Conversations with a medieval MP: Serjeant Billing and the Pastons

This month’s medieval MP of the Month is highly esteemed fifteenth century lawyer, Sir Thomas Billing. Here’s Dr Simon Payling of our House of Commons 1422-1461 Section with more…


Brass of Sir Thomas Billing, chief justice of King’s bench, in church of Wappenham

It is rare to have any insight into the personality of a fifteenth-century MP, yet alone one as important as Thomas Billing, MP for Northamptonshire and then for London in the 1440s.  Educated at Gray’s Inn, he rose from modest origins to become in 1469, when over 60 years old, chief justice of King’s bench, the highest office of the common law, and died in office in 1481.  Two letters written from London in 1454, shortly after he had been appointed a serjeant-at-law, the small group of senior lawyers from which the judges were chosen, reflect both his character and contemporary attitudes to the law. William Paston wrote to his brother, John, both then students at the Inner Temple, that he had ‘had gret cher of Byllyng’, who told him of the advice he had given to an opponent of the Pastons, their Norfolk neighbour, Robert Ledham. The new serjeant clearly had a low opinion of the financial shrewdness of the men of Norfolk (the Pastons apart) and a keen appreciation of the intimate kinship between money and successful litigation:

That is the gyse of yowr contre men, to spend alle the good they have on men and lewery gownys, and hors and harnes, and so beryt owth for j wylle, and at the last they arn but beggars: and so wyll ye do. I wylde ye schull do wyll, be cause ye ar a felaw in Grays In, wer I was a felaw. As for Paston, he ys a swyre of wurchyp, and of gret lyvelode, and I wothe he wyll not spend alle hys good at onys, but he sparyt yerly c mark or jc li. He may do his ennemy a scherewd turne and never far the warse in hys howsholde, ner the lesse men a-bowthe hym. Ye may not do so, but if it be for j. sesun.

In other words, much no doubt to the approval of the Pastons, he had firmly advised Ledham against legal action: it would do him no good because he was financially outmatched.  In a second letter, written a few months later, William reports some useful advice he had had from the serjeant over the marriage of a sister of the two brothers. She had been spoken of as a possible match for a ward of the Northamptonshire magnate, Edmund, Lord Grey of Ruthin, and Billing gently warned his friend that Grey ‘laboryd for his owne a vayle’ and that their sister should therefore ‘be wyse’.  Given Grey’s ruthless character, later to be exemplified by his involvement in the murder of Speaker Tresham in 1450 (‘The murder of Speaker Tresham’, 27 Oct. 2015) and his duplicity at the battle of Northampton in 1460, this was valuable advice. Another remembrance of Billing is provided by his surviving brass.  Originally in the Cistercian abbey of Biddlesden, it was removed to the nearby church of Wappenham, the parish church of his home at Astwell, after the Dissolution.  It commemorates both him and his wife, Katherine Giffard.  He is represented in judicial robes, and it was formerly adorned with nine small figures at the feet of the parents, presumably for the children born to them. Few of them can have survived to adulthood.  Indeed, his last years were clouded by personal tragedy.  His only surviving son died in 1469 leaving only daughters and thus ending his hopes of founding a Billing dynasty, and, in 1480, his wife, whose modest landed inheritance had eased his early path, died 65 years after they had been contracted in marriage. 

SJP

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