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What better way to celebrate the end of exam marking at Exeter than to spend a summer’s day wandering around medieval sites in the Southwest?
On 1 June, two PhD students and I took a day trip to the parish church at Haselbury Plucknett in Somerset and Forde Abbey in Dorset. The main reason for this outing was the visit to Exeter of Joshua Britt, a PhD student from the University of South Florida, who is working on medieval anchorites. Anchorites were individuals who pursued the religious life by being enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church. Josh had come to Exeter to meet with our resident anchoritic expert, Prof. Eddie Jones, and to look through the archive of the late Rotha Mary Clay (author of The Hermits and Anchorites of Medieval England), currently in Eddie’s care. Josh was also interested in talking to me, having heard that I will soon be working on a new Latin edition of the Life of Wulfric of Haselbury by John of Forde. Wulfric was an anchorite who lived in a cell attached to the parish church of Haselbury Plucknett from 1124×25 until his death in 1154. In his time, he was a very well-known figure: his reputation reached the ears of the pope and St Bernard, and he was consulted by King Stephen. In the early to mid-1180s, at a point when memories of Wulfric were beginning to fade, his life and deeds were documented by John, prior and subsequently abbot of the nearby Cisterican house of Forde. Josh’s presence in Exeter provided the ideal excuse to indulge our mutual research interests and to visit both sites. One of our own PhD students, Tom Chadwick, also came along for the ride. Tom was happy to take a break from writing up his thesis and to offer his in-depth knowledge of local ales and ciders (the latter being much appreciated by Josh).
We set off from campus by car at 9.30 and arrived at Haselbury Plucknett just before 11.00. Here we met Jerry Sampson, a local archaeologist interested the medieval structure of Haselbury’s church. A thorough renovation by the Victorians means that little now remains of the church’s medieval fabric so Jerry’s help in interpreting the site proved crucial. He pointed out the extant medieval features and explained that the northern side probably retained the footprint of the twelfth-century church and Wulfric’s cell, the latter lying underneath the current vestry. The Life offers interesting glimpses into Wulfric’s cell, which seems to have consisted of an inner and outer room, with one door into the church and one window to the outside world. Much of our discussion centred on the exact arrangement of the cell and any other buildings, such as a stable and a room for Wulfric’s servant, which might have been part of the complex. Jerry has plans to carry out a geophysical survey on the site so some of these questions may be answered in the near future.
Next we wandered round the village, looking for the bridge and ford over the river, scenes of two of Wulfric’s miracles. The probable location of the latter was found down a public footpath at the side of the village inn – although, it must be admitted, the gentle stream at the bottom isn’t particularly impressive. By now, it was 13.00: like any good medievalists, we had managed to spend quite a lot of time looking at very little.
We then made our way to Forde Abbey and the home of Wulfric’s biographer, John of Forde (c.1150-1214). Forde Abbey was a Cistercian house and the second home of a community initially founded in 1136 at Brightley in Devon. Brightley proved unsuitable and five years later the community relocated to the present site, a crossing point on the River Axe – a ford – from which the new house took its name. The abbey was dissolved in 1539, shortly after Abbot Chard had undertaken an ambitious building programme and much of what remains of the medieval complex dates from this period. The estate passed through several hands until the Prideaux family bought it in 1649 and remodelled the extant buildings to form an impressive, if architecturally dissonant, stately home.
The Chard Tower, the abbot’s lodgings, the north side of the cloister, the east range (which contained the monks’ dormitory), and the chapter house are the most visible extant remains of the Cistercian abbey – and of these, only the chapter house and the east range date from John’s time. The chapter house and the ground floor of the east range (now the cafe) can be accessed without tickets to the house. Those venturing inside the house may find it difficult to get to grips with the monastic geography of the building – the historical information provided focuses more on its early modern and modern inhabitants.
