In the reign of Henry VIII, John Leland the itinerant and antiquary wrote. The Itinerary was begun and finished in 1542, but his Collectanea lay in MS. till his death. Both have valuable notes of the branches of the St.Clare family in Devonshire and Cornwall.
‘There is yet in Devonshire one of the Sainct Cleres, a man of meately fair Landes that descendith of a Younger Brother of the Principal House of S.Clere of Devonshire’.
He tells something also of this “principal house”:
‘Mr. Gage Controller of the Kinges House hath the substance of the lands of the Sainct Clere that was the chiefest of that name yn Devonshire be the Heire Generale’.
Another of his notes attaches suggestively with this:
‘One told me that much of the Lande that Mr. Gage hath is landes of the S.Clares in Kente’. This Sir John Gage, controller of the household, knight of the garter, was the grandson of Eleanor Sinclair, the third daughter of the Thomas Sinclair of Kent, Sussex, and half a dozen counties more, who died without male to heir him in 1435.
If Leland's hearsays are right, and certainly he had the best of contemporary information, this Devonshire family was a branch of the Aldham St.Clares, descendants of Richard, the son of Walter of Medway, earl of St.Cler, and they might have been treated under that special lineage.
But though it may be true, as Leland says, that they were the “principal house”, they may serve to introduce another, and a greater English house of their kin, whose first holdings were in their county. As these were the “principal house” of Devonshire, so the other was of Cornwall, though the latter did not confine itself at all to one county, as the chief Devonshire family appears to have done.
The latter's lands centred around Exeter, looking towards the English Channel, while those of the Cornwall family were on the other side of the county to the north, looking over St.George's Channel and the estuary of the Severn to Wales, where they had large properties. But the name Leland gives those on the Exeter side, of the “principal house”, need not be disputed, in favour of the more famous and probably wealthier kinsfolk, their importance belonging in greater degree to Cornwall.
It was the regular way for a family to have its church founded near its seat, and the ecdesia de Sancto Claro is mentioned in 29 Henry III (1245) as giving more than double the returns of seven others in the county. There were “debts to the king”, and in that year the bishop of Exeter was ordered to distrain on these churches, the debtor being John Wak, a cleric.
This was the home church of the elder main line.
In the Inquisitiones ad Quod Damnum, No.128, Anno 14 Edward II (1321) appears,
‘Seintcleer: William Sinclair: Baunton bailliwick and hundred, a portion of the manor of Baunton, Devonshire’.
These inquisitions were as to losses to the king, and he here seems to make a claim to a part of Baunton manor, the seat of the “principal house”.
It is the younger brother's descendants who have survived to memory most. Sir William Pole, who died in 1635, leaves account of them in his Collections, under the heading “Todwell”, a well-known place a few miles from Exeter. Says he,
‘Todwell or Tudwell in this parish, was possessed by inhabitants of that name. The first of which, that I find, was Jordan de Todwilla, whom lineally succeeded John, Jordan, Raph, Raph, and William Todewill, the last whose daughter Jone married unto John St.Clere, of which name of St.Clere seven succeeded each other, and the last being a man well qualified, but that by prodigality have consumed his estate, whereof being ashamed, did (a malo ad pejus) counterfeit lunacy, and in that humour pulled down his house, and sold timber and stones, affirming that none of his posterity could prosper as long as that house, where so much sin had been committed, stood, and it was credibly reported that a dead man, booted and spurred, was found in one of his fish ponds, and also the bones of divers children. It is now built by Arscot, a young brother of Arscot, of Annery, who married the said Gabriel St.Clere's daughter, and is now the dwelling house of their son’.
Sir William gives other particulars of the younger branch.
‘A manor called Buddeleigh, after the dissolution, was sold unto St.Clere of Tudwell, and by Gabriel St.Clere sold unto Thomas Ford of Bagster, esquire’.
