Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New Evidence on the Twelfth Century Vernons

Medieval genealogy is often a case of reanalyzing and reinterpreting the same sources and evidence – and more often than not ending up with an answer that is still open to doubt or other interpretations. Finding completely new or overlooked evidence is the Holy Grail for genealogists trying to unpick and reassemble the shape of the personal worlds in early medieval families. Stumbling onto summaries of two charters made to Norton Priory in amongst the notes of the seventeenth century antiquarian Peter Leycester at Chester Archives was one of these moments as they may though just be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has been the twelfth century Vernon family tree. 

They each relate to confirmations of what appears to be the same land in Shurlach, just north of Shipbrook in Cheshire.  This grant of two bovates - which was perhaps around 30 acres - was already know about as it is mentioned among a general confirmation made by King Henry II of the Priory’s grants and rights that was published in 1989 and can be roughly dated to the years between 1152 and 1162 due to the appearance of Robert de Beaumis as one of the witnesses who was Bishop of London during this period. This royal confirmation mentioned that the grant in Shurlach had been made from the lands of Warin de Vernon, and as such was the earliest contemporary reference to the first of the various generations of Warins in the Vernon family of Shipbrook. [P.Green, Norton Priory (Cambridge, 1989), p.5]. 

Leycester however adds a lot more context on this grant in Shurlach to Norton Priory. His notes on the original grant read:

In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti Amen. Notum sit ego Warinus de Vernon concede donationem quam Wacelinus et Henricus filius eius et pater meus Ricardus de Vernon concesserunt in elemosynam ecclesia sancta maria de Norton, scilicet duas bovatas terra in Shurlach. [Cheshire Record Office, DLT/B2, f.201]

This clarifies that the two bovates in Shurlach were originally granted by a Waceline and his son Henry, out of the fee of a Richard de Vernon, and in turn were confirmed by Warin son of Richard. No witnesses are recorded, but King Henry II’s similar confirmation of two bovates must relate to this charter and thus suggests a date for Warin’s grant of 1162 at the very latest.

The original grant by Waceline, Henry and Richard could however have been a number of years earlier – perhaps as early as 1134 when the priory was relocated from Runcorn and re-founded at Norton. Whether Waceline might be the same person as the Waceline, nephew of Walter de Vernon, mentioned in a grant to St Werbergh’s Abbey in Chester in the mid-1090s, is a tantalising question, but - at present - there does not seem to be any further evidence that might support this.

The second charter summarised by Leycester is a reconfirmation of this same grant, but this time it is by ‘Warin son of Warin de Vernon’ who describes the original Richard de Vernon as his grandfather:

Sciant presentes – ego Guarinus filius Guarini de Vernon dedi ecclesia beata maria de Norton – duas bovatas terra cum pertinentiis in villa’ mea’ de Shurlach – quas Wacelinus et Henricus filius eius, eisdem Canonicis dederunt, et Ricardus avus meus, et Guarinus filius eius pater meus ipsis chartis suis confirmaverunt. Testibus: Willelmo de Venables, Ricardo de Vernon, Hugone de Dutton, Adam et Galfrido fratribus eius, Roberto de Mainwaring, Gralam de Lostock, Gilberto de Limme, Liulfo de Twanlowe, Ricardo de Eston, Willelmo de Daresbury, Ricardo Starkey, Hugone Tyrell et multis aliis. [Cheshire Record Office, DLT/B2, f.201]

The appearance of Adam de Dutton amongst the witnesses provides the latest approximate date for this charter as he died c.1210. The other witnesses seem to fit with a date in the late 1190s or first decade of the 1200s. This therefore points to a mid-twelfth century Richard de Vernon as the father of the first Warin de Vernon, and grandfather to the second Warin.

This provides a missing link in the wider jigsaw puzzle that is the medieval Vernon family tree. The question remains though as to the identity of this particular Richard de Vernon. I feel that a strong case can be made for Warin’s father being identified as the Richard de Vernon who was lord of Chinnor and Sydenham in Oxfordshire, and Croxton in Cambridgeshire.

