The Stormy Captain – John Warde

In St Edmund’s chapel in Hythe church a black tilting helmet, surmounted by a leopard crest, has hung for as long as anyone can remember.

In an old history of Hythe it is recorded that the grave of  Captain John Warde was discovered when the floor of the chapel was lowered in 1841. It bore the inscription:

Here lieth buried the Body of Captayne John Warde who departed this life the xxviiiday of Janua. 1601. Being of the age lxxxxvi and was a captain lxvi years’. (1)

It followed that the helmet must belong to John Warde, as it hung near his grave, in the manner of a hatchment.

I thought little more of this story,  but then came across in my papers a photocopy of a typewritten document: John Warde of Sandgate Castle. It is heavily amended in manuscript and each part of the biography is supported by references. Under the title is written ‘Cecil Humphery-Smith F.H.S  F.H.G’.  Humphery-Smith, it turns out, was a lecturer at the University of London, founder of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies at Canterbury and an Honorary Fellow of Canterbury Christchurch University. In other words, a reliable source. Here is what he discovered about John Warde, together with my own research.

John Warde was born between 1504 and 1506, probably in Yorkshire, since the arms he later bore were those of the Warde family of Guisely. His parents are unknown, but they were dead by 1515, when John was made a Ward of Court under a Mr Tomlynson of Yorkshire. (2)

The next time he can be positively identified is when, in 1519, he was made a groom (attendant) in the household of ‘the king’s daughter’. (3) This was the three-year-old Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. He was there for at least a year before, in 1520, being posted as a gunner at the Tower of London. (4) Soldiering was to be his future. He was promoted, maybe not rapidly, but steadily, to master gunner, yeoman gunner and finally, in 1540 captain gunner. (5)

The Tower in Tudor times

In summer 1544 he was present at the siege of Boulogne during one of Henry VIII’s ill-advised and usually disastrous campaigns against the French. (6)  It was not one of England’s finest moments. The siege lasted two months but before the English had blown up the walls of Boulogne to end it, they had lost half their troops to dysentery.

The Siege of Boulogne

Three years later, he was fighting again, this time at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh, part of the ‘Rough Wooing’ which attempted to secure a union of Scotland and England. (7)  The Scots were soundly defeated (but still refused to come to terms). Then it was back to France, for the capture of St Quentin in 1557. (8) Princess Mary had now become queen of England and had married Philip of Spain. The English and Spanish were allied in fighting the French at the besieged city and won the day, but the sight of the battlefield gave Philip a permanent distaste for war.

The following year John Warde took part in the rather pointless capture of Le Conquet, a small port near Brest.(9) He was now under the military command of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick

Mary’s sister Elizabeth had succeeded to the throne and in an effort to support the Huguenots, she engaged in a short campaign in France in 1563. The English captured Le Havre – and John Warde was there, too, still serving Warwick.(10) He was next sent to Ireland to fight against Shane O’Neil, a chieftain who was variously at war with the English and the Scots in furthering his ambitions to be overlord of the whole of Ireland. John Warde raised two hundred men from Devon and Cornwall to join the fight. (11)

O’Neil was assassinated in 1567 and that same year, John Warde, now in his sixties, made a suit to the queen for recompense for his service. (12) She agreed and gave him ‘the rectory or parsonage of Yalding and the advowson of the vicarage’ for thirty years. It would have been reasonable to expect that this would easily last him for the rest of his life. Advowson was the right to recommend a member of the Anglican clergy for a vacant benefice, or to make  an appointment. The rent on the parsonage would also bring him thirty ponds a year.

Yalding church, near Maidstone

In 1569, he was still in Ireland, in Limerick, writing to William Cecil, chief adviser to Queen Elizabeth about about the execution of some prisoners.(13) In fact, he could not have written the letter himself as later records show he was illiterate and must have dictated it to a scribe. He was also in a little trouble for having killed a man called Randolph, but the queen pardoned him for this.

Two years later, he returned from Ireland carrying with him a letter from Thomas, Earl of Ormered and Ossury to Cecil which ‘commends the suit of the bearer Captain Warde  now being discharged who served in winter where no  service was ever done by soldiers and returned barefoot and bodied in effect’. (14) He had to appear before the Privy Council to show why he had lost his equipment and baggage, but was exonerated and offered a knighthood. (15) This, however, was an expensive process and he declined.

What he accepted, the following year, was the post of Captain of Sandgate Castle with an annuity of forty pounds for life, a much more lucrative offer. (16) The castle had been built only thirty years earlier, just a mile or so from Hythe,  as a defence from the French at a vulnerable point on the coast. It comprised a central stone keep, with three towers and a gatehouse and was fitted with a total of 142 firing points for cannon and handguns.