This St.Clere of Tudwell, probably bought it from his kinsfolk, the Somerset house, who were in possession of it. If it could be proved that it was heired from them, the younger branch may have themselves been descendants of Kichard Sinclair of Granvill, Cornwall, and Wales, though it is safer to follow Leland, these proprietors of Toodvill and Buddeley being not very early possessors of them in any case.
Of another property Pole says,
‘William Hidon had issue Eliza or Isabel, wife of Richard Seint Clare of Todewill, and Clisthidon continued in the name of St.Clare unto Gabriel, who sold the same unto Edward Parker, esquire, his brother-in-law’.
‘John Carew, of Bickleigh, married Gilbert St.Clare's daughter, and died without issue’.
Of Kynawersy, of “the Knights” Hidon, which was a property made up of seven farms, he says it “by the heir came unto Seintcler”.
It belongs to the Lord Iddesleigh (Northcote) family in later centuries.
Those Sinclairs had a third part of Torrington Parva. Egidia, one of the three daughters and coheiresses of William Carews, became the wife of William St.Clere, and brought this to him.
The Rev. Richard Polwhele, in his History of Devonshire, published in 1797, goes over Sir William Pole's ground.
‘The manor of Polsloe, to which Budleigh is subservient, was sold after the dissolution to St.Clere of Tidwell. By Gilbert St.Clere it was sold to Thomas Ford of Bagster …. Tidwell, in this parish, is called in a deed of the thirteenth century Toddewille, in another Thodewille. But its etymon is generally referred to a well on this estate, which ebbs and flows like the tide. Tidwell had lords so named. The first I find was Jordanus de Tidwella. Joan, the daughter of the last of that line, was the wife of John de St.Clere, of which name (St.Clere) seven came successively in that pleasant place. Gabriel St.Clere, after he had wasted his estate by excessive hospitality, began to take his house to pieces, and sell the timber, stone, and glass; affirming that neither he nor his posterity could prosper as long as one stone stood upon another of a house where so many sins had been committed’.
Polwhele then goes on to tell the tale of Hubert Sinclair of Bridgenorth fame, who died to save Henry II's life, “we are told a descendant of this family”.
This has already been discussed, Hubert proving to be one of the Hamo family who were constables of Colchester Castle, as far as can be discovered, and not one of the Aldhams, though they are all one kin.
‘Tidwell was rebuilt by Arscot, a younger brother of Arscot of Annery, who married Gabriel St.Clere's daughter; in Sir William Pole's time it was the residence of their son. About sixty years ago the Arscots sold Tidwell to counsellor Walrond, who on his purchasing the estate built a new house, leaving the old mansion as a residence for a tenant’.
These Sinclairs had also Nether Ex by heirship from the lords Carew of those parts.
On the western side of the parish in which they had Toodville, was Hayes Farm, the birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh. Many other brave men by sea and land were their familiar friends in the district of “Little London”, as Exeter was called, from its importance and spirit. It was the house of that farm, of which his father had the remnant of an eighty years' lease, that Raleigh's still existing letter of 26 July 1584, shows him to have wished to purchase, so that he might enjoy again his early experiences. He was unsuccessful in the attempt, great courtier of Elizabeth though he then was.
The Devon visitation of 1562, Harleian MS., 889, gives various items of information.
The Fords were bound by many affinities, and in the end made but too practical use of them.
Joan Ford was the wife and widow of Gabriel Saintclere, esquire; George Ford married Joan Sinclair, the daughter of Gilbert Sinclair of Budleigh, in Devon; and a Joan Ford married John Sinclair, son and heir of Gilbert.
There was a Mark Sinclair who married a lady of the name Bois in this county.
But the Hulls of Lackbeare are equally intertwined. John Hull, armiger, four generations before this visitation of 1562, had for second wife Johanna, daughter of Richard St.Cleere of Ashperton or Ashburton, armiger, a property which afterwards gave title to one of the Fords.
