Archive for the ‘The Norman Conquest’ category

The Norman Colonisation of the Isle of Wight. Part I: The Founding of Quarr Abbey and the Oglanders of Nunwell

May 30th, 2013

Oglander tomb in Brading Church

Richard de Redvers (from Reviers in Normandy) was a loyal supporter of Henry I, who received as his reward lands in Devon and Hampshire and the lordship of the Isle of Wight. The likely builder of the polygonal stone keep and inner curtain wall at Carisbrooke Castle (his Island fortress), he probably also founded the borough of Newport, which would previously have been little more than an obscure port.

The shell keep and inner curtain wall at Carisbrooke, built by Richard de Redvers c.1100

Richard de Redvers died in 1107 and was succeeded by his son Baldwin, eventual Earl of Devon. Baldwin was a figure of national significance, an opponent of King Stephen, but he left his own mark on the Island’s history by his foundation, in 1131, of the Abbey of Quarr.

Nearly two decades in the building, Quarr was colonised by Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Savigny, near Avranches, and endowed by Baldwin with estates including the manors of Arreton, Haseley, Combley and Newnham, all on the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile, Baldwin continued to maintain close links with his native Normandy, where he was lord of Néhou, Reviers, Amfréville and Varaville and, from 1135, of Douvres in the Bessin. His father, Richard, had been buried in the Abbey of Montebourg (on the Cotentin peninsula), of which the Redvers family were the protectors and benefactors.

Baldwin himself, who was harsh, warlike, ambitious and unforgiving, chose to be buried at Quarr, where his supposed tomb was excavated in 1891. The remains had been disturbed, but included the thigh bone of ‘a man of abnormal stature’. One can imagine Baldwin towering above his followers as they gathered to witness the foundation charter of the Abbey, intending by his beneficence ‘to forestall the calamity of our dissolution … and to investigate to our profit how we may attain pardon in the presence of the divine majesty’. According to Sir John Oglander, writing in the mid-1600s but relying on sources now lost, ‘every inhabitant in this Island wase in somethinge or other a helpor and furtheror of ye said woorke’. He relates that the Abbey Church was consecrated on 1 June 1150 by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and marked by ‘a greate and solemn feast theyre for ye whole Island, for ye finischinge of so goode a woorke’. (Percy Stone, The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight from the XIth to the XVIIth Centuries, Vol. I, London, 1891, pp.31 et seq.)

This 18th-century cottage, built amid the abbey ruins, incorporates masonry from the former church, which was on the right of the picture

The foundation charter for Quarr is undated (probably 1141 – 4) but records the construction of the abbey that was then in progress. From this document (a rare example of a ‘diploma’ charter), it is apparent that Baldwin surrounded himself with knights from the Cotentin, men like Robert of Orglandes (only 7km from Baldwin’s chief lordship at Néhou), Warin of Halla and Godfrey of Vauville, none of whom, incidentally, could write his own name. One imagines that they were pretty rough company, the sons, no doubt, of thuggish participants in the Norman Conquest and perhaps also in the First Crusade. Baldwin encouraged them with grants of land to settle on the Island and their descendants ‘will appear constantly in the later story of the abbey, as the local aristocracy during the medieval period: the Gernons or Vernons of Chale, the Trenchards of Shalfleet, the de Lestra of Niton, the Oglanders of Nunwell, the de Barnevilles of Chale and especially the de Insula family, destined to a rank of great local importance. The names of many serve to remind us how closely the history of the Isle of Wight was linked to that of the Cotentin peninsula as a result of the Conquest.’ (S.F. Hockey, Quarr Abbey and its Lands, 1132 – 1631, Leicester University Press, 1970, pp.9-10.)

Quarr Abbey was dissolved in 1538 and quickly dismantled. Only the former Dorter or Dormitory block, on the left of the picture, survives intact

Sir John Oglander, the proud descendant of Robert of Orglandes, writes of the prestige of the Abbey of Quarr, where scions of the best Island families were eager to obtain positions. To hold an office such as treasurer, steward, chief butler or even rent collector was considered a great honour. ‘One of my own auncestors,’ he writes, ‘was theyre steward, and theyre dyed.’ Sir John Oglander himself neatly exemplifies the enduring impact of the Norman Conquest. Blissfully settled at Nunwell, the estate granted to his ancestors by the de Redvers family, he lorded it over an indoor staff of thirteen people, whose wages amounted to a meagre £40 per annum, compared to nearly £700 that he lavished on himself and his dependants. On the other hand, Sir John was deeply rooted and assimilated, so that even ‘in the way he wrote you can hear his Isle of Wight accent and manner. Barns, fields and trees were all “him” and “he”, “fallow” fields were “vallow” and ferny grounds “vearnie grounds”.’ (Adam Nicolson, Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class, London 2011, pp.111, 115.) Sir John had been educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at the Middle Temple, yet he instinctively conversed in the local dialect. To refer to inanimate objects as ‘he’ is still an Island peculiarity – or was when I was growing up there – where, they used to say, ‘everything but a tom-cat is a “he”’.

The Oglanders (or, at least, their female-line descendants, who have taken the name) still hold part of their ancestral estate at Nunwell. Their name seems to have appealed to Evelyn Waugh, an Oxford contemporary of Denys Oglander, whose ‘Mrs Stuyvesant Oglander’ has a walk-on part in Brideshead Revisited. Another notable Norman family that persists on the Island is that of Wavell, the descendants of Godfrey of Vauville, who are the subject of an earlier blog ( It would be surprising indeed if the Norman genes were not widely distributed among all levels of Island society.

