Early Greshams

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.

Hastings Battle Roll

Hastings Battle Roll

Braunch on the Battle Roll

Braunch on the Battle Roll

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.

Town of Gresham Town Sign

Gresham Town Sign

IMG_1339

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.

Gresham Coat of Arms

Gresham Coat of Arms

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.

Thomas Gresham in Glass

Thomas Gresham in Glass

Part of Gresham Prep

Part of Gresham Prep

The Original School now a Kindergarten

The Original School now a Kindergarten

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.

7 thoughts on “Early Greshams

  1. High exciting. Edward Gresham (1618-1704) was my 8th great grandfather, too. I have searched and searched myself and have lots of information back quite far. I am 72 years old and was born in Marion, Illinois, to Hartley Lee Grisham and Juanita Ferguson. Love to talk to you more. Your posting is absolutely marvelous. Thanks for all of your hard work. What wonderful travels. My website is of our business, R & S Designs, Inc. That is me in the demonstration. –Sue

  2. I found your potted history of the Gresham ancestors probably correct in all main details, amusing, relevant and realistic. I am researching the Branches,and also visited Gresham, the Barshams etc recently. I am still trying to find the source of the “two Knights fees” story-I cannot get any date earlier than the early 19th century. Both Branch and Gresham family members were traders, both went to the Americas in the early 1600s and both went forth and multiplied. I would love to nail those early years and understand why a pair of brothers decided to use different names, and if the Greshams and Branchs share the same DNA.
    PS Don’t take that “Battle Roll” thing seriously; anyone could get their name on that if they slipped the monks at Battle Abbey a suitably sized donation !

  3. Ah, yes! The “Gresham was the principal seat” story. Where did this come from? I have found a reference to Branchs Manor, but certainly no Branch seems to have been a tenant around 1086, when all the Saxons had been kicked out and replaced by Normans, as recorded in Domesday. How about the Branch/Gresham transformation? Which contemporary records mention this? Nicholas Branch (Braunch) is fairly well referenced a couple of hundred years later, and had connections to Norfolk and Somerset, but his line died out 2 generations later. I really want to get back to all those exiles from Normandy, but myths get in the way. As an aside, I recently had the family Tree DNA family Finder test. This seems to show that my ethnic background is around half Scandanavian, so there may be a future (or past) in rooting around those old records! Its not that I don’t think it all may be true, but I see no independent evidence.

  4. I am a Gresham and have been searching my genealogy for 10 or more years but I just can’t seem to make the connection back to England. My oldest known Gresham relative is John, who was born around 1775 in North Carolina, moving to Kentucky around the turn of the century, and then eventually to Indiana (which I where I live.) The most famous Gresham in the US likely Walter Q. Gresham, who was a federal judge and cabinet member for two presidents, and he also lived in Indiana (actually nearer to where I live than where John settled,) but I know his family came through Virginia and I can’t even find a connection to his family.
    Nevertheless, I hope to travel to Europe in a year or so (I recently won two games on Jeopardy! and that’s what we plan to do with the winnings,) and I feel like these are some places I should definitely visit.

    • Hello Marcus, My name is Nancy Sue (Grisham) Hardwig. I am very interested in talking to you more regarding your Gresham ancestry. I too wanted to find out as much as I could regarding the Gresham/Grisham lineage. The Immigrant in my line was Edward Gresham, born in 1618 in Surry County, England, and died in 1704 in Virginia. Edward would have been my 8th great grandfather. The Grishams in my line moved to Southern Illinois to live. Please feel free to contact me. –Sue

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