The Ancestor/Number 1/Review: The Gresleys of Drakelowe


ALTHOUGH it is now some time since this important family history made its appearance,[1] there are more reasons than one for reviewing it in the opening number of The Ancestor. In the first place, it was issued so privately that copies were only obtainable by subscription, and consequently no review of it has hitherto appeared. Secondly, it deals with a house of quite exceptional antiquity, whose tenure of their ancestral lands is, in some respects, unique. Thirdly, as a genealogical undertaking, it deserves a leading place among the works that have appeared of recent years in this department of research.

The most notable features in the Gresley descent are the origin of the family as a branch, it is believed, of the Norman Toenis; their tenure in the Conqueror's days, as barons or tenants-in-chief, of Drakelowe, which is still their seat; and their possession of one of the surviving baronetcies of the first creation (1611). As to the last, one may fairly say that their inclusion in the ranks of the baronetage reflects distinction on that degree, and is an interesting testimony to the character of the class from which it was originally recruited. And although, as compared with their Norman descent, a title which is not yet three centuries old may appear but modern, it must be remembered that even in the peerage the number of titles which have now been held so long in the male line is by no means large.

The two first of the interesting features we have mentioned above are precisely those, unfortunately, which occasion the two difficulties in the history of this family. It was asserted in the Duchess of Cleveland's Battle Abbey Roll that 'One branch of the royal Toenis still flourishes in the male line; Nigel de Toeni, or de Stafford, a younger brother of the standard bearer's, held Drakelowe … at the date of Domesday.' And even Mr. Eyton, who mentioned this belief, did not reject it. Mr. Madan, we think, is the first to admit—and the admission is a proof in itself of his praiseworthy caution—that actual proof is wanting for the relationship of 'Nigel de Stafford' to his alleged brother Robert de Stafford, who was an undoubted Toeni. Indeed, he holds that 'there is no evidence whatever of this (fraternity), and chronological probabilities are against it.' Falling back on 'more or less probable conjecture,' he suggests as a likely solution that Nigel 'the great crux' as he terms him, 'of the Gresley pedigree,' was a son, rather than a brother, of Robert de Stafford. The problem must, we fear, be left in this condition, nor is it likely that evidence enabling us to solve it will yet come to light. As to the chronology, however, one may offer a small criticism, because the point is one which others may be glad to note. Mr. Madan argues from the fact that two of Nigel's sons, 'William and Nicholas, are alive in 1165.' The experienced student of genealogy will hesitate to reject an assertion as impossible on the ground of chronology alone; but it is, on the face of it, suspicious that William and Nicholas should be living some eighty years after their father's appearance as lord of Drakelowe, nor can we find any evidence in Mr. Madan's pages that they were.

This correction removes a difficulty in the way of accepting the early pedigree. Mr. Madan reminds us that 'the century and a half after the Domesday Survey of 1086 is the darkest of all the byways which the genealogist has to tread,' and this is more especially true of the first half of that period. It is therefore peculiarly satisfactory to have such excellent evidence for the first few generations, though the fact that the great-grandson of the Domesday lord was living 130 years or more after the Survey reminds us that there is always the possibility, where Christian names recur, of a generation having been omitted, as indeed is sometimes the case in pedigrees at a much later date.

A far more difficult question is that of the descent of Drakelowe, of which no really satisfactory explanation has yet been given. In Domesday it is held immediately of the king, but we find it subsequently held of the mighty house of Ferrers—with which the Gresleys appear to have been associated from the first—by virtue of a special grant from King John. Sentiment would make one desire to prove that the tenure of Drakelowe by the Gresleys had been continuous from the Conquest; and Mr. Madan does his best to prove that this was so; but it is frankly admitted even by him
Walsingham Gresley from The Ancestor no 1 1902.jpg

