Fact and Fiction in Family History
By Don Steel
This article was originally published in the March 1996 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
For many Years Family Tree Magazine has reigned supreme as the only popular national magazine for the hobby, its only competition being the prestigious and academic Genealogists' Magazine and the host of journals of the local family history societies. I have long expected a rival to emerge and now it has ‑ Family History Monthly produced by the Diamond Publishing Group, 45 St. Mary's Road, Ealing, London, W5 5RQ, price £2 per issue. The lay‑out is attractive and as with Family Tree Magazine there is a good balance of different kinds of articles – a “how to do it” course for beginners and articles on more sophisticated records such as tax or manorial records for the more experienced.
Two areas where there is much more than in Family Tree Magazine are general accounts of the origins of various kinds of surnames and potted family histories of well‑known families. The latter is a bold move hitherto eschewed by Family Tree Magazine, for we all know that there is nothing that most family historians find more boring than other people's family histories. So they are chatty and anecdotal, usually centre around a very famous person, and end up with a run‑down on other well‑known people of the surname ‑ Spencer, Campbell, Shaw, Dickens, Wilson, Nightingale. There is precious little (and usually nothing) about the ancestry of the supporting cast though I suspect that a trawl through the genealogists interests directories would have revealed many people knowledgeable on where at least some of them fitted in. There is clearly a commercial formula at work here, for they are nearly all written up by the assistant editors Caroline Singer and Sarah Stephens from easily accessible reference books and do not reflect any original, still less profound, research. But I find the family origins of the famous interesting (though often no more so than yours and mine) and doubtless this will be a very successful series.
What rather worries me however, is the uncritical way in which long demolished family tales have resurfaced. The very first article in the first number on the Princess of Wales' ancestors ‑ the Spencers of Althorpe ‑ trots out their spurious descent from the Norman Despensers, Edward ll's favourites, a family with which they had no connection whatsoever. It was utterly discredited by that doyen debunker of phoney pedigrees, Horace Round, in his essay on The Rise of the Spencers in Studies in Peerage and Family History published in 1901 and has been frequently cited as a typical Elizabethan forgery in works such as Sir Anthony Wagner’s English Genealogy (1960). Round describes the Spencer pedigree and arms as “a typical case of the Heralds' College providing a family, when it has acquired wealth, with arms to which it is not entitled on the strength of a pedigree concocted for the purpose”. John Spencer, the purchaser of Althorpe and Wormleighton in 1506/8 laid no claim to any other than his true origin ‑wealthy graziers on the Warwickshire-Northampton border. In a deed of 1497, his father‑in‑law William Graunt of Snitterfield (later to be the residence of Shakespeare's father) is described as “husbandman” ‑ hardly a match for the scion of the Despencers! John was granted a coat in 1504 totally different from that of the Despensers and the first effigy, on which is found the arms on the magazine's back cover, a differenced coat of the Despencers, is that of Sir John Spencer who died in 1576. Round sums up the creation of the fictional pedigree by the Clarencieux Herald, Richard Lee, in his usual forthright way:
"He took from the records Spencers and Despencers wherever he could lay his hands on them, fitted them together in one pedigree at his own sweet will, rammed into his composition several distinct families, and then boldly, certified the whole as gospel truth.”
"The resemblance of the modus operandi here to that employed on the Russell family (the Dukes of Bedford) is so close as to tempt one to suggest that there was a "Complete Herauld" for the use of the College of Arms. In both cases a modem family had to be derived from a baronial house; in both, the entries in genuine records were fraudulently used and connected; and in both the worst crux was surrounded by the same device, namely, that of providing one of the baronial house with a wholly imaginary second wife, by whom he could be made the ancestor of the artful herald's dupes
The Tudor forgery obscures the real achievement of the Spencers of Althorpe. Alone, perhaps among the English nobility, the Spencers owed their riches and their rise not to the favour of a king or to the spoils of monasteries, nor even to a fortune made in trade, but to successful farming.
A Family, History, magazine has to be “popular". No one is expecting a clone of the Genealogist's Magazine. But this does not mean that centuries of painstaking scholarship should be ignored and hoary old fictions presented to the uninitiated as sober fact.
