Archive for the ‘The Norman Conquest’ category

Shalfleet: Church Tower or Castle Keep?

August 28th, 2017

The Tower of Shalfleet Church is the oldest on the Isle of Wight, and the most remarkable. Were there not a church attached to it, one would assume it was a defensive keep. The walls of this massive structure are over five feet thick, and there was originally no means of access from ground level: one had to climb an external ladder and scramble over the parapet. It is a structure that takes one’s breath away and has been described as ‘practically unique’. (Percy Stone, The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight, II, London 1891, pp.51-2.)

The Old Vicarage, Shalfleet: was it the site of the Saxon church? The Norman foundation is on the left.

The Tower was built in the later eleventh century, probably between 1070 and 1085, and may have been positioned at a distance from the Saxon church, the cemetery for which was in the garden of the Old Vicarage. (Ruth Waller, Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet (Shalfleet, 2008.)

William fitz Osbern, the Conqueror’s cousin and close friend, to whom he had granted the lordship of the Island, had presented the manor of Shalfleet to Gozelin fitz Azur, his own subordinate knight who had probably fought beside him at Hastings, while the church was part of his endowment to the Abbey of Lyre in Normandy. The Tower that they quickly raised would not have been free-standing for long, for it was soon connected to a new church on the present site, with an arch giving access to the Tower from the nave. Apart from the Tower, their North Door has survived the subsequent alterations to the building, with its ‘quaintly carved tympanum … an ordinary Romanesque enrichment’. The best guess is that the curious scene of a man with two lions represents Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

It has been suggested that a tower of such strength was intended as a refuge, for Shalfleet, with its flat shore, was particularly vulnerable to raiders from France (Stone, II, p.52; Brian Mead, The Church of St Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet, 2004). However, what Frenchman in the 1070s would have dared to invade the newly-annexed territory of William the Conqueror, given that he was the ‘strong man’ of northern France and notoriously swift in his retribution? Moreover, how would the frail and elderly have been expected to scramble up the Tower in times of danger? Although it undoubtedly served later as a defence against the French (and was equipped with its own three-pounder gun until 1779), it seems to me most unlikely that that was its original purpose.

Was it not, rather, an outpost of the lordly control that was now being exercised from Carisbrooke Castle? Conspicuously more solid and expensive than the usual motte and bailey, a commission worthy of the Island’s central authority and ideally placed to hold sway over the West Wight, might it have been intended not to shelter the local populace, but to cow them into submission?

The Tympanum, probably illustrating Daniel in the Lions' Den

The First Mrs Willoughby – or The Quest for my Inner Viking

August 10th, 2017

Wilby in Suffolk is flat, featureless and sparsely-populated, with a fine old church, a handful of cottages and a few scattered farmsteads

Most English families are lucky to trace their line back to the reign of Elizabeth I, and mine is no exception. John ‘Wilbie’ of Colchester was described as a yeoman and it was the emigration of his son Thomas to Cornwall, in 1647, that turned us into West Countrymen – Poldarkian characters who in the eighteenth century combined hard farming on the county’s bleak north coast with a little light wrecking. In default of other evidence, can the surname itself tell us about our earlier origins?

The names ‘Wilby’ and ‘Willoughby’ seem always to have been interchangeable, and to have been borne by a number of distinct and unrelated families to indicate their place of origin. There are villages called ‘Willoughby’ in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, and others called ‘Wilby’ in Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Suffolk.

Thus the remotest ancestor of the earls and dukes of Ancaster and the lords Willoughby de Eresby, Willoughby de Broke, Willoughby of Parham and Middleton was a certain William Willoughby of Willoughby-in-the-Marsh, Lincolnshire, in the time of Richard I. With their roots firmly in that county, they were entirely unconnected to Willoughbys originating in, say, Norfolk or Suffolk.

The various ‘Willoughbys’ and ‘Wilbys’ were etymologically distinct, too. The Lincolnshire Willoughby is called ‘Wilgebi’ in Domesday Book, a combination of the Old English wilig, for willow, with the Old Scandinavian byr, for a settlement or homestead. The name describes, picturesquely but prosaically, a ‘farmstead by the willows’.

The Wilbys, on the other hand, are called ‘Wilebi’ in Domesday, and are the byrs, or homesteads, of one or more men called Willa, who presumably were Viking marauders of the Danelaw period (A. D. Mills, A Dictionary of English Place-Names, (Oxford, 1991); P.H. Reaney, A Dictionary of British Surnames (1976), pp.383, 385.) As Wilby in Suffolk is the closest of the three villages to Colchester, I believe my ancestors to have originated there, and very probably to have included the eponymous Willa himself.

When might Willa, my putative ancestor, have arrived in England, and what sort of man was he?

Belying the urbanity of his current-day descendants, Willa was, no doubt, irredeemably uncouth, but charming enough for the first Mrs Willoughby

The Viking raids, the memory of which is seared on our national consciousness, had been sporadic at first. The coming of the Vikings in 793 had been announced, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by ‘immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed, and a little after that, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne.’ After 835, raids are regularly recorded in the south and west. The attacks soon escalated into a full-scale invasion, with a ‘great army’ landing in 865. It proceeded to conquer Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and – reinforced in 871 by a ‘great summer army’ – most of Mercia (874-7). Wessex itself barely escaped after a series of bloody battles in 871, but in 878 was occupied by the Danish king Guthrum, who had surprised Alfred, the new king of Wessex, at Chippenham.

Forced into hiding in the Somerset marshes, Alfred returned to win a decisive victory at Edington. The vanquished Guthrum now accepted baptism and agreed to withdraw, becoming ruler in 880 of the short-lived kingdom of East Anglia. In a subsequent treaty, Guthrum and Alfred, who had beaten off attacks by a third ‘great army’, fixed the boundary between the English and Danish spheres of influence on the line of Watling Street, between London and Chester. The old Saxon kingdoms to the north and east of this line, including East Anglia, disappeared for ever. This was to be the ‘Danelaw’, a wild, politically-fragmented area that was, for the time being, beyond the sphere of any English king.

