The tiny Cumbrian hamlet of Grisdale (now called Mungrisdale) lies just north of the old Roman road from Penrith to Keswick. It is without any doubt the place from which the Grisdales of Matterdale took their name. I have previously discussed when and how the family name probably came into existence in an article called When did the Grisdales become Grisdales?, as well as in other articles on this blog. As I mentioned there it is conceivable, though by no means capable of being proved, that a certain Simon de Grisdale, who we find in Halton in Lancashire in 1332, was the first person from Grisdale who had moved away and took the name of his home place with him when he did. What I’d like to do here is to focus on the years around 1332 and try to say something of what life was like in Grisdale at this time.
Why 1332? I have chosen this date because in that year there was taken a tax assessment in Cumberland and elsewhere which survives. These assessments are known as Lay Subsidy Rolls (Lay meaning that the tax concerned was being levied on lay people not clerics). Here we find a list of the inhabitants of all the settlements in Cumberland who were due to pay the tax, based on the value of their ‘goods’. Grisedale (spelt here with an E) appears, as indeed does Matterdale. The list of Grisdale inhabitants runs as follows:
William Skraghird, Peter son of Hugh, William Slegh, William Riotis, Robert son of John, Robert son of Gilbert, William son of Robert, Adam son of Peter…
Then there seven other people whose names have been ripped out but whose goods and tax assessment are given. The subsidy was ‘one-fifteenth’ and in total the value of the goods of the people of Grisdale was £ 36 33s 6d, giving a total tax due of £2 8s 11d. The sum due from the residents of Matterdale was similar: £2 11s 9d.
So there were fifteen men in Grisdale who were taxed. To get an idea of the total population we might multiple this by say four or five to take account of wives, children and other dependents and then add in a few un-free serfs and very poor cottagers. So maybe there were somewhere in the region of 70 to 85 people living in Grisdale in 1332. This number might have been reduced after the Black Death struck England in 1348, a plague that did affect Cumberland but not as severely as it did the south and midlands of the country.
You will have noticed that of the eight people named only three had surnames, William Skraghird, William Slegh and William Riotis, the others were still referred to by naming their father, for example Robert son of John. Note too that all the Christian names are basically French: William, Robert, John, Richard etc.
Was one of these fifteen named or unnamed people the early fourteenth-century progenitor of the Grisdales? One can’t say more than it’s quite possible.
Whatever the case, who were these people of Grisdale? What language did they speak? What was their origin? Who were their rulers?
Let’s start with the question of language. Originally Cumbria had been a Brythonic (i.e. British) speaking area before the Northumbrian English started to make inroads in the seventh century. The ‘English’ hadn’t made much of an impression in the more rugged and barren hilly areas, which would include Grisdale, and the British themselves remained in place for hundreds of years although they too preferred the more fertile valley or coastal areas to the inhospitable mountains.
The ethnic and linguistic mix changed radically in the early tenth century when Hiberno-Norse (i.e. Scandinavians from Ireland) started to settle in numbers in north-western England and particularly in Cumbria. They spoke an Old Norse language which had acquired some Irish words from their years in Dublin and other Irish ‘longphorts’. If you have a glance of a Lakeland map today you will immediately see the importance of this settlement, there are Norse place names everywhere. If you were to include field names and topographical names it would take a large volume just to list them (there are several such volumes).
Grisdale was and is one of these Norse place names. It means valley of the pigs (or perhaps valley of the wild boars). There are several Grisdales or Grisedales in Cumberland and even one just across the modern county border in Yorkshire.
It is clear that some of these tenth-century Norse settlers came to Grisdale (i.e. Mungrisdale) and named the place as such, either because they kept their pigs there or because there were wild pigs there when they arrived. I tend to the former explanation. When the first Scandinavians walked into the valley they were to call Grisdale they might have found one or two Cumbric-speaking British living in rude hovels or, equally as likely, they might have found the place completely empty. There were certainly British living in nearby Threlkeld when the Vikings arrived.
The valley would certainly have been much more wooded than it was to become.
The dedication of the later Chapel in Grisdsale is to St. Kentigern a sixth-century British monk (and incidentally the first Bishop of Glasgow), who was often called St. Mungo – hence the more recent name of the hamlet and valley: Mungrisdale. Whether Kentigern/Mungo had ever actually preached in ‘Grisdale’ in the sixth century is not known. His cult became popular in the twelfth century and it is quite possible, even likely, that the dedication of the chapel happened then – though this doesn’t exclude an oral memory of Kentigern in the area.