Such concoctions are by no means confined to the nobility and gentry. When I was working on the BBC series on Family History, Gordon Honeycombe gave me a copy of a little family history, published in 1907 written by a John Symons Honeycomb of Newark, New Jersey. John, whom Gordon's researches had shown was a distant cousin, was a self‑made millionaire, building railroads and factories. In this case the villain of the piece was not a herald or even a professional genealogist trading on the credulity of his client as was very common in the 19th century, particularly in America, but was the millionaire himself, who emigrating with his parents in 1855, actually started his working life in the lead mines of Govener in New York State. John traced his family tree from a Norman knight, Honi a Combat, who came over with the Conqueror and subdued Devon for him. By analogy with "Honi soit qui ma y pense” (usually translated as 'Evil be to him who evil thinks’), the motto of the Order of the Garter, his name allegedly meant “Evil in battle” or more loosely "A bad man in a fight”. The Honeycombes were, says John, lords of the manor first at Honeycombe Hall in the parish of Galstock, Cornwall and then of St. Cleer. They sold the manor house in 1855 to emigrate.
The whole of it was a bold piece of fiction. The earliest Honeycombe we have found was a serf. Not long before they left for America, the Honeycombes were on poor relief. The name, like dozens of West Country "combe" surnames derives from a place and that in turn probably meant “Huna's Valley” from an Anglo‑Saxon personal name found in Honiton and Honeychurch rather than meaning "honey valley” as my place‑name dictionary has it. "Honi", in fact, does not mean “evil". Coming from the Norman‑French "honir" it meant "dishonoured" and Honi a Combat would mean "dishonoured in battle", a strange name for a Norman knight to wish to perpetuate. Yet this nonsense was, and mostly still is implicitly believed by every branch of the Honeycombe family. A branch in Wisconsin has even named a quartet the Honi String Quartet!
MEN OF SOLE
It is not surprising therefore to find the Soles have their own crop of such tales. The story that has been passed down Brigadier Denis Sole's family, that they came from Soules near St. Lo in Normandy and that the Men of Sole were prominent at the Battle of Hastings, is found in Ridlon’s History of the Sole Family published in 1923, and described in earlier journals, but it goes back long before that. Denis’s ancestor Francis Sole (1748‑1815) had an elder brother William Sole (1741‑1802), a Bath surgeon and a distinguished botanist, born at Thetford in the Isle of Ely. The article on him in the Dictionary of National Biography published about 1900 says:
“The family, which derived its name (perpetuated in Sole Street near Rochester) from Soules near St. Lo in Normandy, was settled in Kent during the reign of Richard 1, and held the manor of Soles in the parish of Nonnington in that of Edward 1. William Sole, grandson of John Sole, Mayor of Faversham in 1444 (Who raised a company of pikes against Jack Cade and received the thanks of the Privy Council) settled in the Isle of Ely about 1510 and was the ancestor of the botanist."
The article was written by a George Simonds Boulger but his source is given as “private information” - no doubt the very document which has passed down Denis's family. Since Boulger also says that a miniature of William was in the possession of William's great‑nephew, the Rev A Baron Sole of Winchester (Denis’s great‑uncle), it is reasonable to assume that he also received the genealogical information from him.
The pedigree inherited by Denis is made up of a number of disparate elements.
