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.


  1. Luke, have you reviewed the early portion of the Vernon family linage posted at http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/images/Vernon_Family_Genealogy.jpg? Stapleton references a charter of a later Richard de Vernon from 1186 which states that the first William de Vernon, who is entombed in the church of Vernon in Normandy, is his ancestor. The linage at the link above clearly is in disagreement. Do you have your own theory on the direct ancestral line of Richard de Vernon who held Sibroc at the time of the Domesday survey, based on your years of research on the Vernon family? Thanks much and please continue your most helpful and educative posts on the Vernons, genealogy & history blog. -Jeff Wiser

    1. Hi Jeff - I would not trust the details in that pedigree too much - there seem to be some elements that are based on fact, but others that are more based on conjecture. The 1186 reference you mention is a key one in understanding how the Normandy Vernon family fits together, but I don't think that 1186 Richard was the same person as the Richard of Haddon/Harlaston.

      The origin of Richard and Walter de Vernon of the Domesday Book is unfortunately not as clear as genealogists have tried to make out. There is no evidence they are sons of William, Lord of Vernon, (and there is evidence that Richard de Vernon is certainly not the same person as Richard de Redvers). I suspect they were from Vernon, but perhaps (at most) cousins in some degree of the lords of Vernon.