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Chester and the Domesday Book

The Wirral, Cheshire in 1086 A.D. offered a very different profile than it is today. It was an important Cheshire peninsula. Domesday Wirral holdings of Norman families recorded in coastal Wirral were the villages of Eastham, Wallasey, Meols, Little and Greater Caldy, Thursaston, Ness, Neston, Little Nestone, Heswall, and Gayton. Inland Wirral included Greasby, Oulton, Mere, Prenton, Thingwall, Raby, Storeton, Saugall and Upton. Absent from the Domesday Survey were Birkenhead, Leasowe, Bidston, Moreton, Hoylake, West Kirby (included in Little and greater Caldy), Parkgate, Newton, Irby, Frankby, Ellesmere, and other more recently built towns and villages. Chester, of course, was the hub of the whole county of Cheshire, in fact, the hub of the whole north west.

One of the largest landholders in Wirral at the Domesday was Robert of Rhuddlan (Roelent), he being under-tenant of the Earl Hugh Lupus (the Wolf) of Chester, who militarily held all greater Cheshire and North Wales, his seat being at Chester. Robert's chief domain was the Castle of Rhuddlan on the north Welsh coast, which was then administratively part of the whole of Cheshire under the great Earl Hugh. Robert of Rhuddlan was of the Tilleul en Auge, Calvados in Normandy. He was notable for his wars against the Welsh. Robert held in Wirral at Wallasey, Meols, Thursaston( under-tenant William), Heswall(under tenant Herbert), and Gayton(under-tenant William). In now Wales he held Bagillt (under-tenant Roger), Broughton, Bryn, Brynford, Bryngwyn, Bychton, Carn-y-chain, Crychynean, Dyserth, Hiraddog, Kelston, Leadbrook, Llewerllyd, Meliden, Mostyn, Picton, Prestatyn, Pen-y-Gors (Gros), Rhyd Orddwy, St.Asaph, Trefaith, Trelawnyd, and Whitford. He may also have held Flint, Denbigh, Holywell, and villages to the west of Rhuddlan such as Llandudno, Bangor, Caernarvon, etc, but such were the ravages of the Welsh that it is difficult to fix a precise time and geographic window of his entire holdings at the taking of the Domesday Book. In addition to his Cheshire and Welsh holdings Robert also held as far to the east as Byfield and Marston St.Lawrence in Northampton. He also gave the church of St.Peter in the market place of Chester to his home Abbey of St. Evroul in Normandy, with Earl Hugh's (Earl of Chester) permission.

All Cheshire was held in chief by three Norman magnates or church prelates; Earl Hugh, the Bishop of Chester, and the monks of St.Wereburg's Church. This dissertation is focused on Wirral. We will discuss eastern and central Cheshire, and Chester, elsewhere. Eastham was held directly by Earl Hugh, the great Earl of Chester. Caldy was held by Hugh of Mere. Little Nestone was held by Robert Cook. Neston (one of the larger holdings) was held by William FitzNigel. Greasby, Storeton and Oulton were held by Nigel de Burcy. Mere by Gilbert de Venables. Prenton by Walter de Vernon. Thingwall and Upton by William Mallbank. Raby by St.Wereburg's Church.

Cheshire and the Wirral was Duke William 's (the Conqueror) cornerstone defence of the northwestern region of his kingdom, particularly against the Welsh and Irish intruders. He had wasted part of the county in 1070 in his act of rage against his rebellious barons, and the Wirral and Cheshire land values consequently had considerably diminished. However, his rage on Lancashire, Westmoreland, Cumberland and Northumberland was far more severe and, it is reported, few buildings were left standing in those counties, so much so that the border counties of Cumberland and Northumberland were generally ignored in the Domesday Book being in a state of waste. The Dee estuary was pivotal, strategically. It offered good navigation to both intruders and defenders. Hilbre Island, at the mouth, off the coast of Wirral, probably played a much more important role than is realized, one that was continued later against Irish intruders. Although there are many traditional tales of underground tunnels from Hilbre Island to the mainland at Grange Hill in West Kirby where there is the ruins of a small monastry, nothing so far has been found.