Whatever the case, it was these Scandinavian settlers from Ireland who gave the place its name, as they did to most of the other places in the locality. As I have said, the settlers spoke Old Norse sprinkled with a few borrowings from Irish Gaelic. They were to keep their language for quite a long time. As the years and even centuries went by they adopted just a few British words, such as the famous method of counting sheep, bowdlerized in more recent times to eeny, meeny, miny, moe, and, more importantly, through their contact with their English-speaking neighbours their language started to morph into the Cumbrian dialect.
There is very little evidence regarding exactly how and when Norse merged with a variety of northern English in Cumbria. What evidence there is suggests that by the early fourteenth century the ‘merger’ of the languages had gone some way, but it was still as much Scandinavian as it was English. The arrival of the Norman-speaking French in Cumbria in 1091 would have had no direct effect on this process. Indirectly of course, as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) morphed into Middle English under the influence of the conquerors’ French, the people of Grisdale would have French words in their vocabulary too, although whether any French-speaking lord would have understood a word they said is highly doubtful. But for sure by the fourteenth century most Cumbrians, whether they were of Norse, British or English descent, would have understood each other, although the dialect could change radically over distances of only a few miles and someone from the south would have been lost, as some still are.
I would like to stress that this mutual comprehensibility didn’t extend the predominantly French-speaking nobility (or not for a long time anyway). As mentioned, the Norman French first arrived in Cumbria in 1091, twenty-five years after the Conquest. See The Normans come to Cumbria. When they did the rugged independence the Norse Cumbrians of Grisdale and elsewhere had enjoyed for nearly two hundred years came to an abrupt end. As elsewhere in England pretty much all of northwest England was divvied up and given to Norman-French henchmen, the majority of local leaders and landowners were stripped of their position and wealth. We might mention names such as Ranulf de Briquessart (le Meschin), Ivo de Taillebois and many more.
Interestingly though the ‘barony of Greystoke’ (to use the French title), which included Grisdale and Matterdale, seems to be one of the exceptions that proves the rule. Here a powerful local family with Norse roots and Norse names was able to reach an accommodation with the Norman colonizers. This was the family of Forne Sigulfson, who became the first Norman-sanctioned lord of Greystoke. (See my article about Forne here). It was Forne’s son Ivo who started to built the pele tower at Greystoke in about 1129. Note Forne’s totally Norse name and his son’s French name – Forne probably named his son Ivo to honour and ingratiate himself with the powerful local Norman enforcer Ivo Taillebois. This family with Norse ancestry continued to be the lords of Greystoke (and therefore the lords of the people of Grisdale) until 1306 when the title and lands passed to a slightly related family called Grimethorpe, who took Greystoke as their family name.
It would be nice to think that in the two hundred or so years following 1091 the fact that the lords of Greystoke were originally Norse meant that the simple farmers and shepherds of Grisdale escaped some of the horrors inflicted on the people of England by the hated Norman colonizers – but I think this is most likely wishful thinking.
Let’s say something about these local lords. They were pretty rough and ruthless types and despite the fact that they exploited the people of their ‘manors’ and stole any surplus, their lives, diets and dress were still very basic. In Cumbria, as I have said, they were mostly but not exclusively French-speaking Normans or sometimes Flemish. Initially they threw up wooden stockades to keep them safe from attacks by the conquered English. In Cumbria these were soon replaced by stone pele towers which served the same purpose and also provided some protection against later Scottish cattle raiders (reivers) and the occasional marauding Scottish army.
They were small stone buildings with walls from 3 to 10 feet thick, square or oblong in shape. Most were on the outskirts of the Lake District, but a few were within its boundaries. Designed to withstand short sieges, they usually consisted of three storeys – a tunnel-vaulted ground floor which had no windows which was used as a storage area, and which could accommodate animals.
The first floor contained a hall and kitchen, and the top floor was space for living and sleeping. The battlemented roof was normally flat for look-out purposes, and to allow arrows to be fired at raiders, and missiles hurled down on unwanted visitors….
Apart from their primary purpose as a warning system, these towers were also the homes of the lairds and landlords of the area, who dwelt in them with their families and retainers, while their followers lived in simple huts outside the walls. The towers also provide a refuge so that, when cross-border raiding parties arrived, the whole population of a village could take to the tower and wait for the marauders to depart.
As noted, Ivo FitzForne built the first stone fortification at Greystoke in about 1129, the building grew to become a large pele tower and in the 14th century after William de Greystoke obtained a royal licence to castellate it, the castle was further enlarged.