Fortunately, the final room of the house leaves you to your own devices with a selection of Cistercian habits, so even if the medieval history of the house is underplayed, you can still look the part. Outside, the gardens are nicely landscaped, very well maintained, and include a number of water features. At the far end of the gardens, the Great Pond seems to be monastic in origin, but, while of interest to the medievalist, it is not as impressive as the Centenary Fountain, which shoots a spout of water surprisingly high into the sky several times a day.
All in all, this was a fun day out – and we happily toasted the success of our trip with some ale and cider when we returned to Exeter. However, for those with a more general interest in medieval history, these sites are of limited interest. Unless you’ve read the Life of Wulfric (which is readily available in translation), you won’t really get much out of the church at Haselbury Plucknett – this is a site for Wulfric enthusiasts only. Indeed, the carved wooden ceiling and “Norman” cellar of our lunch stop, Oscar’s Winebar in Crewkerne, probably has more to appeal to the general medieval tourist! In contrast, Forde Abbey is certainly worth a visit, but is better suited to a family outing on a sunny day than a research trip. While there are significant medieval structures remaining at Forde, the estate is oriented more towards its later history and horticulture than those seeking the medieval.
Haselbury Plucknett Church: Entrance is free.
Forde Abbey: Entrance to the house and gardens costs £13.00 (although there is a 10% reduction if you buy tickets online) and opening times are restricted.
Dr Helen Birkett, Lecturer in History
In just a few years, family history research has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Proof of this will be apparent to any professional researcher arriving at the National Archives or – perhaps more especially – at a regional record office or heritage centre. Now they will find themselves explaining to the staff that unlike their typical visitor they have in fact called up this charter or that diocesan register for its own intrinsic interest and not simply because of some passing reference to a presumed ancestor. Of course, this surge of interest in family research might fairly be said to have been the salvation of county and city archives, which have seemed ever more vulnerable in face of local authority austerity. In fact the courage of some to cut loose from the direct control of councils owes much to the foot-fall they have seen from self-taught researchers of all ages with a passion discover more about their own past.
The origins of family history
The fashion for family history and its place in prime-time TV may be a recent development but, of course, the tracing of family lines does have a long… pedigree. In England its origins as a subject of scholarly enquiry are usually traced to the years between the Break with Rome (1534) and the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). The early anxieties and later ambitions of the Tudor monarchy gave rise to statutory measures for the regulation of social status and the use of a growing governmental bureaucracy to subject the political nation and the authority they exerted in their own provinces to ever closer, central scrutiny. Henry VIII initiated a cycle of heraldic visitations which continued at regular intervals – with the exception of the years of civil war – until the Glorious Revolution. The crown’s heralds held local elites to account for the arms, and, of course, the titles to which they were accustomed to lay claim. The coming of the visitors caused families to recover their records, create a synthesis and in many instances, to commit them to parchment in a genealogical roll. They were helped in their response by new forms of national and regional history: William Camden’s Britannia (1586) brought the histories of the nation’s counties into focus for the first time; John Weever’s Ancient funeral monuments (1631) gave its readers a glimpse of a distant ancestry which might be their own; in Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-73) William Dugdale and Roger Dodsworth pieced together the testimony of old monastic cartularies and chronicles still widely scattered in the libraries of provincial gentleman.
Family history in the late Middle Ages
Before the relationship between crown and political nation was challenged, and changed, in these years, it is generally assumed that ideas of family identity were not so well focused and that noble and gentry society did not demonstrate the same enterprise in the recording of its own history. The adoption and use of (coats of) arms remained fluid until the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The proof of the right to particular arms or indeed to an inheritance as a whole might be mustered ad hoc but was not a routine feature of noble or gentry discourse. Genealogy as a concept was well understood but was pursued for the most part only in clerical contexts where the descent of emperors, kings, and pontiffs provided a chronological framework for a chronicle narrative, and a narrative of the founder of the monastery and their family line offered a degree of institutional security to a convent community. It has often been suggested that the very first sign of these impulses passing over into lay circles was the making of the Rous Roll, the genealogical history compiled by John Rous, perhaps for Anne Neville before the Battle of Bosworth (1485).
