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Jack of Newbury

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Among the chief county families of West Berkshire a century or two ago were the Winchcombes of Bucklebury, baronets by creation of Charles II. soon after his Restoration. They were described as 'of Bucklebury House,' and for one or two generations were knights of the shire for ' the royal county.'The property of Bucklebury, with some five thousand acres, and nearly three thousand more in the county of  Gloucester, still belong to their descendants in the female line, whose head is the present Mr. Winchcombe Howard Hartley.
     The fortunes of the family were made originally by ‘John Winchcombe,' a man known all through the western hundreds of Berkshire as ‘ Jack of Newbury,' of whom tradition says that he was the wealthiest clothier in that part of England when Berkshire formed the headquarters of the cloth manufacture.
     This John Winchcombe, though born of humble and even of poor parents, rose by a freak of fortune to become not only the wealthiest clothier in Berkshire, but the owner of a mansion, where he lived with all the splendor and magnificence of a prince. Having picked up such a hap-hazard education as a village school could afford, he was bound by his parents as apprentice to a rich manufacturer in his native town of Newbury. In this capacity he seems to have been a model of good conduct, and to have shown so much diligence and industry in his master's service as to have secured his good opinion, and that of his mistress also. As good luck would have it, the master died in middle life, leaving behind him a thriving business, and a widow somewhat under thirty years of age. Young and rich, and agreeable to boot, the widow had no lack of suitors, and among their number was ‘the curate of Speenhamland, and a rich tanner, and an eminent tailor.'  In what the tailor's eminence consisted history is silent; but it appears that, however often these good people may have flocked as suitors to her house, the widow showed a decided preference for her apprentice, John Winchcombe.
     The story goes that at the annual fair, which is (or was) held at Newbury on St. Bartlemy's Day, the three candidates for the widow's hand met at her table, and each in turned pressed his suit. But the lady contented herself with telling them that she would give them each an answer on the following Thursday.
     The widow and her apprentice made good use of the interval.  During these few days a marriage license and a wedding ring were bought, and, before the church clock of Newbury had struck nine on that Thursday morning, the rector or vicar of the parish had given the nuptial blessing to the widow and her 'prentice, and had declared them man and wife.
     Years rolled on, and the business prospered; valuable contracts were entered into, and such large sums of money were laid-by that John Winchcombe not only became a great man locally, but was able to prove of service to his sovereign.  When the Earl of Surrey marched to the north against the King of Scotland, who was then ravaging the borders of England, this eminent trader followed in his retinue, we are told by the manuscripts of a family chronicler, with a train of a hundred of his own expense. 'Jack' is described as having marched north at the head of fifty tall men well-mounted, and fifty footmen with bow and pike, "as well armed and better clothed than any."' Whether he reached the field of Flodden is doubtful, though the ballad of the `Newberrie Archers' gives the particulars of the exploits of his men. The success which attended the army of England in that expedition is known to every reader of history; and we are told that Jack of Newbury displayed in it no little personal bravery.
     After the war was at an end he returned to Newbury, and was able to decline with thanks the offer of knighthood made to him by his sovereign. He was a plain man, and not of patrician birth, and he knew that he would be out of place among the Stanleys and Talbots, the Howards and De Veres. But he settled down quietly at Newbury, where he kept open house, and showed such great hospitality that his name came to be a by-word for it. On one occasion, indeed, be was honored by a visit from royalty ; for, on Henry's return from France, Jack had the honor of entertaining him at Newbury, which he did in splendid fashion.
     He showed his munificence in another way, for he founded schools for the young, and a hospital for the old, besides restoring at his own cost the chief part of the parish church of Newbury.  His crowning work, however, was his carrying to a successful issue the clothiers' petition, when, ‘by reason of the wars, many merchant strangers were prohibited from coming to England, and also our merchants, in like sort, were forbidden to have dealings with France and the Low Countries,' so that the cloth trade had fallen very low.  ‘The deputation,' we are told, ‘seemed at first likely to miscarry, for Wolsey, to whom they were referred, put the matter off from time to time, being of opinion' (as was not unlikely) ‘that Jack of Newbury, if well examined, would be found to be infected with somewhat of Luther's spirit.’ Jack, in his turn, exasperated the haughty Cardinal by saying, ‘If my Lord Chancellor's father had been no hastier in killing calves than he in dispatching of poor men's suits, I think he never would have won a mitre.' But the King took the matter up seriously, and the clothiers got their order ‘that merchants should freely traffic one with another, and the proclamation thereof should be made as well on the other side of the sea as the land.’
     ‘The Steel-yard merchants, being joyful thereof,' as we are told, `made the clothiers a great banquet after which each man departed home, carrying tidings of their good success, so that in a short space clothing was again very good, and poor men set to work as before.'
     The house in which ` Jack' lived at Newbury , was built of stone, with large mullioned windows. It remained in a tolerably complete state down to about a century and a half ago, when it was cut up into several tenements. It stood on the east  side of the principal street of the town, and a portion of the site is now occupied by a large hostelry, which is honored with the sign of Jack of Newbury.' As may be expected of a man who had done so much good for his native town, ‘ his death was greatly lamented,' and a handsome stained glass window to perpetuate his fame, has lately been set up in the parish church.
     The son of Jack of Newbury, another John Winchcombe, obtained from Henry VIII, at the Dissolution of Monasteries, a grant of the fair lands of Bucklebury, near Newbury, which was a religious house dependent on the great Abbey of Reading. His son, or grandson, Henry, who is described as being  ‘of Bucklebury,' was created a baronet in 1661, in reward of his own and his fathers loyalty to the sovereign, and married a lady of the noble house of Howard, a daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. His son and successor, another Henry, the second baronet, dying without issue male, early in the eighteenth century, the property passed to his daughter, the wife of the great Lord Bolingbroke, and from her to one of the Hartleys, whose descendants still hold it in possession.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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