A prominent Tudor family - the Johnsons



The first member of the Johnson family to serve as Mayor of Fordwich was John who took the role in 1561. John was a fascinating character whose life shows the opportunities which existed in Tudor times. Born in Canterbury c. 1497, Johnson was orphaned around the age of eleven and apprenticed as a haberdasher to John Anthony. Upon completion of his training he married a baker's  daughter  then set up his own business. At first, life was difficult. The couple had two children and his wife was forced to take in sewing to make ends meet. She also made vestments from the cloth he bought. Johnson started to trade with Christ Church monastery and from there got introduced to influential people such as the Attorney-General Christopher Hales and the Boleyn family. He became a merchant and was at one time a  partner of Thomas Arden, the man murdered by his wife and after whom the theatre at Faversham is named. In 1532 Johnson became Sheriff of Canterbury and was there to attend the King and Anne Boleyn. He became a messenger to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's leading minister. In this capacity he became involved in the  defensive works at Dover and in the arrangements for royal visits. He was a key figure in the prosecution of the Nun of Kent, the fall of Bishop Fisher of Rochester and in the Dissolution of Monasteries. An account of his visit to Langdon Abbey describes how the monks tried to prevent Cromwell's representatives being admitted and why:

A good space knocking at the abbot's door neither sound nor sign of life appearing saving the abbot's little dog that within his door fast locked bayed and barked, I found a short pole axe standing behind the door and with it I dashed the abbot's door in pieces and set one of my men to keep that door and about the house I go with the pole axe in my hand for the abbot is a dangerous, desperate knave and a hardy. His whore alias his gentlewoman bestirred her stumps towards her starting hoilles and there Bartelot took the tender damsel

The whore was clearly a frequent visitor for her clothes were found in the abbot's chamber. She was taken to Dover and put in a cage whilst the abbot was sent to contemplate his sins in Canterbury jail.


Meantime, Johnson continued to carry secret messages between Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer and was not afraid to carry out some of Cromwell's "Mafia" style demands. One of his letters to his master promises: "I shall do with the said parties as you command me." A sign of his influence is a letter from the King's uncle asking for Johnson's help. As a reward for his loyalty and good service Johnson was awarded a coat-of-arms and chose a pelican, the symbol of Thomas Cromwell.


After Cromwell's fall, Johnson continued to work for Cranmer. He invested heavily in land having property at Fordwich, Thanington, Canterbury, Stonar, Braddon as well as St Laurence and Minster. As an old man, he continued to make local headlines, famously protesting at the burning of Protestants in Canterbury by throwing "street earth" at Cardinal Pole's house. He made provision for his children through arranging good matches that supported the Protestant cause. He thus became linked with the puritan William Claybrook and the radical Bishop Ponet who in 1556 wrote a volume advocating the assassination of "Bloody Mary". 


John Johnson died in 1566. In his will he left money for the repair of Ramsgate pier as well as road repairs and sermons.  His widow Beatrice continued to live in Fordwich. In 1578, she was officially asked to return two tablecloths which were said to be the property of the town and which had been lent to her for civic entertaining purposes when John had been mayor. The request for the return seventeen years after the use may best be understood by considering that at this time, the Johnsons were in dispute with the town about the suitability of the vicar whom they had appointed.


His son Paul served as Mayor of Fordwich in 1574, 1582, 1587 and 1596. His will, made in 1598, shows that he owned not just a house in Fordwich but property in Sturry, Minster, Westbere, Chislet, Stonar and Ramsgate.     With regard the house at Fordwich, his will describes furnishings in the hall, kitchen, study, gallery, guardhouse, lady's chamber, groom's chamber, maid's chamber, brewhouse, milkhouse, stables and wash-house. It was clearly a substantial mansion. Contents include twelve feather beds, silverware, two dozen "banquetting dishes", a dozen fruit dishes, many items of furniture, a clock, firearms and a very well equipped kitchen. Soft furnishings include imported velvet, damask and diaper, as well as canopies, cushions and carpets, all signs of wealth. Outside the house were cows, horses, some corn and gardens.


Paul's son Henry was mayor five times in 1603, 1605, 1611, 1612 and 1616.


A story emerged in the eighteenth century that another of Paul's sons, Silas,  married the grand-daughter of Queen Katherine Parr and so became very rich.  This has never been proven but one of the key items of evidence produced to support the story was a piece of early Tudor embroidery showing falcons which Silas is meant to have passed down through the generations.  His will shows it was left to his daughter but given the falcon was the symbol of Anne Boleyn, it is more likely to have been something Silas inherited from his grandfather than an item which one of his wives brought with her.  The allegation that it was through this marriage that Silas achieved wealth is disproven by looking at what he inherited from his own father.  Also, he never held any of the properties which formed part of the Parr or Seymour estates.  Given all the evidence points to Katherine Parr's daughter dying in infancy, there is scant possibility that any grand-daughter existed for Silas to marry. It is easy therefore to dismiss the story but more problematic to explain why it originated. The fabric in question was incorporated in the seventeenth century into a garment which is housed at Sudeley Castle, the home of Katherine Parr. It is traditionally known as the christening gown of Elizabeth I though more recent scholarship proved it was of a later date. Although Silas never served as mayor, he did represent Fordwich at meetings of the Cinque Ports.




Taken from The Isle of Thanet: Its History, People and Buildings by Margaret Bolton published 2006 by lulu.com. Used by permission of the author.