Medieval Residents of Reading: Elizabeth and Thomas Clerk

I wrote about Elizabeth Clerk, one of the residents of fifteenth-century Reading, in my book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses. She was resident in the town during parliament's meeting at Reading Abbey where Edward IV introduced his secret wife Elizabeth Woodville to the nobles that had gathered. This was one of the events of the Wars that was said to have turned Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick further away from the spirited, rebellious Edward and into the hands of the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou. 

It was with a strange sense of timing then, that I found myself in Reading's Central Library leafing through old churchwardens' records when, almost exactly twelve months to the day that I submitted my manuscript of Forgotten Women to the publisher, Elizabeth Clerk's name jumped out at me in an old text. 

Elizabeth Clerk was the wife of a draper, Thomas, and they lived in Friar Street, but would have known it by its old name, New Street. We know this because a deed survives mentioning the couple, and later, Elizabeth is referred to as a widow there. Their business was in the cloth trade, an important part of Reading's economy. Shoemakers, leather sellers and wool merchants sold merchandise around the old market place (today's High Street), and offloaded boats full of stock near the bridge where Duke Street is now.

St Laurence Church, Reading by Jo Romero

The couple were financially well off, at least better than the average townsperson of the day. The writer of the churchwarden's accounts of St Laurence's church just steps away from their old home theorised that the remains of a brass plaque, dated to around 1475, memorialised the pair. The actual brasses have been lost, either pulled out intentionally, or come loose over the centuries. But the outline left shows the silhouette of a man with a straight, shoulder-length haircut and a woman wearing a butterfly headdress, portrayed in profile, their hands in prayer. The couple were represented with scrolls around and above them. It's believed that the figure of either St Catherine or the Virgin Mary was positioned above the pair, although the words on the scrolls are likely lost forever, unless the brasses are ever found. The accounts book also gives us some intriguing family information: it states that Thomas was a hosier, benefactor to the church and served as churchwarden in 1436 and 1440-1442. It also states that his mother was named Amicia, and she died in 1442.

Unravelling the mystery further, I went to look at the Peyton Map, which was developed by researchers at the University of Reading. Drawn from deeds and other documentary evidence, it shows Reading as it was in 1555, with the names of homeowners and those occupying tenements in the town centre. Interestingly, a quick look at the dwellings revealed that the Tudor churchwarden of St Laurence occupied a building around where the Memory of Sichuan Restaurant is today, towards the Cheapside end of Friar Street. It is likely that this is where the Clerks lived in the fifteenth century. We have the documentary evidence that they lived on Friar Street, as well as the 1555 reference to the location of the churchwarden's lodgings, which we know was Thomas' position in the 1430s and 1440s.

The Clerks gave some elaborate gifts to St Laurence's. They are recorded as donating a cope of blue velvet and vestments to the church; the cope was embroidered with flowers and the pall they gave finished with flowers of gold. These were extraordinary items, and would have taken some time and expense to produce. But there's something else that can tell us more about Elizabeth's role in Reading: her husband Thomas served as its Mayor. 

A painting, created by Stephen Reid in 1921, shows Abbot Thorne of Reading Abbey electing the new Mayor of Reading, and Thomas Clerk is pictured bowing, ready to receive the chain of office. The painting, commissioned by prolific early-twentieth century local historian and doctor Jamieson Boyd Hurry, refers to the appointment occurring in 1460, while Man, in his history of the town, places Clerk's mayoralty in 1462. In any case, Elizabeth and Thomas would have occupied a major position in the Medieval town and would have been known to many of the local townspeople. Research into women's roles in the fifteenth century has demonstrated that women were actually very active in assisting their husbands in business as well as running their own household. The examples of women such as Margaret Paston and Joan Canynges reinforce and support this view. Suddenly, the woman that I identified as living in Reading and being a potential eyewitness to the events of 1464 may actually have been close to local government herself. Her roles would have included listening to petitions from townspeople who wanted their causes referred to her husband as well as appearing behind the scenes of important occasions. She may even have seen the incoming Yorkist monarch Edward IV, who ascended the throne in 1461, on his visits to the town. 

What words of support, encouragement or criticism did Elizabeth offer to her husband, while he was mayor? We will probably never know, but this little happy discovery in the library on a dark and rainy evening just goes to show that history has a funny way of letting you know that you're not quite finished with it yet. 

Enjoyed this? You might also like The Witches of Reading, The Women of Reading Abbey and The History of the Englefield Family in Berkshire. Or go up to the search bar on the top right of the page and search 'Reading' - there are lots of historical stories from the town that I've covered. 

You might also like my book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. I examine many women who lived through the conflict and the dawn of the Tudor era, including Countesses, Duchesses and Queens but also silkwomen, merchants and innkeepers, along with many others.

Want to see more posts like this? Sign up to my newsletter!


A History of the Municipal Church of St Laurence, Reading. Rev Charles Kerry, Reading, 1883. 

Man, A History of Reading. p368