Distributing the wealth of the super rich in Elizabethan Norfolk


Oliver Haylotte [Haylett] left a very long and complex will and testament running into some eighteen pages dated 10 February 1580/81 and proved at Norwich on 4 March 1580/81 (The will is dated in the Old Style calendar where the New Year started on Lady Day, March 25) (NRO, NCC will register Moyse 201). In doing so he provides a fascinating insight into Elizabethan life in Norfolk, with his will clearly demonstrating he was an extremely wealthy yeoman farmer and landowner living in Lessingham, and also owning land in neighbouring Eccles, Hempstead and Happisburgh, all in east Norfolk.

The testator not only provides for his extended family but also makes widespread gifts to the poor of the surrounding parishes, reparations to several churches, repairs to local highways and bridges, repairs to Gt. Yarmouth port and haven and the gift of a silver cup to King’s College, Cambridge.

Haylotte 201-001

Will of Oliver Haylotte. NRO, NCC will register Moyse 201.

Oliver’s Family

In his will Oliver says ‘I will and suffer that Thomaszine my wieffe and her assignes shall have all that my tenement edyfied called Sowters situate in Lezingham  wherein I nowe dwell with lx [60] acres of lande,’ but he doesn’t reveal that Thomaszine was his second wife.

Lessingham Parish Register records that Elizabeth Haylett wife of Oliver Haylett buried 14 April 1576,’ whilst in the same year the Register records ‘Oliver Haylett and Thomasin Thurgar married 25 June.’ (NRO, PD 274/2) It does not appear that Oliver had any children by his second wife, but Lessingham Parish Register records ‘Margarett Haylett daughter of Oliver Haylett buried September 25th 1558.’ Oliver’s  principal family bequeathals are made to his wife Thomasine, his brother William, any number of nephews and nieces and his mother and father-in-law Mr and Mrs John Thurgar.

lessingham 1576-ed

Lessingham Parish Register for 1576. NRO, PD 274/2

How Wealthy was Oliver Haylotte?

Somewhat surprisingly for such a wealthy landowner there seems to be no record of an inventory for this testator; however parts of his will read like an inventory with it seems a copious supply of silver spoons which he bequeaths to several godchildren! We can get some idea of his actual wealth by totalling all the various monetary gifts he makes to family, friends, employees and the various institutions. This comes to around £292:8s:4d (some minor gifts are made to an unspecified number of godchildren) but of course this does not include the value of his moveable goods.  We can compare this to the estate of other wealthy neighbours such as Henry Hyde of Eccles [died 1592/3] whose inventory of goods totalled £370 5s 9d (NRO, DN/INV 9/314), and mariner William Gosteling, one of Oliver’s supervisors whose inventory of goods [1584] was worth £152:3s:6d (NRO, DN/INV 2/116). However, Henry Hyde’s monetary bequeathals in his will only come to around £13:10:0, giving a clear indication that Oliver was indeed one of the ‘super rich’ of his time (NRO, NCC will register Apleyarde 411).


Probate inventory of Henry Hyde of Eccles, 1592/3. NRO, DN/INV 9/314

Oliver’s Gifts to the Community

Oliver’s gifts to the community are particularly generous, especially the £3:6s:8d to the poor people of Lessingham and the 6s8d per year for five-years to Hempstead, Happisburgh and Ingham residents. Oliver did not forget the churches of these parishes, leaving money to repair Lessingham churchyard walls and ‘towards the reparacons of everie the parishe churches of Hempsted Ingham and Happesburghe vjs viijd [6s8d] of Lawfull moy mony of Englande…’ Oliver also makes a gift of 6s8d to Elizabeth Derham of Hempstead, and this may have been to support community work which she and her relations were undertaking at the time (see previous blog for more details).

Oliver’s Links with King’s College, Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge had owned Lessingham since the 15th century when Henry VI gave the Manor and its lands to help found the College in 1444. So it is of course significant that Oliver, as a tenant farmer, makes generous gifts to John Payne, steward of Lessingham Manor and William Bullwer the Manor’s bailiff and this undoubtedly was to ensure their continued cooperation with his heirs. In a similar vein the gift of a silver cup to the College itself was also intended to impress the Provost and Fellows and for them to look favourably on Lessingham in future negotiations. Consultations with King’s College Archive Centre reveals that Oliver’s gift is no longer to be found in the College Treasury and the Archive has no record of receiving the cup. Over the ages many similar items have been sold off by the College, some quite openly, some not, so this absence is perhaps not surprising. The Senior Archivist of King’s College also points out that in many circumstances the honourable intentions of the testator may not have been fully carried out by the executors or beneficiaries, which could also explain why the College has no record of the gift.

Coast Erosion

In leaving money to the reparations of Yarmouth port and haven, Wayford Bridge and the sea breaches between Palling and Happisburgh Oliver reveals the extent to which east Norfolk was affected by storm and coast erosion in the years prior to his death. He leaves ten shillings to the repairing of Ingham causey [causeway], now part of the main B1149 coast road between Ingham and Sea Palling which today we call Water Lane. The specific use of the word ‘repairing’ rather than the more general term ‘reparations’ may be particularly significant. This causeway crosses the low lying land where the stream which divides Hempstead and Lessingham is shown as a Broad on a map of Lessingham dated 1587; it was a former turbary (King’s College Cambridge archive, LES 35). 

