The history of the Besfords

Besfords in the late medieval period

The Soldier in Medieval England project by Henley Business School and the University of Southampton created a searchable database, compiled from original sources, containing the names of soldiers serving the English crown between 1369 and 1453.

The need to pay the men who served, and to account accurately for the money spent, led to the production of a large number of documents, many of which have survived. These relate primarily to The Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Thousands of Muster Rolls have been preserved in various archives in England, France and elsewhere. These list serving men and indicate their rank and the commander under whom they served. In addition to Muster Rolls (sometimes referred to as Retinue Rolls), Letters of Chancery also exist, detailing individuals who purchased immunity from legal action while serving abroad. The cost of purchasing a Letter of Chancery would have prevented most individuals from obtaining one.

The database includes records of two men named John Besford, the first being a Clerk on Overseas Service in 1382, and the second an Archer in 1441. The original documents are held by The National Archives in Kew, London. They were both written in Latin, meaning that the two men concerned were recorded as Johan Besford.

John Besford, Clerk on Overseas Service, 1382

The first document, naming John Besford as a Clerk, is a Letter of Attorney dated 29th of July 1382 (Ref. TNA, C76/67, m24 at The National Archives). This letter indemnified John Besford against legal action whilst serving the Crown overseas.

In his role as a Clerk he would have compiled Muster Rolls, Retinue Rolls, and managed payments made to serving men, almost certainly in connection with an expeditionary force to France.

He would have therefore been an educated man who dealt with official documents and finances.

Medieval Clerk

John Besford’s overseas service took place during the reign of Richard II. Richard was born in 1367, so would have been 15 years old in 1382. He was the son of Edward, the then Prince of Wales, better known as the Black Prince. When the Black Prince died of dysentery, Richard became heir to the throne and duly became King in 1377 at the age of 10.

John Besford, Archer, 1441

The second document, naming John Besford as an Archer in France in 1441, is a Retinue Roll which lists a large number of men serving on an expedition to France under the command of Richard, Duke of York. Richard was Richard Plantagenet, the father of the future Edward IV and Richard III.

The Duke of York’s force of which John Besford was a part landed in France in June 1441. York’s army moved down the River Seine towards Pontoise, which was under siege by a French army. Although Richard’s army failed to bring the main French force to battle, he led a brilliant campaign involving multiple river crossings of the Seine and the Oise, chasing French troops almost to the walls of Paris. In the end, his efforts were in vain as the French took Pontoise in September 1441.

As an Archer, John Besford would have been using a bow which was over 6 feet long, with a draw weight of around 100 pounds. It had an effective range of up to 350 yards. The heavy war arrows used could penetrate all but the best steel plate armour of the medieval period. The longbow was in effect the machine gun of its day as archers could achieve rapid fire by having arrows stuck in the ground in front of them for speedy use. They were expected to fire ten aimed arrows per minute, although speeds of up to twenty shots per minute were sometimes achieved by particularly skilled archers. 


The male population, both rich and poor, were encouraged to hone their archery skills. Edward I (1272-1307) actually banned sports on Sundays specifically to ensure that men practised archery. By massing Archers, the English would unleash a cloud of arrows on the enemy, striking down men at arms and unhorsing knights.

How common is the surname Besford?

The John Besfords named in the documents above were clearly different men. Even if the John Besford who was the Clerk on overseas service was as young as 21 at the time (in 1382) this would have made him 80 years old in 1441 when the document recording John Besford the Archer was produced. Very few individuals lived that long in medieval times, and they would certainly not have been serving as an Archer aged 80. 

It occurred to me to consider how likely it was that these two John Besfords were ancestors or relatives of modern day Besfords. I decided to work out how common the surname was in censuses of England and Wales, and in Scotland. For this purpose I also included the two common variants of Besford which I have come across, namely Bessford and Bestford. 

Instances of the surname in Scottish Censuses were few and far between:

1861-1891 inclusive0
Occurrence of Besford and its variants in censuses of Scotland

It was clear that Scotland did not need to concern us in this exercise.

This also applied to Wales as Besford and its variants only occurred there as follows:

1841-1881 inclusive0
Occurrence of Besford and its variants in censuses of Wales

As a result I analysed only the incidence of Besford and its variants in censuses of England.

This gave the following results:

YearBesfordsPopulation% of Population
Occurrence of Besford and its variants in censuses of England

Censuses were taken in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831, but the records retained consist only of overall population figures and do not include named individuals.

