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.