John Freeston (c. 1512–95) of Altofts, Yorkshire, is not known to have been educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, but he was admitted to Grays Inn in 1544. He came to make a lucrative living from property deals, purchasing several lands which came on the market following the dissolution of the monasteries and chantries. He also leased several estates from the Crown, as well as the rights to collect certain taxes and dues. In addition, he evidently lent money. Freeston, however, was possessed of a litigious disposition, and the papers bear witness to some of the disputes he which engendered during this lifetime.
Although Freeston himself had no direct links with University College, he had an indirect one through his cousin John Browne, who was a Fellow there from 1575–1612 (and whose personal papers are listed as UC:S13). Browne, who had already persuaded his uncle Thomas Browne to make a benefaction his College in 1586 (see UC:E9), then turned his attentions to his cousin, and successfully persuaded Freeston to remember the College in his will.
As laid out in his last will, drawn up in 1594 shortly before his death, Freeston left various properties in and around Pontefract to University College, but with very precise conditions attached. The College would indeed benefit from the will: Freeston specified that income from his estate should endow a Fellowship and two Scholarships at University College, and he also left money to buy out the lease on the property immediately to the west of the College. However, he also stipulated that the College should use other income from the estate to support various charitable causes in Yorkshire, including building an almshouse in Kirkthorpe and a school in Normanton, and then paying for the support of the almsmen of the former and the Master and Usher of the latter. He also left money to endow a Fellowship and two Scholarships at Emmanuel College Cambridge, although in this case the endowment eventually went to Sidney Sussex College instead.
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, on Freeston’s death early in 1595, John Browne found himself engaged in a major dispute with Freeston’s family, especially William Freeston, John’s brother, in order to win ownership of the property bequeathed to the College. The matter was complicated by the fact that, shortly before his death, Freeston had married one of his servants. Not long after being widowed, Margery Freeston promptly remarried, but her husband, Brian Stapleton, was rumoured to be something of a wastrel, and there were anxieties that he would effectively blow his wife’s share of the inheritance. For a while, therefore, there was a three-cornered dispute, with Browne, Margery Stapleton, and the Freeston family, allying with each other at different times in different ways.
Even without such distractions, Freeston’s affairs were left in a complicated state. As well as trying to retain his cousin’s freehold estates, Browne found himself having to spend time and money renewing some of Freeston’s leasehold estates, to help finance his legal costs. Worn out by his efforts, John Browne died in 1613, apparently much in debt (T. D. Whitaker (ed.), The Life and Original Correspondence of Sir George Radcliffe (London, 1810), p. 61, and also UC:E12/1/D8/50), but not long after his death, the College eventually achieved a settlement was reached with Freeston’s family, and could begin to administer the land in accordance with their benefactor’s wishes.
As matters finally settled, the College was given property in Pontefract itself, but also in the neighbouring towns and villages of Kirk Fenton (later Church Fenton), South Milford, Ferrybridge, Carcroft and Owston, Ackton in Featherstone, Water Fryston, and Darrington.
As far as University College was concerned, there was one substantial modification in Freeston’s will: the income from his estate was not large enough to support a Fellow and two Scholars, so that instead it was used to support three Scholars, of whom one, who received a larger stipend, was the Freeston Major Scholar and the others the Freeston Minor Scholars. In accordance with Freeston’s wishes, the Freeston Scholars were to be selected from the free schools at Normanton and Wakefield, or, failing that, from the free schools at Pontefract or Swillington.
University College continued to manage the estate over the next three centuries. In the 1870s and 1880s it engaged in a major project of rebuilding some of the urban properties in Pontefract itself, which had fallen into severe decay.
After the First World War, the College decided to sell most of its historical estates, including the Freeston lands. By 1921, therefore, the College owned no more land in this part of Yorkshire (although they did retain some coal mining rights for some years). The Freeston Trust, however, still continues to this day, albeit in a modified form.
All these papers were found in the archives during the stocktaking of 1993, with the exception of UC:E12/2/N1/1–2 (part of Accession No. 275; transferred in 2001), and UC:E12/2/M3/8 (part of Accession No. 378, transferred in 2002). In the early 18th century, William Smith (Fellow of University College 1675–1705) catalogued all the archives then existing. In some cases the documents he listed are now either damaged or else completely missing, so his transcripts and summaries provide the best or even only evidence for their contents.
The papers relating to the Freeston estate are divided into three main sections:
UC:E12/1: Documents about the Freeston properties before and during their transfer to University College
UC:E12/2: Documents about the Freeston properties as managed by University College
UC:E12/3: Documents about the administration of the trusts supported by the Freeston estate
A pdf version of the complete catalogue may be downloaded here.
A note on spelling
John Freeston’s name is spelled in many different ways in the following papers, including Friston, Fryston, Freiston and Freston (the most common variant). “Freeston”, however, is the spelling most commonly used today, and will generally be adopted. The catalogue, however, tries to reproduce the spelling found in each document.