The Gokstad Ship, now at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo

Ocean-going Viking longboats could accommodate about thirty men, or even fewer if horses, camp followers and enslaved captives were on board, so the number of settlers would not have been excessive. (A ninth-century example of such a ship, discovered in a royal burial mound at Gokstad in Sweden, is largely of oak and is 75 feet 5 inches long, with a keel of sixty feet. It has seating for 32 oarsmen.) The typical raiding fleet after 850 comprised 150 to 250 ships. Yet the impact of the Viking settlement of the Danelaw endures in aspects of our law and language, including much everyday vocabulary (anger, blunder, gift, leather etc.), and even personal pronouns like they, them and their. (James Campbell ed., The Anglo-Saxons (London, 1982), pp.132-4, 147.) Moreover, the place-names of the former Danelaw are, to this day, predominantly Scandinavian, proof of the permanence and extent of the Viking settlement. It has been pointed out, for example, that to the north of Watling Street there are some six hundred place-names ending in -by – and scarcely one to the south of it. (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.38.)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers (e.g. under the years 876, 877 and 880) to the ‘sharing out of the land’ by the Viking army and their proceeding ‘to plough and support themselves’ (Michael Wood, Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England (London, 1987), p.129). New lords were thus imposed on the native peasantry, and new neighbours who spoke a foreign tongue. Many of them are identifiable, for ‘the former abodes of Grim, Biorn, Thor, Guddar, and Haco go by the names of Grimsby, Burnthwaite, Harroby, Thoresby, Guttersby, and Hacconby’ (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.52), to cite only a few examples.

As long as they were compliant, they may have interfered little with the indigenous population, cultivating virgin land in outlying areas rather than ousting them from existing farms. It is noticeable that many of the ‘-bys’, including that of our Willa, have no church attached to them in 1086, suggesting that they stood apart from the main settlements. In parts of East Anglia, the Vikings spread themselves rather thinly. In Suffolk there are only ‘a few scattered Danish names, chiefly near the coast – such as Orford, Thorpe, Barnby, and Lowestoft’ (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.42), and Willa was daring indeed to have penetrated so far into English territory.

Intent on turning their swords into ploughshares, the colonisers relied for their security on standing armies that were garrisoned in the main towns, and were generally unmolested by the disgruntled English. Their status, however, was privileged, their descendants, many still with Scandinavian names, standing out as free men (sokemen) among the enserfed peasantry of Domesday. Indeed, it is remarkable that the largest concentration of the sokemen in Domesday Book – who comprise only fifteen per cent of the entire population – is in those eastern counties. (Wood, Domesday, pp.129-30, 142, 149.)

Filed teeth on a Viking skeleton - an unimaginably painful process

Belying the urbanity of his current-day descendants, Willa was, no doubt, irredeemably uncouth. In battle, he would have worn a coat of mail and a plain, conical helmet, but his appearance may have been distinctive in other ways. There is evidence of the sea-rovers enjoying their reputation as louche outsiders, like modern-day punks or Hell’s Angels, whose demeanour alone is unsettling. They wore shoulder-length hair and beards. Some were tattooed from head to foot, others filed and decorated their teeth; some even wore dark eye make-up to make themselves look all the more outlandish and frightening (The Vikings: Life and Legend, ed. Gareth Williams et al. (London, 2014), p.80).

The annual Horn Dance is an immemorial custom at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. The horns are reindeer antlers and one has been carbon-dated to the eleventh century. They are evidence of Viking settlers' sending home for their herds

Willa was, quite possibly, a frenzied, homicidal maniac, like the berserkir of later tradition, crazily biting his shield while preparing for battle. The Vikings, moreover, were pitiless in their assaults on the English. When raids from Scandinavia were resumed in the late tenth century, marauding bands of sea-rovers preyed at will on the populace, setting fire to the houses of the English, feasting on their cattle, killing anyone who dared oppose them (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 991). Powerless even to defend their own homes, the English thegns were forced to witness the rape of their womenfolk, sometimes by a dozen Vikings in turn. People watched helplessly as gangs of their fellow Christians were driven to the ships by two or three seamen to be sold as slaves (Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, in English Historical Documents, I (1955), ed. David C. Douglas, pp.857-8). It is too much to hope that Willa would have handled his victims any less roughly. (I am neither proud nor ashamed of my Viking ancestry: are we not all descended from the rapists and murderers of the past?)

Willa may have been the younger son of a lordly family, fated, like so many Scandinavians, to be a wanderer, but with a significant following of his own. The imperative for all was seek out their kinsfolk and connections and to attach themselves to a community, with the great hall of a benevolent lord at its heart – a place for feasting, gambling, gift-giving and entertaining, and for the recitation of heroic poems. Willa must have re-created this for himself at Wilby, perhaps on the site of the present moated manor-house, Wilby Hall, but a key ingredient for his happiness was lacking:

The man has now

laid his sorrows, lacks no gladdeners;

he has a hoard and horses and hall-carousing

and would have everything within an earl’s having

had he my lady with him.

So we are not surprised to discover from a twelfth-century court poem, The Husband’s Message, that the settlers would often send home for their womenfolk, once they had established a safe homestead on which to raise a family (Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (London, 1970), pp.19-20). So I imagine the first Mrs Willoughby as a Dane, rather than a local girl, who had crossed the North Sea on a ship loaded with her dowry and her lord’s reindeer herd, never once looking back to the land of her birth.