This damage to the causeway can be linked with the series of storms in 1570 which irreparably damaged Eccles church and caused problems at Gt. Yarmouth and Norwich (see David Stannard [2014] The Timing of the Destruction of Eccles juxta Mare in Norfolk Archaeology). One or more of the storms in that year must have breached the dunes, probably at a locality called ‘The Chase’, a low valley demarking the parish boundary between Eccles and Happisburgh. In this case the water will have poured into this low valley, surging into the Hempstead and Ingham stream eventually washing away Ingham causey. Similar problems are recorded in the 17th and 19th centuries with this being the earliest reference of such an event noted to date. Alternatively, the breach may have occurred at Sea Palling with the flood waters moving northward across the marshes and eventually damaging the causeway from the other direction, a situation repeated some 500 years later in January/February 1953 when the flooding extended to the same point. Surges of seawater into the east Norfolk river system in the 1570s affected the Yare, Bure, Ant and Thurne prompting Oliver to leave money for the reparations of Wayford Bridge and the port of Gt. Yarmouth. An ancient flood mark in Norwich records a flood level of the river Wensum some 13 feet above datum in January 1570, with related historical records claiming that the surge washed away Fye Bridge in the city.

A Lost Hamlet

Oliver bequeaths ten shillings ‘unto the widowe Cooke Late of Lungate in Happesburghe’, a locality not well-recognised today. Both coast erosion and 20th century developments of the Ostend Holiday Village now predominate over ancient Loungate, a part of Happisburgh close to the parish boundary with Walcott. Faden’s Map of 1797 shows a track approaching from the south leading past Ostend House [identified as a  small 16th to early 17th century house of high status origin] to a group of cottages named as Loungate and then returning south-east along the cliff edge (see A Building Record of Ostend House, Ostend Gap Walcott, Happisburgh, Norfolk. Norfolk Archaeological Unit Report 831). Bryant’s map of 1828 shows a similar layout but the cliff edge road has moved inland. The first edition of the one inch Ordnance Survey map of 1836 shows the same layout but calls the area “Loungate or Ostend.” From this reference in Oliver’s will it seems likely that this is an example of a hamlet where the name derives from the Scandinavian ‘gate’ meaning a street, with the probability that a gate to control wandering animals was also positioned at this locality.

Armour and Weapons

Although it is not common to find references to armour and weapons in Lessingham wills, nevertheless these were troubled times with constant unrest and threats between Elizabeth’s government and the Spanish Netherlands just across the North Sea, together with intense commercial rivalry between England and Spain. Although the Spanish Armada didn’t actually sail until some seven years after Oliver’s death, its arrival had been anticipated for several years. Sir Henry Woodhouse of Waxham Hall, from whom Oliver bought, ‘all those fylde acres of free Landes beinge in Happesburghe aforesaid with theire appurtenances which I lately purchased of Sir Henrie Woodhouse knyghte’  was also appointed as Lord Admiral in charge of coastal defences in the area at that time.

Oliver’s bequeathal of ‘my Almon Ryvet with the bill gorgot and splentes thereunto belonginge’ refers to a type of light armour of a German design and perhaps origin where ‘Almon’ derives from the Old French aleman, German. Usually a half-armour comprising an integral helmet and corselet the armour was made flexible by overlapping plates sliding on rivets. A bill gorgot [gorget,gorgit] is a semi-circular piece of armour worn below the helmet to protect the throat, whilst splents were small plates of armour to protect the inside of the arm.

Oliver bequeaths his godson Oliver Harston ‘my caliver furnished’ and this refers to a light musket, usually a matchlock used without a rest and capable of firing ball shot or short arrows. The term ‘furnished’ refers to the various pieces of equipment, powder flask, shot, ram rod etc. necessary to fire the piece, all probably contained in a wooden storage box.To what extent this was a weapon for personal protection is difficult to know, but it must have also been used for shooting game such as rabbit, hare, partridge, duck etc. and also for vermin control. We can surmise that as an upstanding member of the community Oliver would have attended and probably organised regular musters as part of the regime of coastal defences, resplendent in his armour and musket.

Oliver also bequeaths ‘unto William Harston my nephew my bowe furnished’ where this refers to a standard English long-bow which was still in general use until at least the end of the 16th century. Again the word ‘furnished’ refers to various accoutrements which would have included a quiver, arrows and leather arm guard. William Gosteling’s inventory also includes a caliver [valued at twenty shillings] together with two bows and a sheaf of arrows, but no armour.

All this begs the question; were these weapons of aggression, practical tools for securing food for the table, essential items for protection in troubled times, or merely bits of rich men’s ‘bling’ to impress the neighbours at the muster?

Oliver’s Testament

From his testament it seems that Oliver was a committed Protestant where he says, ‘ I bequeathe my soule unto almightie god my creatoure redemer and saviour  assuredly trusting  onlie by the mirittes of christe his deathe and passion suffered for me and all mankynde…’

However, somewhat unusually for this period he also makes provisions for his burial day where £4 is to be distributed to the poor people attending the funeral. He also bequeaths funds for a preacher to deliver an annual sermon for seven years after his death, in the style of pre-Reformation intercessory practices where a chantry priest would pray for the soul of the departed. This was something which had long been outlawed in Elizabethan England, so was it possible that Oliver may actually have been a closet Catholic? Lessingham Parish Register confirms that Oliver Haylett was buried on 27 February 1580/81.

Researched and compiled by David Stannard, NRO Research Blogger

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2 Responses to Distributing the wealth of the super rich in Elizabethan Norfolk

  1. Alan Metters says:

    I thought Lady Day was 25 March.


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