What remains today of Sandgate Castle

A document of 1573 shows  that his duties involved settling disputes between locals and also shows us that he could not write (though this does not mean that he could not read: the subjects were taught to children separately). (17) This is a facsimile of two letters he could manage, ‘J W’:

Sandgate Castle  would not have been a comfortable place to live, though the queen visited in 1573 and is reported to have rested there.  John Warde overcame the accommodation problem by acquiring a house in the Bayle in nearby Folkestone. He was elected mayor of the town in 1579, 1581 and 1583.  The house , now demolished, had his coat of arms, a cross patonce or, on the ceiling.

In Folkestone, John Warde was known as ‘the stormy captain’.  The trouble started when his son, Ambrose (possibly named for the Earl of Warwick) killed one Edward Phillpott. As was the custom, Ambrose’s goods and chattels became forfeit to the the Lord of the Manor of the Bayle, John Herdson. (18) A row ensued, but John seems to have conceded and went to live in Hythe.

Despite his advanced age, he was appointed master of the camp when in 1588, forces were raised in Kent to resist the Spanish Armada.  Five years later, at the age of eighty-eight, he was commissioned to prepare a report of the condition of the castles on the Kent and Sussex coasts. (19)

His last years were disturbed once again by Ambrose’s misdoings and by family strife.  Ambrose had a sister, Hester, who had married Lawrence Baker of New Romney. Baker and Ambrose had several joint financial dealings with various third parties. Baker then borrowed three hundred pounds which he could not afford to repay, and when his creditors became unpleasant about it, insisted that the debt was his brother-in-law’s. Ambrose said it was not and Baker was thrown into gaol in the ‘theefe house’in Lydd, which he said was ‘a vile hole’.

Hester went twice to plead with her brother to no avail. Ambrose allegedly told her that her husband could stay in prison ‘until the lice and mice ate him’ before he would pay a penny of the debt. His wife and children apparently starving, Baker had to sell the silver buttons from his doublet to get them food. He was then persuaded, despite the misgivings of his friends,  to make over all his property, which should have gone to his son, to Ambrose, who said he would give him an allowance of twenty shillings a week. Ambrose almost immediately reneged on the bargain.

John Warde thought that Lawrence Baker was untrustworthy, but also seems to have disapproved of Ambrose’s actions. He asked the Town Clerk of Hythe to come to his house and speak to his son, but it was again to no avail.

Baker wanted some recompense and brought a case against Ambrose in Chancery. The case was heard in Dover before the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Lord Cobham. It then proceeded to a Commission in Canterbury, but was dropped when Baker could no longer afford the costs. This, he said, was because his tenants, threatened by Ambrose, were withholding their rents. Eventually, it was resurrected in the Star Chamber.  The case dragged on from December 1601 to February 1603 and both parties brought  witnesses ready to dish the dirt.

Ambrose was accused of smuggling out of the country ‘great quantities of wool, leather, tallow, corn, munitions’, which he kept in a barn at Sandgate Castle. Baker was described as ‘a man of riotous and unruly behaviour since he came to the years of discretion’. (20)

Unfortunately, the outcome is not recorded and John Warde was no longer interested. he made his will on 25 January 1601 and was dead before the month was out.  Only his tilting helmet survives as a memorial to a soldier who served four monarchs.

With thanks to Mike Umbers for additional information and Brin Hughes for the photograph of the helmet. 

  1.  Herbert H. Dale, The Ancient Town of Hythe and St Leonard’s Church Kent (Hythe: Kipps Bookshop Ltd, 1931)
  2. Calendar of Foreign, Domestic & State Papers Henry VIII, VoII, part II 1517-18, p. 1487 (Brewer)
  3. Calendar of State & Domestic Papers, Henry VIII, Vol. III, part I, p.970
  4. Patent Rolls
  5. ibid.
  6.  mss. R.J. Finmore
  7.  ibid.
  8.  ibid.
  9.  Patent rolls
  10. ibid.
  11.  Calendar of State Papers Ireland 356
  12.  ibid. 399
  13.  ibid 42
  14.  ibid 38 , Vol XXI p. 17
  15. Patent Rolls
  16.  ibid
  17.  Kent Archives CP/Bp45
  18. Folkestone Manor Office
  19. Archaeologia Cantiana, Vol 11 1877
  20.  The case between Ambrose Warde and Lawrence Baker is recorded in Louis Knafla, Kent at Law 1602 (London: List and Index Society, 2012)