Making one’s mark in Elizabethan Thurgarton

The document shown in Figure 1 is kept in the Archives of Trinity College Cambridge. It dates from 1576 and lists all the tenants in Thurgarton who rented land from the College (1).

Figure 1 List of tenants in Thurgarton in 1576

All of the village and the southern half of the parish had been granted to the College by Henry VIII  after the dissolution of the Augustinian Priory of St Peter at Thurgarton. At the same time  the Cooper family had purchased the priory buildings and land in the northern half of the parish; they subsequently leased the college land in the parish for many generations.

Over 640 acres were held by 41 tenants; the largest farmed 80 acres but most only 1 to 3 acres. 5 of the tenants were women including Elinor Cooper, the widow of the late Lord of the Manor, Thomas Cooper; she continued as leaseholder of the college lands in Thurgarton after her husband’s death.

Attached to the  document is a second page shown in figure 2 on which is a list of names of 15 tenants alongside their individual marks; each has a separate and distinctive mark.

Figure 2 Fifeteen tenants names alongside their individual marks 

All 15 who made their mark are found in the full list of tenants in the first document and include both large and small landholders but no women; the remaining 26 tenants appear to have consented to a communal mark ” and also done by me with the consent of all the rest”

A transcription of the names with their corresponding marks is shown below.

There are no duplicate marks and each is distinctive. Two or three may reflect the initial letter of the tenant’s name eg Wiggin and Smalley but the others do not and vary from simple lines and circles to much more elaborate flourishes.

The use of marks to prove one’s identity or proclaim ownership dates from early human history – from marking one’s territory with symbols to branding livestock or slaves. In the mediaeval period even the educated and literate who were able to write their names still employed symbols as proof of their identity – carved rings or matrices which they imprinted  in wax.

The marks we see in these documents from16th century Thurgarton are very different from the usual ‘X’  mark seen in wills and other signed mediaeval documents. Similar symbols are seen in 13th century estate books from Northamptonshire but were used to denote the size of each tenant’s holdings(2). These symbols from Thurgarton  are more reminiscent of those employed by stonemasons, merchants or carpenters and it may be that they were similarly employed to confirm ownership of livestock, agricultural or trade implements, furniture and any moveable item essential to one’s living. They appear to be parish brand marks and were used by all ranks of the parish society from William Wiggin  who held a mere 2-3 acres to John Mayfield who rented 9 acres and Thomas Mawer and John Grundy who rented 40 to 80 acres.

Consultation with both county and national archives have failed to produce similar parish wide use of such symbols; it is possible that such parish marks were in common use but documents such as this one rarely survived. Anyone who knows of similar examples – please contact me.

Note on the Grundy family

John Grundy was mentioned in Thomas Cooper’s will “I give my servant John Grundy the tenement he occupies for his natural life and to his son Michael Grundy and heirs and I give Margery Grundy my Nurse five marks (money) for remembrance as a servant ” In 1614 his son Michael Grundy was refused the style of gentleman by Norroy King of Arms but by 1628 the family was described as :- ‘The Grundies of Bleasby with a coat of arms argent on a cross engrailed between four lions passant gardant gules five marlets or and a crest of four demi-lion rampant gardant sable besanty’

Looking back to the parish marks in the 1576 document that of John Grundy stands out as the most impressive and suggests an ambitious man – his family rose from servant to gentleman in three generations


1 Trinity College Cambridge Archives Box 37 Thurgarton Item 16

2 M.T.Clanchy,  From Memory to Written Record England 1066-1307 (Blackwell 1993 ) Plate XV Estate book of Richard Hotot

3 thoughts on “Making one’s mark in Elizabethan Thurgarton

  1. Have you found any other examples of these people using these marks? I don’t know how common these surnames were, but if you do a quick internet search for James Wooleye, there’s one that registered the birth of a son in Lancashire in 1585. If it’s the same person, would he have used the same mark in the register, or were these marks specifically for land and livestock?

    • Dear Eleanor
      I have not yet found a parish wide use of symbols as seen in this document and checks with county and national archivists have also drawn a blank. Some mediaeval writers and estate owners used private codes of symbols for use in record keeping. Mason marks were usually straight lines and were employed to identify who had worked on which stones – for payment. I am currently checking on wills from Thurgarton from the same period as this document but so far there is no use of such symbols for three of the 15 names on the list of tenants. I don’t know how common such marks were or how they were used – any suggestions would be very welcome.
      Ellis Morgan

  2. Came across this site today whilst researching my direct ancestry line back to John Grundy(e) – am delighted to see his signature on these documents – I am the only Grundy in this direct line going back to 1560’s to be born outside of Nottingham! Thank you to whoever put this site up it is really interesting and has helped me to further trace the family.
    Mary Holder (nee Grundy)

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