Hervey, the Clarence king-at-arms, in 1567 drew the shield of William Hull of Larkebeare with seven quarterings, of which the Talbot arms and the St.Cleere arms, per pale or and az the sun in his beams counterchanged, made two.
John Holbeame of Holbeame, of another distinguished Devonshire landed family, had in the generation previous married Maria, daughter of Gilbert St.Cleere of Budleigh.
There is one scrap in the printed Harleian Miscellany, which, for all the parenthetic additions of some editor, does not give much satisfaction:
‘Gilbert St.Cleere of Toodwell, in county Devon, married Joan daughter of John Strawbridge of Collyton, and had Agnes wife of John, Ann and heire of Thomas Carew of Bykeley, county Devon [son of Edmund lord Carew Joane wife of George Ford [of Islington aet 17. 30 Henry VIII] George, William, Thomas, and Philippa St.Cleer the daughter’.
At Wilton, of the great nunnery, in Wiltshire, in a church there, a ten-inch monumental pictorial brass exists to John Coffer and to his wife Philippa St.Cleer, this daughter. John is in the kneeling attitude. The date is 1585. Above the female effigy is the shield of her husband, an armiger or squire, and one quarter has the St.Cleer arms: Per pale or and azure a sun counterchanged. A professional heraldist might on this evidence fix the house of Devonshire as a branch of the Kent and Susses great family, their arms being all but the same. There is no reason why they should not be fully so accepted, if it be remembered that they were not the only family of the lineage in that county.
This John is also called Consure for surname with some coats of arms, and is supposed to have been born out of England. He was dapifer or steward to the earl of Pembroke, then great master of the household to Queen Elizabeth, and his surname Coffer, like so many, grew from his office.
Names were at that time nearly as fluently poetical as they were with the Greeks in their legendary mythological period.
He had been steward or dapifer then for 38 years, dying in 1587 at the age of 77.
While he held this office royalty twice visited the earl at Wilton.
It is also said, somewhat contrarily to prevailing literary tradition, that it was then and there Sir Philip Sydney wrote the Arcadia for the countess of Pembroke, his immortal sister, who “herself could sing Clorinda lays”.
Here too, on Sir Philip's introduction, Edmundus Spencer Londoniensis Anglicorum Poetarum nostri seculi facile princeps, became a friend to Pembroke. Spenser dedicated his poem, The Ruins of Time, celebrating his heart's ideal, his “Phillisides”, slain 1586 in peerless prime, to the mourning sister,
‘the right noble and beautifull ladie, the ladie Marie, countess of Pembroke’.
If Philippa Sinclair was one of the Kent family, she would be close enough friends with the Sydneys, who were tenants, “keepers of sheep”, a Howard once said, previously on her peoples estates there. Some of Spenser's lines actually seem cunning hidden compliment to the steward of the earl, who no doubt was very kind to him as a stranger.
‘Coffers made of heben wood that in them did most precious treasure hide’, is one of the poet's visions, which Philippa Sinclair's husband may have been substance for.
At such a home the mind of England was in its highest flowering.
To have transformed Consure, for his entertainment of the angel visitor,
‘ Into that starre,
In which all heavenly treasures locked are’
suggests the rather wild but fruitful wantonness of Elizabethan art. However good an earl's dapifer, and friend to one of the worthiest, this destiny seems too elevated.
There is a notice of the younger branch in The Proceedings of Chancery in the Reign of Elizabeth, and it seems to be their last appearance in records.