1. The Alleged Norman Origin of the Soles.
The Roll of Battle Abbey is cited as one source of information. Built on the site of the Battle of Hastings, the abbey was founded by William the Conqueror in fulfilment of a vow made by him prior to the battle. The first community, a society of Benedictines, came from Marmonstier in Normandy and was enjoined to pray for those who died in battle and to present a faithful record of all who shared in the glory of victory. The roll is a mere list of names. There is no historical account or any story, such as that of the “Men of Sole” which only comes from Wace (of whom hereafter). Six versions of the roll are known and all are different. That preserved by the Tudor chronicler Holinshed (died 1580) whom, incidentally, Shakespeare drew upon extensively for his histories, has 645 names including SULE and SAULAY. This is the version which, prior to the Dissolution, hung in the Abbev. Brompton"s Chronicle with 245 names gives a different version which includes neither entry. Its authenticity may be in doubt since the Dictionary of National Biography describes John Brompton as “supposed chronicler: abbot of Jorvaux 1436, possibly author of a chronicle From the Coming of St. Augustinian to the Death of Richard l”. A 17th century historian, Andre Duchesne, published a list derived from a charter in Battle Abbey. Again there is no name resembling SOLE. Lastly, Leland (the usual spelling, though Leyland is encountered) has two lists. Leland was not a chronicler but a distinguished Tudor antiquary and Henry VIll's chaplain. In 1533, three years before Henry started dissolving the monasteries, Leland received a novel commission under the great seal as the king's antiquary with power to search for records, manuscripts, and records of antiquity in all the cathedrals, colleges, and religious houses of England. When the dissolution came, he tried to preserve manuscripts but had no power to actually collect them. In his work he travelled all over the country and in 1545 he proposed to write up his notes as a geographical description of England, an account of the British nobility and a great history of the antiquities of the British Isles. He did not complete these undertakings for he was certified insane in March 1550 and died on April 18 1552. Nevertheless the unfinished work, published as Leland's Itinerary in England and Wales in eleven parts in five volumes is a fascinating account of Tudor England. There are 44 pages on Kent but no mention either of Soles or the Sole family and they do not figure in the place and personal name indexes. However another of Leland’s works, Collectanea de Rebus Britannicis reproduces two Norman‑French documents which are apparently versions of the Battle Abbey Roll. The first is headed Un role de ceux queux veignont in Angleterre ovesque roy William la Conquereur and its 498 entries includes “Ii Sires de Sole et les Sires de Sureval”. Later there is ”Ii sires Soillie”. These correspond to the SULE and SAULAY of the Holinshed version. The second list is quite different from the other one. Like the Brompton and Duschesne versions, the names are grouped in pairs and the closest to “our” surnames is SOLERS, linked with SESSEE. In The Conqueror and his Companions (1874), Planche describes this second version as “nothing more than a ludicrous blunder which I have exposed elsewhere". The other two versions, Monsieur de Magny's catalogue with 425 names and that compiled by M. Leopold Delisle in the church at Dive with 485 names are mentioned by Planche but not reproduced in J. Berhard Burke's The Roll Of Battle Abbey (1848).
The format of three of the four lists available to me would seem to show that they were designed for recitation by the monks of Battle Abbey praying for the souls of the warriors at Hastings. The status of these entries is uncertain. Sims's Manual for the Genealogist, Topographer, Antiquary and Legal Professor, published in 1856, says of the Battle Abbey Roll:
Another class of records, often found amongst the documents be longing to the dissolved religious houses, are rolls of the names of illustrious men, kings, nobles, warriors and others, who were present at some religious, joyous or warlike ceremony, or as in some other way remembered. Of these the most notorious and curious is the Battle Abbey Roll, in which were recorded the names of the principal soldiers who attended William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Genealogists have been accustomed to refer to this roll in proof of the Norman descent of a family; but it became so falsified in the course of years by the insertions and forgeries of the monks, that its authority is of little value ‑ an assertion first made by Camped above two centuries ago (i.e. in the early 17th century) who said that “whomsoever considereth it well shall find it always to be forged, and the names to be inserted which the time in every age favoured, and were never mentioned in the notable record of Doomsday.”
Planche, who was Somerset Herald, limits the entries in his book to those recorded by contemporary or nearly contemporary writers as having been present at Hastings and does not include any name like SOLE. Since he also wrote A Corner of Kent (in which the Sole family of Ash figures prominently) if anyone would know about the Norman descent of a Kentish family he would. But whether SULE and SAULAY (or SOLE and SOILLIE) were original entries in the Battle
Abbey Roll or (as I would imagine) later interpolations and whether or not SULE could conceivably derive from Soules in Normandy are really matters of purely academic interest, for a SULE could not have been granted Soles or have been the ancestor of the later lords of the manor there, like John de Soles in 1280, the first of whom we have certain knowledge.
Firstly, since the family held the manor of Soles it is clear they took their name from it, not from any place in Normandy. Secondly, the knights on the Battle Abbey Roll purport to be William's entire officer corps. They were granted lands all over England. There is no reason to identity SULE necessarily with Kent but of course he could have been given lands there. But thirdly, no SOLE appears in Doomsday being granted lands in Kent or anywhere else and that really is the decisive argument. Interestingly, in 1086 the manor of Soles in Nonnington parish was still held by a Saxon, something relatively unusual in Doomsday Book.