Appendix: The two Wilbys – relevant Domesday extracts (from Domesday Book (Penguin, 2003), pp.1219 and 1254):

Lands of Robert Malet in Suffolk: ‘In Horham 1 free man, Aelric, by commendation [a form of vassalage] holds 1 carucate of land … In Wilby Leornic holds 20 acres which the same Aelric held. 1 bordar [a cottager, a peasant of lower economic rank than a villein]. It is the same valuation. It is 12 furlongs long and 4 furlongs broad …’

The fief of the Bishop of Thetford in Norfolk: ‘In Wilby, 1 free man with 10 acres … In Wilby, 1 free man by commendation and soke [a specific right of jurisdiction enjoyed by a lord][held] 40 acres. Then as now 1 bordar.’

See also

The moat at Wilby Hall, which perhaps occupies the site of Willa's homestead

Upper House, Painscastle, Radnorshire – A Court fit for King Arthur

January 9th, 2017

Radnorshire, an obscure Welsh county bordering Herefordshire, is small and mountainous, a place of mainly pastoral farming, where, historically, gentry were sparse and the farmers were content to live as their fathers had done. As a result, it stills abounds in ‘unimproved’ houses which are often of considerable historical interest. An example is illustrated here – the seemingly unprepossessing, and decidedly forlorn, Upper House at Painscastle.

A planned medieval town with a stupendous castle in its midst, Painscastle, or ’Castell-Paen’, is named for a Norman adventurer called Pain fitz John, who died in 1137. Pain’s motte and bailey are still impressively intact, but nothing remains of the imposing masonry that was added by Henry III – a round tower keep, a curtain wall with flanking D-shaped towers and a gatehouse at the east end, of which even the foundations have been grubbed up. Traces of Roman pavements have been found, however, and the rectangular shape of the site suggests that it was originally a Roman fort. (Mike Salter, The Castles of Mid Wales, Folly Publications, 2001; Paul M. Remfry, The Castles of Radnorshire, Logaston Press, 1996;, with illustrations.)

The castle of Painscastle was comprehensively robbed by the locals of its stone, which was used to construct buildings like Top of Lane Cottage, pictured here, said to date from the fifteenth century

Upper House nestles against the outer bank of the castle, on its east side. It is thought to date from the mid-fifteenth century, when the castle, by then a possession of the Earl of Warwick, was already in decline. Upper House was a fitting new residence for the earl’s constable, Lewys ap Gwatcyn, a Welsh gentleman of the line of Roger Fychan of Bredwardine. It was a classic H-plan hall-house, consisting of a mini-Great Hall of two full bays, open to a roof of massive and dramatic timber work, set between the two cross-wings, each with an upper storey. The position of the house on sloping ground helped to emphasise its hierarchical plan. There was a step up from the dais-end of the hall to the upper cross-wing, leading into the lord’s parlour on the ground-floor, from which there was access to his solar above. The lower cross-wing – that furthest from the bank – was the service wing.

Other houses of similar age and status are to be found in this area, but, remarkably, there is a surviving praise-poem by the Welsh bard Lewys Glyn Cothi that describes Lewys ap Gwatcyn in the newly-built Upper House, referred to as his ‘white hall’, for most impressive to the bard were the large, infilled panels of the box-framing that would, indeed, have been gleaming white. The master of the house is described as ‘the tower of Bredwardine, a chieftain for Warwick’s seal (pendefig dros Warwig sêl), the lion’s claw, and a leader’, who, above all, ‘is kind to the court poet’. He keeps a traditional house. It is a place of ‘wine and feasting, drunkenness and carousel, braggart and wassail’, even at dead of night. There are games of chance with dice and cards, there are chequers, dances, carols and friendship, and seemingly unlimited supplies of mead and beer. (For a translation of the poem, see

Upper House is overshadowed today by its grander neighbours

Lewis Glyn Cothi progressed from one great marcher house to another, laying on the flattery as the price of his supper. At Cefnllys, he sang of its constable, the ‘famous’ Ieuan ap Phylip, and of another newly-built ‘triple court’ in the midst of the castle, which no longer survives, but was apparently very similar to the one at Painscastle. Lewis Glyn Cothi’s description of a roof ‘with close-fitting shields to protect it in thunderstorms’ is thought to refer to a tile-stone roof that would have been common to both houses. Lewis rhapsodises the ubiquitous ‘pale oaks’ that are such a contrast to the encircling stone walls of the old castle, and he even names the master carpenter, Roger ap Owen (Rhosier ab Owain), who may also have built Upper House. Ieuan’s hall, too, was the scene of unrestrained hospitality, like a second Ehangwen, as King Arthur’s hall is traditionally known. As many as sixty guests were gathered there on one occasion, bedding down afterwards on the floor of the hall, sustained by the luxury of white bread and an ocean of drink.

Such houses subsequently fell out of fashion and Upper House at Painscastle was inevitably reduced to a farm-house. The lower (service) wing was rebuilt and projections for a porch and stair have been added at both the front and the rear of the hall. An upper floor, and a stair, have been inserted into the hall. In recent years the magnificent roof timbers of the hall were severely charred by fire damage, to the extent that accurate tree-ring dating is now impossible. The house today is sadly derelict. One hopes that it will soon be restored in the manner of similar houses in the region – and that the jovial shade of Lewys ap Gwatcyn may animate it once more.

Cefnllys and Upper House are described in Richard Suggett, Houses and History in the March of Wales: Radnorshire 1400 – 1800 (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, Aberystwyth, 2005), pp.37-43.


Additional Note (15 April 2024): Lewis ap Gwatkyn’s descendants, the Watkins of Cwrt Robert, and Their Arms

It seems that Lewis ap Gwatkyn gave rise to the ‘Watkins’ family of Cwrt Robert in Tregear. By a vague tradition they bore the arms of Prince Moreiddig Warwyn, Sable three boys’ heads, couped at the neck proper, a snake about the neck of each one Vert (pictured above), such as were borne also by the Vaughans of Bredwardine, Tretower and Hergest.

