Simon Sewall MP (and his cat?)
By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the December 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
The pantomime season is here again and parents and grandparents everywhere are looking forward (Oh yes they are!) to taking the children to see Cinderella, Mother Goose and Dick Whittington.
I can’t tell you much about the first two, but as a Londoner I do know that Richard Whittington was a real person who came to London to seek his fortune and who really did become Mayor of London on three occasions. On the other hand, I also know that he was never a poor man; his family were landed gentry. Legend has it that when walking home up Highgate Hill, the bells tolled ‘Turn again, Whittington’. It’s just as well they did because Richard Whittington’s family home was in Gloucestershire, to the south-west, and our Dick was heading due north! The first ‘Legend of Dick Whittington’ appears around 1600, two centuries after his death, but why did the storyteller choose Richard Whittington the mayor as his subject when he could have chosen Simon Sewall, the Member of Parliament? Both men probably had a cat or two for the purpose of keeping the rats in check. It’s also possible that but for the rats and the disease they carried, neither man would have achieved the success he did.
Throughout the fourteenth century bubonic plague was a regular visitor to London. The worst year for Londoners was 1348 when 40 per cent of the population were wiped out and it is said that a third of the city was still uninhabited ten years later. The rats lived in the thatched roofs and thrived in the narrow streets and poor sanitation of the capital. No doubt an ill-fed people living in squalid, overcrowded conditions would have little resistance but the plague claimed rich and poor alike, and in 1394 even King Richard II's queen, Anne of Bohemia became a victim. However, 'It's an ill wind...' as the saying goes, and if you were lucky enough to survive 'the Great Pestilence' when your main rivals in trade did not, it presented you with an opportunity to become extremely wealthy. As a result, the end of the century saw a steady influx of people from the provinces arriving in London to seek their fortune, the most famous amongst them was to be Richard Whittington.
Contemporary with Whittington was Simon Sewall. He was probably born around 1365 although we do not know exactly when or where, or when he arrived in the capital. Yet Sewall, a saddler by trade, rose from obscurity to become a prosperous and influential man in fifteenth century London, representing the city in Parliament at the time Whittington was its mayor.
These were turbulent times in our history and for London in particular. England had been at war with France since 1338, the Hundred Years War, and there was unrest at home. King Richard had successfully put down the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 but there were further riots in London in 1384 as well as the constant threat of invasion. London's citizens had a lot to contend with and the famine of 1391 led to the mayor and aldermen having to buy corn from abroad to feed the poor.
As a saddler, it would have been of great significance to Simon Sewall when the Company of Saddlers received its charter in 1395 and it is likely that Sewall was a prominent member of his trade guild at that time. He may already have made the acquaintance of a member of the Mercers guild, Dick Whittington, who became mayor of London for the first time in 1397.
In 1399 while King Richard was away in Ireland, Henry, son of the duke of Lancaster claimed the throne of England and won the backing of London's mayor and citizens. Richard abdicated and Henry IV was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Much of the civil unrest of the time was instigated by the Lollards, followers of John Wyclif's teachings, and in 1401 the government moved against them, burning one of their adherents at Smithfield. Sewall is first recorded as being a juror at assizes in 1401. We know that he continued to sit on juries, usually for the wards of Farringdon and Cheap, until his death. In 1402 he was made a churchwarden of St Peter's, West Cheap.
In 1405, Ralph Freeman, a wealthy brewer died and Sewall married his widow Alice, so acquiring an inn in St Mary, Colechurch and a tenement in Seacoal Lane. Unfortunately, Alice died within a few months of the marriage.
In 1406, Richard Whittington was elected mayor for the second time. The plague was particularly rife that year and the year following and claimed 30,000 victims in London alone.
The year 1410 brought the 'Great Frost' and the river Thames was frozen solid for three months, enabling the population to walk or ride from one bank to the other.
In the lay subsidy return of 1412, Sewall's income from properties in the City was assessed at over £24 per annum as well as rents and profits from holdings in the county of Middlesex. In the previous year a court had confirmed him as holding the lease of a tenement known as 'the Sign of the Elephant' in East Cheap, In addition, he now owned a tenement in West Cheap, another in Gutter Lane, four more in St Botolph, Aldersgate and a brewery called 'Le Horne' in Aldersgate Street.
