Saunders in Gloucestershire and Bristol in Late Medieval Times

WHB – One finds speculative family histories of the Saunders surname which have excerpted information from older works uncritically.

That said, there is evidence of persons surnamed Saunders located in earlier centuries in communities in which persons of that surname are centered in the 16th and later centuries.

I suggest that it is useful to organize information published in these older works in ways that might give us insight into whether there is a direct link between the older and later references to Saunders-surnamed persons in specific geographical areas.

The following items record persons surnamed Saunders in Late Medieval Bristol (a port city on the Southwestern coast of England, at times part of Gloucestershire and otherwise adjacent and historically associated with that county):

Quotations from Historical Society of West Wales Transactions Volume II, 1913, pages 161-188 (929.3429 international classification code): Saunders of Pentre, Tymawr, and Glanrhydw by Francis Green.

“But to return to the Saunders of Charlwood [WHB – County of Surrey, near the border with the County of Sussex in Southeast England].

“According to the Harleian M.S., No. 1433, the earliest known member of the family was James Saunders, who had a son Mathew Saunders, the latter having issue, Stephen Saunders.

“This Stephen Saunders had a son, called Thomas Saunders, whose wife’s name is said to be Johanna or Joan.

“It is possible that this is the Thomas Saunders, whom John Payn, the King’s [i. e., King Henry IV] chief butler, appointed as his deputy in the port of Bristol, and to whom a writ of aid was issued on 5 Feb., 1400 (Patent Rolls).

“The same Thomas Saunders was appointed in 1404 to the office of gauger of wines at the port of Bristol and other places adjacent, and it is evident that he had secured the favour of the King, as it is stated that he was not to be removed from that office without the King’s special command. This office was confirmed to him in 1423, and he was then described as Thomas Saunders of Bristol, King’s serjeant (Patent Rolls).

[WHB – Note this confirmation occurred in the first year of the Regency Council appointed for the infant King Henry VI. This might be worth further inquiry.]

“The fact that he was described as of Bristol suggests that he lived there, and it may be contented that the owner of Charlwood would scarcely have left his considerable estate to reside in Bristol to attend to his office there. It may, however, be that the description in question was intended merely to refer to the locality of the office, and it must be remembered that many offices were in those days often sinecures and were performed by deputies and sub-deputies. The Harleian M.S., No 1397, in the British Museum, states that the following inscription was to be seen on the church porch of Charlewood in 1622:-

Orate pro anima Thos. Sand. et Joha’ nxoris ejus et pro animabus omnium fidelium defunctorum.

“This inscription, unfortunately, does not seem to have borne any date, but it evidently records the death of Thomas Saunders of Charlwood and his wife Joan.

“From the marriage of Thomas Saunders of Charlewood and his wife Joan there was a son William Saunders, who married Joan, the daughter of Thomas Carew of Bedington. This William Saunders died on 10 Aug., 1481, and his wife Joan in 1470, as appears by a brass formerly on a tombstone at Charlwood, bearing this inscription, which has fortunately been copied in the Harleian MS., No. 1397:-

Orate pro animabus Will’i Saunder generos’ qui ob’ 10 die mensis Augusti A.D. Mill’o CCCCLXXXI et Joha’ nx’ ejus qu’e6 ob’ … die mensis …. A`. 1470, quor’ a’iabus p’pl’cietur Deus. Amen.

“Another inscription preserved in the same MS. records the death of John Saunders, probably a son or brother of William Saunders. It reads:-

Hic jacet magist’ Joh’es Saunder qui ob’ 3 die Febr. A. D. 1477

“William Saunders was possibly the person whom the Patent Rolls mention as having been on 1 July, 1473, appointed one of the deputies at the port of Southampton, of Anthony. Earl Riveres, chief butler of England. From the marriage of William Saunders with his wife Joan there were the following children:-

1. Richard Saunders, who inherited Charlwood and married Agnes, by whom he had a son Nicholas, whose descendants held the Charlwood estate till the 17th century. Richard Saunders died in 1480, and his wife Agnes on 7 Jan., 1486, as appears by a copy of an inscription at Charlwood Church, preserved in the Harleian MS., No. 1397.

“In addition to Nicholas, Richard Saunders had two sons, William and James; James, who was the third son, died on 19 Feb., 1511 (Harleian MS., No. 1397); Nicholas, the son of Richard Saunders, died on 29 Aug., 1553; he married Alice, the daughter of John Hungate of York, and their son Thomas Saunders, afterwards Sir Thomas Saunders, knt., was King’s Remembrancer of the Exchequer. Nicholas and his wife Alice were buried at Charlwood Church, where there still remains an interesting brass to their memory (see illustration), bearing this inscription:-

Here is buryed Nicholas Saunder Esquyer, and Alys his wife, daughter of John Hungate of the Countey of Yorke Esquyer, ffather and mother to Thomas Saunder Knyght, ye King’s Remembrance of thexcheker whiche Nicholas deceased the xxix day of August ye firste yere of ye reigne of quene Mary A’MV’LIII.