For those interested in the personalities and origin of the Norman land holders of the Wirral:

Principally, young Hugh (19 at the Conquest, 39 at the Domesday Book survey), son of Richard d'Avranches, surnamed Lupus (the Wolf, or sometimes 'the Fat'), was the first earl of Chester, a palatine Count, a position which almost made him virtual King of Cheshire. A very powerful man of Cheshire. He was unable to use the surname d'Avranches at this time because his father was still alive, the great Norman Viscount d'Avranches who was at Hastings. He was descended from Rognald (Ronald) father of Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy who lived in 896. The close interlocking relationship with the Conqueror's family gained him a great position of trust. Hugh, succeeded by his son Richard (7 at the conquest??, 27 at the Domesday ?? (see above, physically possible but difficult to believe, despite early bethrothals), ) as Earl of Chester eventually married Matilda, daughter of King Stephen but was drowned with his wife in the Blanche Nef shipwreck in the Channel, returning to Normandy along with many other Norman magnates. After the Conquest, Hugh Lupus was one of the largest land holders in all England He eventually became hereditary viscount Averanchin or Averanches, sometimes De Abrincis, in the department of Manche in Normandy, neighours of the notable Percy family of Northumberland and the Massey family of Cheshire whose chief domain was at Dunham Massey Castle. This latter family held 9 Lordships in Cheshire. Richard de Vernon was Hugh's palatine baron of Cheshire, of Castle Vernon, and held in Cheshire, also held the Castle of Shipbrook on the Wever. Hugh Lupus was a sworn companion-in-arms to William de Percy. Hugh (or his father) gave the great domain of Whitby in Yorkshire to William Percy whence sprang the notorious Percys of Northumberland.

Hugh held at the Domesday as tenant in chief in all Cheshire at;
Adlington, Alsager, Antrobus, Capesthorne, Chelford, Chester, Clive, Coddington, Eastham, Eaton, Eddisbury, Elton, Frodsham, Gawsworth, Helsby, Hawarden, Henbury, Hollingworth, Lea Newbold, Little Budworth, Lower Withington, Manley, Marton, Micle Trafford, Middlewich, Northwich, Occleston, Ollerton, Over, Romilley, Tintwistle, Weaver, Weaverham, Werneth, and Wimboldsley and Macclesfield. And in North Wales at Bodeugan, Calcot, Cwbyr, Fulbrook, and Maen Efa, and Hawarden.

Robert Cook, was under-tenant of Hugh at Little Neston at the Domesday, an area surrounding Neston. He was probably related to Alric Le Coq, who derived his name from the office of the comptroller for the Conqueror. Rodbertus or Robert Cocus, probably his brother or son, held as under-tenant in Kent, but also held elsewhere. In the family at the time of the Conquest were sons and grandsons, each with holdings, so we can conclude the father Alric was must have been quite old at Hastings.

Hugh de la Mere, (sometimes Hugh FitzNorman) brother of Guillaume (William, who was head of the house) was from Lamare at St-Opportune in Normandy. Their castle was built on piles beside a lake, hence the surname. William married the daughter of Hugh Lupus. Hugh became Lord of Lea(Leigh). His direct line became extinct but continued through his nephew Roger.

Walter de Vernon was brother of Richard de Vernon mentioned above, hence the surname Vernon. They were from the arrondisement of Evreux in Normandy. They both held many knight's fees in Cheshire. Walter also held in Buckinghamshire. But his brother Richard was much more powerful in Cheshire at the time of the Domesday Book.

Gilbert de Venables (Venator, Veneur, Hunter,) was from Venables, Evreux in Normandy in the barony of Le Veneurs so named because they were hereditary huntsmen to the Dukes of Normandy. Gilbert was a palatine Baron to Hugh Lupus, held the barony of Kinderton in Cheshire. Many lines and surnames were descended, including the Butlers of Chester. Richard was also palatine Baron of Hugh Lupus, and became Barons of Warrington. Another brother, Raoul, was baron of Chester, held in capite, and ancestor of the Grosvenors, Dukes of Westminster, Earls of Wilton and Lords of Elbury. The Hunter family moved north into Scotland where William Venator witnessed a charter by Earl David, later King David in 1124 and this family generally assumed the surname of Hunter. Venables became a prominent Cheshire and Lancashire surname, but Hunter had already achieved a large foothold in Cheshire before the move north with the Domesday Book showing Gilbert Hunter holding Brereton, Davenport, Kinderton and Witton (Northwich suburb) and Ralph Hunter holding Stapleford in Cheshire and Soughton in Wales.

Little is known of William FitzNigel. He is not recorded as being at Hastings. He may have been the son of Nigel de Burcy who assumed the FitzNigel surname before his father's death and changed back thereafter. It would have been normal to change his surname back to Nigel de Burcy after his father's death, and the surname FitzNigel would fade away, unless it was adopted by one of his younger sons instead of their domain name. William FitzNigel's chief domain in the Domesday Book was at Knutsford (said to be King Cnute's ford), and Egbrand, a freeman, held part from him, although it was not inhabited at the time of the Domesday Survey.