Henry IV died in 1413 and was succeeded by Henry V. The leader of the Lollard sect, Sir John Oldcastle, was arrested but escaped from the Tower of London to lead an uprising against the new king. The uprising was over almost before it began and the ringleaders hanged except for Oldcastle who escaped yet again and went to ground, hiding in the crowded dwellings of Smithfield and Aldersgate, where Sewall owned a number of properties.
In 1415, London's streets were hung with tapestries as its citizens celebrated the great victory at Agincourt, whilst the following year saw the visit to England of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, who attempted to mediate between Henry V and the French. Having been made a Knight of the Garter, Sigismund was entertained at Kentish Town with a lavish banquet attended by almost every man of substance in London. Also in 1416 Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard leader, was finally recaptured and convicted of treason and heresy. At St Giles in the Fields he was hung in chains over a fire until dead.
In June 1417 Sewall was one of several prominent London merchants who helped to fund King Henry V's second expedition to France. Sewall's contribution was twenty pounds and it was intended that these loans would be repaid by the king from the wool subsidy due to be collected after 1420. By now Simon Sewall was attending the parliaments of the day. It would have been almost unthinkable for a humble saddler to represent the City of London in the House of Commons but Sewall was a member of the Company of Saddlers and the bulk of his substantial income now derived from land and properties. In December 1417, Simon Sewall married for the second time, once again to a widow named Alice. Her previous husband, John Goldyng, a tax collector from Edmonton, had owned various tenements in Pinner, Middlesex, which now became part of Sewall's property empire.
In 1419, Whittington was elected mayor for a third and final time.
Henry V died in 1422 and his brothers, the dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, became regents for Henry's infant son. In 1423 Richard Whittington, three times mayor of London, died, leaving a vast fortune to various City of London institutions.
1425 saw more riots, this time against Fleming merchants, and there was a tense confrontation at London Bridge between forces of the duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester, which the mayor of London and his alderman were able to defuse without violence.
Although still not eight years old King Henry VI was crowned on 6 November 1429.
A few weeks later, between 30 December 1429 and the 8 January, Simon Sewall died and was buried in the church of St Peter, West Cheap. He left his estate to his two children, Henry and Elizabeth, but with the proviso that should they die without issue, all his properties would revert to the Saddlers' Company of London and any income be used to support various charitable causes.
Six centuries on, we cannot hope to know Simon Sewall or judge him by our standards. If he could speak to us his very language would seem strange, as evidenced by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales which were written between 1385 and 1400, but no more so than his view of the world, his beliefs, his medieval mind-set. He and Richard Whittington had a great deal in common and would have been well acquainted but we don’t know if they were good friends, if perhaps they each lost loved ones to the plague or rode together across the frozen Thames in 1410. Their London has changed beyond recognition. Londoners can still walk along Eastcheap and Cheapside, nowadays mostly offices, shops and the occasional eating house, but the church of St Peter, West Cheap, Sewall's last resting place, seems to have been one of the 89 churches lost in the Great Fire of 1666.
It is not recorded if Sewall attended the coronations of 1413 and 1429, or rode in procession with royalty, aldermen and guilds to the great banquet of 1416. We do not know if he was one of the mayor's party which met the king at Blackheath on his triumphant return from Agincourt. However, from the records that survive we can say with certainty that Simon Sewall was a wealthy and influential Londoner, one of the city's movers and shakers, and it is therefore inconceivable that he was not closely involved in most if not all of these momentous occasions.
So why is Sewall forgotten while Whittington lives on as a pantomime character? Perhaps it’s simply because the name lacks comic potential. I can recall a moment in the panto when Alice Fitzwarren slaps a shapely thigh and says “Dick, Dick, I must have my Dick.” How could Simon ever compete with that?
Guildhall Library, Corporation of London Record Office,
The House of Commons 1386-1421 (Alan Sutton Publishing)
London - The Biography by Peter Ackroyd,
The Annals of London by John Richardson
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