The Isle of Wight’s Wildest Swimming: Whale Chine, Vauville in Normandy and the Wavells of Atherfield Farm

August 10th, 2012

Whale Chine is a spectacular ravine in the cliffs on the south side of the Isle of Wight. Other examples of such clefts – the word ‘chine’ is peculiar to the dialect of Dorset and the Island – are the better known Blackgang and Shanklin Chines.

Whale Chine is reached from a car park on the Military Road, which is notable for its grand vistas. Some of the greatest wild swimming of my boyhood and youth was to be had there. To descend to the beach, by means of a steep, rickety wooden staircase and narrow path, was an adventure in itself, for the chine is 140 feet deep.

Usually weighed down by a picnic basket, one was overpowered by the grandeur and timelessness of one’s surroundings. The cliffs here abound with the fossilised remains of prehistoric oysters, ammonites and lobsters. The stony beach is steeply shelved, so swimmers at high tide are soon out of their depth. The swell is considerable. So remote and challenging an environment was appealing to naturists, whose presence occasioned much sniggering among us youngsters – all those corpulent bank managers – though swimming naked is, of course, the wildest swimming of all, and they added to the exoticism of the place.

Since 2005, the steps having fallen into disrepair, the beach at Whale Chine has been completely inaccessible from the landward side. It seems the only way of getting there is by sea. The picture at the top was taken the other day from the head of the wooden staircase and evokes many memories.

Whale Chine appears not to have been named for the marine mammal, as I always supposed, but for the Wavell family of nearby Atherfield Manor, who farmed the land up to the edge of the chine. The family left their mark on the place during less than a century of occupation. They are said to have bought the estate in 1557 (from Sir Thomas Trenchard) and to have relinquished it in 1636 (A.D. Mills, The Place-names of the Isle of Wight). The photograph on the left is a distant view of the manor-house, less than half a mile inland – a solid, L-shaped building of stone. From a clearer picture in C.W.R. Winter, The Manor Houses of the Isle of Wight (Wimborne, 1987, p.186), I deduce that it also dates from the time of the Wavells.

These Wavells are a very old Island family. They are recorded there since 1300, when a Roger Wavill witnessed a charter at Afton, near Freshwater. A century later, Adam Wavill was witness to a grant of land at the same place. Their farming descendants had no airs about them and are listed in 1606 among the yeomen of the Island.

Thomas Wavell, who sold Atherfield in 1636, had settled at Limerston, elsewhere in the parish of Brighstone. He served during the Civil War as a major in the Royalist army, but another Wavell was for Parliament, and sat on the ‘Committee of Safety’ that it imposed on the Island. The leading Royalist there, Sir John Oglander, was to deplore the arbitrary government of ‘Ringwood of Newport, the pedlar, Maynard the apothecary, Matthews the baker, Wavell and Legge, farmers’, who ‘overruled Deputy Lieutenants and Justices of the Peace’. He felt this to be contrary to the natural order of things.

Little did Sir John know that the despised Farmer Wavell was assuredly the male-line descendant of a knightly Norman immigrant from the time of the Conquest, which was the proudest boast of his own family (C. Aspinall-Oglander, Nunwell Symphony (London, 1945), pp.11-12, 40, 104). Sir John’s descent was from the lord of Orglandes, near Valognes; Wavell’s was, almost certainly, from the lord of Vauville, also on the Cherbourg peninsula. In the late eleventh century, William de Vauville or ‘Wavilla’ is mentioned in charters in both Normandy and England. Subsequent generations took root in Sussex, Bedfordshire, Somerset and, it seems, the Isle of Wight. From Whale Chine they would unwittingly have looked across the Channel towards their ancestral home, forgetful of their origins and of their former knightly rank, even more than the Durbeyfields of Hardy’s novel.

Major Thomas Wavell’s son Richard (1633-1705), sometime of Egham and London, was a celebrated nonconformist pastor, and great-grandfather of Dr William Wavell of Barnstable, after whom the element ‘wavellite’ is named. Three generations of William’s descendants were all educated at Winchester College and became soldiers, the last being Field Marshal Archibald, First Earl Wavell of Cyrenaica (pictured left), the wartime Viceroy of India. (L.G. Pine, They Came with the Conqueror (London, 1966), pp.46-8; G.E. Wavell, ed. L.G. Pine, The House of Wavell (MS in British Museum); Burke’s Peerage 1949.)

Lord Wavell’s son, the second earl, a Major in the Black Watch, was killed leading a patrol against the Mau-Mau, the last of his line. However, branches of this remarkable and illustrious family continue to flourish on the Island. I note that there are nine Wavells listed in the current Isle of Wight telephone directory.

Saxon tombstone at Stratfield Mortimer

June 14th, 2010

The view from the Cuttings includes the parish church of St Mary, Stratfield Mortimer, of which there have been Saxon, Norman and Victorian versions. In 1866, when the Victorians were undoing the Norman work, they discovered an upturned tombstone under the floor of the tower, with a complete inscription (in very idiosyncratic Latin) that reads as follows:


‘On the 8th before the Kalends of October (24 September) Aegelward son of Kypping was laid in this place. Blessed be the man who prays for his soul. Toki wrote me.’

The tombstone is 6’6″ long, 20″ wide at the top and 14″ at the base.

A date not before 1020 has been suggested (the Vikings had destroyed anything that went before) and Aegelward’s father is perhaps the ‘Cypping’ who is mentioned in Domesday Book. Cypping was a thegn who, in the time of Edward the Confessor, shared the lordship of Stratfield with his kinsman Edwin, as well as holding numerous other manors in Berkshire and Hampshire. He is said to have held Silchester from King Harold, so must have been alive in 1066. The tombstone is a unique relic from those times. The whereabouts of the early manor-house at Stratfield Mortimer remains a mystery.