History of the Amersham Area

The Saunders family

The Saunders family of Tudor Amersham

This article was written by Peter Borrows for the Amersham Society newsletter.

The newly-reopened Amersham Museum in 2017 focuses on five individuals as exemplars of the period in which they lived. For the Tudor period, Richard Saunders is selected in 1580. In fact, he was one of a long line of Saunders associated with Amersham from the mid-15th century to well into the 17th century (see Fig. 4 pdf attached – the descendants who were residents of the Bury are marked in yellow, except Richard Saunders in green). There were many branches of the Saunders family in other parts of Buckinghamshire and neighbouring counties with movement and inter-marriage between them. Many were very wealthy, owning land, inheriting or buying manors and many were involved in the cloth trade in some way – as cap-makers, dyers, cloth merchants and one branch owned a pit of fuller’s earth at Aspley (near Milton Keynes). This account is partially based on a privately produced history of the family[1], supplemented from other sources.

The Amersham Saunders were living at The Bury (now Bury Farm) throughout this period, renting it from whoever was Lord of the Manor at the time. The first member of the family whom we know lived in Amersham was William Saunders. There may well have been earlier members but there is no documentary evidence. In 1456 William Sawndris (Saunders) of Amersham, a capper (cap-maker) and dyer and John Tillesworth of Amersham, a fuller, acquired a tenement[2] in Amersham called Colesplace, with the cemetery of the parish church lying to the north, a tenement formerly belonging to Isabel Barbour alias Smyth to the east and the Kings highway to the south and west. One of the witnesses is a Robert Screveyner. A few years later, in 1465, William is involved in another land transfer (see Fig. 1)[3].

Fig. 1

Feoffment by Simon Golofour and Robert Clerk of Agmondesham, to Robert Body, William Saunders, Robert Screvener and John Tyllesworth of the same, of the lands, &c. in the borough of Agmondesham which they had by the feoffment of John Spycer and Isabel his wife. 20 January, 4 Edward IV. Seal.

The references to William Saunders, Robert Screvener and John Tyllesworth are in the 2nd line. Interestingly, both the Screvener and Tyllesworth surnames come up some 50 years later amongst Amersham’s Lollard martyrs and William Saunders’ descendants were also active Lollard sympathisers.

William made his will on 18 March 1487 and died about a year later, with probate granted on 10 June 1488. One of the witnesses of the will is John Skryvener, son[4] of Robert Skryvener named above. William left most of his property to his wife Isabella, except for a house situated in Weldon Street (Whielden Street) in which William Wadesley was living and after the latter’s death it was to go to the Fraternity of St Katherine. This was the parish guild, occupying the row of buildings still recognisable on the north side of Market Square (the block including Gilbey’s and the Artichoke restaurants). The legacy would help the work of the fraternity, for example, supporting its members who fell on hard times, paying for a priest (who would probably teach boys how to read) and providing the town with some form of social organisation.

William’s children were not named in his will but they were in that of his wife, Isabella[5]. She died in 1497 and the beneficiaries included her sons Richard and Thomas and her daughter Sybill. There was possibly another son, Drue or Drugo: the Register of Eton College records that a Drugo Saunders was admitted to King’s College, Cambridge as a Scholar in 1492 and made a Fellow 1495. Whilst there is no direct proof he was William and Isabella’s son there were certainly others with that first name in later generations of the family and he may have died before Isabella drew up her will.

The son Richard was the executor of his mother, Isabella’s, will and he was himself a very wealthy man. He is listed in the Certificate of Musters for Buckinghamshire[6] of 1522. Drawn up on the instruction of Cardinal Wolsey, despite the title suggesting a military purpose and notes such as

Ric. Saunders hathe harneyse redye for a man and a horse for same

and comments about eleven good bows it was actually a rather sneaky way of getting a more reliable tax assessment. Richard Saunders was recorded as having land in Amersham worth £6-13sh-4d and £300 in goods, five times what the next richest man owned. In 1523/4, when the tax was actually paid, the Subsidy Roll[7] (see Fig. 2 – Richard is the third entry under Agmondesham (Amersham), after John Penne, gentleman, and Thomas Clerk) records he was now listed as worth £200 but paid £10 tax on it. Perhaps he had sold some goods.

One widow recorded in the Certificate of Musters was Sybil Scrivener (land 8 shillings, goods £2) the wife of John Scrivener, martyred in 1521. She was almost certainly the daughter, Sybil Saunders, mentioned in Isabella Saunders’ will and both Richard and his wife Alice were staunch Lollards. In Foxe’s English Martyrs[8], a Richard Sanders (Saunders) of Amersham was listed as one of the accused:

Because hee euer defended them whiche were suspected to bee Knowen men. Also because hee bought out his penaunce, and caryed his badge in his purse.

Interestingly, in 1512 Richard Saunders had brought a defamation suit[9] against Robert Lynacre in the Bishop’s court in London. Thomas Waltham, a 19-year-old farmer from Harrow, had travelled to Uxbridge with 8 ells of cloth (in all about 9 metres). Lynacre had asked if he wanted it dyed to which Waltham had replied that he did, but was looking for the dyer from Amersham. Lynacre had then demanded “Why should a heretick and a loller dye your cloth?”. Saunders would not have brought such a claim for defamation if he had been found guilty of heresy in 1511 but obviously he must have been seriously implicated in the trials. In his will[10] of 1524 Richard was described as a dyer and he left his lands in the Borough and Parish of Agmondesham to his wife Alice but amongst other beneficiaries were his son Thomas, his brother (also Thomas) and his nephew William.

