‘Merchant, Master, Mayor’ celebrates the 500th anniversary of the death of Sir Stephen Jenyns - Master Merchant Taylor, Master of the Calais Staple, Lord Mayor of London and founder of Wolverhampton Grammar School. Here, we have brought together key objects and artworks in UK collections relating to Sir Stephen Jenyns, to illuminate the life of this extraordinary man through the archives and objects that he has left behind.
Stephen Jenyns was born in c.1448 in Wolverhampton to parents, William Jenyns of Tenby, and Ellen Lane. Jenyns’s early life would likely have been comfortable; born to wealthy parents and with maternal family living and working in London, Stephen’s path to prosperity was fixed. His father passed away in 1461 and his mother re-married John Dawson (possibly a Londoner) soon after. Through the influence of his mother’s new husband, Stephen travelled south to London, where he was bound as an apprentice to tailor, Thomas Pye, in 1462-3 for 3 shillings and 4 pence. After completing his servitude, he entered the Company as a freeman. Much like Richard Whittington, this young man had come to London to seek his fortune but could not have anticipated how great his fortune would be!
Once he had completed his apprenticeship as a tailor, Jenyns must have recognized that there was money to made in international trade. The London Customs Accounts show us that from 1477, Jenyns was dealing primarily in the export of cloth through Calais via London. Records survive that show he imported kermes dye from South Europe or North Africa, made from the bodies of insects that live in evergreen oak trees. In 1495 alone, he imported 9576 gallons of wine, 9 tuns of oil, 5850 lb of wax, 85 bales of woad and 9 tonnes of Osmund (high-quality Baltic iron). This is evidence of a man on the rise: as Jenyns’ career as an international merchant grew from strength to strength between 1477 and 1495, he would become Master of the Calais Staple and one of the wealthiest traders of English wool and cloth of the age.
Although our records from this period have been lost, it is likely that Jenyns served as a warden of the Company sometime before 1486. Between 1486 and 1493, our minute books show he was an impressively active member of Court and was often selected by his fellow Court members for particular tasks. In 1490 and 1492, he was chosen to settle disputes between squabbling tailors of the Company; in 1490 he was asked by the Company to supervise works to be done on their property at the Saracens Head in Friday Street; at 6am on 10th July 1493, Jenyns and two other past masters were asked by the Company to inspect all properties in the City owned by the Tailors.
It is clear Jenyns was seen as a trusted pair of hands and the Company recognised this by electing him Master on their Midsummer Feast in 1489. His mastership was a period of administrative change: typically the Master was given an allowance for purchases such as wine, dinners, garlands for feasts, and clothing; Jenyns’ refused the £12 the Company offered him for such expenses and, from that point onward, Masters were not given stipends.
Jenyns married three times; first to Margaret, by whom he had two daughters – Katherine and Elizabeth; second to Joan. Finally - on the death of Master Merchant Taylor, William Buck in 1501, Jenyns married Buck’s widow, Margaret. His daughter Katherine married John Nicholls, Merchant Taylor, and his daughter Elizabeth married Merchant Taylor, William Stalworth. During this period, it was not unusual for family factions to emerge within guilds – and the inter-marrying evidenced in Jenyns’ close-knit circle illustrates just how close the bonds of fraternity were that typified late-medieval livery companies.
Jenyns had proved himself a man of substance: he had been Master of the Calais Staple, he had served as Master of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, he had been Sherriff of London in 1489, and served as alderman for various wards from 1499 until his death. The pinnacle of his City career was his election as Lord Mayor in 1508-9. Until this point, the Merchant Taylors’ had only had one previous Lord Mayor, so Jenyns’s election (accompanied by his two Sheriffs – Thomas Exmew and Richard Smith) secured the Merchant Taylors’ status amongst the City companies. To mark the occasion of his election, Jenyns commissioned a beautifully illuminated book for his parish church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, which is included in this exhibition.
During his mayoralty, King Henry VII died. As Lord Mayor, Jenyns led the City’s mourning delegation at the Royal Funeral in May 1509. The Mayor and aldermen met the funeral party bearing the monarch’s body at London Bridge. They travelled with the hearse to St. Paul’s, where the body rested overnight, and then processed the following day with the coffin, on to Westminster Abbey.
As one Tudor monarch made way for the next, it was important that Jenyns rode the wave of dynastic change. At the coronation of Henry VIII, on 23rd June 1509, Jenyns was knighted. As the soon-to-be Henry VIII travelled from the Tower of London to Westminster, it was Jenyns and his aldermen who gathered at the doors of the Abbey to greet the incoming monarch. Once the coronation was complete, the newly knighted Sir Stephen Jenyns served the young King hippocras from a golden cup, assisted by twelve members of the Livery Companies.
Sir Stephen Jenyns died in 1523 and was laid to rest at Greyfriars. The Master, Wardens and Beadle were present as Jenyns was placed in his tomb and they came to his graveside annually to pray for his soul. This exhibition remembers the life of one of the Company’s prominent, hardworking and generous sons, 500 years after his death. By better understanding the life of Sir Stephen Jenyns and his work as a Merchant Taylor in the sixteenth century, we can explore our enduring values of fraternity, philanthropy and education.
From the start of his apprenticeship to his death in 1523, Jenyns had been a Merchant Taylor for over 60 years. His work, his religious and devotional life, his civic duties and family ties were inextricably entwined with his identity as a Merchant Taylor; Jenyns membership of the Merchant Taylors and their fraternity was definitive in all aspects of his life.
We talk with Dr Richard Asquith about the executor accounts of Sir Stephen Jenyns, exploring his post-humous provision for fraternity, philanthropy and education.
Dr Asquith is a historian and researcher specialising in death and society in pre-modern England. He gained his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2022 and holds an MSt in medieval history from Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. Focusing primarily on London and Londoners, his work is particularly interested in last wills and testaments and their execution, funeral monuments and commemoration, and piety and belief. He was a joint winner of the 2023 Curriers' Company London History Essay Prize.
Find out more about Sir Stephen Jenyns:
Chris O’Brien, Sir Stephen Jenyns and his Family, Wolverhampton Grammar School, 2023 (Dr O'Brien discovers more about our Founder - Wolverhampton Grammar School (wgs.org.uk))
Matthew Davies, The Merchant Taylors’ Company of London: Court Minutes 1486-93, Paul Watkins for the Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 2000
Matthew Davies & Anne Saunders, The History of the Merchant Taylors Company, Maney Publishing, 2004
Richard Asquith, PhD Thesis, Piety and Trust: Testators and Executors in Pre-Reformation London, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2022
C.M Clode, The Early History of the Merchant Taylors’ of the Fraternity of St. John Baptist: The Lives, 1888 (The Early History of the Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of St ... : Charles Mathew Clode : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive)
If you have any questions regarding this exhibition, Sir Stephen Jenyns, or future virtual exhibition at Merchant Taylors’, please email email@example.com