THOMASINE BONA VENTURE
IN the reign of Henry VI., about the year 1450, in the parish of Week St Mary, on the northern coast of Cornwall, was born of humble parents a girl, to whom the name of Thomasine was given. This child was in no way distinguished from other Cornish children; they ever have been, and still are, remarkable for their healthful beauty, and Thomasine, like others, was beautiful. Her father was a small farmer, and the daughter was usually employed in minding the sheep upon Greenamore, or preventing the geese from straying too far from his dwelling.
Thomasine appears to have received no education beyond that which nature gave her. She grew to womanhood a simple, artless maiden, who knew nothing of the world or its cares beyond the few sorrows which found their way into the moorland country of Week and Temple.
Thomasine was watching her flocks when a mounted traveller, with well-filled saddle-bags, passing over the moors, observed her. Struck by the young woman's beauty, he halted and commenced a conversation with her. "Her discreet answers, suitable to the beauty of her face, much beyond her rank or degree," says the quaint Hals, "won upon him, and he desired to secure her as a servant in his family." This traveller, who was a draper from London, sought out the parents of the shepherdess, and proposed to relieve them of this daughter, by taking her to the metropolis, promising her good wages and many privileges; and beyond this he agreed that, in case he should die, seeing she would be so far removed from her friends, she should be carefully provided for.
Having satisfied themselves of the respectability of this merchant traveller, the parents agreed to part with their daughter; and Thomasine, full of girlish curiosity to see the city, of which she had heard, was willing to leave her home.
We next find Thomasine in London as a respected servant to this city draper. His wife and family are pleased with the innocent Cornish girl: and by her gentle manners and great goodness of heart, she won upon all with whom she was brought in contact. Years passed away, and the draper's wife died. In the course of time he proposed to make the faithful Thomasine his wife. The proposal was accepted, and "Thomasine and her master were solemnly married together as man and wife; who then, according to his promise, endowed her with a considerable jointure in case of her survivorship." Within two years of this marriage the draper died, and Thomasine was left sole executrix. The poor servant, who but a few years previous was minding sheep on the moors, was now a rich widow, courted by the wealthy of the metropolis. With that good sense which appears ever to have distinguished her, she improved her mind; and following the examples by which she had been for some time surrounded, she added to her natural graces many acquired elegances of manner.
The youth and beauty of the widow brought her numerous admirers, but all were rejected except Henry Gale, of whom we know little, save that he was "an eminent and wealthy citizen." He was accepted, and Thomasine Gale was the most toasted of all city madams. After a few years passed in great happiness, Thomasine became again a widow. Gale left her all his property, and she became, when not yet thirty years of age, one of the wealthiest women in London. So beautiful, so rich, and being yet young, the widow was soon induced to change her state again. She chose now for her companion John Percivall, who was already high in the honours of the corporation.
At the feast of Sir John Collet, who was Lord Mayor in the second year of the reign of Henry VII., in 1487, Percivall was the mayor's carver, "at which time, according to the custom of that city, Sir John drank to him in a silver cup of wine, in order to make him sheriff thereof for the year ensuing, whereupon he covered his head and sat down at table with the Lord Mayor of London." John Percivall was elected Lord Mayor himself in 1499, and he was knighted in the same year by Henry VII. Sir John Percivall and Dame Thomasine Percivall lived many years happily together; but he died, leaving all his fortune to his widow.
Lady Percivall was now advanced in years. She had had three husbands, but no children. The extraordinary accession of fortune made no change in her simple honest heart; the flattery of the great, by whom she had been surrounded, kindled no pride in the beautiful shepherdess. The home of her childhood, from which she had been so long separated, was dear to her, and she retired in her mourning to the quiet of that distant home.
She spent her declining years in good works. Roads were made and bridges built at her cost; almshouses for poor maids were erected; she relieved prisoners; fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. In Week St Mary, Thomasine founded a chantry and free school "to pray for the souls of her father and mother, and her husbands and relatives." To the school she added a library, and a dwelling for the chanters and others, "and endowed the same with £20 lands for ever." Cholwell, a learned man and great linguist, was master here in Henry VIII.'s time; and here he educated in the "liberal arts and sciences' says Carew, "many gentlemen's sons." Such were a few of the benefits conferred on Week by the girl who once had tended the flocks upon the moors; but who, by great good fortune and more by the exercise of good sense, became Lady Mayoress.
Dame Thomasine Percivall died, respected by all who knew her, in 1530, having then reached the good old age of eighty years.
It appears probable that the name Bonaventure, by which this remarkable female is usually known, was given to her, likely enough, by the linguist Choiwell, to commemorate her remarkable fortune.
Berry Comb, in Jacobstow, was once the residence of Thomasine, and it was given at her death to the poor of St Mary Week.