John Bath

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May 2, 2017 by auntkatefirmin

John Bath of Wootton Bassett described himself as a husbandman, as opposed to a gentleman or a yeoman. He considered himself a man of good, though not the highest, standing and the associates who witnessed his will included a mayor of Wootton Bassett, John Wallis, and John Bath’s son-in-law, John Parsons, gentleman. Since John Bath was not an artisan I think he had some leased meadow or similar property in addition to his dwelling. Given that he was in Wootton Bassett it is very likely that he had some type of dairy-related business. At least some of his livestock might have grazed on areas where his ancestors had a right of common (or anyway such a right was exercised by many prior to 1555*) but he probably had additional grazing lands. Clearly he had a house of some sort, but we will have to look elsewhere for evidence of its size and location. I will venture to guess that the house was not in the High Street as it’s possible that the property on the High Street in that era carried town voting rights and privileges – in other words properties in certain areas were “burgage” plots under the Wootton Bassett charter. I have no reason to believe that John Bath was a burgess but it would be interesting to research who the burgesses were in that era.


Popular idea of the life of a husbandman published in 1538. From the Danse Macabre and often attributed to Hans Holbein.

For the sake of anchoring John in time somewhat, I will use 1550 as an estimated birth year. This places him well before the surviving parish records of Wootton Bassett which start about 1595 for baptisms and 1584 for marriages and burials. Using this estimate, he would have been about 48 when he wrote his will and his older children were likely to have been adults. Given that he only mentioned two of three children by name, Christian and Edith, I will conclude that all his surviving children were adults by 1598 as they could not have served as his executors or taken over any leases if they were minors. The unnamed daughter married John Parsons. Based on other evidence I will assume that he also had a son Robert, and I wonder if Robert had not already taken over his father’s property and businesses by 1598 and John’s daughter, Mrs Parsons, had received her portion when she married, leaving the last two unmarried daughters to inherit John’s remaining “goods and chattels” – a phrase which specifically excludes any real estate.

After taking a quick look at the events during John’s lifetime, I have decided they warrant a separate post. I will only mention in passing that apparently in the years of 1594-97 the harvests were particularly bad and this may have contributed to the ill-health of John and his wife Alice. John would have lived during the reigns of Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I, and James I – turbulent times.

In this scenario, John and his wife Alice suffered set-backs to their health in 1598 resulting in the death of Alice and John’s seriously reduced capacity, causing him to believe that his death could occur at any time. I think that John had enough wealth to settle something on his daughter Mrs Parsons, and decided to turn over the majority of his property to Robert with the expectation that Robert would provide for his father and sisters.

John Bath appears to have had a close relationship with the father of John Parsons, as for some reason he possessed a chair that had belonged to that gentleman. Ownership of a chair would be another piece of evidence that John considered himself a person of substance. Rooms in the 16th century were multi-purpose (tiny house fanciers should take notes) and most of the adult diners in a household used a stool or sat on a bench at a moveable table set up for eating, while the children might stand. Like clothing, furniture was one of several finely graded markers of status that would have been easily interpreted by one’s peers. How John came to own the chair once owned by the senior Mr Parsons would be a fine story to know!


Chair, circa 1620, but similar to Tudor-era armchairs.

If an inventory for John Bath had survived, we would have a better grasp of his total wealth. Clearly John was well respected as one daughter married a man who called himself a gentleman, and his relationship with a mayor of Wootton Bassett included a level of mutual trust, or at least obligation, which allowed him to call on the mayor to be a witness to his will. While for some reason, perhaps due to local customs that tied status terms to types of property-holding, John termed himself a husbandman, I suspect he was relatively well-to-do compared to others who described themselves in that way. In theory, those with possessions were respected not for their wealth as such, but for the evidence of stability the possessions showed. In that worldview there was an implied trustworthiness of a person of “substance” – such a person was supposed to unlikely to take a bribe, for example.  We might perceive this attitude as a mingling of the moral with the material.

It is interesting that in describing his assets John did not mention any “lawful English money.” I find it difficult to wrap my mind around an economy where there were not yet formal banking institutions. Regardless, John would have had less use for cash than we do today and probably kept accounts with merchants rather than paying for each transaction. Interestingly, he did not mention his wearing apparel, which though more valuable in contrast to modern clothing, would not have been particularly useful to his daughters except as goods to exchange.

John did not mention any brothers, sisters, nieces, or nephews in his will so there is nothing yet that ties him to a particular family.

John’s will takes us back farther in time than most family wills I have looked at and opens up all sorts of interesting questions about relationships, customs, and the life of Wootton Bassett. My theories may well need to be altered as I learn more about this era.

*Regarding the local rights of common, the Lord of the Manor, Sir Francis Englefield, and the burgesses of Wootton Bassett did not see eye-to-eye about the grazing of cattle in Vasterne Park and the dispute ran for decades. The burgesses felt strongly but Sir Francis was a prominent local landlord and those who leased property from him were afraid of retaliation.


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