Family history research in fifteenth-century Devon
Yet a manuscript from the Courtenay archives at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, now digitised by specialists from Exeter University’s Digital Humanities team, Charlotte Tupman and Graham Fereday, may present something of a challenge to this conventional view. The Courtenay cartulary has only recently been returned to Powderham and has not been available to researchers for nearly forty years.
It was first brought together in the third quarter of the fourteenth century and its principal contents track the Courtenay family’s acquisition of the old Norman barony of Okehampton which became the mainstay of their medieval earldom, and their commercial development of new towns at the east – Colyford – and the west – Kennford – of their domain. Perhaps as much as fifty years after the manuscript was begun, c. 1400-1425, quires were added at the front containing a family tree and family chronicle. Unusually at this date, the structure of the tree is formed not only of lines and roundels but also with the stem and branches of a tree, formed with broad strokes of a bright green paint. It begins not with the Courtenay family themselves but with the forebears they claimed, with the earldom, the Norman families of De Brionne and De Redvers who held respectively the shrievalty and nascent earldom of Devon in the first generations after the Conquest.
The tree follows the Courtenays from their arrival in England from their original French home at Chateau-Renard in the Val de Loire, their intermarriage with these Norman baronial lines and their claim of the earldom finally recognised by Edward III in 1340. It continues with the succession of Earl Hugh III de Courtenay (d. 1377) who married Margaret de Bohun (d. 1391), granddaughter of Edward I, whose marriage portion included Powderham. Their fourth son, Sir Philip Courtenay (d. 1406), built the castle and it is his descendants who recovered the earldom. The family chronicle expands this narrative and is illustrated with the blazons associated with each generation of the Courtenays and their forbears.
The research of these fifteenth-century Courtenays was based largely on the foundation history of the Cistercian Abbey of Forde, of which they were patrons. The text that is woven around the tree, and continues on into the cartulary not only records the names of each generation, their marriages, issue, obituaries and their place of burial; it also includes passages from the (now lost) longer narrative of the fortunes of the Forde colony of monks from their first settlement at Brightley near Okehampton in 1133 down to the beginning of the fourteenth century. While a number of Cistercian houses compiled genealogies of their founders, it is rare to be able to demonstrate their direct transmission into the records and books of a lay household. Without the monastic original how far the Courtenays copied a Cistercian manuscript is unclear but it seems likely that the visualisation of their tree and the arms in their lineage – each finely painted and picked out in gold leaf – represent their own creative input. In doing so, the corporate, institutional identity which charged the Cistercian narrative was overlaid with its precise counterpoint, an expression of dynastic lordship. Interestingly, the territorial outlook of the original, which represented the White Monks reaching out across the West Country, was retained more-or-less verbatim no doubt because its tone of seigniorial ambition was well-suited to the Courtenays’ own purpose.
Reformation reception of Cistercian history
Remarkably, there is a second manuscript in the Powderham archives which bears witness to the appropriation of Cistercian narrative for the purposes of lay family history. A parchment booklet written in the first half of the sixteenth century contains another copy of the foundation narrative and later history of Forde.
The booklet carries a dated ownership inscription naming William Strode (d. 1579), a major landowner in Somerset and Devon who was energetic in buying up estates at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps the pinnacle of Strode’s rise to regional power was his marriage into the Courtenay dynasty. It was his entry into the hold monastic heartland and into the region’s noble lineage which persuaded him to assimilate the same dynastic narrative – already re-purposed once, in the fifteenth century – as his own. More than a decade after the Cistercian community had itself been driven from Forde, their pioneering work in genealogy provided a template for fashioning the identity of an up-and-coming family.
New exhibition at Powderham Castle
The Courtenay family tree, the cartulary and William Strode’s book form part of an exhibition now open to visitors to Powderham Castle curated by Exeter’s Digital Humanities team together with James Clark and Henry French from Exeter’s Department of History.
James Clark, Professor of Medieval History