor and William Hunt, butcher (bocher), the supervisor. Again, his local community, the butchers, were very much involved in his life. The butchers were probably his customers as well.

Alice died a few years later in 1428, and her will expands a bit on their lifestyle. She gave money to five of her servants and “a cup called a mazer with cover of silver gilt, my best gown with fur on it, and my green belt decorated with silver”, to her sister Matilda Burbage. There were payments to the church and the friars, and her body was buried next to the grave of John Benge “in the church of St Nicholas Shambles”. Again, looking at both wills, the inn, the rooms, the servants all indicates a relatively good place in society. Although, Alice’s will does not mention the inn. Had she sold it and retired? We don’t know how old John or Alice were, and perhaps they were quite elderly in the 1420s.

A 15th century Mazer made of wood wtih silver. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Inn

15th century inns were not pubs as we may think of them. They were centres of communities, places for people to meet, gossip and network. They did not just provide beer either. The tavern was more of a place to drink, whereas inns provided food, accommodation and acted a places for travellers to rest. Travellers would often be quite affluent people, such as merchants or court officials. These people had a reason to travel. Chaucer mentions the Tabard Inn in Southwark as a starting place in the Canterbury Tales, which predated John’s will by 20 to 40 years. The Southwark area then, was not a place you would probably want to go being outside of the City of London and was frequented by criminals and famously prostitutes. 

Shakespeare on the other hand uses the Boar’s Head Inn as the residing place of Falstaff in Henry IV pt 1. The Boar’s Head was located on Eastcheap, near London Bridge. The Henry IV/V trilogy only took place only a few years before John’s will, although it was written a good 150 years later and it shows; the Boar’s Head represents more of a tavern than inn.

John and Alice’s Inn, I imagine, catered for the butcher’s fraternity in the area, travellers arriving into the city and departing from it, heading north. Le Cowpe super le Hoope was enroute to Newgate and the roads leading to the north and west. It was a large establishment going by the description in the will, “… my hall, chamber, parlour, kitchen and buttery.”

Nothing lasts of it today and I cannot find it on a map. I’ve traced the exact point of the pub on various modern and old maps. It is probable that it was on the corner of the Shambles and Paternoster Lane. In the will it was described as being behind the church. The Agas map of 1560s gives no clue to it and by that time the Church had gone. Today the site is the A40, just north of St Paul’s and a gyratory system; very much the modern city. I like to think le Cowpe super le Hoope, was quite a sizeable institution.

Le Cowpe super le Hoope was possibly on the corner of the Shambles and Paternoster Lane. This is a sizeabe long property that had the space to include a hall, chamber, parlour, kitchen and buttery. This map is the closest I could find to 1420, but dates to 1520. At least it is pre-reformation.
This is a reconstruciton of the view northwards of St Paul’s. If the Inn is represented, then it would be in the few buildings at the top, just diappearing off the pcuture.

The early 1400s.

The early 1400s was quite a time to be alive: Lollardy, quick turnover of kings, development of whisky, the Hundred Years War and the first use of street lighting in London. Henry V became king and the Shakespeare trilogy of Henry IV pt 1 to Henry V was of course set in this time. The Battle of Agincourt was in 1415. Did John Benge supply the many soldiers passing through London on their way to Southampton and then France? London provided funds and supplies for the “war effort”, and John could have been very much involved in that, or catering for the people who were directly involved, or at the very least on the edge of the latest news, as the inns were one of the places you would go for information.

The Guildhall was being rebuilt and a new Guildhall Library opened in the early 1420s, just around the corner from the Hoop. Whittingdon was Mayor several times and Carpenter the Town Clerk. Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 and lived in London in his latter years. Perhaps a younger John Benge encountered them, walked past them in the streets or frequenting his inn?

The archaeology

Working in the archives and library of the City of London, I kept an eye out for anything relating to the church St Nicholas Shambles, the Worshipful Company of Brewers. Steadily little pieces of information came together. I hadn’t considered the archaeology and stumbled, as I always do, on excavation reports of the 1970s. This area of the City of London was raised to the ground during the Blitz of 1940-41. In the post war rebuilding of the City, this area was built upon with a wonderful, modern, utilitarian, telecommunications building. Prior to the building going up, excavations of St Nicholas Shambles and its cemeteries took place. Many bodies were excavated from the cemetery outside the church and these dated to an earlier period, the 12th century. I was looking for burials within the church, dating to the first half of the 1400s. John Benge was buried in the St John the Baptist Chapel, which was on the south side of the church facing the Shambles/Newgate Street, what is known in the archaeological reports as Phase 3. Unfortunately, no internal burials were found. Some chunks of stone from sarcophagi were uncovered, but not the bodies. This could be for a number of reasons, but I suspect it was down to the dissolution of the church in the 1540s and the development of the site to a domesticated courtyard complex, Bull Head Court. The bodies may well have been moved to other consecrated ground.

This I copied straight out of John Schofield’s report on the excavations of the church. The Chapel where John and ALice were buried is on teh south side.

Interestingly, I did have an urge for John’s and Alice’s body to be uncovered. In that, I am not showing much respect for the dead. If they were excavated, it is likely that their bones would have ended up in a museum store in non-acid packaging and box. Medieval people were very religious, thought differently to us and believed in the Day of Judgement. There was an element of emotional selfishness there.


Another unusual aspect was that the name was spelt in the same way as mine, “Benge”. A standard way of writing with correct spellings, rules and regulations were brought in during the 19th century. As I mentioned earlier, words were written more phonetically in the 15th century, which raises the questions about the pronunciation. Perhaps, it is the way we say “Benge” that has changed, not the spelling. Today, we pronounce it “Benj”, as in Stone Henge, or Penge. Then, was it “Ben-ge” or “Ben-gee”?

Never-ending work.

I get a little bit of excitement every time I come across this man, and I have to ask myself “why?” The only thing we share is a name and the geographical root of the City of London. I also like pubs and beer. I will probably never discover whether he is an ancestor. It is very difficult, nigh on impossible, to trace a family tree forwards through time. Even tracing backwards may not pick up any lead to John Benge. What does it mean to me? Obviously, it gives me some sort of root, even if it is only a name we share. Consciously, I know that it is no more than that. Why is it important to me in this day and age? All the same, I am going to claim he is some sort of ancestor, just by our unusual name alone.

To quote The History Boys, history is “just one sodding thing after another”, and this work is ongoing. I want to go through the Brewers’ archives and find what his name is recorded again, the payments, the events, anythign else. I’ll keep a look out for him in other archive collections, as I now know where to find him. If I can, I may even spend some time researching and joining up the dots. In the lack of hard evidence, I will be looking at late 13th century and early 14th century London, the inns, the Brewers fraternity, butchers, and trade. There’s archaeology, archives, art and written sources from the time; a lot to look at.


Schofield, John (1997). “Excavations on the site of St Nicholas Shambles, Newgate Street, City of London, 1975–9” (PDF). Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society48: 77–135.

Here’s a great example of City of London Letter Books, at the London Metropolitan Archives.

A bit of background to City of London Letter Books

2 thoughts on “The 15th Century Ancestor.

  1. Hi Howard, I really enjoy your blogs. I think I’d be very attached to your John Benge too. I enjoy pottering around old documents still.

    Oddly enough, when I finished Uni in 1977, I was at a loose end and joined an archaeological dig in the City, for a few weekends, one of which was when the clocks went forward. I can’t quite remember which year – I think it was probably 1978. It was definitely an old church, near St Paul’s which was being cleared for a new Post Office building. I don’t remember much else, but there were no burials. Could it have been yours?

    Best wishes Sue


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