The American Genealogist
Whole Number 96 Volume XXIV, No 4.
The Ancestry of Governor John Webster
Compiled by Mrs. S. H. Skillington, of Leicester, England
and communicated by Dr. and Mrs. Bruce Hunter Sisler of Chattanooga, Tennessee
Editor's Note. This article, one of the most important and interesting that we have had the honor of
publishing, has a fascinating history. In July, 1931, the late Col. Charles E. Banks published in The
New York Genealogical and Biographical Record (Vol. 62, pp. 232- 234) a short article revealing the
English origin of John Webster, a prominent citizen of Hartford, Conn., and Hadley, Mass., and Governor
of Connecticut. This article gave abstracts of the wills of the father and grandfather of John Webster
and, from the registers of Cossington, co. Leicester, records of John's marriage, his grandfather's
burial, and the baptisms of three of his children. It is surprising that this revalation was not
promptly and vigorously followed by further research to obtain a more extended history of the
antecedents of the family in England.
Mrs. Bruce H. (Ethlyn Brown) Sisler is maternally descended from Gov. John Webster. In 1944 Colonel
Sisler, then serving in the army, made the acquaintance of S. H. Skillington, F.S.A., honorary secretery
of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, and of his accomplished wife, mrs. S. H. (Florence E.)
Skillington. The latter, a native of Cossington, is a keen student of its antiquities, and became
deeply interested when she learned of the findings made by Colonel Banks relative to the Webster family.
In subsequent correspondence between the Skillingtons and the Sislers, much additional data on the
history of the Webster family were supplied by the former. When permission was requested to make the
data public, Mrs. Skillington very kindly typed the material and sent it to Mrs. Sisler, nearly in the
form in which it is now printed. The editor, in fact, has done little more thaqn to rearrabge the charts
slightly for greater convenience in fitting the dimensions of our printed pages.
Webster descendants are also indebted to the Skillingtons for the Cossington illustrations which
provide a pictorial background to the Webster history.
The Websters of Cossington and Syston
The evidence in support of this pedigree has been collected from the following sources: the register of
the Freemen of Leicester, Vol. I; Records of the Borough of Leicester, Vols. III and IV; Leicestershire
Medieval Village Notes, Vols. II and IV; the parish register of Cossington; documents in the Leicester
Museum Muniment Room; and in the Leicester Probate Registry.
Information about the parish and people of Syston, co. Leicester, in the Tudor period is scarce; on the
other hand, documents relating to the obscure village of Cossington are unusually plentiful. The parish
register, though not complete for the earliest years, contains entries dating from 1558 and, what is also
rare, the accounts of the church wardens for some seventy years in the sixteenth century have survived.
From these and the other documents set forth in the appendix, it is possible to form an estimate of the
Webster family during the five generations that preceded John IV's emigration to America.
William Webster of Syston, butcher, became a freeman of Leicester in 1502/03; this enabled him to sell
his meat in Leicester without paying a heavy toll. It also laid upon him responsibilities, notably those
of fair trading and of contributing a reasonable amount to the borough expenses. His eldest son. John,
took up his freedom in 1509/10, when he would probably be in his early twenties. He paid the Lay Subsidy
in Syston in 1524 and his name appears on the Musters there in 1540.
John Webster I became tenant, under the priory of Ulverscroft, co. Leicester, of a farm in Cossington
about 1535, and in 1544 he went to law about it. His opponents, Thomas Chamberlain and William
Chamberlain, were probably his friends, who joined him in a collusive suit to secure his title. It is
significant that William and Richard Chamberlain were witnesses to the will of Emett Webster, John's
widow. In 1554 John bought this house and farm, where he had lived for some years. His name appears
twice in the churchwardens' accounts: in 1545 he paid rent for a piece of land (a butte) and in 1549 he
held the office of churchwarden.
John Webster I died before 1558 when his widow, Emett, made her will. Emett, whose brother, William
Welle, was in holy orders, belonged to the old school of churchmanship; she not only left the customary
fourpence to Lincoln Cathedral and to her parish church, but she endowed a mass and left other money to
Cossington church. It is not difficult to picture the day of her funeral: family and friends were early
at church for the dirge and mass that preceded the burial and then went home for breakfast.
The American Genealogist
After the meal a little party of relatives and neighbours went through the three rooms of the house
valuing its austere equipment, and out onto the land to price the stock and implements. They they would
return to the house, gather around the table again, the one among them who could write occupying the only
chair, and so make out the inventory.
The churchwardens' accounts show John Webster II paying his mother's legacy, collecting a levy and
doing business for the village at Stamford. Stamford, whose fair was one of the most notable in the
Midlands - its fame penetrated even to Justice Shallow in remote Gloucestershire - is about thirty miles
from Cossington, and that, with a laden waggon on Tudor roads would be three days' journey. His spouse,
the "goodwyfe Webster," was responsible for the church's washing. In 1572, John Webster was taxed 6s. 8d.
for the lay subsidy; his brother William, at Thrussington, paid twice as much, which suggests that he had
received an eldest son's portion from John I. William Webster became a freeman of Leicester, possibly
for the second time, in 1576, and he was still living in 1585. John had died ten years earlier.
John Webster III, whose domestic life was punctuated by a pathetic succession of lyings in and layings
out, appears to have married shortly after his grandmother's death. His bride, Isabel, died in child bed
within a year and he married again very soon, for another babe was laid in the churchyard before sixteen
months were out. In those days, when no man could run a farm or a business without a helpmate, he would
not be accused of inconstancy.
He prospered in business; the accounts show that he ranked extra land and that he was taxed quite
highly for parish purposes. He became, after the squire and the parson, a leading man in the village;
in fact, his name appears next after theirs in the articles of agreement made in 1585. It is interesting
to notice that these rules, that were "to contynew for ever," were drawn up at a time when England was in
greater peril than she was ever to be again until 1940.
In 1587 Matthew Webster, John's son and heir, married, and his father settled one third of his farm on
the young couple, with the remainder to come to them and their issue after his death. John would, of
course, give them cattle, sheep and implements at the same time; this should be remembered when
considering John's will. Matthew and his father were probably partners before the marriage, for in 1586
they both paid 1s. 4d. for the tax called "the fifteene." Matthew Webster died in 1592, leaving a widow,
one son and two daughters. His will appears to have been made hurriedly, but it was witnessed by his
father-in-law, the squire and the parson. John Webster died two years later.
There is not much evidence of John Webster IV's life in England. he married, when only nineteen, a
girl whose family had lived in Cossington at least as long as his own. She bore him nine children, only
two of whom died in infancy. He prepared to leave his homeland in 1634. The deeds show that he then
owned in Cossington three houses and a cottage, various small closes, about one hundred acres of arable
land, and considerable grazing rights.
So John Webster set out for the New World with a wife still vigorous, six stalwart children, some
implements of husbandry, and with more than £1,000 in his possession.