At their visitation of Monmouthshire in 1683, the English heralds were unimpressed. ‘Mr Watkins alledgeth that their name was anciently Vaughan, and that these arms belong to them, but produce nothing in justification thereof.’ (Michael Siddons ed., Visitations by the Heralds in Wales, Harleian Society, New Series XIV, London, 1996, p.196.) However, Lewis Glyn Cothi makes it clear that Lewis ap Gwatkyn was of the line of Roger Fychan of Bredwardine, and, in view of their heraldry, it seems highly likely that the Watkins were descended from Lewis.

For further accounts of the Vaughans and their heraldry, see…e-vaughan-family/.

Looking north from the Begwyns, the earthworks at Painscastle can be glimpsed on the right-hand edge of the picture

Barttelot of Stopham and Westgate of Berwick, Men of Agincourt – A Quest for the Oldest Families in Sussex

November 15th, 2015

Stopham Bridge. Until the nineteenth century, the Barttelots took it upon themselves to maintain both the bridge and the main road.

Stopham is a tiny parish near Pulborough, in West Sussex. It has fewer than a hundred inhabitants, but reeks with history and has more than its fair share of important buildings.

The River Arun is crossed here by a spectacular fourteenth-century seven-arched stone bridge, with a pleasant pub (the White Hart) at one end, and Stopham House, formerly known as ‘La Ford’, or Ford Place, at the other. Before there was a bridge, the atte Forde family controlled the ferry crossing.

Manor Farm-house is next to the church at Stopham. The Barttelots rebuilt the ancient seat of the Stopham family in about 1485, but abandoned it in 1638 in favour of Ford Place, their house by the river. Apart from the ivy, Manor Farm-house has changed little since this Victorian engraving.

The heiress of the atte Fordes married into the eponymous Stopham family, whose manor-house was adjacent to the eleventh-century church. The eventual heiress of that line, Joan de Stopham, married, in 1395 or 6, John Barttelot, and their descendants – baronets since 1875 – have been squires ever since, including three recent generations of Coldstreamers who have kept the estate in guardsman’s order.

The manor-house is said to have been re-built by the Barttelots in about 1485, but they had abandoned it by 1638, removing everything but its firebacks. Their old home reduced to a farm-house, the then squire, Walter Barttelot, installed his family in the mansion of their female-line ancestors on the riverbank, the former Ford Place, which he, or his father, appears to have modernised.

Stopham House - the former Ford Place

Undeniably grand and imposing and set in pretty parkland, the Stopham House of today is a singularly ugly confection of rebuilds and additions (1787, 1842, 1865, 1887 and 1898) that conceal within them a hall and some adjoining rooms from the Tudor period. It has been divided into nineteen flats, and the squire has retreated to a more manageably-sized house on the hill, an attractive 1950s pastiche of the Queen Anne style.

The church, abutting the green and a cluster of estate cottages with their distinctive burgundy livery, is positively bursting with Barttelot memorials. The monumental brasses, set into the Sussex-marble floor of the nave and chancel, are the largest and ‘most complete series of sepulchral brasses in the county’. The oldest has portraits of John Barttelot, who died in 1428, and his wife Joan de Stopham. The newest commemorates ‘Captain Charles Barttelot, 1738’. Later generations of Barttelots are never to be forgotten in the marble monuments that cover the walls.

There are also stained-glass windows depicting members of the family and their heraldry, including, on the north wall, a window of three lights, apparently removed from the old manor-house in 1638, on which two of the Stopham lords are depicted in Tudor garb. The White Ensign worn by H.M.S. Liberty, commanded by a Barttelot at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was laid up here, and so, in 1985, were the regimental colours of the First Battalion the Coldstream Guards, whose commanding officer was the present squire, Colonel Sir Brian Barttelot.

The present seigneurial house is deceptively modern, having been built in the 1950s

As a Victorian scholar observed, the Barttelots of Stopham have been ‘remarkably stationary both in place and condition’. It is more than likely that they descend from the Norman, Ralph, who held the manor at the time of the ‘Domesday’ survey in 1086. Stopham was one of numerous manors in Shropshire and Sussex granted by William the Conqueror to his close associate, Roger Montgomery. Roger had been keeping the peace at home at the time of the Conquest, but had been rewarded for his patience with the earldoms of Arundel and Shrewsbury. He in turn had distributed various manors among his own followers. Stopham was allotted to one Robert, who sub-let it to Ralph.

The first recorded lords after Ralph are Brian de Stopham (dead by 1236) and his son who, significantly, was also called Ralph. It has been pointed out that Brian de Stopham was a nephew of Brian de Insula or de l’Isle (the ‘isle’ in question being the Isle of Wight), a mighty Norman baron, and that their coats of arms (three crescents and a canton) were identical. At the time of his death in 1271, Sir Ralph de Stopham also held the manors of Bradford Bryan and Blandford Bryan (now called Bryanston) in Dorset, both of which took their names from Brian de l’Isle.

The north window, Stopham Church, with fanciful ancestral portraits. The Barttelots removed it from their old house in 1638

The senior Stopham line ended in an heiress who married William de Echingham. Joan, the eldest daughter and coheiress of William de Stopham and wife of John Barttelot, was no doubt descended from Sir Ralph through a junior line, but it is impossible to prove the connection, pedigrees extending back to that period being in any case a considerable rarity. (C.J. Robinson, ‘Stopham’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, XXVII (1877), pp.37-68; J.H. Round, ‘The Stophams, the Zouches, and the Honour of Petworth’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, LV (1912), pp.19-34; Joan Masefield, Stopham Remembered, Stopham, 1991.)

As for the Barttelots, in spite of the fanciful claims of a sycophantic Elizabethan herald, they were probably of English rather than Norman descent, their name being a diminutive of Bartholomew. They are first recorded at East Preston in 1295 and served successive earls of Arundel as counsellers and men-at-arms. John Barttelot was both Treasurer of the Hospital that Earl Thomas had founded at Arundel and an executor of his will.

