The journey from England to Ireland could be a perilous one in the fourteenth century. Ships might sink or run aground and when you arrived, the locals were unlikely to be entirely welcoming. But for Robert de Cotegrave it was the journey home again that caused the problems. His time in Ireland saw him rise in the King’s service and in the church to a position of importance and decent pay, but his return brought shame and hardship that must have made him rue the day he set foot in a boat.
Robert de Cotegrave’s family background is opaque, but he must have been a similar age to the lawyer and politician Bartholomew de Cotegrave. It is tempting to suppose that they were the younger brothers of one of the local landowners, following a pattern that would be become familiar in later centuries as careers were sought in the church and the law for those sons who would not inherit the family wealth.
In Robert de Cotegrave’s day, the professions were closely linked; a clerk might be a churchman, an administrator or both. Robert became a civil servant – described as a King’s clerk – some time before 1313, and to do so he already held some kind of rank in the church, although he was not necessarily a priest. In May 1313, he had his big career break when he was appointed one of the two Chamberlains of the Exchequer of Dublin. He may already have been in Ireland or perhaps he was sent there to take up the post, but either way he was unlucky to become part of the financial administration overseen by Alexander Bicknor, the Treasurer of Ireland. Years later, a routine audit of the accounts would uncover Bicknor as a fraudster, and Cotegrave would become caught up in the trouble. But for now, things were going well, and the name of Robert de Cotegrave began to appear on the periodic lists of Ireland’s civil servants who were drawing regular salaries. He clearly intended to stay in Ireland, and declined to serve as the executor of a friend’s will because he was not going to be in England and would not be able to carry out his duties adequately.
With constant rebellions to fight against some of the native Irish, supported by the Scots, the English public service establishment must have been a busy and active place in which individuals fulfilled varied and changeable roles. Robert had a number of job titles in addition to King’s clerk and Chamberlain of the Exchequer, including Receiver of the Stores and Keeper of the Garnisture at Dublin Castle. He was responsible for all kinds of equipment, clothing and food, as well as work carried out to strengthen the castle against attack. Something of the scale of the challenge is evident in Cotegrave’s accounts, where he is recorded receiving tallow in quantities of 100 stones at a time (the amount produced by about 40 sheep) and crossbow bolts in deliveries of ten thousand. The economy of Dublin also benefited from his government-funded purchase of the things needed to sustain the garrison and civil establishment – wine, leather, cereals, salt and fish.
A few years into his tenure, Robert de Cotegrave was evidently thought to be doing well, managing his resources, justifying any extra expenditure, such as the additional oats, salt, hake and conger eels he needed when his stores of fresh produce were in danger of perishing. He may have lived in the castle, but he had a house on Gilholmoaks Lane, and he owned an orchard and traded sheep.
The Archbishop of Armagh boosted Cotegrave’s salary by making him rector of Termonfeckin, a village about 30 miles north of Dublin, from which he could now theoretically collect tithes but which he may well never have visited. However, the appointment of clerical jobs was not straightforward in a country where not everyone agreed about who should be in charge, and there was a dispute about whether the Archbishop had the legal right to appoint the priest at Termonfeckin. It was fuelled by the locals, who were not keen to hand their taxes over to an absent Englishman, so Robert de Cotegrave became embroiled in a dispute that saw him hopelessly appealing to the King and to the Pope in an effort to secure the money he believed he was due.
In 1322, a promotion opportunity arose, and he was re-appointed as a Chamberlain of the Exchequer of Dublin, but this time to the senior of the two posts. He had nine years of service to his name, so he must have been perceived as competent, efficient and deserving of advancement. But all his careful work, his stewardship of food and equipment, his effective custody of prisoners in the castle, his relationship with Dubliners and his cultivation of his superiors would not help him in what was to come. He did not know it, but this promotion, when he was probably in his 40s, would turn out to be the high point of his career. Within a year, he was recalled to London in connection with the trial of his boss for deliberately falsifying the Irish accounts.
Initially, Robert de Cotegrave was required more as a witness than a suspect and his name continued to appear as Chamberlain in the Dublin accounts. But by 1325, he was no longer being paid, in 1326 he was accused of fraud in his own accounts and the following year he was convicted and sent to the Fleet Prison, from where he petitioned the king for mercy. He was eventually released on bail when his old boss Alexander Bicknor and others stood surety. It is not clear what he did or where he went immediately after he was freed, but he had to pay back his debts and fines, so his goods were confiscated and were no longer legally his own. Back in Ireland, the Abbot of Dublin was in possession of 30 sheep and nine lambs that had belonged to Cotegrave, but that would hardly clear the magnitude of debts for which he was judged to be responsible. Eight years later, in 1335, Robert’s house in Dublin was awarded to a man called Thomas Smoth, partly as a way of recovering money that Cotegrave now owed on arrears of his account as the former keeper of stock. By 1340, his orchard was also in other hands. In fact, his debts were still being paid off in 1350, a quarter of a century after he was first summoned back to England. He may still have been alive at the time, or maybe his heirs were still making good what he owed. He was certainly dead by 1354, when he would have been at least in his sixties.
Almost nothing is recorded of Cotegrave’s life after his release from gaol; there was no reason for the state to keep records of a disgraced formed employee. But he certainly returned to Ireland, and a single reference suggests that he recovered some favour with the Crown, and that perhaps he concentrated on his religious vocation as a way of atoning for his secular crimes. In the mid 1330s, Robert de Cotegrave was paid £2 for celebrating mass in the chapel of Dublin Castle for the soul of the current king’s predecessors, including his father, Edward II – the man whose desire for a routine audit of the books had seen Cotegrave disgraced, out of a job, thrown in a notorious prison and ruined.
The Plough Boy, Volume 1, p.366, Albany (1820)
The National Archives: C66/139, membrane 6; E101/236/7; E101/239/12; SC8/318, no.E355
Gilbert, J.T (1870), Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland AD 1172-1328, pp.249, 337, 344, 533
Calendar of the Patent Rolls 1313-17, p.288
Calendar of the Close Rolls 1313-1318, pp.488, 517
Calendar of the Patent Rolls, 1321-1324, p.113; Calendar of the Patent Rolls, 1338-40, p.157.
Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers, Vol2, 1305-1342, p.219.
Chartularies of St Mary’s Abbey Dublin (1884), Vol 2, p.314, 315.
Calendar of the Memoranda Rolls 1326-1327, pp. 103,160.
Calendar of the Fine Rolls, Volume 6 (Edward III), pp.405, 448.
23rd Report of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records in Ireland (1890-1), p.105