S.s. 19. No. 61 reads,
‘Elizabeth Saintclere, wife of Gabriel Saintclere, plaintiff: Thomas Ford and Robert Mylls, defendants: object of suit - premises: For relief of the plaintiff and her children, charging the defendant Thomas Ford with keeping away her husband from her and family, and by fraudulent means procuring a conveyance of the capital messuage, barton, and demesne of Tudwell, on which the plaintiff had a settlement as jointure, and also his manor of Budleigh, and lands in Budleigh and Ashburton, and by fraudulent practices and promise of payment to plaintiff of a rent-charge of £10, procured her to levy a fine with her husband of all his estates, to the utter ruin of the plaintiff and her family, the defendant not allowing her access to her husband: county Devon’. Who the members of her family were, male and female, it would be interesting to know, but they seem to have made nothing out of this Ford of sharp practice, and henceforward had to be of the people, to gain some livelihood instead of the plentiful one thus lost to them by the frantic follies of the “well-qualified” Gabriel, whose conscience grew too tender for his people's good, and too fitted for the schemes of designers.
But total ruin cannot have come suddenly to such wealthy landholders, and there is ground to believe that they survived Ford's skill.
In the Proceedings in Chancery: Elizabeth, No. 10 is another entry of interest:
‘Hugh Pomerye, Esq., plaintiff; Gawen St.Clere, Sampson Letheby, Barbara his wife, John Keyner, and Thomas Jones, defendants; object of suit to quit plaintiff's possession; premises, the manor of Engesdon, otherwise called the manor of Over Engesdon, in the parish of Ilsington, and divers lands in Ilsington the inheritance of plaintiff: Devon co’. Gawen St.Clere is thus holding some of the patrimonial estates, and the names with him are his managers or tenants.
The parish of Ilsington is at Ashburton, a town a dozen miles or more south-west of Exeter, while most of the rest of the estates, as Budleigh, Clisthidon, Tidwell, were on the other, the eastern, side of the Ex river. Gawen St.Clere was a proprietor later than Gabriel, but more with regard to him or his descendants has not been found. He lost in this case, as may be inferred from Prince's assurance that the family of Pomeroy is one of great antiquity, and that “the particular branch from which the noble house of Haberton springs was settled at Engesden, Co. Devon, temp James I” Viscount Haberton of the Irish peerage, therefore, is the present representative of Gawen St, Cleres opponent in the time of Queen Elizabeth.
A Peter Sentle devised a messuage and land in Morton-Hampsted some time previous to this from his fee to Nicolas Loskey, but it may be doubted whether he is of the Devon houses at all, though the locality argues in his favour.
This distinguished branch has some of its members in the church, of whom one may serve for more.
In the Valor Ecclesiasticus of Henry VII, the estimates of the revenues of the church, under Decanat de Plymtr: Infra archdiaconat 9 dioc. Exon in pdco com Devon, comes Clysthydon, of which George Sinclair was rector. There is a detailed account of the sources of its income from returns, offerings, lamb's wool, the total being £20 and 5d. money, which represents more than that of a rectory in general now.
That the Devonshire house is the same with the Aldham-Sinclairs, one other monumental record would seem to prove, especially by similarity of arms. In Braybrook, Rothwell hundred, Northampton, there is a mural monument with the arms, a sun in its glory, and having two side inscriptions,
‘The woman reverencing her lord shall be praised’, and
‘Gracefulness is fleeting and beauty is hollow’. The chief inscription runs,
‘To Mary, risen from the Devonshire family of the ancient and honoured nobility of the Sinclairs, his very faithful and good wife dead by too bitter fate at Braybrook, Thomas Valence her surviving husband has placed this therefore with the highest love and eternal devotion: She died in the hope of the resurrection on the fourth day of September in the year of human salvation 1571. Tears will remain her monument ’. These are the Sancto Claro and Valoniis families in the dearest nearest relations in the sixteenth century, as they so often were from the Conquest, and long before it in Normandy. The Valences, constables of Hertford Castle, most famous as earls of Pembroke, married to royalty; and, influencing in the first degree England's interests as generals and statesmen, they are one of the chief stocks of its brilliant history. The Sinclairs were even of more ancient and honoured nobility than they, for if the Valences had royalty ties by marriage the others had it by lineage of blood.
One other house, the last to be described, will go further to corroborate this, which has been shown perhaps too abundantly.