Yeovil People

Robert de Sambourne

Builder of the present St John's church


The following is an adaptation of an essay by Leslie Brooke, published in Chronicle, the journal of the Yeovil Archaeological and Local History Society, in April 1986.



Robert de Sambourne was likely the illegitimate son of a rector of Kingston Pitney, whose chapel occupied the site of Yeovil District Hospital's boilerhouse chimney. The Bishop’s register for 1334 records the admonition of "Galfrido restore de Kyngeston juxta Jevele" for his "incontinence" with "Johanna de Sambourne de Jevele", and it seems most probable that this was the result of the birth of a son to Johanna.

That Robert de Sambourne had inherited lands and property, is shown by the fact that in 1348 he obtained licence from John de Risingdon, who was then Rector of Yeovil, to give twelve burgages in Jevele, which he held of him as lord of the manor, to support three chaplains, one to be called the arch presbyter, to celebrate for the salubrious state of John Maltravers and Agnes, his wife, the said Robert and John, whilst they all lived, and for their souls after death, and for the souls of the father and mother of the said Robert, etc. This clearly shows that Robert’s parents were dead at that time. The chantry which he thus founded in the then existing church was that of the Holy Trinity. In 1355, under the confirmation and seal of the Earl of Arundel, he gave a further £27 in rents to John de Risingdon, of which 21 marks were to go to the three chaplains "singing  perpetually at the altar of the Trinity", reserving for himself from the balance of these particular rents one hundred shillings and a robe or two marks per annum for his life. The lands referred to were in ‘Yevell, Kyngeston, La Marsh juxta Modeforde, and Chestermour’.

Meanwhile, in April 1349, Robert Sambourne, ‘priest’ was instituted to the parish church of ‘Kyngeston’ (Kingstone), near Ilminster. If he was born in the same year that Geoffrey de Pytney had been admonished, would make him 15 or 16 years old, and this was not an unusual age for a priest. Robert resigned from this living in 1353, when he appears to have become rector of Merriot.

The following year there is mention of him in connection with a civil suit when Ela FitzPayn acknowledged the manors of Cary and Charlton Makerell and the advowsons of the churches there to be the right of Thomas Wygood, parson of the church of Wotton, and Robert de Samuourn, cleric. In this suit, the two clergymen granted their rights to Robert FitzPayn and his heirs. In 1357, Robert de Sambourne acknowledged the right of the Earl of Arundel to hold for him and his heirs in perpetuity the manor of Sevenhampton Denys in consideration of payment to him by the Earl of one hundred marks of silver.

It might be mentioned here that the advowson of St. John’s, Yeovil, had been separated from the manor of Hendford in 1334, and from 1339, had been granted absolutely to John Maltravers. Eleanor Maltravers, who succeeded her father, the sixth John Maltravers, married Sir John FitzAlun, son of Richard, Earl of Arundel, and so the advowson had passed into the hands of the Earls of Arundel.

Robert de Sambourne also seems to have loaned money to William Musket, then owner of Newton Surmaville, for in 1358, John Botor was allowed four marks issuing from two-thirds of the manor of Newton, acquired from Robert de Sambourne, who held it for life from William Musket.

In 1360 Richard, Earl of Arundel and Lord of Hendford, sent the following to the Bishop of Bath and Wells: ‘Sir John Risingdon, rector of Jevele, of my patronage, of your diocese, and Sir Robert Sambourne, rector of Meriet, propose to exchange their benefices. I present the said Robert to the church of Jevele, supplicating that you will deign to admit and institute the said Robert. – At our Castle of Arundell, 17 April 1360’. A similar letter was sent by John Meriet, Kt., dated ‘Lopene’ 26 June 1360, presenting John de Risingdon to the church of Merriot. The transfer, however, did not take place for another two years.

The institution is recorded in the Bishop’s register as follows: ’10 July 1362 at Wyvelscomb – The Lord instituted Sir Robert de Samebourne, priest, in the person of William White, clerk, his proxy, to the parish church of Jevele by reason of exchange with Sir John de Risyngdon for the parish church of Meriet at the presentation of the Lord Richard, earl of Arundell. Same day and place the lord instituted Sir John Risyngdon, priest, in the person of Sir John Woter the younger, his proxy, to the parish church of Meriet by reason of exchange with Sir Robert Sambourne for the church of Jevele, at the presentation of Sir John de Meriet’.

It will be noted that neither incumbent attended the institution, both being represented by proxies. The term ‘Sir’ was prefixed to the names of such priests as had not graduated at either of the two universities. There was a saying that there were only three ‘Syrs’ – ‘Syr Kynge, Syr Knyghte and Syr Prieste’. The use of the term as applied to clergy died out early in the reign of Elizabeth the First.