William Mallbank (Millbank)was baron of Nantwich in Cheshire. He assumed this surname from his small domain at Wick Malbanc in Cheshire, which is not recorded in the Domeday Book He was of the Brecy or Brassey family of Brecy, near Caen in Normandy. He was a younger brother of eldest son, Randolph de Braceio. William Mallbank also held Wistaston near Crewe in Cheshire. William Mallbank held many lordships in Cheshire including Saughall (Massie), and this prolific family spread to many locations in different parts of England, using different locative surnames just as younger son William Mallbank had been forced to do at Nantwich. Robert, grandson of Randolph, held three knight's fees in Cheshire from his great uncle Baron William Mallbank of Nantwich The surname Malbank or variations held for many centuries. The family history can be researched in the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, principally under MS 1424, fo. 1 and 96 and others. The family also acquired lands in Lancashire and Dorset and succeeding generations assumed the spellings Mallbone, Milbanks (Yorkshire), Milbanke(Baron Wentworth), and others, yet the theme of the original Coat of Arms is traceable through the family. However, tracing this name backwards from this present time, perhaps even getting back to a tiny village in Cheshire, Wick Malbanc, would be difficult to connect the Mallbank relationship, from an obscure village name in Cheshire, to the great Norman Brecey family of Brecy, near Caen whose scion was Le Seigneur de Brecey or Bracio and who was a munificent benefactor of the Abbey of Longues, a knight of the court of Caen, a knight of the Exchequer of Normandy, who was in turn, descended from Randolph d'Anisy , Viscount of Saint Sauveur, but who, of course, could not use that surname.

Nigel de Burcy(see above). Serlon de Burcy was at the Conquest. Robert FitzSerlon had grants in Cheshire from Hugh Lupus. Robert's descendants called themselves Nigel de Morden from their holdings in Wiltshire. The family was from Burci in Vire, Normandy. It is most likely Nigel de Burcy and Robert are one and the same, Nigel reverting to the Norman naming protacol of assuming the family name only after the father, Serlon, had died.

To appreciate this early Norman surname protocol the primogeniture must be understood. It is the foundation of most locative names in Britain. During the lifetime of the father it was very uncommon for any family member to also use that same surname. The chief paternal domain name could not be used except where, unusually, it was used in both Normandy and England, but even on this rare occasion it was customary to append a I, II or III to the son's surname in England to differentiate from the parent in Normandy. On the father's death the eldest son would inherit all, including the right to the surname both in England and Normandy or Brittany. The younger sons usually adopted the locative surnames of their own new domain, such as Mallbank above, even though he is described as the Baron of Nantwich, hence the backtrack relationship, between father and younger sons became tenuous, and difficult to link. On the eldest son's death, the rights went to his sons, unless childless, in which case it went to the next youngest son of the father, and he changed his surname from the locative name which he had used for part of his life. Nor were locative surnames taken lightly. These would be as important, legally, as the knight's seal, and became his domain name. They were charter proof of entitlement to his holding, his new domain. Most younger sons would never get to use the family surname. Fitz names, prefixing the font name, were believed to be a sign of bastardy, or, in those days known as 'natural' sons. However, a more plausible explanation, might be that of a younger son who did not hold a domain, and could not use his father's surname until after the father's death. Hence, Fitz became a temporary surname, which sometimes held in its own right.

Similarly, one of the largest land holders in Cheshire in the Domesday Book was Robert FitzHugh. This may have been Hugh's eldest son who used that name pending his inheritance but unlikely. He was not mentioned at the Conquest in any of the many Rolls. Or, it could be that Robert may have been the younger (very young) son of Earl Hugh, and younger brother of Richard who was himself to become Earl of Chester, a calculated move to keep the county in the family's backpocket. Robert FitzHugh held Broxton, Beeston (Castle), Bickerton, Bickley, Bunbury, Burwardsley, Butley, Cranage, Cuddington, Hampton, Malpas ( the latter very significantly), Marton, Overton (hills), Peckforton, Shocklach, Tilston, Tilstone Fearnall, Tiverton, and Tushingham. In Wales he held Bettisfield. Theoretically, Robert FitzHugh (if the younger son) might adopt any of the names of his holdings as his own domain surname, since he didn't succeed to the Avranches name. To this Richard, Hugh's successor and eldest son, went the family surname who was in turn was succeeded by Randolph, the 3rd Earl of Chester. Amongst the other holdings of Robert FitzHugh he had a choice(he could only take one, most likely Malpas, Barons of Malpas). His other domain names may have been assumed by favoured men-at-arms, freemen, or more distant relations. Continuing, the surname Malpas emerged with seats at Bickerton, Bickly, and Hampton, all Robert FitzHugh's holdings. To say that this Norman suname protocol and system was incestuous would be to put it mildly. Holdings and control were kept in a tight family circle. Keep it in the family. Of the 25 Surety Barons signing the Magna Carta in 1215, 130 years later, 22 were still interrelated by blood or marriage.