The Harlaston Charter from about 1155 states that a Walter de Vernon was restored the lands previously held from the Earl of Chester by his grandfather, another Walter de Vernon. The earlier Walter was a son of Richard de Vernon [See Regestum Regum Anglo-Normanorum, Vol.2, no.790], and was alive until at least the middle of the second decade of the 1100s and active in both Cheshire and Normandy. Walter appears to have been succeeded by a Hugh de Vernon before 1120, as prior to the death of Earl Richard of Chester Hugh had confirmed a grant from one of his men in Bradford and Northwich, Cheshire. The former was part of the lands held by Richard de Vernon back in 1086.

There is no direct contemporary evidence that Hugh was a son of Walter, but taken in conjunction with the evidence of the Harlaston Charter, and Hugh's lordship of lands formerly in the hands of Walter's father at the time of Domesday, it appears likely. The younger Walter of 1155 does not appear to have been the only son of Hugh though, and indeed was probably a younger son. In the 1131 Pipe Roll ‘Richard son of Hugh de Vernon’ was recorded as paying £40 to enter on the lands of his father in the county of Oxfordshire. This has traditionally been identified as being Richard of Chinnor and Sydenham and this seems to be supported by the survival of an agreement from around this date between Richard de Vernon and the Bishop of Lincoln in which Richard agreed to an exchange of land by which the bishop could enlarge his park at Thame next to Chinnor. [Regesta Regum Anglo-Normanorum, Vol.2, p.251]. 

Richard witnessed a charter of Earl Rannulf of Chester in 1144, and possibly was still alive shortly after 1148 if the dating of a charter to Thame Abbey can be trusted. [Barraclough, Charters of the Earls of Chester, no.73; H.Salter, Thame Cartulary, Vol.1, p.61]. However, as the evidence of the Norton Priory grants shows that he had held Shurlach, and thus presumably also the wider historic Vernon lands in Cheshire at some time after 1134, it suggests that he was either dead by the time of the Harlaston charter in 1155, or else out of favour with the young earl’s circle.

Indeed, it seems likely that it was Richard himself who was dispossed of these lands. Despite a number of surviving charters from Earl Rannulf from this period, Richard appears as a witness for him on just the one occasion, and even this instance was not in Cheshire, but at Coventry in Warwickshire, close to where Richard seems to have acquired other lands. With the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda in the late 1130s and 1140s there would have been many pressures on Richard's loyalty. With lands scattered across Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire and Warwickshire, Richard had both a range of feudal obligations as well as manors which lay within different spheres of influence between the different sides, or just between different magnates. Indeed, his lands in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire were held from King Stephen directly. Richard would have had to choose his allegiances in the Civil War carefully. What would have further complicated this for him was Earl Rannulf's self-serving interests which saw him openly confront King Stephen in 1140 and 1146, and then progressively move closer again to the claims of Queen Matilda and the young Prince Henry from 1147. It is easy to see scenarios whereby Richard had not followed Rannulf, and thus given the earl the occasion to seize back the lands he held from him. 

Richard was succeeded by a son Walter at Chinnor, Sydenham and Croxton, and possibly also in lands in Warwickshire. Both Richard and Walter's names were attached to a grant of two hides of land in Sydenham to Thame Abbey that were mentioned in a confirmation by King Henry II around March 1155, but doubtless date from earlier. By 1158 Walter was holding Croxton and by 1165 Walter is mentioned in connection to the lands in Oxfordshire. In the following year he was probably the Walter de Vernon who was listed as holding three knights fees of land in Warwickshire. The common thread running across these lands which passed to Walter was that none them were held from the Earls of Chester - Richard had been able to keep possession of these during the Civil War and was in the position for his son to be able to succeed them after his death.

