John of Gaunt’s estates were huge, including much of Derbyshire. It should not be surprising that Sir John Curson of Kedleston was one of his retainers nor should we be surprised that there was more than one John Curson in the area at the time – one of whom was found guilty of poaching deer from Gaunt’s Duffield’s estate – history is unclear whether it was Curson of Kedleston who went on to redeem the theft of Gaunt’s deer by his good service or another, possibly shadier Curson!
John Curson of Kedleston, unsurprisingly given his position within Derbyshire society, was a justice of the peace and one of the Lancaster Affinity in Parliament. In fact his name turns up rather a lot on legal documents of the period as a trustee for land holdings (more on that at the end of the post) and as a litigant for land claims arising from estates for which he was an executor. Perhaps one of the reasons he was so widely trusted with other men’s property was that he appears not to have extended his own landholdings as much as he might have done given the opportunities that arose.
His loyalty to the Lancaster affinity isn’t only seen in the Lancaster livery collar he wears on his funeral monument, it can also be read in his actions. In July 1399 there was a party from Derbyshire at Ravenspur to meet Henry of Bolingbroke who arrived in England breaking the terms of his banishment to claim in the first instant his title as duke of Lancaster. Curson was rewarded by being made an esquire of the chamber.
Curson’s actions not only speak of loyalty to the house of Lancaster but of a canny political move. It wasn’t long before Henry of Bolingbroke had turned into King Henry IV. That November Parliament awarded John £20 for his services to John of Gaunt and Henry IV; he became a privy councilor at a time when most of its members were related to the Crown and he escaped the censure which later attached itself to Henry’s council by attending meetings and being very busy on the king’s behalf not only in Derbyshire but in Wales and also in the north. He became treasurer of Henry V’s army in Scotland, oversaw the so-called “love-days” between the English and the Scots which saw sworn enemies attend church arm in arm and generally made himself very useful on the Scottish borders – an office which extended in 1401 to arbitrating between the Douglas and Percy families (rather him than me). That particular role probably made settling Derbyshire trade disputes seem rather like a walk in the park.
Helen Castor makes the point that Curson is an example of how the Lancaster Affinity worked in Duchy counties like Derbyshire. Curson’s allegiance was to Lancaster and he was from one of the county’s leading families – it was almost inevitable that with a Lancastrian king on the throne he would came to hold many important posts within the county – it was almost a chicken and egg situation ie was the status because of his rank within local society or was it because of his loyalty to Lancaster (Castor:205)? In any event Castor says that the loyalty of men like Curson gave Henry IV more power than might have usually been expected by a monarch in the regions as not only did he wield the power of king also but the private power of a mighty magnate (the duchy of Lancaster). It meant that Henry could safely afford to “devolve” power to his men so that he personally did not have to traipse around the countryside dispensing justice and keeping an eye on what was happening because he had men whose loyalty he could rely upon to do that for him – which was fine in the first instance but wasn’t such a great strategy two generations down the line.
Curson died in 1405 and demonstrated that he had learned rather a lot about the law over the years. His eldest son was only twelve – so by rights Kedleston should have found itself in the chancy hands of the Crown with young John as its ward. However, Curson had ensured that his lands were in the hands of trustees before his death. Kedleston did not offer rich pickings. The trustees administered the estate for John Junior until he came of age without recourse to the Crown – so that there was no sale of John’s wardship to the highest bidder and no creaming of the profits to recoup the expenditure.
In addition to John there was another son Thomas and a daughter Margaret all of whom married into Derbyshire families tightening the links that bound the ruling families together. John’s widow married into another local family.
And just in case you’re thinking that I’ve made a spelling mistake and the name should be Curzon – that came later.
Castor, Helen (2000) The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: Public Authority and the Crown. Public Authority and Private Power, 1399-1461. Oxford: Oxford University Press
image accessed from https://dorysworld.wordpress.com/tag/all-saints-church-kedleston/ which is an informative (not to mention amusing) look at Kedleston Church.