In 1364, two years after his induction to St John’s rectory, the manor of Hendford with 57 shillings rent in Yeovil, was acknowledged to be the right of Robert following which he granted the manor and rents to John and Agnes Mautravers.

It was in this same year that Robert experienced trouble with certain townsmen over the issues of the stallages and market, ‘and other Profits and Jurisdictions adjudged to the same Rector and his successors’. Robert de Samdbourne, who is described as ‘Lord of the Town’, complained that a number (actually 31) of townsmen, who are cited by name, "being confederate together, and bound to each Other by Oath, by Covin there between them, plotted and contrived the death of the said Robert de Sambourne on account of the old grudge and malice which they have borne him, and maliciously went about to deprive him of his Profit of the View, Courts, Liberties, and Market, with force of arms, to wit with Swords, Bows and Arrows, etc., making an assault upon the same Robert de Sambourne, and his men and servants there, and drove them into the Parsonage House on Tuesday next before the feast of Corpus Christi (9 June 1364) . . . and besieged them in the same hostile manner, and kept them there shut up, and beget, until the assistance of certain of their friends they made their escape thence, and so greatly threatened the sale Robert de Sambourne, his men and servants aforesaid, as to the Life and Limbs (to murder or maim them) and lay in wait to have killed them that they durst not go about their own affairs and business... "

In the trial which followed, Robert claimed he had been deprived of the astonishing sum for those days of a thousand pounds (around £650,000 at today's value) as a result of the action of those named.

The case seemed to rest upon whether or not the market stalls in question were on waste ground, which as Parson of the Church and. Lord of the Town of Yevele, Robert claimed to have the right, or whether the ground formed part of the king’s highway. Robert produced a document sealed by Edward the Third, confirming his claim, but this was alleged by his opponents to have been acquired "by artifice and without taking leave of the king".

Robert appeared before the Court of Chancery at Westminster to plead his cause in person, but that court referred the case to a local one which was duly convened at Ilchester. Here he was completely vindicated, his rights as Rector upheld and confirmed. He also obtained from John Thorne the Provost of Yevele, and the twenty-two Burgesses who formed the governing body of the town, acknowledgement of Robert’s rights as Rector, and this was again confirmed two years later in these terms: "We the said burgesses repenting of these suggestions and untruths, hereby repel the same from the depths of our hearts, and affirm all the rights of the said Sir Robert in the seigneury with all the profits belonging". This seems to have settled the matter, at least for the time being!

It is. apparent that Yeovilians had for long objected to money which the Rector received, on behalf of the Church, from the borough courts and markets. In Robert de la More’s time, differences between him and the Portreeve had resulted in agreement eventually being reached in 1305, in which it was stated that the latter was answerable to the Rector nor all rents, fines and profits arising from the borough courts. But eleven years after this, the Bishop was calling for charters relating to the Rectory to be produced, so it is obvious dissatisfaction was still being expressed. The profits arising from the market tolls and from other borough income had been granted to the Rector for the sole use of the church as far back as the beginning of the twelfth century when the lordship of the town was transferred effectually from the lord of Hendford to the rector. It was stated that the rents of the ‘tenement’ of Yeovil were to be "placed upon the altar and converted to the profit of the church. Neither the parson nor any other receives anything therefrom, but they are converted to the uses of the church". It was undoubtedly this proviso which successive townsmen objected to and, perhaps, led Robert Sambourne to employ the sum which had accrued over a long period for the purpose of building a new church.

In 1366, Robert is shown in the Register of John Grandison, Bishop of Exeter, to be Prebendary of Wedmore (Tertia), and three years after this, on 5 November 1369, in an audit held before the Dean and Chapter of Wells, ‘Canon Robert Sambourne’ was chosen seneschal. In 1370 he paid 100 marks of silver to Henry and Willielma Leycestre for two acres of meadow in Yvele, Chestermour, Kyngeston, and Marsh juxta Modeford Terry.

That Barwick church had once been a chapel-of-ease, dependent on the mother church of St. John Baptist, and during Robert de Sambourne’s incumbency had still to snow a degree of subservience to the Yeovil rector, is shown by an item in the Bishop’s register in 1373. "On the ninth before the Kalends of July 1373, the Bishop admitted Sir William Vinegyre, priest, to the chapel of Berwyke of his diocese, void by the death of John Bonewylle, last chaplain, to which he was presented by Walter Amyas, Ralph de Walsham, and John Malyns, attorneys of the Earl of Pembroke, the true patrons of the said chapel this turn, and instituted him perpetual chaplain according to the form of ordinance of the said chapel. And immediately after such institution, the said William, the Holy Gospels being touched by him, then and there swore to do to Sir Robert Sambourne, rector of the church of Ievele, those things to which he is bounden according to the form and effect of the ordinance and composition of the said chapel; Sir Thomas Aument and John Carsse being present".