Despite this apparently smooth transition from Richard to his son Walter, primogeniture was by no means the automatic custom in twelfth-century England and Normandy. Whilst men may have had strong personal wishes over how they wanted their lands to be divided, it ultimately rested on the will of their feudal lord. The grant to Walter of 1155 could be a case in point. If Richard had turned his back on Earl Rannulf and his Cheshire lands during the Civil War due to conflicting priorities elsewhere, his younger brother Walter was likely to have had far less feudal ties. As the grant of 1155 was not just a simple restoration of the Vernons' lands to Walter, but included the additional grant of the manor of Harlaston from the dowager countess's lands, Walter was very clearly being rewarded. The Civil War might have ended with King Henry's ascent onto the throne in 1154, but after the poisoning of Earl Rannulf in 1153, the heir of the earldom of Cheshire was not yet ten years old, and the county and country remained a volatile and violent place. The man who held the Vernons lands in Cheshire provided a not insubstantial element of the earl's military retinue, and this would have been a vital consideration for those behind the young Earl Hugh. If Walter had demonstrated his capabilities and loyalty during the 1130s and 1140s and was close to the household of the earls, then he would have been in a strong position to receive the grant rather than the young heir of the brother who had abandoned Earl Rannulf.

How then did Warin eventually gain the family’s lands held from the Earls of Chester?  The heirs of Richard might have petitioned the Earl for their claim to some of the historic family lands, but this seems unlikely. Much more probable is that Walter died shortly after receiving the grant in 1155. Indeed just two years later, King Henry II led a large campaign into Wales from Chester in which one of the witnesses to the 1155 grant, Eustace fitzJohn, was killed. Walter would almost certainly have been involved in the same campaign, but it would be pure speculation as to whether he could have shared the same fate. Whatever his end, the evidence of the Shurlach grant shows that by 1162 at the very latest, Warin de Vernon was the head of the family in Cheshire. Stronger concepts of primogeniture would have suggested that Richard’s son Walter would have been in the prime position to inherit after the death of his uncle. However it is again not completely surprising that this did not occur. The powers behind the young earl may have been making a jesture towards the broader concept of the lands remaining within the wider Vernon family, but it was the young Warin, rather than Walter to whom they gave possession. 

Warin appears in four charters which can be dated to the period from 1162 to 1173. [Barraclough, Charters of the Earls of Chester, no. 160, 161, 162 and Tait, Chartulary of Abbey of St Werbergh Chester,Pt 1, p.217]. I strongly suspect Tait misdated the last of these to the 1150s due to an incorrect identification of one witness. Peter Coss also dated one other charter which was witnessed by a Warin de Vernon to 1153, but Barraclough suggested there was some doubt over whether this was genuine [Charters of the Earls of Chester, p.129], and I would also agree that it is indeed a forged charter for the very reason that this would be a very early date for Warin to have been a witness.

Two of these charters do also reveal a further element in this story of the early Vernon family. Out of these four charters which mention Warin de Vernon, two mention a Richard de Vernon, and in one they are specifically mentioned as brothers:

1164-1173, Chester
Hugo comes Cestrie dapifero iustic[ie] suis Cestresire et omnibus hominibus suis Francis ey Anglis tam presentibus quam futuris salutem. Sciatis Willelmum de Venables finisse mecum de Dilredo Hog et de filiis suis et de tota progenie sua et de Artusio et de filiis suis et heredibus suis tenendis de me et de heredibus meis in feudo et heriditate.
Testibus Radulfo dapifero, Willelmo Malbanc, Hamone de Maci, Roberto filio Nigelli, Radulfo de Mainwarin, Ricardo de Lovetot, Warino de Vernon, Ricardo fratre suo, Alured de Combrai, R. filio Warini, Frembald, Ricardo de Livet, Willelmo clerico comitis Cestrie, apud Cestriam [Barraclough, Charters of the Earls of Chester, no.162] 

Whilst Warin received tenure of the bulk of the lands restored to his uncle in Cheshire, Richard appears to have eventually received a grant of the manor of Harlaston, as well as an older Vernon estate at Churchill in Oxfordshire.  This may have taken place a few years later than Warin acquired his lands as in 1165 Harlaston was recorded as being in the hands of the Sheriff of Staffordshire. Richard did probably hold it by 1176 though when he was recorded in the Staffordshire Pipe Roll and fined 20s for default of surety. Richard also appears in the Pipe Roll for Lincolnshire in 1167/8 9 (PRS, Vol.12 p.74) when he was fined 20s for taking possession of lands without assize. This may suggest a rough date for the death of his mother (possibly named Matilda from the evidence in Thame Abbey’s cartulary) as a charter from 1180/1184 records that Richard’s mother had held dower lands in that county [BL Harl MS. 2077, f.62]. 

