Amateur genealogists or family historians (to whom I belong by self-proclamation) are usually excited by 1) being able to trace a family history back more than a few generations or 2) finding celebrity ancestors in their tree. I have been fortunate to be able to do both on both sides of the family. On the antiquity side, my success is primarily due to large families and in some cases large estates. If there is property, someone will keep records. In the case of the Greshams, who move to the colonies and marry at least two times with the McKenneys, the records are very complete. I will start with my wife’s 24th Great-Grandfather, the Norman Ralphe de Braunche.
Ralph was a descendant of those raucous 9th Century Vikings who were bought off by the French King who granted them Normandy in return for a promise to leave Paris alone. These Northmen (shortened to Normans) grew to like France so much that they never considered returning to the chilly north. They learned French and appreciated Calvados, Cidre and French vintages and quickly lost their rough edges. The fur clothes were gone and the Normans had a genius for government not seen since the Romans. Over the next few centuries, they will develop this foothold on the west coast of France into the most powerful and sophisticated medieval European empire. Our ancestor Ralph was of this nation. Ralph gives his home as being Pays de Caux (the land of chalk) on the north bank of the Seine estuary. This is as close as we get to locating Ralph in Normandy.
As most people who did not sleep through all of their history classes know, the Normans under Duke William II defeat the Anglo-Saxon forces of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Peggy and I went to Battle Abbey and stomped around the battlefield. In the souvenir shop we ran across the Battle Roll facsimile that was not available for purchase, thus the picture. The Battle Roll lists the knights and their liege lords who fought in the battle. There is Braunch listed in the second column from the left.
Shortly after the conquest, King William ordered a complete inventory of the land, people, livestock and other assets that he now owned. According to the Doomsday Book, the town of Gresham was initially granted to William de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, who must have been our Ralph Braunche’s liege lord (the “u” is quickly dropped in the last name). Warennes held a position equivalent to a general today. Ralph received the fief of Gresham as one of his two “knights” or land and peasants with enough rents to support two knights. Both Ralph and his son Richard are in the charters of Walsingham Abbey. Charters were the medieval grants or deeds of record before modern record keeping. Watch the “Pillars of the Earth” series to see the dramatic importance of these documents.
Ralph’s education was probably limited to military skills and he certainly spoke no Saxon or if you prefer, English. He appears to have died around 1100 in Gresham. His son Richard was also French born but his grandson, William is baptized in Gresham. We found the town of Gresham and quickly came across the unmistakable family crest with the grasshopper. We also went to the parish church whose bell tower pre-dates the Norman Conquest.
The Braunches soon give their last names as de Gresham and lose the “de” by the mid-1300’s. They move for a generation or two to Aylmerton in Norfolk which lies adjacent to the parish of Gresham. The reason for the move is not documented but the timing coincides with the Black Death.
The “shield” part of the coat of arms dates from the 12th or 13th Century. The grasshopper is added in the 14th. There are a number of stories about the bug. I am no authority on medieval heraldry so I have no opinion other than it is a unique feature of the Greshams.
By the late 1300’s they reside in nearby Holt. It was from the Holt Greshams that the family begin its rise to national prominence. John Gresham,(Peggy’s 12th great grandfather) born in 1495 was apprenticed and became a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers in London. Mercers were merchants specializing in trading silk and other fine cloths required by noble families and the church. John was in partnership with his brother Richard and together they exported textiles from England and imported grain from Germany (or the Hanseatic League) and wine from Bordeaux. He also imported spices and silks from the Ottoman Empire and timber and skins from the Baltic. He was one the founders of the Russia Company, the model for the later Virginia Company. Cardinal Wolsey was one of his major clients to whom he supplied silk and tapestries for the Cardinal’s modest quarters. John buys the land upon which Titsey Manor in Surrey is built along with numerous other properties. John becomes Sheriff of London and Middlesex in 1537-38 and is knighted at this time. He is a member of the royal household from 1527 to 1550. His title is “esquire of the body” of Henry VIII. Henry gives Thomas the manor of Sanderson in Surrey following the dissolution of the monasteries. As a loyal servant of Henry, he serves as a juror in the trial of the alleged lovers of Catherine Howard, fifth of Henry’s wives. Both are beheaded along with Catherine. In 1547 he became Lord Mayor of London and then served as an Alderman. In 1555 he founded Gresham’s School in Holt and endowed the same with money and land in the care of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. He dies in 1556 and lies in the London church of St. Michael of Bassishaw.
It was to see the school that Thomas founded in Holt that we traveled to in Norfolk. Upon arrival we were a bit concerned about lurking around a school so we we checked into the administration building. After telling the receptionist about the family connection, she called the head of the school foundation who promptly rode his bicycle out from town to see us. It was almost like being royalty. He escorted us around and to the chapel where Thomas and his wife, Lady Mary are depicted in stain glass. We accompanied him to his office in town near the site of the original school, now a pre-school and enjoyed a cup of tea. He wanted to know if we had children needing an education as they did accept a limited number of foreigners. We told him that our kids had completed school but he made sure that we knew that they would be around for grandchildren. He gave us a gift of a Gresham grasshopper and we said our good byes. As we later found out, the school is where kids wanting admission to Oxford or Cambridge get their preparatory education. The place looks like a Harry Potter school without sorcerers.
While the life of Thomas is fascinating, he is not alone. His nephew, another Thomas, will found the Royal Exchange (the British Stock Market), perform duties as a spy on the activities of Phillip II in the Low Counties, serve as Queen Elizabeth’s financial adviser and host her and the royal household at his London home for dinner a number of times. To say that the Gresham family was connected is an understatement. To point out that they survived as finance gurus for the Tudors and kept their heads is amazing. Even Catholic Bloody Mary respected and used their services despite their Protestant beliefs.
The family continues to be knighted generation after generation and eventually achieves minor noble status as baronets. This title dies out in the 1700’s but not the family descendents who still reside at Titsey Manor. It is the younger son Edward (Peggy’s 8th great-grandfather), born in 1618 that will move to Virginia while his brother immigrates to Maryland.