Evidence of Robert Sambourne’s financial standing is also shown in Feet of Fines records. In 1375 he acquired thirty acres of land and three acres of meadow in Kyngeston, Merssh and Sok Daneys from John Sterketon and Agnes his wife for twenty marks of silver, and again in 1379-80, when he held for his life three carucates of land and ten acres of pasture in Houndeston, Haryngton and Golboare of Sir Thomas West. After Robert’s death, Sir Thomas granted these same holdings to others for 200 marks of silver. (Although not a coin as such, but a unit of accountancy, a mark was worth two-thirds of a pound – 13s.4d., now 66p, but worth about £425 at today's value. Therefore today's value of 200 marks would be around £85,000).

As Rector of Yeovil, Robert in 1376 was to safeguard his right to the advowson of the vicarage of Yeovil. William Umfrey, his vicar, had died in or shortly before 1374, and in November 1375, William Humberstan the younger was presented to the vacancy by the king; as guardian of the heir of John Maltravers, who had held the patronage of the Rectory. However, Robert de Sambourne had himself already presented Robert Bays, a young illegitimate who was still only ‘tonsured’, on the death of Umfrey.

Bays had become a priest by the autumn of 1375, having obtained the Pope’s indulgence for non-residence for seven years, in order to continue his study of civil law at a university. He had been permitted to hold the benefice on condition "that the cure of souls be not neglected, but exercised by a good and efficient vicar, and. that he be ordained as soon as he arrives at a lawful age."

Robert de Sambourne’s petition against the king’s right, as guardian of the Maltravers heir, to present his nominee, was successful, and Humberstan’s presentation was revoked. Robert Bays obtained ratification in July 1376 and paid dues of one shilling as vicar in 1377. He also, about the same time, demised the profits from tile vicarage for five years for the maintenance of a parochial chaplain there, which was in accord with the conditions imposed on his appointment.

During his incumbency, Bays "purchased to him and his successors, vicars of Yeovil, a plot of land and built upon it". This was his provision of a vicarage in what was then Quedam Street. He went to Ireland on the king’s service in 1383 and again in 1386, was described in the latter year as a Canon of Wells, though he had been outlawed for trespass and debt. He obtained a pardon in April 1351 but appears to have resigned or exchanged his vicarage soon afterwards, though still retaining his canonry.

Robert de Sambourne died sometime between May and September 1382, and his will, given in full below, shows he was the instigator of the building of the present church.

"20 May 1382. Robert Sambourne, canon of the cathedral church of Wells, in my house at Wells, make my testament as follows. My body to be buried in the cathedral church of Wells if I depart from this light in the city of Wells, and if I close my last day within the parish of Jevele I will my body rest in the parish church there. I bequeath for my funeral obsequies £20. To each of my executors 40s. The residue of my goods to be expended by my executors on the work of the church of Jevele begun by me, until it be finished. And after that whatever residue there be, shall be disposed in the celebration of masses and in divers works and offices of charity and piety for my soul as seems best to my executors, and if I owe any debts, they shall be fully paid. I will that all the above bequests which are made for the works of charity and piety stand as much for the merit and benefit of myself and my soul as for those for whom I am bound, and I will that they participate with me in all things to be done for my soul as if they also were severally mentioned. And if any of my executors illegally quarrel among themselves I will and specially enjoin that they be expelled from the execution of my will, and from all the foregoing by the common consent of the rest of my executors. And I make my executors my well-be-loved in Christ Sir Walter Wyncaulton canon of Wells, Sir John Tyntenhull vicar in the church of Wells, Stephen Blancombe priest, and Hugh King my valet. In witness whereof I have set my seal’.

The will was proved on 12 September 1382.

Nothing remains to show whether Robert died in his house in Wells or here in Yeovil, but it seems likely that his death occurred in Wells, though no memorial to him survives in the cathedral there. Neither is there an inscribed memorial to him in St. John’s, though the church itself is witness to his memory. The Chantry of the Holy Trinity which he had founded in the former church was transferred to the present one when it was completed and occupied the south choir aisle. This spot was recreated a chapel dedicated to the Trinity in 1962, and perhaps it would be a fitting tribute to the instigator of both church and chantry if at some future date a memorial plaque were to be placed there in his honour.