Given the link in the tenure of Harlaston, it would be tempting to think that Richard was a son of the Walter of 1155. Warin though was clearly not a son of Walter, and whilst a division of Walter's estates across two younger nephews is perhaps uncommon, a division between a nephew and son does seem more unlikely. Furthermore the evidence suggests that there was a close relationship between Richard and Walter de Vernon of Oxfordshire. In the early 1180s Richard exchanged land in Normandy with Henry and Robert de Neubourg. Amongst the witnesses was Walter de Vernon, as well as Robert de Wheatfield (the sheriff of Oxfordshire from 1181 and 1184), Richard de Garsington and Thomas de Druval - all men with interests in Oxfordshire. Walter de Vernon from Chinnor and Sydenham who had clearly come to represent and witness Richard’s interests and brought three of his neighbours and friends to support him. This appears more the role of a brother, than that of a cousin.

Richard's exchanges were also witnessed by a Ralph de Vernon, and there is a slight possiblity that he is yet another of this clan of brothers. The evidence is weaker as there is just this single reference that places him within the context of any others of the family, but there is some suggestive naming evidence. Ralph was a name that was taken by Warin de Vernon for one of his sons, but as it was a relatively common name - particularly in Cheshire - this is nothing too surprising. The Ralph who witnessed Richard's exchange might be the same Ralph de Vernon who gained interests in Cambridgeshire and was father to a Geoffrey, Everard and Walter de Vernon. The latter name has another obvious, if common, connection back to the various Walter's of Cheshire and Oxfordshire, but its the more unusual name of Everard which both stands out and possibly suggests a link back to Oxfordshire as this was the name of the first abbot of Thame.

Another suggestive pattern of names appears in the first two generations of the Vernons of Wiltshire. This family descends from a Robert de Vernon who was the steward of Humphrey de Bohun. Robert had been a witness to the grant by Earl Hugh of Chester of three knights fees at Bisley in Gloucestershire to de Bohun in the 1170s [British Library Cott Ch X 7], and appears in a number of other charters relating to the Bohuns. He disappears from the known records in the 1180s, but his successor at Horningsham in Wiltshire appears to be another Walter de Vernon. [W.H.Rich Jones (ed), Register of St Osmund, Vol 1 (London 1883), p.313]. Moreover, both Warin of Cheshire and Richard of Harlaston also both chose the name of Robert for one of their sons. It is very tentative evidence, but suggests a possible line of further enquiry.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Roger de Vernon - The first of the Vernons.

In 1844 the Victorian historian Thomas Stapleton first suggested that the father of the first lord of Vernon, Hugh, was named Roger. This was based upon the an entry in the foundation charter for the Abbey aux Dames in Caen which stated:

Billeheld, the daughter of Roger, gave what her father had granted to her at Vernon when she married, with the agreement of her nephew William, of whose fief it was held, and for which queen Mathilda gave money from her revenue.[1]

Given that the lord of Vernon at the time abbey was founded was William, the son of Hugh de Vernon, Stapleton suggested that Billiheld would have been a sister of Hugh, and Roger their father. There was however always the slight possibility that Billiheld was a maternal aunt of William.

Stapleton has been proved to be correct though by the discovery of a charter from 1031 which specifically states that Hugh was the son of Roger:

Notum sit omnibus Christi fidelibus, qualiter ego Hugo filius Rogeri de Vernum dedi sancto Petro et sancto Audoeno aecclesiam de Furcas quȩ dicitur sancti Petri cum decima ad eam pertinente eo rationis tenore ut anima mea, patris etiam mei, matrisque supradictis sanctis intercedentibus veniam apud Deum consequatur.[2]

This records the grant of the church of St Peter in Fourques to the Abbey of St Ouen in Rouen which probably relates to the present day Saint Paul de Fourques or St Eloi de Fourques.