Ansfrid holds Soles from the Bishop. It answers for one solung ... Aelmar held it from King Edward.
The Bishop was William's half‑brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. So the reference in Denis's pedigree that Soles at the Conquest was granted to the Chapter of Bayeux is wrong. It had been held before the Conquest by Aelmar and was granted to Odo as Earl of Kent but actually held in 1086 by Ansfrid as his subtenant. The solung was a peculiarly Kentish measurement, analogous to the hide elsewhere. (The hide was a measure of land sufficient to support a family and its dependants, usually 60 to 120 acres). Round in his Feudal England has six pages of discussion on it (pp 103‑109). He quotes Professor Vinogradoff’s Villeinage in England:
Of the sulung I have spoken already. It is a full ploughland, and 200 acres are commonly reckoned to belong to it.
and Seebohm in his The English Village Community:
Along with parts of Essex, the Kentish records differ in phraseology from those of the rest of England. Their sullungs of 240 acres occur also in the manors of Essex belonging to St. Pauls and the custom of gavelkind (in cases of intestate, division among all the sons) and succession of the youngest child mark it off as exceptional.
Round dissents from the view that it is found in Essex but that is of little importance to us. The significant things are surely that the surnames SOLE and SOLLEY are common in the only county (with the possible exception of Essex) which used the solung as a measure and ‑ certainly with regard to Sole ‑ appear to have originated in several different parts of the coutry, that the same county has two Sole Streets and a Soles and perhaps most significant of all, the manor of Soles measured exactly, one solung. Here surely, lies the derivation of the place‑names and the surnames derived from them, rather than a spate of Kentish muddy places, the derivation given in the surname dictionaries.
That Soles was held by a Saxon in 1086 is just as interesting. Ansfrid was a Doomsday sub‑tenant and his holding was quite small, which is perhaps why the family was allowed to keep it, though we may assume that the former owner Aelmar (perhaps his father) was a quisling (a person co‑operating with an occupying enemy). He retained his land though he lost the ownership, becoming a sub‑tenant of Odo.
If a John de Soles really did hold the manor of Soles in 1280, he was probably a descendant not of a Norman knight but of the original Saxon holders, though of course the family, could have lost Soles any time in the two centuries between 1086 and 1280. The “de” means nothing, merely reflecting the fact that all the documents were written in Latin or Norman‑French. As with other surnames derived from places where the ancestors were known to have been landholders of the place for generations, such a “surname” would be a simple topographical description of successive owners rather than truly hereditary. Gradually the one would shade into the other and the name was eventually, carried with them when its bearers moved elsewhere.
Another source cited in Denis's pedigree is Wace. Robert Wace was born in Jersey about 1100, was taken when young to Normandy for education, made a prebend of Bayeux by Henry II, completed his Roman de Rou, a metrical history of the Dukes of Normandy, in 1160, and died in England some time after 1173. His materials for the history of William the Conqueror, and especially of the invasion of 1066 were drawn from original and independent sources, the relatives of those who fought in the battle and the gossip in general circulation. I have not yet seen a copy, but have no reason to doubt that the story of the prowess of the “Men of Sole” at Hastings will be found there. This story is not about any individual called Sole but about a company who may perhaps have come from Soules in Normandy. If the Sule‑Sole entry in the Battle Abbey roll is to be believed, they may well have been led by the Sieur de Soules, but even this is rather unreliable. There is nothing to connect the "Men of Sole” with Kent. Also The Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Wace says:
Where Wace follows no ascertainable source for the material in his chronicles he must be used with caution. Undoubtedly he used oral tradition but he also seems in various instances to have given free play to his imagination.
In any event it does not affect my contention that since there are several scattered medieval references to a Sole family in Soles, it look its name from there and not from any place in Normandy, even if the Sieur de Soules was at Hastings.