His eldest son by Joan, ‘John Bartlett le puysne of Stopham’, was one of the ‘armigeri’ (esquires) who accompanied the earl across the Channel for the Agincourt campaign. Described on 28 September as being on ‘leave’, it is possible that he had contracted dysentery at Harfleur and that he been invalided home with the earl and others of his retinue, in which case he may, unfortunately, have missed the battle. (William Durrant Cooper, ‘Sussex Men at Agincourt’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, XV (1863), pp.127, 129.)

It was said in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that the Barttelots could ride from Stopham to Horsham without leaving their own property (Robinson, ‘Stopham’, p.40). If some of this land had indeed been held continuously by their line since the Ralph of Domesday Book, theirs would be a remarkable record of tenure, matched only by the Manners at Belvoir, the Luttrells at East Quantockshead, the Dymokes at Scrivelsby and a mere handful of other families (A.R. Wagner, English Ancestry, Oxford, 1961, pp.28-9). As it is they are the oldest gentry family in Sussex, now that the Pelhams, Wests and Ashburnhams have either died out or relinquished their ancestral estates. It is fitting that the motto of such a family is ‘Mature’.

Preparing for their weekly target practice at the butts, the men of the parish are believed to have sharpened their arrows on this pillar at the back of Berwick Church

The Westgates of Berwick. I recently visited the little tucked-away church at Berwick, near Lewes, to inspect Duncan Grant’s lovely murals, but it was the scarred lower stones of the tower arch, at the back of the building, that most caught my imagination. According to St Michael and All Angels, Berwick, East Sussex: A Guide to the Church and 20th Century Bloomsbury Murals that is available at the church, the grooves that pit the stones are ‘thought to have been cut by the sharpening of arrows. Archery practice was made compulsory on a Sunday after church by Edward III. The “Westcatts of Berwick” are on the Rolls of Archers at Agincourt and “Westgates” still live in the parish.’ The humble Westgates would in that case be at least as old as the Barttelots, with an equally long record of continuity in a single place. I note that, 600 years ago last month, a ‘John Wescot’ was an archer in Lord Arundel’s train, John Barttelot’s companion-in-arms (Cooper, ‘Sussex Men at Agincourt’, p.131).

The Normans – Conquest and Legacy: The Isle of Wight

November 17th, 2014

The ruins of Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight

A short film to promote my latest lecture, ‘The Normans – Conquest and Legacy’, can be viewed on my new Youtube page –

In the film, I visit four locations on the Isle of Wight – Binstead Church, Carisbrooke Castle, the ruins of Quarr Abbey and Brading Church – to demonstrate that the physical impact of the Normans was considerable, even in the remotest corners of our landscape.

Why might the Tower of London and Winchester Cathedral be the pride of the Isle of Wight? What saucy reminder of themselves did the Normans leave over a church door? Why was a powerful Island abbey the legacy of a marauding Norman giant who was hardly a model Christian? Why is the descendant of another Norman settler remembered as a swarthy Turk? These and other questions are answered in the film.

It was shot by Roger Lowe on 21 October 2014, while England was still being ravaged by the tail-end of Hurricane Gonzales – hence the dramatic skies and the slightly windswept appearance of the presenter!

The Norman motte at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight

A Notable Beneficiary of the Norman Conquest: Hugh de Port, Ancestor of the St John Family

September 3rd, 2014

The St John arms in a window of Stanton St John church, Oxfordshire

Alone among noble families, the St Johns (Lords St John of Bletso and Viscounts Bolingbroke) descend from a Domesday tenant-in-chief – a landowner who, in 1086, held his estates directly from the King.

Their male-line ancestor, Hugh de Port, was an obscure Norman knight in the service of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the younger half-brother of William the Conqueror, from whom he held a modest three ‘knight’s fees’ – just enough land to support three knights. Hugh was a retainer of sufficient prominence to witness a pre-Conquest charter of Duke William, but it was as a participant in the Conquest of England that his fortunes were transformed.

A club-wielding Bishop Odo (second from left) 'cheers on the boys'

Hugh is likely to have held a command under Odo, who assisted at the invasion of England with his own squadron of knights. Not notably pious, Odo was conspicuous on the field of Hastings, ostensibly ‘preparing for the combat with prayers’, but quite probably berating the English with his club and, at a key moment in the battle, re-animating a demoralised contingent of Bretons, an incident that is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (‘Here Bishop Odo, holding his club, cheers on the boys’).

Described as ‘a man of eloquence and statesmanship, bountiful and most active in worldly business’, Odo was the outstanding beneficiary of the Norman Conquest, receiving by 1067 the earldom of Kent (comprised of about 200 manors in that county and a further 300 elsewhere, as well as the wardenship of Dover Castle), and sharing with William fitz Osbern the vice-regency of the kingdom during William’s periodic absences abroad.

It is thought that, while in Kent, Odo commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry (decidedly a work of English craftsmanship) as an adornment to his cathedral. There are three depictions of him on the Tapestry, and illustrations also of the knights Wadard and Vital, who appear to have been his retainers. Hugh, their companion-in-arms at Hastings, does not appear, but his accumulation of spoils, hardly less spectacular than that of Odo himself, is a measure of the considerable favour in which he was held.

Sherborne St John, Hants.

In the immediate aftermath of the Conquest, Hugh received from Odo the under-tenancy of thirteen manors in Kent and of a further thirteen in Hampshire, as well as one of the wards of Dover Castle. By the time of the ‘Domesday’ survey (1086), he had acquired an additional fifty-five manors in Hampshire, including Basing, Sherborne and Portsea, as tenant-in-chief – holding them directly of the King – and indeed was the most important lay tenant-in-chief in the county. A scattering of manors in four other counties spread his influence as far as Herefordshire.

In many of these manors Hugh installed his own retainers as sub-tenants, men like Roger of Escures, who has given his name to the village of Nately Scures, near Basing. Escures is three kilometres south of Port-en-Bassin in the Calvados, which was obviously Hugh’s native town.