Roger though remains illusive. Little more can be discovered about him at the moment. Hugh and Billeheld would have been born in the first decade or two of the 1000s, and so Roger was probably born in the last quarter of the 900s. He clearly held land at Vernon due to the fact he was able to gift some to his daughter Billeheld, and was given the descriptive name 'of Vernon.' As such, 1000 years on, this shadowy figure can currently can be said to be the first of the Vernon family.

[1]               See Stapleton, Magni Rotuli Scaccari Normanniae, (London 1844), p.cclxxviii. D.Bates (ed), Regesta Regum Anglo Normannorum, The Acta of William I (1066-1087), (Clarendon Press, 1998), p.273

[2]               Acte n°2688 dans Chartes originales antérieures à 1121 conservées en France, Cédric GIRAUD, Jean-Baptiste RENAULT et Benoît-Michel TOCK, éds., Nancy : Centre de Médiévistique Jean Schneider; éds électronique : Orléans : Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes, 2010. (Telma). En abrégé, citer : « Charte Artem/CMJS n°2688»[En ligne] http://www.cn-telma.fr/originaux/charte2688/ 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Harlaston Charter

One of the key pieces of evidence in the story of the medieval Vernons is what I call the Harlaston Charter. This seems to have first been identified by the antiquarian Samuel Pipe Wolferston in the late eighteenth century, and first mentioned in print by the Reverend Stebbing Shaw, in his History and Antiquities of Staffordshire in 1801. 

Hugo comes Cestrie constab(ulario), dap(ifero), baronibus, ministris et baillivis, secus mare et ultra, et omnibus hominibus suis salutem. Sciant omnes homines mei secus mare et ultra quod reddidi Waltero de Vernun totam terram et honorem quam Walterus de Vernun avus suus de comite Cestrie tenuit; et  sicut ipse Walterus de Vernun avus suus tenuit de comite Cestrie sic iste Walterus tenet de me et eodem servicio. Et sciant omnes quod ego Matilda comitissa isti Waltero de Vernun reddidi Herlavestun quod est de dote mea tenendum de me.
Testibus Ricardo filio comitis Gloecestrie, Iohanne de Sulenhi, Eustacio filio Iohannis, Waltero Hose, Ricardo Pincerna, Serlone venatore, Roberto dapifero, Alured de Culumberes, Tancart, apud Lundun.

The charter records that Earl Hugh of Chester restored to Walter de Vernun all the land and honors that his grandfather, another Walter de Vernun, had held from the Earl of Chester, and that Hugh's mother Matilda also restored the manor of Harlaston in Staffordshire from her dowry.

Despite the appearance of the charter in print, it was overlooked by George Ormerod when he was compiling his research into the history of Cheshire between 1813 and 1817. In the second edition of his work, edited by Thomas Helsby and published between 1876 and 1882, the evidence of the charter was included, but as Helsby noted, 'the descent of this family are extremely [his italics] contradictory and obscure.' [History of Cheshire, vol.3, p.246]

Four years later John Pym Yeatman also published his thoughts on the charter. He argued that it was a forgery and therefore added nothing to the views over the origins of the Vernons, and tried to present an argument that the Haddon and Harlaston Vernons originated from a branch of the Normandy family in the middle of the twelfth century. He was unable to identify any of the witnesses to the charter except Eustace fitz John, and believed that third place 'is hardly that in which we should expect to find so important a personage' [The Feudal History of the County of Derby (London, 1886), Vol.1, p.300]. A more significant problem for Yeatman was that 'the first witness is one Richard fil the Earl of Gloucester, apparently a mythical personage.' Richard however was the uncle to Earl Hugh and died in 1175. Other witnesses can be identified such as Walter Hose (Hosatus) who was a tenant of William Fitz Alan in the county of Shropshire and also held land from the king in Penkridge, Staffordshire, from at least 1156 until 1172 (Collections for a History of Staffordshire, Vol.1, p20, 65). Likewise Richard Pincerna, Serlo Venator, Alured de Cumbrai, Roger Capellanus and Robert Dapifer are all regular witnesses to charters of the Earls of Chester and probably were key figures in his personal household.  It therefore appears that Yeatman's fears regarding the charter's authenticity were unfounded.