SOLE is not listed in Lloyd's The Origins of some Anglo‑Norman Families (1951). It does, however, rate an entry in The Norman People, a dictionary of Norman surnames published anonymously in 1874 and which I suspect was written by the distinguished medieval scholar Edward Freeman (1823‑1892) who published his work on The Norman Conquest of England in six volumes between 1867 and 1879. There is a chapter headed Criticism of Family History which, like Round's works, rails against phoney Norman pedigrees. Perhaps as an academic ‑ he was later Regius Professor of Modem History at Oxford ‑ Freeman did not want it generally known he dabbled in such an unscholarly pastime as Family History. Under SOLE he gives no reference to Wace whose work he must have been very familiar with, but does give several other references:
The estate of Ranulph de Sola, Normandy, was granted 1209 by Philip Augustus to another (Memoirs de la Societe des Antiquaires de Normandie v.158), Ranulph, William, Salemon de Sola, Normandy 1198 (the same, vol. 15‑17). William Sole, England c.1272 (Hundred Rolls).
and under SOLEY:
William de Solio or de Soliis and Richard 1180‑95, Normandy (Memoirs de la Societe... as above vol. 15‑17), Richard de Solies or Soliers (the same), Mabilia, William, Simon, Walter de Soliers or Solers, England c1198 (Curia Regis Rolls)
I rather doubt if any of these are relevant to us. The first of the SOLEY ones is almost certainly the reference in Denis's pedigree to M. de Gerville recording that William de Soles held three knight's fees in Normandy. The spelling would appear to have been amended by the author of the pedigree to make it look more relevant and it has also been transposed to the beginning of the narrative, just before the reference to the Men of Sole at Hastings, to give the misleading impression that it was a pre‑Conquest reference. The Conquest part of Denis's pedigree furnishes an interesting example of how a story gains a bit every time it is retold. The author takes de Gerville's reference to a late 12th century landowner in Normandy called "de Solio" or "de Soliis", changes it to "Soles" and, by implication, puts him at the time of the Conquest. But he does not go so far as to name the ancestor at Hastings. The latest account does. After the vague Conquest references, the pedigree proper starts with a "Robertus de Sole" on the Great Roll of the Pipe for Kent in 1189. In the recent account, Robert (Robertus is of course just the form found in a Latin document) has been transposed 125 years to become the name of the man who fought at Hastings and the Pipe Roll reference, though still there, becomes anonymous.
2. Medieval References to Soles
There is a reference to a John de Soles who was allegedly lord of the tiny (200 or so acres) manor of Soles in 1280 and others who held land elsewhere in Nonington. They, no doubt, mostly came from Edward Hasted's The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent published in 1778, Hasted being carelessly cited in the pedigree (and repeated later) as "Halstead", though that could have been the typist. These stray references have mostly been strung together into a pedigree, along with two still earlier Kentish references and others of the surname in Oxfordshire and Shropshire. But although most are made "son" or "brother" of the man in the previous reference, the pedigree does not try either to relate John de Soles to the earlier entries or to relate "Willo de Sole" in 1200 to the first reference to a Robertus de Sole in 1198. (Willo, of course, should be William, being the abbreviated dative form of Willelmus" "to William".) But not only has "Robertus" been transposed 125 years to be present at Hastings, but "Willo" in John's reign has been made his grandson. So with each successive telling does a spurious pedigree get more and more firmed up. It is not often we can so closely pinpoint the process at work.
Other additions are the alleged grants of arms to a John Sole who bought Betshangar in 1347 and a John Sole in the “late 15th century". In fact, medieval arms were not “granted”, but simply "borne" ‑ the only restrictions being that you must be of noble blood and that you could not bear arms already borne by another. The first recorded “grant" was of "nobility and arms" to a John de Kyngeston by Richard II in1389 but the first grants in the modem sense came after the foundation of the College of Arms in 1484, the first being in 1492. The John Sole of Wichford, Cambridgeshire, alleged in the pedigree to be granted arms did not live in the 15th century, but died in 1605. It would seem that the truth has twice been improved upon with the addition of fictitious grants. I shall be very surprised indeed if the grant of arms was even a 16th century one as the Stretham branch, to which John belonged, was not of sufficient status at that time. The Heraldry of Fish was not written by Guillim, a Pursuivant of Arms who wrote a book called The Display of Heraldry in the 17th century, but was published in 1842 and was by a Thomas Moule. This fathering of a book on an earlier heraldic author would seem to represent an attempt to make the family armigerous long before they actually were, and the pedigree‑maker's 16th century, itself an exaggeration, has been pushed back another two centuries. For a fee, the truth can easily be ascertained from the College of Arms.