Hugh had proved himself indispensable to William as much as to Odo. Conspicuously favouring ‘new men’ to give effect to his will, the King made him Sheriff of Hampshire; and in 1085, by which time Odo was in disgrace and languishing in prison, had Hugh beside him when holding court in Normandy.

Hugh was married to a lady called Orence but had become a monk by the time of his death in 1096 – a wise precaution in view of the orgy of killing and expropriation in which he was implicated. His former patron, Odo, also died in that year, having reinvented himself as one of the spiritual leaders of the First Crusade. Hugh’s son Henry and grandson, another Hugh, were the founders of Sherborne Priory on their Hampshire estate and still clung in 1133 to the three knight’s fees in Normandy – Fontenelles, Commes and Létanville, all close to Port-en-Bassin – which they continued to hold of the Bishop of Bayeux.

The younger Hugh’s son, Adam de Port, married Mabel, heiress of Orval and through her mother of the St Johns, another Norman line, originating at Saint-Jean-le-Thomas in the Manche. The family of Port was known thenceforth as ‘St John’. The name still attaching to some of their former holdings, such as Sherborne St John in Hampshire and Stanton St John in Oxfordshire, their memory is indelibly etched on the English landscape.

[Complete Peerage, article ‘St John of Basing’; Lewis C. Loyd, The Origins of Some Anglo-Norman Families (Leeds, 1951), pp.79, 97; David R. Bates, ‘The Character and Career of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux’, Speculum, L (1975), pp.1-20; David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (London, 1964), p.297; The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, ed. R.H.C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998), pp.124, 164; The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, IV, ed. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1973), pp.114-18.]

Stanton St John Church, Oxfordshire

A Summer of Wild Swimming at the Parliament Hill Fields Lido, and the Anglo-Saxon Penchant for Tattoos

August 10th, 2014

At Parliament Hill Fields Lido: definitely not 'inked'

There has been excellent swimming at the Parliament Hill Fields Lido this summer, especially at the ‘adults only’ sessions in the evening. The 60 x 27 metre uncovered, unheated pool is lined with gleaming metal, so immersion in it is like being cleansed in some giant sink. Roger Deakin (Waterlog, p.306) called it ‘one of the few really great swimming pools left’.

Harold Godwinson: almost certainly 'inked'

This is a popular facility, where it is possible to observe a cross-section of London society in the raw. Users come in all shapes and sizes, with or without tattoos, which are now said to adorn one in every four British adults. The proportion at the Lido seems to be even higher, and it has been interesting to observe them on some quite elderly, and apparently respectable bodies, as well as very youthful ones. My companion and I regard any form of ‘inking’ is a desecration, but I have pointed out to her that they have been in fashion in other periods of our history. The chronicler William of Malmesbury says of the English at the time of the Norman Conquest that they ‘wore short garments, reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cropped, their beards shaven, their arms laden with golden bracelets, their skin adorned with punctured designs; they were accustomed to eat till they were sick …’ For William, tattoos were firmly to be associated with the decadence of the age.

I was disappointed when, many years ago, I swam at the original Lido, off Venice, as the beach was crowded and somewhat featureless, and the lagoon is everywhere very shallow. It would have been a wholly unromantic experience, but I had just been reading Mann’s Death in Venice, so felt it to be worth the effort.

The Horn of Ulphus in York Minster, the first ‘Algernon’ and the Origin of the Scrope Family – in tribute to the Harrogate Decorative and Fine Arts Group

January 23rd, 2014

Heraldry on the restored tomb of Archbishop Scrope in York Minster

It is the agreeable and, I think, unique custom of the Harrogate Decorative and Fine Arts Group to invite visiting lecturers to contribute to their scrap-book. On Monday 20 January I lectured to them on the Bayeux Tapestry, in the elegant setting of the Cairn Hotel. I expected the ballroom to be cleared at any moment in readiness for the next thé dansant. My talk was not short of references to North Yorkshire, which, apart from anything else, was the scene of Harold Godwinson’s triumph in 1066 over the Viking army at Stamford Bridge. Here, then, is a summary of such references as my offering to the society.

The Cairn Hotel, Harrogate

The Bayeux Tapestry, completed within a decade of the Battle of Hastings, is wonderfully revealing of the life of the time. Harold Godwinson and other nobles are, for example, inseparable from their hawks, a detail that written histories tend to omit. Moreover, the artist is strictly accurate in his depiction of the hairstyles of the day. The smart, military haircuts of the French knights are contrasted with the shoulder-length hair and wispy moustaches of the English.

A Norman with facial hair stood out from the crowd. One such was William de Perci, the founder of Whitby Abbey, who was known (in the Norman dialect) as als gernons – ‘with the whiskers’. Since the fifteenth century, generations of William’s descendants, who became earls and then dukes of Northumberland, have been christened ‘Algernon’ in his honour. Undoubtedly the most famous ‘Algernon’ was the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose grandmother was a Percy.

In a scene of Harold feasting in his manor-house at Bosham, Sussex, his retainers use traditional drinking horns. These were prized possessions of the English nobles, often chased with gold and silver and jewels. Usually of ox-horn, they had a design fault: one was obliged to drain them before putting them down. The cup-bearer was constantly in attendance, napkin in hand, to recharge them, and there were endless pledges and toasts. As a result, the English nobles became rapidly inebriated. They were renowned for it.

Incidentally, they would not have been drinking ale or even wine, which was somewhat of a luxury, but mead, which is made from honey. Domesday Book is evidence of immense honey production in England, fuelling the demand for this drink.

The Horn of Ulphus

York Minster happens to possess the only horned cup that, to my knowledge, survives from that period. It is known as the Horn of Ulphus. The eponymous Ulf was a Viking who, about 1030, made a gift of it to the Minster, along with a grant of land. He is said to have poured a libation of wine over the altar as a way of marking his donation. A particularly fine example of such a cup, the Horn of Ulphus is not, in fact, an ox-horn but an oliphant – carved from an elephant’s tusk. It is thought to have been a product of Amalfi in southern Italy, where there were ready supplies of ivory. The animal motifs are, moreover, copied from Syrian and Babylonian designs. An early Frith postcard shows it hanging from a hook on the panelled wall of the Vestry, where it was no doubt kept for centuries. It is now displayed, more reverentially, but less in the original spirit of the gift, in a glass case in the Treasury.

