Robert Amberson, Merchant of Bristol

Robert Amberson was probably born about 1612 in London and died in Bristol in 1685, leaving a will.

In his will he makes it clear that he is the uncle of Elizabeth, the wife of William Martin, Soapboiler of Bristol. It is self evident that he is therefore the inspiration of the name of Robert Amberson Marten, born to William and Elizabeth in Glastonbury in 1699.

There is enough evidence about his maritime and mercantile career that allows us to paint a picture of some key events in his interesting life. This is aided by the presumed uniqueness of his name.

Key documents of the East India company indicate that a Robert Amberson travelled on a trade mission sent by Charles I to the Shah of Persia in 1638. The mission was headed by Nicholas Wilford, a painter, and directed by the Earl of Arundel. In these documents Robert Amberson is directly described as a servant of the Earl of Arundel. Thomas Howard the 14th Earl of Arundel was a keen collector and although ostensibly this mission was to set up trade links exchanging Persian silk and the like for English woollen cloth, there was no shortage of ambition to deepen and make a full cultural exchange.

The mission passed through Surat, the hub for English and Dutch trade on the North West Indian coast and headed up the coast of the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately Nicholas Wilford died en route at Bandeer Abbas in Jan 1638/9 and the whole mission appears to have been aborted. It is recorded that Robert Amberson was ordered to be sent home.

As the Earl of Arundel was England’s leading Catholic it is difficult not to believe that Robert Amberson as a servant did not share his master’s religious views. Throughout his life, his acquaintances and contacts there are repeated hints that he remained a Royalist and had a conservative religious outlook.

His relationship to the Wilford family would also appear to be critical. In the 16th century the Wilfords were powerful and extremely wealthy Elizabethan cloth merchants. It is not clear how the Nicholas Wilford who ventured on the ill-fated expedition to Persia was related to the main branch of the family, but he must have come from this family simply because of the wealth and royal connections that he self evidently had.

There is a marriage recorded at St Bartholomew the Less in London on 24 Apr 1647 between Robert Amberson and Alice Rawlings. This is very likely to be our Robert Amberson although the marriage bore no children. Firstly in his will Robert expresses a desire to be buried alongside his wife in the chancel of St Thomas’s in Bristol. His wife would appear to be buried on 17 Aug 1668 when the St Thomas register records the burial of “Alice Amerson (sic) wife of Robert”. This confirms the name ‘Alice’. Secondly there is the location of the marriage, as the parish of St Bartholomew continued to be the centre of the wealth of descendants of the important cloth trading Wilford family. If, as seems likely, Robert Amberson continued to be in service to this family after his return to England in 1639 he could quite likely reside in this parish. A number of Wilford wills of this period refer to St Bartholomew’s but it has not been possible to tie in the relationships. It has also to be a possibility that Robert Amberson is related to Nicholas Wilford as the accounts from the aborted mission mention that he unsuccessfully tried to claim the estate of his Master in Jan 1638/9 whilst out in Persia.

There then follows a gap in Robert Amberson’s career, immediately after his marriage. This maybe because he was at sea, or given his supposed less than Puritan beliefs, he was just lying low throughout Cromwell’s Commonwealth period. However, he turns up again in records in Bristol in 1659, From 1659 there are a number of property transactions in Bristol¬† that would indicate he was a full time resident. He appears in the 1662 Hearth tax list. He is a merchant and indeed one time tax collector.

in a 1682 account of the Custom service Robert Amberson is described as “an extraordinarily good Clerk, very diligent and knowing in Custom House Affairs” (Culliford). Given Culliford’s disparaging remarks about much of the corruption in the Bristol Custom service at the time, this is an exceptional endorsement.

We know more about Robert Amberson’s friends, business partners and relations in Bristol from the details of his will.

His relations, apart from his niece Elizabeth Marten (nee Vas), focus around his nephew George Tyte. George Tyte was married to Mary Hawkins the daughter of John Hawkins, a Bristol brewer. John Hawkins another friend of Robert Amberson, left his own will in 1692. This shows he had another daughter Frances Hawkins married on 23 Aug 1670 (Temple) to the Minister of St Thomas, Humphrey Brent. Robert Amberson is clearly keen to help provide for the children of Humphrey Brent who we can assume was also a good friend.

Humphrey Brent had died relatively young in 1677 and Robert Amberson leaves money to the widow Frances and the son also Humphrey Brent. The Brents over a few generations were educated at St John’s College Oxford. Indeed college records report that James Brent, Humphrey’s father had played an important role in inviting Prince Rupert into Bristol permitting its fall to the Royalists in 1643.

The Tyte family is difficult to unravel, but the Will of Thomas Tyte, Merchant of London 1691 gives some background even if we have little idea how he might be related to George Tyte. Thomas Tyte is engaged in the cloth trade and himself has a nephew George Tyte living in Bilbao

Another good friend was John Thruston, Chamberlain of Bristol, whose will of 1675, leaves Robert ten shillings to buy a ring to remember him by.

One of the executors of his will was John Hine, a sugar baker, later Mayor of Bristol in 1697.

Robert Amberson was buried on 15 Feb 1685 in the chancel St Thomas Bristol. The church was subsequently rebuilt in 1793. In a description of the church in 1843 by Samuel Toovey, the author laments the lack of respect for those interred within the church but a generation or so earlier. He notes that the vault of Robert Amberson and his wife, Alice was the oldest date he could still find.

Sources and Notes

  • Will of Robert Amberson, Gent, Probate 26 Mar 1686 (PCC)
  • The English factories in India, 1618-1669 : a calendar of documents in the India Office, British Museum and Public Record Office (archive.org)
  • A Supplementary Calendar Of Documents In The India Office Relating To India Or To The Home Affairs Of The East India Company 1600-1640 pp141-142. (archive.org)
  • Will of John Hawkins, Brewer, Probate 18 Aug 1691 (PCC)
  • Will of John Thruston, Chamberlain of Bristol, Probate 3 May 1675 (PCC)
    • Bequest to Robert Amberson to buy a ring
  • Will of John Hine, Sugar Baker, Late Mayor of Bristol, Probate 19 May 1699 (PCC)
    • Also named as a ‘friend’ by John Hawkins.
  • Andrew Heggarty: A Biographical Register of St John’s College Oxford, 1555-1660, Oxford Historical Society, 2011.
  • William Culliford: The Seventeenth-Century Customs Service Surveyed, (1684)
  • Samuel Griffiths Toovey: Cursory Observations on the Churches of Bristol, Bristol Mirror (1843)
  • Biography of Nicholas Wilford, a supposed forebear of the Nicholas Wilford who died in Persia in 1639, History of Parliament on line
    • This intriguingly mentions both St Bartholomew’s the Less and the Cloth concession in Bilbao run by the Wilfords in the 16th Century. (cf George Tyte a century later)
  • Peter Wilson Coldham: The Bristol registers of servants sent to foreign plantations, 1654-1686¬† (1988) (available at ancestry.com)
    • Records here all dated 1659 would indicate that as a ‘merchant ‘Robert Amberson (or Amerson) indentured at least three individuals, so called ‘white slaves’ , to 4-5 years service in Barbados.
Last updated on 8 October 2019 by JJ Morgan