Richard Carew was the first to record the story of Thomasine Bonaventure, a poor young shepherdess of Week St Mary in north Cornwall, who was carried off to London by a rich merchant who happened to be passing. He wrote that he ‘saw her, heeded her, liked her, begged her of her poor parents, and carried her to his home’ in the City. There she made her fortune through a series of marriages to wealthy merchants. Davies Gilbert in 1838 wrote that in her later years when a widow she was actively using her money for ‘repairing highways, building bridges, endowing or providing funds for poor maids, relieving prisoners feeding and apparelling poor people’. Robert Stephen Hawker then popularised the tale in the 1870s, inventing several more elements.
Some of the story is true. However, the romantic rags to riches story you’ll come across online has been embellished many times and is as much myth as the tale of John Tregeagle. The facts are more prosaic. For a start, Thomasine was not a shepherdess from a poor family eking out its living in a remote hovel. In fact, they were of minor gentry rank. Her brother Richard became a rector in Kent, in which county Thomasine’s parents were buried.
Thomasine had gone to London around 1460, then aged 20 or so. She was possibly introduced by her brother and became a servant to a tailor in the city – Richard Norden. After a few years she married another merchant tailor, Henry Galle, but he died in 1466, leaving her his business. She had obviously already been involved in it and ran it herself for a little while before re-marrying in 1467. Her second husband was Thomas Barnaby, who was yet another merchant tailor. Barnaby was even less lucky than Galle and expired just a few months after the wedding.
Two years later Thomasine was marrying her third husband. This was Sir John Percyval, a tailor and cloth merchant. Unlike the others, the ambitious Percyval survived the marriage and became Lord Mayor of London in 1498. He died in 1503, passing on his business interests to his childless widow, who had helped him run it.
She traded alone after his death from her house in Lombard Street in the City of London and was wealthy enough to be ‘requested’ to make a forced ‘loan’ to the Crown in 1508. Thomasine died in turn in 1512 but before then she had endowed a grammar school to educate poor children in her native parish of Week St Mary. This only survived until around 1550 however, when it was shut down by Edward VI’s government.
Not exactly rags to riches, Thomasine’s biography nevertheless illustrates how a capable woman of the late medieval period was able to benefit from her intelligence and drive, coupled with some fortunate marriages and the high mortality rate of London in her days. It also shows how some of those who migrated out of Cornwall retained an affection for the place of their birth.