So in 1332 Greystoke did not yet have a castle, the lords still lived in a large pele tower surrounded by their family, armed knights and servants. In that year William de Greystoke, the 2nd ‘Baron Greystoke’, was still a minor and the barony of Greystoke was in the custody of Sir Hugh d’Audley (whose daughter Alice was William’s mother). What do we know about this William de Greystoke, who on reaching his majority in 1342 was the feudal lord of the people of Grisdale? Besides the normal feudal extractions how else did William’s actions impact the people of Grisdale and other parts of his barony?
The main impact was of course war. An idea of the mentality of people like William de Greystoke can perhaps be gained from the words of another Cumberland medieval lord, Lancelot de Threlkeld:
The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.
Lancelot’s Threlkeld tenants were his ‘stock… to go with him to the wars’. William de Greystoke also used his ‘stock’ of tenants to go with him to his wars, including without much doubt some from Grisdale and probably therefore some of the family that would become the Grisdales of Matterdale. I’ll have more to say about William de Greystoke at a later date, for now where did he go to fight his wars? After his majority in 1342 he:
Soon became embroiled in English campaigning on the continent: he was probably in Gascony in 1345–6, at the siege of Calais in 1347, and, perhaps, on the expedition of Henry, duke of Lancaster, to Prussia in 1351–2. In 1353 and again in 1354 he participated in unsuccessful Anglo-Scottish negotiations concerning the release of David II, king of Scots (an English prisoner since his capture at Neville’s Cross in 1346). In September 1354 Greystoke was appointed captain of the border town of Berwick: while he was absent campaigning once more in France it fell into Scottish hands in August 1355. As his second wife he had married Joan, the daughter of Sir Henry fitz Henry (Fitzhugh). He died on 10 July 1359 and was buried in Greystoke church.
So William and his knights plus his ‘stock’ of bowman tenants, no doubt including some from Grisdale, was most probably with sixteen year old Edward the Black Prince (the son of King Edward III) when the English army destroyed the French at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. He was also at the Siege of Calais during which the inhabitants suffered greatly and were reduced to eating dogs and rats. He also went to Prussia to help the Teutonic Knights fight the pagan Lithuanians, and was back again in France in 1355/56 where he and his men quite possibly fought in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 when the Black Prince’s English army destroyed the French chivalry yet again.
It was for all this war service to the French-speaking English king, Edward III, which led to William being granted the right to crenellate his pele tower in Greystock in 1353 – to transform it into a proper castle.
Often these battles at the start of the Hundred Years War are presented as ‘English’ victories over the French. In the sense that it was the simple English soldiers and bowman who won the victories over the massed flower of French chivalry then this is true. But really it was about one group of French noble thugs fighting another group of the same for control of large parts of France. From the English king on down to more humble nobles such as William de Greystoke, while many of them now had started to understand and even speak English, their primary language was still French. A few years before Robert of Gloucester wrote:
And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.
In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most “English” of Kings Henry V (1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French. It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.
I haven’t said much about the ordinary everyday life of the people of Grisdale in the fourteenth century. When they weren’t suffering at the hands of Scottish reivers and armies, being dragged to France to fight in the Greystokes’ wars or dying of the plague, they farmed a few small strips of land in the valley, tended the sheep on the moors, cut turf to keep them warm, kept a few pigs, worked on their lord’s home farm and tried to get enough money together to pay periodic taxes and regular rents. It was a hard life that wouldn’t change for centuries.
And so dear members of the extended Grisdale family, I hope this gives just a small inkling of where and from whom you come. If you have the name Grisdale/Grisedale your family name line will take you back to Grisdale in Cumbria in the early fourteenth century and, most likely, to the Scandinavians who arrived in Cumbria in the tenth century. Of course you’ll have dozens, even hundreds, of other genealogical and genetic ancestral lines as well, and in that sense you’re a mongrel like everyone else. But unlike other family names (such as mine) the great thing about Grisdale genealogy is that I have yet to find any proven case of someone bearing the name where it can be demonstrated that their family originates anywhere other than Matterdale and thus without much doubt ultimately from Grisdale (Mungrisdale).
Forget our thousand years of brutal kings and queens, our French lords, even (if you wish) the Scandinavian origins of your name. The Grisdale family is, with many others, about as English as you’ll get. That you most likely descend from a few tenth-century Vikings who became farmers and shepherds in remote Cumbrian Grisdale and your ancestors somehow survived centuries-long exploitation and repression to produce you (and even me) is, I think, something to rejoice in.