Finally, North Yorkshire is the heartland of the Scropes, one of the most prominent British families of Norman descent. Unusually, they were already settled in England at the time of the Conquest, their ancestor, Richard FitzScrob, being one of Edward the Confessor’s Norman favourites. They had no doubt met during Edward’s twenty-five years in exile in Normandy, while Cnut and his son held sway in England. Richard seems to have built Richard’s Castle in Herefordshire, one of a number of pre-Conquest outposts against the Welsh. Presumably of the ring-work (ditch and palisade) type, these were the earliest true castles in England. They are an innovation otherwise associated with the Norman Conquest.

York Minster

The Scrope family motto, Devant si je puis (‘Forward if I am able’), is a sardonic allusion to their name. Scrob means ‘crab’ in the Norman dialect. Establishing themselves in Wensleydale in the 12th century, Scropes distinguished themselves on the Crusades and in the Hundred Years War, were regularly summoned to medieval parliaments as barons, and have produced five Garter knights, as well as an Archbishop of York in the person of Richard Scrope. My obituary of a recent head of the family, Simon Scrope (1934 – 2010), can be read on The Daily Telegraph website –

Mottes, Baileys and the Bayeux Tapestry

October 25th, 2013

J.M.W. Turner's 'Okehampton' (c.1826)

The Bayeux Tapestry, made within about ten years of the Battle of Hastings, splendidly illustrates the military architecture of the time. There are five depictions on the tapestry of ‘motte-and-bailey’ castles – those that consisted not of battlemented stone walls and lofty towers, which are characteristic of a later period, but of earthworks and wooden palisades.

The bailey or courtyard was usually on high ground, surrounded by a deep ditch and entered by means of a drawbridge. It was intended to accommodate an entire community. To one side of the bailey, or occasionally in its midst, was the motte, a great cone of earth topped by a wooden stockade, where there was space only for the lord and his immediate entourage. The banks of mottes were notoriously steep and difficult to storm.

These were relatively cheap, hastily-erected fortifications, which any peasant or soldier had the skills to construct. They had proved their usefulness during the minority of William the Conqueror, when Normandy had been ravaged by private wars. The erection of numerous motte-and-bailey castles had been a feature of this dark period, when country people had had to organise their own defence, sometimes under the leadership of the parish priest.

Many of the feuding families of that time, such as Montfort, Tosny, Beaumont and Montgomery, were subsequently to participate in the conquest of England. As they spread across the land, reaping their rewards, they erected yet more motte-and-bailey castles as a means of subduing the native population, who had enjoyed years of peace and stability and were unfamiliar with castles of any kind.

The Englishman who designed the Bayeux Tapestry, thought to be an artist of the Canterbury School, had clearly experienced the post-Conquest castles at first hand. In some of the early panels of the Tapestry, we see Harold and William participating in a minor campaign in Brittany. The artist depicts the Breton castles of Dol, Rennes and Dinan, which he would never have seen, as typical motte-and-bailey castles, though all three were probably at least partially built of stone. The ducal castle at Bayeux is also credited with a motte which, in reality, it never had.

The Castle at Dinan was never of the motte-and-bailey type

The observant artist is very precise in matters of detail. The tower at Dinan appears to consist of a fighting platform raised on stilts. Evidence of such a tower has been found at Abinger in Surrey. He neatly illustrates the inherent weaknesses in their design. Wood is flammable, and the Normans have only to apply firebrands to the walls of Dinan in order to smoke out their enemy. Moreover, it is not possible to raise walls of wood to any great height: those at Dinan are so low that the surrendering rebel, Conan, is able to lean over them and pass the heavy keys of the castle to William at the end of his lance.

Further on, we see the construction, within days of the landing, of a motte-and-bailey castle at Hastings – ‘at Hestenga caestra’, according to the caption. (The Latin should have read ‘ad Hestenga castra’; by slipping into his own tongue, the artist reveals his nationality.) The Englishmen conscripted to perform the task, all armed with shovels, seem thoroughly disgruntled. Such unhappy scenes were soon to be enacted across the land.

Englishmen conscripted to raise a motte at Hastings

At least 84 motte-and-bailey castles had been raised in England by the end of the eleventh century. There are examples in every county. In some cases, temporary wooden walls had soon given gave way to more permanent ones of stone. Castles like Dover, founded by William the Conqueror on the motte-and-bailey pattern, are still dominant features of our landscape.

The subject of two watercolours and other sketches by Turner – the one illustrated above dates from about 1826, and is in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia – Okehampton, on the edge of Dartmoor, is a castle of the motte-and-bailey type. Early in 1068, William marched into Devonshire at the head of his army, intent on mopping up the remaining pockets of resistance. He took the surrender of Exeter and threw up a castle there, before proceeding into Cornwall, where a further four such castles were swiftly raised.

William gave the lordship of Exeter, and of 200 other manors in Devonshire, to his second cousin Baldwin de Meules, the son of his former tutor, Gilbert, Count of Brionne. By the time of Domesday Book (1086), Baldwin, now called ‘the Sheriff’, had built his chief residence on a raised spur at Okehampton. The motte there, formed of material cut from the surrounding rock, rose a further 80 feet above the natural level. Unusually, it was surmounted from the start by a tall, square tower of stone, which may, indeed, have been three storeys high. The earliest fortifications at Okehampton seem otherwise to have been of wood.

