The John Sinclair who is recorded as possessing Tilbury and other Essex estates in 1334, married the daughter of Sir Anthony Culpepper, died without issue, and the family of his relation Dominus John, the coroner, succeeded him. Thomas has been referred to as holding Frothewick and other manors near St.Osyth in 1364, and Tilbury with its pertinents in 1384. His descendants remain in possession. In the rolls of parliament A.D. 1391, there is a complaint by the abbot of St.Osyth against John Rokell. John Sinclair had sold a wood to several persons who at the instigation of Rokell refused to pay their duties to the abbot. The latter gained the cause.
The Sinclairs had never lost footing in this county from the Conquest, or at all events from the time William Rufus granted the lordship of Colchester to Eudo St, Clare, his dapifer, the builder of Colchester Castle, and the founder of its abbey of St.John the Baptist. The De Veres, earls of Oxford, by marriage secured the lordship of Colchester, but the lineage did not forget to secure some of the estates of Eudo, their kinsman. Though of the Hamo Dapifer family, they were near enough to share some of Eudo's fees as well as heir parts of Robert Fitz-Hamo's, and much of his brother's, Hamo, the dapifer and viscount of Kent. But compared with these magnates the Essex men of the fourteenth century had small portions. They grew into distinction none the less. They are mentioned in 1406, 1446, and in 1454 as of standing.
At the prolonged and imposing funeral ceremonies of King Edward IV in 1483, first at Westminster Abbey and then at Windsor, Sir Thomas St.Claire took a leading position. In a little work printed from the MSS. of the lord lyon of Scotland, Sir James Balfour, in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, there is a remarkable account of this event in English history. Divers knights and esquires of the household bore the body, accompanied by the nobles of the kingdom, to the services held at Westminster. “The large and broad cloth of gold on a rich canopy of cloth imperial, fringed with gold and blue silk,” which formed the pall, was borne by four knights, of whom Sir Thomas St.Clair was the first. When the procession arrived at Windsor, Sir Thomas is mentioned first of the “eight knights without the hearse”.
More of his history has not been found, but that he held high rank and office in the royal presence is clear enough. The hereditary ability shines fully out from the history of Sir John Sinclair in the reign of Henry VIII, 1509 till 1547. His father John had added the manor of Coldhall, Great Bromley, in the Tendring hundred, to the patrimonial estates. He died, Morant says, on the 26th August 1493. Henry VII's troubled reign he lived in, dying about the time Perkin Warbeck presented himself as one of the princes in the tower, reputed murdered by Richard III their uncle. Willoughby, lord Brooke, was steward of the household to Henry VII, and Thomas Butler, earl of Ormond, a chief figure, both of whom could reckon kin with John Sinclair. The lords Lovell and Zouche, hunted to sanctuary at Colchester as being the favourites of Kichard, and illustrious rebels of the reign, were related to the Kent and Sussex family by the marriage of one of Thomas Sinclair's co-heiresses. The Guildfords and other such names of the time were familiar by close ties.
When the young successor of this John of Essex appeared at Henry VIII's court he was no stranger, and took due place accordingly. His father resided till his death at Hedingham Castle, and the chief possessions were its pertinents, with Chichridill, St.Cleres, Frodewick, Fenhouse, Danbury, and Cold-Hall. Portions he held from his relations, by frequent affinities, the De Veres, earls of Oxford, and the lords Darcy; but he was also an in capite holder. There is record of him in 1512 as
‘John Seyntclere of St.Osith's, alias Chicheridill, sheriff of Essex and Hertford’. In 1513 it is noted that he had by king's appointment the same sheriffship, and that he demitted it on 23d Jan 1515. There are survivals of some of the accounts of his office, such as sums he paid to the king as duke of Lancaster, to Henry, earl of Essex, to the infirm men of St.Albans, to the prior of the Carthusian house of the salutation of St.Mary near London, which have at least an antiquarian interest. He was a commissioner of the peace for Essex.
In Brewer's Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII he appears knight of the body in the royal household as early as 1516. In 1523 and 1524 he is a subsidy commissioner in Essex, the officers of the household being then those responsible that the king should have money. He has fresh grants of commission of the peace in Essex for the years 1525, 1526, and 1530. It would seem, too, that he acquired about these years some land in Kent, for he has returns from Newington in this county. As a relic of him there actually exists one of his writings among the Harleian charters of the British Museum. It is entitled:
‘Indenture between Sir John Seyntcler, knt., and George Harper and Thomas Colepepper, son and heir to Sir Alexander Colepepper, declaring a bond for 200 marks to be void: Cum sig., 34 Henry VIII (1543)’. Its seal is not the least interesting part of the document, and it is of value further as showing that ties still existed to the Colepeppers.
Sir John Sinclair's most remarkable work was the share he took in the suppression of the monasteries and nunneries in this reign. In 1535 Henry VIII ordered a general visitation of the monasteries, and appointed Thomas Cromwell, the famous earl of Essex, visitor-general. Cromwell appointed commissioners, and armed them with eighty-six articles of inquiry, the visitation beginning in the October of that year. In 1536, the lesser monasteries, to the number of 376, were suppressed by act of parliament, adding; £32,000 yearly to the income of the crown; £100,000 being the value of plate and goods seized. In 1537 there was a visitation of the larger monasteries, disclosing mysteries demanding further reformation. The report of it was published next year. The complete suppression took place in 1539. Camden says that the monasteries numbered altogether 643, the colleges 90, the chantries and fee chapels 2374, and the hospitals 110. There were twenty-eight mitred abbots, peers of parliament, of whom three had superior positions to the rest. Abbot John Beche, one of the latter, was hanged at Colchester in 1539 for obduracy in not subscribing to the king's supremacy over the English church. He was the abbot of St.John Baptist there, founded by Eudo Sinclair more than four hundred years previously. Times and necessities change.