Both Thomas Saunders senior (Richard’s brother) and Thomas Saunders junior (Richard’s son) were recorded in the Certificate of Musters. The former had land in Amersham worth £2-13sh-4d and £24 in goods and the latter had no land but had goods valued at £40. The younger Thomas Saunders was the Executor of the will of Isabelle (Sybil) Scrivener in 1526[11], confirming close ties between the Saunders and Scrivener families. Several records show that not only was Richard very wealthy but others in his family were successful merchants dealing with the highest in society and prominent members of the Amersham community. Richard’s widow Alice survived until 1543. There are some suggestions[12] that she used her wealth to bully back-sliding Lollards, for example by threatening loss of employment opportunities. In her will[13] she left substantial legacies, eg 20 shillings and a furred black gown to her daughter Joan/Joanne, 7 shillings and 5 yards of black cloth for a coat to her son (and executor) Thomas, 7 shillings and 6 pence to his son John. Alice Saunders (her daughter-in-law) is given her best gown and girdle and so on, in all 23 beneficiaries.  At some point between 1533 and 1538 Thomas Saunders (Richard’s son) took out a case against Richard Lokke[14] for failing to complete the conveyance of messuage and land in Chesham. In 1539, he brought a case[15] in the Guildhall, London against the Mayor and Aldermen for failing to pay for 240 cloths of blewe, redd, wachet, and grene (blue, red, white and green) worth 100 marks (about £67) for robes. At about the same time, he brought another case against the Fraternity of Smiths in London, presumably also for unpaid cloth. In the 1540s Thomas Sanders (Saunders) of the Bywyre, (Bury Farm), is mentioned in the churchwardens’ accounts as holding three pieces of land at Amersham[16]. At about the same time [17], Thomas Saunders and others, wardens of the Fraternity of St Katharine in Amersham are the plaintiffs in an action against Robert Annable about a messuage and land in Penn, bequeathed by Cicely Seuton (Sexton?) to fund a priest in the church of Amersham. This was probably just after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Chantry chapels such as this were abolished … but the law kept grinding on! Thomas died in 1550. His will[18] shows he had extensive land holdings, including farms in Chesham, Great Hampden, free and copyhold lands in Ruislip and other holdings less easy to identify. He bequeathed a feather bed to one of his sons, another Richard, who seems to have made good use of it – a plaque in North Marston church (just north of Waddesdon) records that this Richard had 27 children (by four successive wives). Confusingly, Thomas Saunders’ wife was also an Alice, like his mother. In all, they seem to have had seven children: Elizabeth, Isobel, Kathryne, Margery, John, Robert and Richard. All but Robert married, Margery marrying a member of the Penn family. Thomas and Alice’s son, John, married twice, firstly Elizabeth Tredway (née Duncombe) then Ursula Yates Lee. He died in 1578 and was buried in Amersham. He had five children – Thomas, Richard, Charles, Cecily and Margaret. Thomas seems to have moved to Long Marston (near Tring) but Richard was certainly living in Amersham – he is the Richard Saunders high-lighted in the Museum display and was the great-great-grandson of William Saunders. In 1586 he was paying rent of 84 bushels of malt[19] for The Bury to Edward, Earl of Bedford, to be delivered to the manor house of the Earl at Isenhamstead Chenies. He married Anne Isham and they had a daughter Susan who was buried in Amersham in March 1585. He then married Elizabeth Blount and they had six children. Three of these were baptised in Amersham, John in 1590, Thomas in 1593 and Elizabeth in 1596. The Manor of Amersham was sold in 1624 to William Tothill and the particulars of sale show that at that time it was tenanted by Francis Saunders and Sir Thomas Saunders (knighted at Newmarket in reign of James I). These were two of the sons of Richard and Elizabeth and the last Saunders to occupy The Bury although other branches of the family continued to live in Amersham, at least for a few years.

Fig. 3

Francis died in 1661 in Haddenham and a tablet in the church shows his arms, or rather the Saunders arms because there is evidence that several members of the family used the same arms, shown in Fig. 3, (party chevronwise argent and sable three elephants heads raised and countercoloured).

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Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jan Galloway for coming up with the idea of searching the TNA catalogue for litigation records in the first place, to Claire Kennan (Royal Holloway, University of London) for her skill at reading medieval manuscripts as easily as you are reading this and to Deborah Conway-Read for many helpful discussions.


[1]              The Saunders/Sanders Family of Amersham, Potsgrove and Long Marston, England, Volume I 1465-1719, Pamela M Sanders Langston, 2002, Illinois, USA.

[2]             Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, D-X849/1

[3]             TNA, E 40/9419

[4]              We know John is the son of Robert from records of a court case.

[5]              TNA, PROB 11/11/68.

[6]              http://www.bucksrecsoc.org.uk/BRS-VOLUMES/brs-vol-17.pdf (transcription of document in the Bodleian Library)

[7]              TNA E 179/78/93.

[8]              John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1570 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org [Accessed: 14.10.16].

[9]              London Metropolitan Archives, Deposition Book from the Consistory Court of the Diocese of London, 1510-1516, DL/C/206 fols 150r – 152r.

[10]            TNA PROB 11/21/475

[11]            Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, D/A/We/154/14

[12]            Shannon McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy, 1995, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[13]            TNA PROB 11/29/

[14]            TNA C/888/5

[15]            TNA C 1/1068/5

[16]      The Lollards of the Chiltern Hills; Glimpses of English Dissent in the Middle Ages, W. H. Summers, (London, 1906)

[17]            TNA C 1/1060/11

[18]            TNA PROB 11/33/117-8

[19]            http://amershamhistory.info/old-town/london-road/bury-farm-2/