3. John Sole, Mayor of Faversharn
He doubtless surfaces in records of Cade's rebellion but there is nothing to link him with Soles or Nonington. He could well have been a relative, maybe even a younger son of a minor landowner as successful merchants often were. Dick Whittington is a good example ‑ not a poor boy but the son of a Gloucestershire knight.
4. The Mayor's "sons"
In Denis's pedigree, the mayor is allocated four sons to link up different Sole families. George is alleged to have inherited Nonnington lands, though it seems unlikely in the extreme that the mayor of a borough was also a landowner. A younger son or more distant relative of a landowner is much more likely, so George was probably John's distant cousin rather than his son. Thomas was Rector of St. Peter's Sandwich in 1499. Again I think it highly unlikely he came from Faversham, though like the mayor he most probably stemmed from the Soles family. John is alleged to have settled at "Ecklington". This should be Eckington and is a reference to the Worcestershire family from whom it is believed George Soule, the pilgrim on the Mayflower, was descended though the pedigree was made long before the American scholar, Banks came to this conclusion and so does not introduce an American connection. There is, in fact, no evidence whatever of any link between the Kent and Worcestershire Soles. The latter may well ultimately derive from Saul on the Severn. The first John is a fictitious link, though his son is genuine.
The mayor's youngest “son” William, is alleged to have settled at Stretham in the Isle of Ely and was Denis's ancestor. The Sole family of Stretham, near where the Cam joins the Ouse would seem to have been the earliest family we know of in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, or Buckinghamshire, and it may well be, as I have suggested before, that all the stems in these counties ultimately go back to Stretham, the Ouse and its tributaries being the vehicle for their dissemination. If we could believe William came from Kent it would explain a great deal. It could be that Denis's family preserved a tradition of having originally come from Kent. There was much coastal trade and it is not inherently unlikely. But I am sure there is no evidence to support William's affiliation to the Mayor of Faversham who is said to have negotiated with Jack Cade.
5. The Eckington Soles
Two generation of these, John Sole of Eckington who was Mayor of Worcester and his son Robert, citizen and salter of London (will dated 1593) are historical. The arms were actually granted not to Robert as Denis’s pedigree says, but to his father, though they were confirmed to Robert.
6. John Sole who married Anne Parsons of Battersea in 1615
He is made the link between Robert Sole of London and Thomas the shipwright who purchased Bobbing Place, Kent. This part of the pedigree is clearly a fiction for Robert's will dated 18 July 1593 mentions all eight of his children and there was not a John among them. In the concoction of the pedigree this marriage has clearly been found and used as a link.
7. The Bobbing Place Soles
Here we strike another short genuine pedigree of Thomas the shipbuilder, his son Cockin Sole and his grandson John Cockin Sole, High Sheriff of Kent in 1756.
Except for the last generation or two, the pedigree is probably, Victorian for it first surfaced in the Dictionary of National Biography entry for William Sole the botanist around 1900 and mentions the Heraldry of Fish published in 1842. The reference to M. de Gerville, presumably in the journal of the Normandy equivalent of the Journal of the Society of Antiquaries, was most probably drawn to the author's attention by The Norman People published in 1874 and he doubtless then tracked down the original reference in the British Museum Library, where, not long before, Karl Marx had been writing Das Kapital. So the pedigree was probably concocted between 1874 and 1899. Most probably Rev Arthur Baron Sole, born 1853 who almost certainly provided the genealogical information in the Dictionary of National Biography entry was its compiler but it could possibly have been his brother Rev William Anslow Sole of Crudwell, Wiltshire, Denis’s grandfather. I have only seen a typescript version which has been extended right up to the present. The original handwritten copy, if it survives might furnish more clues.
Whoever was the compiler, one thing is clear. He, took from the records Soles wherever he could lay his hands on them, fitted them together in one pedigree at his own sweet will, rammed into his composition several distinct families, and then boldly certified the whole as gospel truth..
Pedigrees inherited from the past can be very, useful in providing clues. But they need to be checked every step of the way, and more often than not, are found wanting because wishful thinking has played a larger role than historical scholarship. Descents from alleged companions of the Conqueror are about as likely as the Honeycombe one from Honi a Combat.
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