Sir John Sinclair of his lineage was now one of the most active in practically levelling such foundations, and had Eudo lived in the latter period he would probably be of the same mind. In a communication from Sir John Sinclair to the lord privy seal occurs this passage:
‘Yesterday I was with the abbot of Colchester, who asked me how the abbot of St.Oswith did as touching his house; for the bruit was the king would have it. To the which I answered, that he did like an honest man, for he said, I am the king's subject, and I and my house and all is the king's; wherefore if it be the king's pleasure, I, as a true subject, shall obey without a grudge. To the which the abbot answered, The king shall never have my house but against my will and against my heart; for I know by my learning, he cannot take it by right and law. Wherefore, in my conscience, I cannot be content; nor shall he ever have it with my heart and will. To which I said. Beware of such learning; for if ye hold such learning as ye learned in Oxenford when ye were young ye will be hanged; and ye are worthy. But I will advise you to conform yourself as a good subject, or else you shall hinder your brethren and also yourself ’.
In Dugdale's Monasticon Sir John appears in the history of the monasteries. Himself and two other knights, with about twenty armigeri, and Thomas Cromwell, earl of Essex, visitor-general, were the commission which inquired into the nunnery of Polesworth, in records which have survived; and he no doubt took a large share in that greatest religious revolution of English history. Cromwell, the blacksmith's son of Putney, could be trusted as to his choice of sufficient adjutants in so perilous a reform, which was the real cause of the loss of his head ultimately. See Froude's history.
From being knight of the household Sir John Sinclair became master; but he could not have held the office long, for Sir John Gage was controller of the household in 1544, the descendant of his relative Alianor Sinclair of the Aldham family. Gage went that year to the French war under the duke of Norfolk, and is mentioned as controller. In 1554 he was Queen Mary's lord chamberlain, and was engaged quelling the London rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt, one of whose adherents, Sir George Harper, seems to have been he of the Harleian indenture. Sir John Sinclair of Danbury died 25 November 1546, a year before the death of his vigorous sovereign, the first secular head of the English church.
His son John succeeded him, and in 1554, the year after the accession of Mary, Morant says that he passed St.Clere's Hall to Thomas, lord Danbury, by fine. Other parts of his property went also, a Gason being another successor. As far as can be discovered he was the last of this branch. If there were more of them they must have lived the dignified but often very quiet life of lords of the manors. The history of the manors is, however, silent about them after Mary's reign, and John, son of Sir John, must have died without male issue.
These Essex men have left relics both of their existence and antiquity which take high place among archaeological remains. The chapel at Danbury Place, which has been mentioned, makes one of the curious chapters with all antiquaries. Gough's Monumental Tablets gives the fullest account of its three crusading figures, St.Clares of the Essex branch, with the usual crossed legs and lions at the feet. By drawing comparisons between the figures and their niches, as also from the character of the building, they give their date as early as Richard Coeur de Lion. One knight was carved in the attitude of prayer, with his hands palm to palm, his sword sheathed, and his lion looking towards him; the second, drawing his sword, the face of his lion turned away from him; and the third, returning his sword into its scabbard, the lion looking half. An imaginative writer has evolved a world of symbolic meaning from these attitudes. The first hero means, home a returned crusader; the second, one who died in the holy wars; and the last, death on his way home to England. It would be delightful if faith could agree fully with symbolism generally; and in the instances of these three Sinclairs, encouragement might come to verify by long research such romantic possibilities of chivalrous biography as these sculptural attitudes might indicate. It is more to be depended on, that they were distinguished warriors of the gallant periods of English knighthood, when fighting the Paynim or the Saracen was far less an affair of bitterness than of high poetical sentiment.
But after looking on that picture of antique devotion to the cross and the sword, look on this of modern sacrilege. On 16th October 1779, some men of the temper that would botanise on their mothers' graves, went by forwardness or stupid magisterial permission into the north aisle of this church at Danbury, and commenced, for antiquarian curiosity of the unpardonable kind, to dig beneath the figures of these knightly crusaders.
They found their leaden sealed coffins; opened them violently; pulled off the shrouds, with dismembering effects; and, worst of all, invited the vulgar mob for a livelong day to examine the remains of these great men of other times. There were fabulous curiosities as to the liquid by which knights, templar and others, were perfectly preserved for centuries. Here was an opportunity not to be missed by the “gropers among dead men's bones”, in the spiritual as well as material sense of that phrase. But a veil must be drawn over the test which their enthusiasm applied towards analysis of the preservative fluid in those leaden coffins.
Gough tells the story, to which there is nothing parallel, not even the experiments of nineteenth century scientists. To disturb the ashes of the dead is always next to being a cursed employment, in whatever interest it may de done. The genial symbol-reader might not be singular in wishing that the figures had fully drawn their swords on that occasion, and used them with crusading energy and efficiency. One hundred and eight years ago, this the last sight of the Essex branch was seen, and such a last ! But so strangely are human things related that such sacrilege may go more to keep their names immortal than even the noblest deeds could.
The hill of Danbury, Essex, by the Thames, beneath London, is a land-mark and a watch-tower to this lineage, as it had been for ages to the world's greatest city; and its chapel will always stand fixed to memory as something notable that has been. Gough's engravings of its three crusaders pay tribute to their handsome forms and faces.