Meanwhile, Baldwin’s brother, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, was acquiring estates at the opposite end of the country, including the lordship of Tonbridge in Kent, where he built an equally impressive motte that commanded the Medway crossing. Richard was one of William’s inner circle, a mere eleven men among whom he distributed about half the land of the conquered kingdom, apart from that held by the church. The Saxon thegns whom they displaced, men like the shadowy Osfrith at Okehampton, were, if not already killed or exiled, simply dispossessed.

As for Okehampton, it was the eventual inheritance of Baldwin’s great-granddaughter, the lady Hawise, who married Renaud de Courtenay. Their descendants – hereditary sheriffs of Devon, keepers of Exeter Castle and, from 1355, Earls of Devon – have been, ever since, the foremost family in the county. Okehampton Castle was abandoned by the Courtenays in 1538, and is now a romantic ruin, but the present (Eighteenth) Earl, seated at Powderham, near Exeter, continues to occupy ancestral land.

The new ruling class imposed by the Normans has proved remarkably durable. As Melvyn Bragg points out in a recent article, ‘more than half the land is still in the hands of the ancient looters from the time of the Conquest to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the occupation of the common land’. To describe the current Earl of Devon in such terms seems a little strong. One has to concede that, as far as Baldwin or Richard are concerned, Lord Bragg has a point.

(David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror, London, 1977, pp.41-3, 213, 216-17, 269; Lucien Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, 2005, pp.138, 144; Alan Endecott, Okehampton Castle, Devon, English Heritage Guide, 2003. For Melvyn Bragg’s article, see

The Norman Colonisation of the Isle of Wight. Part 2: The De Aula Family of Yaverland and Arreton

July 12th, 2013

Yaverland chapel, with adjacent manor-house

The coterie of Norman knights who surrounded Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon and lord of the Isle of Wight, are revealed in the foundation charter for Quarr Abbey, dating from the 1140s. Many were granted estates on the Island and settled there, giving rise to all the most prominent local families of the medieval period. Among them were the Wavells and the Oglanders, who persist on the Island to this day.

Together with Robert d’Orglandes, Godfrey de Wauville and others, a certain Warin de la Halla is mentioned in the charter, having endowed his chapel of St Nicholas to the abbey. He was clearly in favour with Baldwin, from whom he held the lordship of Bampton in Devon, as well as land on the Isle of Wight, south of Carisbrooke Castle.

View of Yaverland from Culver Down. The distant wetlands are part of the reclaimed Brading Haven

Warin was ancestor of the ‘De Aula’ family of Yaverland (meaning ‘Overland’ in the Island dialect), in the parish of Brading. As its name suggests, Yaverland was virtually isolated on a spit of land under Bembridge Down. Cut off from the parish church by the tidal Brading Haven, the family built a chapel of ease there, with fine Norman features, alongside their sturdy manor-house of stone.

The male line at Yaverland died out in the reign of Edward I. Eleanor, daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas De Aula, married William Russell, who built the causeway connecting the ‘overland’ with Brading. It was a key moment in the history of East Wight: part of the Haven was thus enclosed, the first step in the process of reclamation that was to be completed in the nineteenth century.

Yaverland Manor

The Yaverland estate was sold by the Hatfields, descendants of the Russells, in 1553, and the manor-house rebuilt, in its present form, in 1620, on the six-foot-wide Norman footings. Mainly of Wight stone under a red-tile roof, it occupies a stupendous position and is one of the finest houses on the Island, a monument in its way to the Norman Conquest of England. The little chapel beside it, built by the De Aulas, is still used for services.

Writing in the seventeenth century, Sir John Oglander says that members of the De Aula family favoured Godshill for burial. Others, no doubt from the main branch, were buried at Brading. The north chapel of Brading Church, reconstructed after a fire in the late-fifteenth or early-sixteenth century, is a monumental chapel to the family and is still known by their name. It contains the tombs of William and Elizabeth de Aula, their name corrupted to ‘Howley’ in the vernacular tongue. ‘Both are altar tombs, bearing the Tudor rose, and are inscribed, in rough sixteenth century letters,


Tomb in the De Aula Chapel, Brading

                          Jhu have merci on Wylyam Howly’s sowl. Amen. MCCCCCXX.

                                                               Helizabeth hys Wyf.’

Others of the line settled at Arreton. The manor of Arreton was part of the original endowment to Quarr Abbey and in the parish church, rebuilt by the first monks in the best Norman style, the ‘only remaining pictorial brass is that of Harry Hawles, an honourable member of the ancient De Aula family, who probably held office under Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, Lord of the Island from 1386 to 1397, under grant from Richard II. The head is missing, otherwise the figure is perfect, and is a good example of the period.’

Harry Hawles brass in Arreton Church

Harry Hawles is thought to have lived at Hale, the small, stone manor-house in the parish that in 1686 was occupied by the descendant of another prominent Norman family. George Oglander had inherited the Oglander name and seal, but was mystified when asked, by visiting heralds, to explain his connection with the Nunwell branch. These people were by then deeply rooted in the soil, bastardising their names, conversing in the local speech and forgetful of their origins. It is a matter of regret that there are no ‘Howleys’ or ‘Hawles’ in the current phone book. One would be surprised, however, if they had not left a fair distribution of female-line descendants among the existing Island population.

In the same way, the Norman colonisers have even infected the local speech. There is a pub at Brading called the Bugle, and another at Newport, which, during the Civil War, was the headquarters of the Parliamentary Commissioners, who included a debased Wavell. In the Island dialect, the word does not mean ‘trumpet’, but ‘steer’. It derives from the Latin word buculus, and is yet another legacy of the Norman Conquest.

(See S.F. Hockey, Quarr Abbey and its Lands, Leicester 1970, pp.7, 10, 257; Percy Stone, The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight, I, London 1891, pp.7, 15, 69, 87, 120; G.D. Squibb ed., The Visitation of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, London 1991, p.88; Yaverland Manor Estate, Dreweatt Neate Sale Particulars.)

Hale Manor, Arreton, where Oglander succeeded Hawles