Profit and Loss in the Hundred Years War: the Subcontracts of Sir John Strother, 1374
By Simon Walker
The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Studies, Vol.58 (1985)
Introduction: Among the Swinburne manuscripts in the Northumberland County Record Office is preserved a small batch of indentures concluded between Sir John Strother of Lanton in Glendale and those who contracted to serve with him under the command of the earl of March in Brittany and France in 1374. Indentures between a captain who had concluded his own contract with the Crown and his subcontractors are rare but not unknown: 2 Strother’s indentures are unusual in preserving the subcontracts of a subcontractor. They come from one step further down the ladder of military organization than most surviving documents of this type and they consequently reveal some of the administrative and financial complications that lie behind the suspiciously neat accounts eventually rendered by the captains at the exchequer.
Sir John Strother was the eldest son of Henry Strother of Kirknewton and Learchild. The Strothers’ prominence in Northumberland went back no further than the early fourteenth century, when William de Strother the elder bought up the lands forfeited by the Corbets for their complicity in the rebellion of Sir Gilbert de Middleton but, like the Hetons (into whom Sir John was married), they were among the lesser Northumbrian families who had profited from the disruption wrought by the wars against Scotland to establish themselves at the expense of older and less adaptable lineages. By 1375 they were among the most influential gentry families in Northumberland. Sir John’s father, who was still alive at the time these indentures were concluded, was a former sheriff of Northumberland and a man of some importance on the Border, leasing the castle and lordship of Wark on Tweed from its absentee lords. One of his uncles, William Strother, was a substantial woolman and mineowner, mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne between 1353 and 1360. Another uncle, Alan Strother of Kirkharle, was still more influential: as constable of Roxburgh castle, bailiff of the liberty of Tynedale and farmer of the royal lands within the liberty, as well as a former sheriff and M.P. for Northumberland, he exercised as effective an authority over North Tynedale as Henry Strother did in Glendale.
Sir John Strother’s own career hardly matches the prominence of his family. This was principally because his father remained alive and active until the beginning of Richard II’s reign and, as head of the family, naturally received all the more important public appointments and commissions himself. Sir John’s first administrative appointment, as an assessor of the poll tax in Northumber–land, came in May 1379 and in the following December he was appointed one of the joint-keepers of the East March, but his brief official career was cut short by death in April 1380. For such young men, living under the shadow of their fathers, fathers, soldiering abroad provided alternative occupation, and the fact that Sir John was a knight whilst his father remained a commoner suggests that he already possessed some military experience. He had the additional incentive that, whilst his father remained alive, he would always be short of the money necessary to maintain his knightly estate. Service overseas was consequently a attractive, perhaps a necessary, means of supplementing his exiguous landed income: an examination of his indentures indicates how he hoped to manage this.