The unscrupulous William Crouch MP

William Crouch must be among the least attractive figures in Bath's history. He was a quarrelsome, grasping, ruthless man, who disrupted the economy of Bath and yet became its MP. His political outlook was entirely cynical. He first appears in Somerset in 1525, when he was granted a lease of the Duchy of Cornwall manor of Laverton. In June 1527, Henry Norris, a member of Henry VIII's household, took out a lease of another Duchy manor - Englishcombe. It was around this time that Crouch settled at Englishcombe, so it seems likely that Norris employed Crouch as his steward there.

William Crouch was intent on acquiring more property and he had few scruples about his methods. Wellow rectory had been leased by William Skidmore, but Crouch was able to purchase the reversion (inheritance). In his impatience to take possession, Crouch is alleged to have hastened Skidmore's end. Skidmore's widow testified that Crouch, learning that her husband was being treated for a leg disease, bribed a Bath doctor to poison his medicine. The doctor, a recently arrived foreigner, departed the city with suspicious haste. However, it seems that nothing could be proved.

Crouch was taken into the service of the Prior of Bath, William Holloway, where he passed an acquisitive eye over priory property. His arrival coincided with the renovation of St John's Hospital. This was so dilapidated that in 1527, the Bishop of Bath and Wells amalgamated it with Bath Priory. Prior Holloway then rebuilt the hospital and its properties. Crouch perceived an opportunity; he had a clerical kinsman, John Simons. With subtlety and guile he persuaded the prior to appoint John Simons as Master of St John's in 1532. Crouch then became steward of the hospital.

But this was not enough for him. He also wanted the reversion of the hospital, which he claimed the prior had promised him, and he resorted to the law. Tempers became frayed. When on 2 June 1533 a servant of Crouch's attempted to serve Prior Holloway with a subpoena in Bath Cathedral, he was frogmarched out by two of the priory servants, Thomas Horner and Thomas Batten. On 10 June Horner and an armed band waylaid Crouch and put him in the stocks. After three days of imprisonment, Crouch was brought to sign a 200 bond for his good behaviour. Crouch retaliated in August, imprisoning Horner in his house at Englishcombe. A mass of priory servants and tenants besieged the house and attacked the doors with hatchets. Crouch retaliated with arrows, but eventually released Horner when the mob threatened to burn the house down.

It became clear at the trial that years of friction lay behind this explosion of local feeling. Crouch was habitually abusive and threatening. Two mayors of Bath, both clothmakers and major employers, had been so oppressed by him that they left for other cities, to the great impoverishment of Bath. A third former mayor testified to the difficulty of keeping the peace, with Crouch coming to Bath night and day with a band of armed rowdies and causing constant quarrels and affrays. It is all too credible. Crouch seemed to provoke trouble. He purchased a a lease from Bath Priory of the parsonage of Castle Cary and then declined to pay the rent. When the prior evicted him in February 1534, once again Crouch took the matter to court.

By this time of course, Crouch was no longer working for Bath Priory, but within a few years he had found a far more powerful employer. Henry VIII's marriage to Jane Seymour had brought her family to national prominence; her brother Edward was created Earl of Hertford. By the autumn of 1538, William Crouch was steward of the Earl of Hertford's manor of Monkton Farleigh. Crouch was also the Crown escheator for Somerset and Dorset in 1538-9. No doubt this was an unpopular appointment locally and there was a 'clamour in the country against Crouch'. There were shrewd attempts to influence the king. John Pereman, a painter of Englishcombe, reported hearing Crouch speak treason; Crouch had made the cynical remark that a man with money enough might buy and sell the Crown of England.

But Crouch's old enemy, Prior Holloway, was a spent force after the surrender of Bath Priory to the Crown in January 1539, while Hertford remained friendly. In 1541 Hertford purchased a house and land in Baggridge in the parish of Wellow on behalf of Crouch. Then the blow fell. In September 1543 Henry VIII granted the Duchy manors of Englishcombe and Laverton to John lord Russell, Keeper of the Privy Seal. Crouch was soon engaged in a fierce dispute with Russell over a lease of Laverton that he refused to surrender. He was committed to the Fleet Prison in April 1544 and remained there until he was prepared the following June to humbly admit that he had no title to the property.

On the accession of the young Edward VI in 1547, his uncle, the Earl of Hertford, was created Duke of Somerset and governed in his name. Probably it was not difficult for Crouch, still in the new duke's service, to become MP for Leominster. Even after the execution of Somerset in 1552, Crouch was MP for Bath in 1554 and Melcombe Regis in 1555, but he was out of sympathy with Queen Mary's government. Early in 1556 he was again committed to the Fleet and then ordered 'to stand in the pillory with a paper on his head for slandering the Queen's Council'. He had implied that money could buy the loyalty of Privy Councillors. It was a characteristic note on which to end his public career. His later life is one long history of lawsuits over property, but he seemed to thrive on it. He died at a ripe age on 2 April 1586 at his house at Baggridge, no doubt quite unrepentant.

First published in Bath City Life May 1995.

Further reading

Jean Manco, The Spirit of Care : The eight-hundred-year story of St John's Hospital, Bath (1998).