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Normans in Cheshire

Tim Strickland

The following story is based on convincing local tradition and folklore at the hamlets of Venables and La Mare, in the district of Les Andelys, beside the River Seine, in East Normandy. It is supported and corroborated by remains of the period which survive in the area, by archaeological and historical research, by the information in Domesday Book, and is summarised in the book 'Venables: a travers l'histoire des origins a 1453' by Bernard Oger, a distinguished local historian, published by Venables in 2001.

Gilbert de Venables was born c.1035 and hence must have been about 30 years old at the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. He was a younger son of Odo, Count of Blois and Chartres, which meant that he was a cousin of Duke William himself. When his father, the Count, died in 1037, Gilbert's older brother, Theobald, inherited his father's fief and Gilbert had few expectations as a result. But when Mauger, Lord of Venables, died without heirs in c.1055, his fief became available. Roger of Blois, Bishop of Beauvais and Gilbert's uncle, in whose name Mauger had held his land, was thus able to give Venables to his nephew, Gilbert. And in this way Gilbert de Blois became Gilbert de Venables. Venables at the time was little more than a tiny hamlet, but it was strategically important as a high point from which the surrounding fertile and wealthy district, within a great loop of the mighty River Seine, could be dominated and controlled. Not surprisingly, his baronial predecessor, Mauger, had maintained his domain from a motte-and-bailey stronghold - known today as La Motelle which looked out on the whole district from high above. Surrounding it were the mean hovels of the adjacent hamlet. But for all its historical significance, Gilbert's new domain was a small one. Scarcely a mile down the old Roman road, which ran through the middle of Venables, was the hamlet of La Mare and seat of another lordship, the family of La Mare or, in Latin, De Mara. Further away in the district were the other equally small fiefs of La Rive and Fontaine-le-Vert, all of which had been within the feudal gift of the Bishop of Beauvais. Gilbert came to know all these families well as close neighbours and friends. No doubt, too, they were related, some closely. Above all, Gilbert developed a particularly close friendship with his cousins Hugh and William De Mara. They lived, literally, just down the road from him and within sight. This fact would be significant in the great events to come. A few miles further away was the important Lordship of Toesni - today's Tosny - principal residence of Richard ll De Toesni, under whom Gilbert and his companions must have served in the internecine fighting with the Franks. This is hardly surprising, for the district lay only a few miles within the eastern borders of the Duchy of Normandy. No doubt, too, in this way the fighting abilities and loyalty of Gilbert and his associates came to the notice of Duke William.

Not far away, across the Seine, was the small fief of Tourny, home of another friend and associate, Gerard De Tourny; and scarcely 15 miles away was the strategically important fortress-town and crossing-point on the Seine at Vernon, principal seat of an important marcher Lordship, home of Richard and Walter De Vernon.

All these names would resonate down the centuries to come in England.

In the summer of 1066, the call went out from their ultimate feudal lord, Duke William of Normandy, and among the army gathering at Dives to their Duke's bidding were the men of East Normandy: Gilbert De Venables, Hugh and William De Mara, Ralph De Toesni, Richard and Walter De Vernon, Richer De Andeli and Gerard de Tourny.

That October, they fought for William at the bloody and decisive battle of Senlac - not far from Hastings — so cleverly depicted on the remarkable Bayeaux Tapestry. William De Mara lost his life in that fierce and celebrated uphill charge against the renowned English shield-wall. Hugh, Gilbert, Ralph, Richard, Walter, Richer and Gerard must have been involved in the clever Norman ruse which was the undoing of the English under Harold, and survived. They feasted that night with William in Sussex, followed him on his circuitous march up the Thames to Reading and St Albans, and entered London with William that winter. There, they were involved in the decision to build a strong stone fortress: the keep of today's Tower of London. And that December they watched and celebrated Duke William's coronation as King of England. Their names are recorded on the celebrated Roll of Battle Abbey, commemorating those who fought at Senlac; and on the west wall of the church at Dives, in Normandy, are engraved no fewer than 25 names of lords from within 15 miles of Venables.

For their loyalty to William, and their bravery at Senlac, their rewards would come. William was anxious to encourage them to stay in England, and promised them great possessions and lordships there. Early in 1067, the new King of England returned, confident in his grasp of his new kingdom, to Normandy. But the hard times were not yet over. Almost immediately, rebellions broke out among the discontented English, and the original plan to involve them closely in government had to be amended drastically. In 1069, William returned to England in a different frame of mind. This time, the English would be suppressed and their possessions confiscated. Thus followed, in 1070, the brutal 'Harrying of the North', in which all dissent, or potential dissent, in the northern shires was mercilessly put down. After the destruction of York, William and his trusty followers, crossed the Pennines and entered Cheshire from the east. The shire was put down with considerable savagery, and the manorial estates in large swathes of the county were literally laid waste. Some 200 houses in Chester alone were burnt to the ground, and Shrewsbury suffered likewise. The Domesday Survey of 1086 shows that some recovery had begun within a few years but, even so, it records the aftermath of the brutality. Time and again, the telling phrase 'it was waste and he found it so' is a grim reminder of what had happened.

Cheshire, of course, was strategically important, on the frontier with the Welsh and still potentially vulnerable to Norse raiding from Ireland. So it was important to ensure its effective control by tried and tested loyal friends and associates: those who had done well in the remarkable campaign of 1066 and in the later suppression of England. Even better if they were related to William. Thus, Hugh of Avranches was made Earl of Chester and, under him, extensive lands and important Lordships were given to Gilbert De Venables, Hugh De Mara, Richard and Walter De Vernon. Domesday Book records, in considerable detail, their extensive landholdings. All of them included manors in the hundred of Middlewich. Gilbert himself, resided at Eccleston, near Chester, but his descendants would move to Kinderton from which, since the late 12th century, they took their title as Baron of Kinderton. Hugh De Mara became Lord of Delamere, and his descendants -closely related to the De Venables family- settled at Mere, from whence their later family name [Meares] is derived. Today's Baron of Kinderton is the present Lord Vernon, a direct descendant of Gilbert through marriage. Gerard De Tourny acquired great landholdings in North Shropshire, not far away.

In centuries to come, the descendants of these Norman warriors would take part in the wars in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and even in the Crusades. Today, some of their direct descendants still live in Cheshire and Shropshire. Many others are scattered across the English Speaking World. It all makes a remarkable and epic story.

8th June 2005