Walsingham Gresley.
D. 1633

that 'the actual history of Drakelowe between Nigel's time and 1200 is matter of conjecture.' We venture therefore, after carefully considering all the available evidence, to question the solution Mr. Madan suggests, even though it seems to have the support of so well qualified an authority as General Wrottesley. The evidence afforded by the Pipe Rolls appears to us inexorable. In the roll of 1171 (17 Hen. II.) we find that certain lands belonging to the Honour of Lancaster had been granted out to 'Willelmus filius Walkelini' and 'Nigellus de Gresel[ega]'; it is certain that these lands were at Stainsby and Drakelowe respectively; and it is no less certain, if we may venture to say so, from the rolls of the preceding and earlier years, that these lands had not been granted out before 1170–71 (17 Hen. II.). Both estates, we may add, are afterwards found as serjeanties, held by similar tenures, and it can hardly be doubted that these tenures originated both at the same time, namely in 1170–71. We are quite unable to admit that the Nigel who obtained Drakelowe at that date was the Domesday lord thereof, his name being retained in error; nor, one must add, is that Domesday lord ever styled Nigel 'de Gresley.' There was admittedly a Nigel de Gresley living under Henry II., and one is forced to conclude that it was he who obtained this grant of Drakelowe. It is a singular fact that, at some period not long subsequent to Domesday, the family lost several of its manors and gained others instead. General Wrottesley suggests that this was the result of an exchange, and to those who know how frequent was exchange even in the Conqueror's reign the suggestion must appear highly probable. He holds, it is true, that they retained Drakelowe; but as it is admitted that they migrated to Gresley, which was among the new manors they obtained, and that the son of the Domesday lord derived thence the surname which his house has borne ever since, it is obviously probable that Drakelowe was included in the manors they exchanged for others; and indeed the legend of 'the devil of Drakelowe' points, as Mr. Madan sees, to the manor having come into the hands of Roger of Poitou (lord of the Honour of Lancaster) not long after Domesday. The curious 'service' of rendering arrows and a quiver, by which it was held in the thirteenth century, was transferred, under John's charter spoken of above, to Ferrers Earl of Derby as overlord. It is noteworthy that among the tenants of that same mighty house we find also the ancestors of two of our oldest families, those of Shirley and of Curzon.

Apart from their exceptional antiquity the Gresleys are of much interest as a typical English knightly family taking part in local affairs and, when occasion came, in national warfare, generation after generation. Geoffrey de Gresley appears to have fought in an Irish expedition under King John, and to have acted for a time as constable of the famous castle of the Peak. Another Geoffrey 'took a full share in the Barons' war of 1261–5, and shared in the disasters which befell them after the battle of Evesham, Aug. 4, 1265.' Service abroad and service in Scotland fell later to the share of this 'Sir Geoffrey' (as he became), whose seal shows him 'on horseback, facing the dexter side, bearing a shield vaire in his left hand and in his right an uplifted sword,' the trappers of his horse also displaying the arms of his race. Yet he found time, in two Parliaments, to serve as knight of the shire for his county, though we can well believe that he 'seems to have found difficulty in settling down as a country squire.' Of his son Sir Peter we read that 'there is hardly a record of himself or his family which is not concerned either with hard fighting or other equally violent but less legitimate conduct.' We are tempted to quote this amazing record of the performances of Sir Robert Gresley, one of his younger sons; and incidentally we may observe that it illustrates the extraordinary care with which Mr. Madan has traced throughout the careers of the younger sons and of the daughters of the lords of Drakelowe.

The assizes record ten charges against him between 1320 and 1348: one of trespass, two of riot, three of robbery, and no less than four of murder. … His methods of evading the consequences of these misdeeds do honour to his ingenuity. In July, 1333, for his services with the king's army in Scotland, he obtained a general pardon for all felonies, and … flourished this useful document in the face of the judge and jury when accused of having six years earlier robbed the parson of Walton. On another occasion he remembered that he was a 'Clerk,' and said that he could not answer the charge without his Ordinary !

Turning from this catalogue of misdemeanours, we find Sir Robert representing Derbyshire in the Parliament of 1340; fighting in Scotland both in 1333 and 1335; summoned to Ipswich with his brothers Edmund and Roger for foreign service in November, 1338; and serving in Aquitaine under the Earl of Lancaster in 1346, when he probably took part in the siege of Calais (1346–7).

The wild old Norman blood seems to have had much to
Portrait assigned to Sir George Gresley KB.jpg

Portrait assigned to Sir George Gresley, K.B.

answer for; but how vividly such a life as this brings the age before us, how it clothes with flesh and blood the dry evidence of records which the patient industry of General Wrottesley has placed at the student's service! It is thus that the history of a family may minister to that of the nation, may teach us, as nothing else could teach us, the stirring stormy character of the Middle Ages in England.