It can be seen from this analysis that Besford and its variants is a very rare surname in terms of the population as a whole. It can also be seen that it becomes rarer as we go back in time.

Population figures for Medieval England

The next consideration was what the population of England was in the period for which we have the two John Besfords on record (1382 to 1441). 

There have been several studies of population in the Middle Ages. No censuses are available to historians but estimates can be made based on manorial records, tithe payments, poll tax returns, muster rolls and other records. The current consensus is that the population of England was of the order of 2.5 million in 1377, and that this fell to around 2.08 million by 1400. Further falls occurred to circa 2.02 million by 1430, and circa 1.9 million by 1450. The chief cause of the falling population was the Black Death. As well as fatalities attributable to the Black Death itself, the numbers of people working on food production fell as a result, causing famine. The near constant warfare also made a contribution to the decline.

Numbers of Besfords in Medieval England

Using the population estimates above, it seemed reasonable to apply the same percentage to them as the percentage of Besfords found in the earliest Census available.

This gives the following outcomes:

YearBesfordsPopulation% of Population
Estimate of number of people with the surname Besford

This equates to perhaps four to six family units during the overall period. 

Thinking further about these estimates it is reasonable to assume that roughly half of the numbers will relate to female Besfords, meaning that the two John Besfords for whom we have records, in 1382 and 1441 respectively, each represent one out of about 10 to 12 male Besfords in England. If we then consider that some of these male Besfords would have been children, we are looking at each of the two John Besfords as representing one out of perhaps five to eight adult males. 

Given all of the above, I believe that it is very likely that both of these men were ancestors of some of the Besfords who are alive today, the only caveat perhaps being that one or other of them (or both ) may have died without having fathered any children. I think that even if they both died childless it is a certainty that they were both at least relatives of our Besford ancestors, and hence our own distant relatives.

Further medieval documents naming a John Besford

Having found the documents relating to The Hundred Years’ War, I decided to undertake searches for references to either of these men in other medieval documents. I discovered two further documents which are held by The National Archives at Kew. These are in a category of holdings known as “Feet of Fines”. 

A Foot of Fine was the archival copy of an agreement between two parties in an English lawsuit over land. It appeared to be the resolution of a dispute but was in fact the way in which freehold property was conveyed at the time. Three copies were made on a single sheet of parchment, one at each side and one at the foot. The copies would then be separated by cutting the parchment along indented lines as a precaution against forgery. The right and left hand copies were given to the parties involved and the copy at the foot was retained by the court. Some of these retained copies (Feet of Fines) are held at The National Archives. Two of these refer to transactions involving a John Besford (once again written as Johan Besford since the documents are in Latin).

The details are as follows:

Document dated 4th June 1391 reference CP25/1/260/26 at The National Archives

This dates to the reign of Richard II and details the purchase of land by John Besford and Thomas Walters, Clerks, from a Knight named John atte Wood and his wife Alicia. John Besford and Thomas Walters paid 200 silver marks for nine dwellings and over eight acres of land located at Fladbury and Hanbury in Worcestershire.  Fladbury is seven and a half miles east of the village of Besford near Pershore in Worcestershire. Hanbury is nineteen miles north of Besford.

Document dated 27th January 1411 reference CP25/1260/26 at The National Archives

This dates to the reign of Henry IV and details the purchase of land by John Besford, Clerk, and Robert Whytyngton from Thomas Throkmerton and his wife Agnes.  John Besford and Robert Whytyngton paid 200 silver marks for the manor of Throkmerton in Worcestershire. Throckmorton (as it is spelt today) is seven miles north east of the village of Besford.

Taking these two documents together it seems highly likely that the John Besford named as a Clerk making these two land purchases in 1391 and 1411 is the same John Besford who served as a Clerk on the overseas expedition in 1382 and purchased immunity from legal action whilst serving.


It would be wonderful to think that this research could be linked to the family history which I have traced back to James Besford in 1679. It would also be fanciful. Parish Registers began to be kept from 1538 in the reign of Henry VIII. We thus have a gap of 97 years between the record of John Besford serving as an Archer in France and the start of Parish Registers. In addition we have the problem of the survival of early parish registers, many of which have been subject to destruction due to water, rodents, or general carelessness.

Despite this, I believe that these medieval records bring us closer to our forebears from this period.