The full text was reprinted from Shaw's work by Professor Geoffrey Barraclough in his collection of Cheshire Charters. He was though unable to locate the original charter and concluded that it had been lost, but it does in fact survive at the British Library (Additional Charters 57865). Barraclough dated it to March 1155, and felt it reflected the wider aim at the start of King Henry II's reign of trying to restore order following the tumult of the anarchy. Earl Hugh of Chester would have been just seven or eight years old, but it seems that either his mother or other key players behind the young earl were, in Barraclough's view, 'seeking to normalise the situation resulting from his father's well-known high-handed actions.'

The question of the ancestry of Walter de Vernon of 1155 is a complex one however, and much of this I will leave for a future post. However it is worth noting that Barraclough believed that the earlier Walter was the Walter de Vernon recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, and that this was the same person as a Walter de Vernon recorded in 1113, and possibly 1119. In turn he argued that Walter was father of a Richard de Vernon, who in turn was father to the Walter in this 1155 charter. This however was flawed as it was primarily based on the writings of Robert of Torigni, but the evidence he cites in fact refers to a William, not Walter, de Vernon who was lord of Vernon in Normandy in the first half of the twelfth century, and was father to a Richard de Vernon. This error that Walter of 1155 was son of a Richard was repeated by Dr Keats-Rohan in her entry for Walter de Vernon in Domesday Descendants.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Marriage of Warin de Vernon & Alde Malbank

I've recently been looking through some of the volumes from the successive Randle Holmes which are now in the Harley Manuscripts at the British Library.

Harl.MS.2065 contains extracts from early Cheshire Inquisitions Post Mortem and on f.25, dated to 32 Henry III (1248) is the order to John de Grey, justiciar of Chester, to make the inquisition into which lands Warin de Vernon held of the king in chief.

The interesting elements come from the jurors comments on his heir.

My rough translation is:

"When Warin was a young man he loved a certain woman named Auda who was first betrothed to Roger de Altaribus, and he took her into England after which the said Warin returned to Cheshire and held her as his own, and by her was born outside marriage a certain Annore by name, and Warin and William, and after censure from the church he married her, and after the marriage was approved was born Ralph"

I need to check my transcription/translation when I next return to the BL, as (typically) I found it fifteen minutes before the manuscripts room closed for the day and cameras are not allowed. It does though seem to pick up on, and clarify, a few elements of the Vernon/Malbank story.

After the death of Warin de Vernon in 1248, his inheritance was quickly divided between his son Ralph, and his grandson Warin, (the son of the Warin mentioned in the 1248 IPM). Ralph and Warin made a fine with the King of 100 marks on 15 Feb 1248/9 for his confirmation of their agreed split. (National Archives, C60/46 m.10 - also online at www.finerollshenry3.org.uk). This arrangement though had always struck me as a slightly unusual arrangement, and indeed a relatively mutual and civil agreement. If, as the jurors in the IPM suggest, there was general doubt over the legitimacy, but not the actual parentage of Warin, then this eventual split of the Vernon inheritanace could have been a practical resolution to this.

Another element from this IPM is the naming of Roger de Altaribus. Auda's first husband is sometimes stated to be Hugh de Altaribus, but there seems to have been a son by this first marriage of that name and confusion could have crept in from this. BL Harl MS 2077, f.63, is a transcript of a charter which dates from before c.1230 from Hugh de Altaripus son of Alde Malbank to "Warin de Vernon my father in law and Warin his son, my brother." However this transcription will need some further corroboration as Harl MS 1988, f.159 has another copy of the same charter in which it is transcribed, not as Hugh, but as "Auda de Altaribus filia Alde Maubank concessi Warino de Veron patri meo in lege et Warino filio suo fratri meo." If Hugh de Altaribus was a son, he may also have taken the name of his step-family as a Hugh de Vernon appears c.1216-c.1230 as parson of Davenham in a charter by Warin de Vernon to his son Nicholas of land at Haslegrove (BL Harl MS.2008, f.52). Who Roger de Altaribus was, or what his background was, I am not yet sure. Indeed given that the jurors were recollecting details of a presumably brief marriage from almost 50 years earlier, then there is a chance that the name of Roger could have been incorrectly recalled.

