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George Abbot’s Forgotten Brother – Sir Maurice

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012

by Valerie White

Guildford’s most famous person in our nation’s history is, without doubt, George Abbot, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 until his death in 1633. However, little is said of his five brothers. One of them, Maurice (named after his clothworker father), became a very successful businessman and was Lord Mayor of London. It is said that at one time he was the 11th richest man in England. Here, Valerie White takes a look at the colourful career of Sir Maurice Abbot.

Illustration of a monumental brass to Maurice (senior) and Alice Abbot, with their six sons kneeling below them. It is in Holy Trinity Church, Guildford. The numbers are: 1, Richard, who was a master of Abbot’s Hospital. 2, Anthony. 3, Robert, who became Bishop of Salisbury. 4, George, Archbishop of Canterbury. 5, Sir Maurice. 6, John.

‘Maurice Abbot an eminent merchant, governor of the East India Company and Lord Mayor of London, was the fifth youngest son of Maurice, a cloth worker of Guildford, and was the brother of George, Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Robert, who was Bishop of Salisbury.  Comparatively little is known of his early life except that he was baptised at Trinity Church, Guildford, on November 2, 1545, and was educated at Guildford Grammar School. He was probably apprenticed in London to his father’s trade because he became a freeman of the Drapers’ Company and rapidly amassed great wealth as a merchant dealing in such various commodities as cloth, indigo, spices and jewellery.’

That paragraph definitely does not adequately describe what this very talented man achieved, especially taking into account his humble beginnings.

He was one of the original directors of the East India Company, acquiring stock – not just cloth, indigo, spices and jewellery – but currants. He must have had a sweet tooth as he got into trouble over his currants, as I will explain later.

He was involved with the Muscovy Company in the discovery of the North-West Passage – that is the sea route connecting the the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

He played a prominent part in settling the many disputes between the Dutch and the East India Company, for eight successive years.

He had audiences with the Prince of Orange, James I and the Duke of Buckingham in connection with the East India Company, and he was the first to receive the honour of knighthood from Charles I in 1625. He apparently supplied some of the jewellery for Charles I’s coronation.

Despite the problems the East India Company had with the Dutch, in which Maurice Abbot obviously played a very important role, he also found time to become an influential member of the Levant Company. It was formed to regulate English trade with Turkey and the Levant.

He was also interested in opening up trade with Persia and with the Portuguese as well. In his spare time England’s merchant navy was largely under his control, with him owning quite a number of ships in his own right.

He was involved with a pirate situation in Algiers and he also helped to establish the colony of Virginia in North America.

The humble cottage where the Abbot family lived. It is seen here in the yard of Crooke’s Brewery in the 1860s just before it was demolished. In the background you can just see part of St Nicholas Church.

I have come across only two instances when, during his working life, he was accused of malpractice. The customs department accused him of refusing to pay an additional tax on currants which he owned, so he broke into the warehouse in which they were being stored and claimed his property. Presumably, because he was ‘a member of the customs department’, no action was taken.

He also got into trouble with the Lords of the Admiralty. He was entrusted with fitting out ships at the expense of the City of London and was accused of not providing sufficient men and ammunition. This charge was also dropped.

It would appear that he was a man of high principles, if those two events were the only instances that could be levelled at him, and besides, taking into account what he did achieve.

When he was 73, he was elected Lord Mayor of London. Even then he could not look forward to a quiet life. England was having trouble with the Scots – a little matter of the King launching his ill-fated attempt to force the English prayer book on them, which led to a Scottish invasion of England. During the King’s absence Sir Maurice was given ‘full authority to arm, if necessary, the inhabitants against the King’s  enemies and at the discretion of himself and the aldermen to put into force martial law’.

Goodness knows what kind of husband he was, considering the active life he led. However, he did find time to marry, His first wife was Joan Austin, the daughter of George Austin of Shalford. Her father was, incidentally Mayor of Guildford three times.

Sir Maurice Abbot fathered five children. Son Morris, was called to the Bar as a member of the Inner Temple, and was one of the executors of his uncle George’s will.

Son George became a probationer fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and carried the banner at his uncle’s funeral. He also sat in the Long Parliament as MP for Guildford.

A third son, Edward, did not do as well. He appeared in petitions to the House of Lords, as continually being in pecuniary difficulties.

The cottage stood in what today is the car park next to the George Abbot pub. It would have looked out towards the River Wey. Just before it was pulled down, Guildford’s borough surveyor Henry Peak measured the building and did some drawings of it. Amazing to think that although its importance was well known, it wasn’t enough to save it from demolition.

After his first wife died, Sir Maurice married again. However, his second wife, Margaret, daughter of Bartholomew Barnes, an alderman of London, died just three years later.

At the end of his mayoralty he retired from public life and died in either 1641 or 1642 (not 1640 as is usually given) and was buried in St Stephen’s Church, Colman Street, London.

George Abbot’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church that Sir Maurice Abbot paid for.

In Guildford’s Holy Trinity Church is the extremely eloborate monument Sir Maurice had erected in 1635 in memory of his brother, George, who had died two years previously.

I also found this quote about Sir Maurice Abbot: ‘Abbot’s whole career, which was begun under no external advantages, is a remarkable instance of well-directed energy and enterprise. It is one of the earliest esxamples we have of the creation of enormous wealth by the application of great personal abilities to commerce and illustrates the extraordinary development of the English foreign trade at the close of the 16th and opening of the 17th centuries.’

Phew! What a man.

Sources of information:

Hope, Valerie. My Lord Mayor.

Wikisource: Dictionary of National Biography.

Wikipedia: Free Encyclopedia – East India Company, Levant Company, Muscovy Company, Northwest Passage, Ship Money.

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Responses to George Abbot’s Forgotten Brother – Sir Maurice

  1. Elizabeth Abbott

    August 2, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Vibrant article, well done. I have written a book about Dr. Maude Abbott, most likely a very distant relation who was the mother of modern heart surgery; in her day the world expert on congenital cardiac disease.