'In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,' we read, 'the Gresleys were wealthy landowners with influence and position in all the three counties which converge near Drakelowe'; and indeed, about the end of the fourteenth, we find Sir John Gresley granting to his grandson all his manors in six counties. This grandson, Sir Thomas, was seven times returned as knight of the shire, and was 'almost certainly' present with his brother Sir John at Agincourt, and one of his daughters had the curious distinction of being nurse to King Henry VI. Lancastrian at this period, the Gresleys appear to have gone over to the White Rose in 1452, when Sir John took up arms for the Duke of York; but he did not become a decided Yorkist till after the accession of Edward IV. Like his son Sir Thomas after him, he skilfully contrived to retain his estates and position through all the troubles of the time; and William, the latter's son and successor, who signed himself 'Wyllyam Greysseley squyer,' was knighted at Lille by Henry VIII. in 1513, in reward doubtless for gallantry in the French campaign of that year.

When we come to Leland's day (circ. 1540) we find him writing of Sir George Gresley's 'very fayre mannor place and parke at Draykelo.' Sir George's son William was knighted at Queen Mary's coronation, and his grandson Thomas at the accession of James I. This brings us to Sir George, the first baronet. It is a striking fact that every one of his direct ancestors for twelve generations had received the honour of knighthood, a 'record' which, one would imagine, could not well be exceeded, if indeed it was equalled, by any others of those who received the new dignity. It was not unnatural therefore that he should have been one of those baronets of the first creation who protested on behalf of their degree against the king's decision on their precedence. If the portrait here reproduced, which has hitherto been assigned to the Sir George who died in 1548, is really that of the first baronet at the age of thirty, it must have been painted, we may note, about the time of his creation (1611).[2] But it might be that of his father. A hint as to its date is afforded by the rings in his ears—two, it will be seen, in each—the more elaborate earrings worn by his younger brother Walsingham being possibly due to his residence in Spain, where he was attached to the British Embassy from 1619 to 1624.[3] Sir George, who sat in the Parliament of 1628–9, was 'the only gentleman of qualety' in Derbyshire who sided strongly against the king. He joined Sir John Cell's regiment, and the Royalists plundered his estates. These estates had been grievously diminished in the days of James I., the family having suffered doubtless, like others, from Elizabethan extravagance.

Of his great grandson the third baronet, whose portrait we give, we read in a letter written in 1696 that 'Esquire Bill of Drakelowe went a wooing into a far country, but his mistress was not much smitten with either his phiz or beau meene; however he made shift to captivate the heart of a widow; … the knighterrant is resolved, and says, "Zuns will have her and that quickly too, for hunting is coming in and cannot awhile."' It is from a brother of this baronet, who received his mother's manor of Seile in Leicestershire, that is descended the present line, who only succeeded to the title in 1837, but had intermarried with the elder line a generation previously. For the last two centuries the history of this ancient house has been mainly of private or local interest, its chief incidents being found in spirited but unsuccessful attempts to promote the industries of the district, with the result of further diminishing their once wide estates.

Nearly half of this elaborate work consists of Appendixes and Index. The first Appendix deals with the castle, church and priory of Cresley, of which the last was a house of Augustinian canons founded by the family, while residing at Cresley, not later than the middle of the twelfth century. A ground-plan of the priory is given, and Mr. Madan's untiring industry has enabled him to work out the succession of
Sir William Gresley 3rd Bt from The Ancestor no 1 1902.jpg

Sir William Gresley, third Baronet

priors (not, as he says by a slip, 'of abbots'), and to describe its seal and arms. The next Appendix is devoted to the manors and possessions of the family, an alphabetical list of which covers several pages. This is a most careful piece of work, and of course a valuable contribution to county history. So extensive were the lands of the Gresleys that some might easily be overlooked, and we observe that there is no mention of Eastwell, where 'Gresley's fee' consisted of 2 hides and 3 bovates, held under Ferrers, as is proved by the Croxton Abbey evidences printed in Nichols' Leicestershire. On the other hand, we have our doubts about Thorpe Constantine. The fact that Nigel, its Domesday holder, occurs as Nigel 'de Torp' suggests that he was not identical with Nigel 'de Stafford.'