Another element to note from the transcript of the IPM are the jurors comments that Warin took Auda into England. At this time Cheshire was distinguished politically from the Kingdom of England and not viewed as part of it, so this comment would refer to Warin and Auda simply heading out of the county. (See H.Hewitt, Medieval Cheshire, Chetham Society, 1929, p.7 for more on this perspective plus other examples of this turn of phrase). Indeed, this might have some corroboration from an essoin recorded under the county of Oxfordshire that was provided by Nicholas son of Thomas in 1201 for the case between Warin de Vernon and the King in a plea over why Warin had married without the consent of the King. (see D.Stenton, Pleas before the King or his Justices 1198-1201, Selden Society Vol.67, 1953, p.337).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On the Trail of the Medieval Vernons

Almost twenty years ago I stumbled upon a mass of people with the name of Vernon.  To be precise, I did not actually meet them as all were long since dead. In fact, I think that rather ironically I have probably only ever met three or four living Vernons. These long dead Vernons' names though lept out to me from yellowing volumes of medieval charters and musty scented vellum rolls. At first the finer detail of their lives, relationships and deeds were hazy and confused when viewed through the telescope of time. However, like a blurred horizon, there was just enough visible to encourage me to keep staring to try to bring the detail into better focus and make sense of what I was seeing.

In their day Vernons helped shape the medieval world, but for me as a young history undergraduate at St Andrews University in Scotland, their lives helped shape how I saw the medieval world. History is often taught from the top down. Countries, religions, wars, monarchs and power-broking nobles. For me, uncovering the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the various branches of this one family gave me a different, more personal, insight into the changing medieval world. It helped me understand the top, from, if not the bottom of the feudal and social pyramid, then at least the middle from where the medieval Vernons generally forged their various lives.

It also gave me the chance to step outside the syllabus and follow my thoughts. There was a thrill in checking out books from the university library which had not seen daylight in the best part of a century. Indeed the shelf code for many of these evocatively named medieval tomes such as the Inquisitions Post Mortem, Curia Regis Rolls, and Pipe Rolls still springs to mind - DA90. There were raised eyebrows from tutors who were not probably not quite sure where this sudden enthusiasm had come from in someone who had been quite an average student until then. There were certainly many more raised eyebrows from my friends who were more used to me expousing on the relative merits of McEwans 80/- (the best value beer in the Student Union Bar), than detailing the numerous flaws in sixteenth-century Heralds' Visitations.

In a way though, the published volumes I stumbled on at St Andrews were only the travel guides. I have simply kept on following the trail that they had set me on. Over the years there were trips across England and Normandy and countless days at archives delving into those medieval documents whose silent scratched scripts still bring the world of medieval England back to life. Lives of men like the intriguingly named 'John Fuck God' whose name a medieval clerk carefully recorded during one fifteenth-century court case.

There were debriefings of my thoughts and views along the way; a dissertation at St Andrews on 'The House of Vernon, 1000-1250' followed a year later by an M.Phil at Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge University on 'The Vernons of Haddon, Derbyshire in the Fifteenth Century.'  In the late 90s, the internet also opened up access to the thoughts, research, challenges and support of a wide network of other people around the world; people like Todd Farmerie and Matthew Connolly on gen-medieval.com, Bob Carter and Dallie Vernon on myfamily.com. 

Now in 2012, it is to the internet I am turning again with the plan that this blog will give me a further chance to debrief some of my thoughts. Carrying around in your mind a few centuries worth of information and theories on long dead people is surely not good for you! I mostly hope though that this blog and my thoughts will be of use to others trying to look back through the telescope of time at the same distant medieval horizon.

The Vernons' story goes back ten centuries. It goes back to the world of the Northmen and Normandy. It is a tale of conquest and subjugation. A tale of land and allegiances. A tale of families and people. Posts on this blog will probably come in fits and starts, depending on how often my mind can extract itself from the day to day world of the twenty-first century and allow itself the leisure of jumping back to medieval Vernon, Shipbrook, Haddon and Harlaston. If you're able to join me, I am very welcoming to travellers on the same road.