House of Grey: Mothers and Sons

Chapter 2 : Cecily Bonville & Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquis of Dorset

Nothing is known of Thomas II’s early childhood, but he probably spent it with his mother, who, when she was not at court, resided on her own estates in the West Country. He, like his parents, attended the christenings of Prince Arthur and Prince Henry, and he was appointed a Knight of the Bath when Prince Henry was invested as Duke of York in 1494. As heir to his mother’s baronies of Harington and Bonville, he was known as Lord Harington even before he came of age in 1498. A childhood betrothal to the heiress Anne St Leger, the niece of Edward IV, came to nothing during the reign of Richard III, and, under an onerous bond that Henry VII had demanded from Thomas I, the king took control of Thomas II’s marriage.  It is possible that he was betrothed or married to the king’s cousin, Eleanor St John, in the late 1490s. If the marriage did take place, Eleanor died young.

In 1501, on the death of his father, Thomas II inherited the marquisate of Dorset. Although Thomas II was of age, his father did not name him as his executor, instead nominating Cecily to carry out his will.  This appointment sparked a quarrel between mother and son that would last for the rest of her life. 

The ins and outs of the argument are tedious, but, as with so many family quarrels, it boiled down to money. Thomas I left generous bequests, including for the completion of his new house at Bradgate, and the family mausoleum at Astley in Warwickshire. He also left dowries for his daughters – this was perfectly usual. Dowries were a father’s obligation. Cecily was to retain the manor at Astley for the rest of her life. The problem was, that, although these bequests were normal, they left Thomas II little to live on.

It was bad enough that Cecily had control of most of his patrimony until his father’s bequests were paid, but it was soon to get worse. In around 1505, Cecily announced her intention of remarrying, and not only that but her chosen husband, Lord Henry Stafford, was a year or two younger than Thomas himself.  According to the law at the time, on Cecily’s death, her husband would retain her property until his own demise, Thomas II could see years of relative poverty ahead of him – with no means to marry and have a family of his own. Mother and son quarrelled so violently that the king was forced to intervene. Henry VII brought both parties before his council to

 ‘see and sette the seid parties atte unyte and peas of and for almaner of variance, controversies, matters and causes dependyng betwene them’.

A complicated settlement was made, which severely curtailed Cecily’s rights to deal with her own property, but did not go far enough to please Thomas II. In particular, his sisters’ dowries were still to be paid from his father’s estate.

As the years passed, Thomas was further disgruntled when Cecily spent money on building projects, such as the enhancement of her manor at Shute, in Devon, and the creation of the splendid Dorset Aisle, in the church at Ottery St Mary. The magnificent diamond and ruby brooch that his step-father sported in his hat in 1507, when the court entertained the Duke of Burgundy probably galled him, too.

Court cases and arbitrations went back and forth between the various family members – Cecily’s daughters and their husbands wanted their dowries, but the Grey estates were still not producing enough money, and it seems probable that Stafford, who was promoted in 1509 to the earldom of Wiltshire, did not let Cecily pay them out of her own estate.  It is likely that she did support her younger sons to a degree, although all of them found places at court.

It was not until Wiltshire died, in 1523, that Cecily was able finally to make settlements on her younger children – but she also had to face the fact that Thomas II’s objections to her second marriage were not unjustified. Wiltshire left debts to the king of well over £4,000 that depleted Cecily’s fortune considerably.

It is, of course, the case that families can argue over money bur retain a good personal relationship, but that does not seem to have been the case for Cecily and Thomas II. When she made her will in 1527, fear that Thomas would try to upset it and deprive his siblings of their fair share of her inheritance haunted her. In three separate clauses, she made efforts to prevent him frustrating her bequests – many of which related to the as-yet-unpaid bequests from Thomas I. In order to safe-guard the health of both their souls, the debts needed to be paid, so she took them on from her estate.  Anything done by her ‘entirely-beloved son’, or on his behalf, to ‘disturb’ her other children or to ‘hinder, breach or cause my will to be performed in any point or article contrary to the true meaning of the same’ was to be punished by her executors devoting as much of her estate as they legally could, to charitable purposes. 

It seems that Cecily misjudged her son – or, perhaps, after her death, he felt remorse for their long estrangement.  Rather than seeking to harm his siblings, he helped them, and in his own will, made within two years of his mother’s death, he faithfully tried to carry out the bequests of both parents – including the building of their joint tomb at Astley, where Cecily’s effigy is still visible.

Despite their wrangles over money, there is no evidence that Thomas was personally disrespectful to his mother, but that was not the case in the next generation, when Thomas II’s son, Henry, and his mother, Margaret Wotton, had a complete rupture.