Appendix C brings us to the arms, seals, crest and motto of the family. The arms are a most interesting example of a derived coat, the Vaire ermine and gules of Gresley being clearly, as Mr. Madan says, a variation of the Ferrers coat, Vaire or and gules. These arms first occur on a Gresley seal of 1240, though the series of family seals of Drakelowe actually begins in the early years of the thirteenth century. The snares that beset the path of the unwary genealogist are admirably illustrated by the next Appendix, which introduces us to two families who seems to have existed for the express purpose of being confused with the Gresleys. One of these is Greasley of Greasley, whose stammhaus was little more than twenty miles from Gresley; the other was a great feudal house, Grelly, baron of Manchester. The second of these names often occurs as Gresle or Greslet, but can, we think, be distinguished from Gresley by the 'de' which precedes the latter. Mr. Madan, it is true, states that Domesday mentions 'Albert de Grelly,' but the actual form is 'Albertus Greslet.' A century later (1185) the Rotulus de Dominabus which he appears not to have consulted, contains frequent mention of Albert 'Gresle,' 'Greslei,' or 'Gresley,' and Robert his son, the evidence proving that they were both born at earlier dates than Mr. Madan imagines. It was Robert, we may add, whose officer at Swineshead (Lincolnshire) was thrown by him into prison and bound in chains, till, calling on the names of St. Edmund and St. Audrey, he was miraculously delivered by the royal martyr like St. Peter before him. In the last Appendix Mr. Madan deals in true scholarly fashion with the materials employed by him in writing this notable book. Those who devote weary years to the pursuit of the elusive ancestor will envy the lords of Drakelowe their singular good fortune in possessing such materials for their pedigree as few families can show. We may specially mention the original muniments, 500 in number, 'ranging from about 1150 to 1676,' a family Bible containing contemporary entries from 1649 to 1886, an old notebook rich in genealogical matter, and the 'Gresley Chartulary,' which preserves the contents of 331 ancient deeds. As Mr. Madan truly says, 'A family chartulary is not a common thing,' and taking the documents at Drakelowe as a whole, they are possibly unsurpassed as a collection for the history of a family. Mr. Madan explains that they found an indefatigable student in the Rev. J. M. Gresley, whose collections from these and other sources have formed the basis of his own undertaking.

We have yet to speak of the tabular pedigrees appended at the end of the volume. These are no fewer than seventy-three in number, including as they do many families with which the Gresleys intermarried. They appear to be taken in the main from printed sources, but manuscripts in certain libraries and family papers and information have also been employed. Drakelowe, as is observed in the preface, is near the borders of Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire, and the Gresleys 'have formed connexions by marriage with the leading families' in each. Sir Robert Gresley contributes, on Drakelowe itself, a chapter of great charm and interest. Although the park extends to nearly 600 acres, the chief attraction of the place, we learn, is found in the gardens, 'many of the hollies and yews lining the walks being well over 30 feet in height,' while the rose garden has an eighteenth century air. The house itself is full of heirlooms, among which are the family portraits, from which we are enabled, by special permission, to reproduce a selection. For this courteous permission we desire to express our thanks. Such is the home of this ancient stock, scions of which are now to be found in the new Englands beyond the seas. Sir Robert Gresley, in his closing words, alludes to 'that patriotic spirit in which, in times of stress and danger, the gentlemen of England have never been found wanting.' These words were written on the eve of a war which has tested and proved their truth; and ancient names answered to the call from the ranks of regiments of horse


Portrait assigned to Sir George Gresley 1st Bt from The Ancestor no 1 1902.jpg

Portrait assigned to Sir George Gresley, first Baronet.

  1. The Gresleys of Drakelowe by Falconer Madan (privately printed.)
  2. A high authority has attributed the two portraits named 'Sir George Gresley' to the latter end of the Elizabethan period. Federigo Zuccaro, to whom the portrait of 'Sir George Gresley, K.B.' (d. 1548) is assigned, was a child at the date of his supposed sitter's death. — ED.
  3. Students of costume will observe the same fashion in the portraits of Prince Henry and Prince Charles (1614 ?) among the Belvoir miniatures illustrated in this number.