“In Charlwood Church there is at the present time a fine old oak screen on which are carved in several places the initials ‘R.S.’ Tradition says that this screen was presented by one of the Saunders, and in all probability the donor was Richard Saunders, who dies in 1480. In the same church hangs an ancient helmet, which is said to have been worn by one of the family at the Crusades.”

[WHB – There appear to be several possibilities: 1) that the Thomas Saunders of Charlwood and the Thomas Saunders appointed to the post in Bristol as an agent of King Henry IV (Bolingbroke) were two different, unrelated persons, 2) that Thomas of Charlwood and Thomas of Bristol were the same person, who: 2a) retained interests in both Charlwood and Bristol that were inherited by descendents located in both regions, or 2b) held the post in Bristol temporarily but left no descendents in that region.

Note that option 2a would explain the presence of families in both regions in later centuries, but further evidence is needed.]


From the Victoria County History, A History of the County of Surrey, volume 3 , H. E. Maiden, editor, 1911:

“The Sanders or Sander family of Charlwood were, if not Catholic recusants themselves, closely allied by marriage and sympathies with recusants. Nicholas Sander the famous controversialist was of a younger branch of the family, and his sister, who married John Pitts of Oxfordshire, was mother of John Pitsaeus, Dean of Liverdun in Lorraine and Bishop of Verdun. The squire’s family evidently preserved the pre-Reformation inscription on the church (see church).”

[WHB – The relationship to the Charlwood Sanders/Saunders family to my ancestral lines has not been established. However, it is interesting that a recurring theme of my ancestral lines, both paternal and maternal, is refusal to accept state-mandated religious thought.]


From History of England Under Henry the Fourth: 1399-1404, by James Hamilton Wylie

“Through the enterprise of John Stevens and Thomas Saunders, two captains from the Port of Bristol, they were kept fairly supplied with provisions, and were able yet to hold out. Foiled in his attempt to capture Harlech [Castle in Northeast Merionethshire], [the Welsh rebel] Owen [Glendower] himself went to the spot and opened further negociations [sic] with the little garrison.”

[WHB – That Thomas Saunders was a king’s man at a time when the English King (at this time, Henry IV) claimed Normandie and much of Western France suggests that at least this Saunders line is French Norman. This is not inconsistent with the y-chromosome evidence.]


Brief History of Bristol as a Port from

“Until the early 19th century, rivers were the most important means of moving goods and people around the country. Bristol grew up around the point where the rivers Avon and Frome met, a convenient crossing place at the furthest point inland that ships could reach by drifting on the tidal current.

“The earliest evidence of Bristol as a named place (Bristol means ‘Bridge place’) is about the year 1000, but the Romans had a port further down the river Avon at Abonae (now Sea Mills).

“The effectiveness of the port was much improved in 1240s by major civil engineering work to divert the river Frome and create a wide and deep artificial channel. This in turn enabled the building of the Quay, now Broad Quay, which was to become the harbour’s principal wharf right through to the 19th century.

“In the 1300s, Bristol was the second most important port in the country after London. Woollen cloth woven in the Cotswolds was brought to Bristol for finishing and dyeing before export to Gascony in south west France (around Bordeaux). Red cloth was prized particularly, and Bristol had a monopoly of this. Ships returned with wine from the region.

“At the end of the 1400s, this trade declined and Bristol merchants had to look elsewhere for cargoes. Bristol merchants built trading links with Spain and Portugal, the Baltic states, North Africa and the Mediterranean, but couldn’t break into the very valuable spice trade with the East.

“This began a period of exploration in search of a route to the Far East by sailing westward (around the world in the opposite direction). This culminated in John Cabot’s voyage in 1497, when he is thought to have discovered Newfoundland and the mainland of America.

“At the end of the 1600s, Bristol merchants broke into the lucrative Africa trade, transporting trade goods, including cooking pots and guns, to West Africa, exchanging these for enslaved African people and carrying them to the West Indies and America. There they were sold to buy sugar, tobacco and other luxury goods grown on plantations.

“For a time, Bristol was the main port in this trade but by the 1750s most merchants traded directly with the Caribbean rather than transporting African people; there were fewer risks involved in this. At this time, too, Bristol regained its place as second port in the kingdom, but was quickly overtaken by Liverpool and other new ports before the end of the century.”


The Lord Mayor and two sheriffs governed the town of Bristol in late medieval times.

Selected Sheriffs of Bristol (those italicized representing possible ancestral lines):

1568: Thomas Kyrkland – Robert Smith; 1665: William Crabb – Richard Crump; 1680: Abraham Saunders – Arthur Hart; 1687: Thomas Saunders – John Hine; 1696: Francis Whitchurch – Peter Saunders


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