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The Ardens of Arden

The Ardens in historical context -  G. PINE writes about England’s oldest recorded family, showing William Shakespeare's connection with it on his mother's side.


TIME and again I have had occasion to wipe out pre­tentious claims to an ancestor who was with William the Conqueror at Hastings.

The fingers of one hand suffice to count those: families whose male line descent can be reckoned from a Norman present at the battle in 1066.

What then of those who were on the other side? Male line descents from the English. Of pre-Conquest days can count hardly more than two certainties. Of these most appropriately I think the more interesting is the family of the mother of our greatest poet, William Shakespeare.

Any family who can command the panegyric of writers so far removed from one another as Horace Round and Sir Bernard Burke one might call them the representatives respectively of scientific history and of romance, must indeed be of high distinction, and such undoubtedly are the Ardens of Arden, - deep rooted in Warwickshire for a thousand years.

'The difficulty for other families in attempting a pedigree of this length is that the records of the 11th century axe so scanty. We are not sure that Gundreda was one of William the Conqueror's daughters, yet she married a great Norman leader, Earl Warrenne of Surrey. We do not know what happened to the children of King Harold who was killed at Hastings

Such being our ignorance of the, great and their offspring, what preposterous nonsense it is for people to claim (as they often do me) that their ancestry is traceable to Saxon times,

The great interest of the Arden family is that they do know who their ancestor was over 900 years ago. Horace Round was the greatest scholar yet to investigate the history of the Norman Period. His vinegary -asperity spelt the end of scores of vaunted pedigrees. Yet, when be wrote of the Ardens he waxed almost lyrical.

It has, he said, "a distinction, perhaps unique. For it had not only a clear descent from Aelfwine, Sheriff of Warwickshire, in days, before the Conquest, but even held, of the great possessions which Domesday shows us its ancester as lord, some manors which had been his before the Normans landed at least as late as the days of Queen Elizabeth."

This Aelfwine who held the high office of Sheriff of the county in the time of the Confessor (1042-66) was a benefactor to Coventry Abbey. His wife was subsequently given in marriage by the Conqueror to a "certain young Richard," and died before 1086. Aelfwine must have died early on in the Conquest, era, as not even William the Conqueror, crime stained as he was, would have broken up a legitimate marriage. Of course Aelfwine did not begin his family's history as land­ owners. His ancestors were noble, too, but their names have not survived.

Sir Bernard Burke soon put that in the first edition of the right Gentry. He gives Guy of Warwick as an ancestor of Aelfwine, and mentions a celebrated tournament about the year 937 in pre-Conquest times an impossible event, just as the name Guy would not be borne by an Englishman before the Conquest.

Sir Bernard was just as learned as Round, but lie simply could not resist the call of romance, and what name more romantic than Guy of Warwick? In this hero's story there are undoubtedly elements of genuine history, and Guy is too real a man to have been only a mythical figure. I, .should like to include him among the Ardens, but . . .

 There is no real need to gild the Arden pedigree. For one thing, they achieved the miracle of surviving the Norman Conquest and remain in possession of their lands. Thurkill of Warwick and of Arden, Aelfwine's son, even managed to increase his estates, for in Domesday Book his property required four columns to describe it.  1

For an Englishman to stand well with the Normans for long was almost impossible, however, and in the next reign Thurkill's possessions had, mostly gone to the Earl of Warwick, and the Ardens had to hold their lands from this Norman lord.

The Conqueror's theory, backed by force, was that he owned all England, and let A out to his greedy followers, who in turn were lords over the native English. The conquerors brought with them very little civilisation, their skill being only in the arts of war and defensive building; English culture was superior in all other respects.

A Norman habit was to have surnames, and so the Ardens imitated them in this, and Sir as William Dugdale said, Thurkhill and his posterity called themselves "of Arden, from those woody parts wherein they inhabited Another Norman feature which was adopted by the conquered was the use of French Christian names, and .so we find Hew, y de Arden in 1166, the first of the family to be christened with the new names. There are no more instances of the old English Christian names.

As time passed, the Normans became Englishmen. By 1400 the head of the family Sir Henry Arden was MP for the county, and resided at Park Hall as his principal seat which he held 011 the service of supplying a rose as rental. The family began again to increase in property, although one of them. Robert Arden, who took the Yorkist side, in the Wars of The Roses, was executed in 1452. His son recovered his lands, and his grandson was in favour with Henry VII, being made Esquire of the King's Body, and a Knight.

It was this important person's nephew who became a wealthy farmer, Robert Arden, of Wilmcote and Snitterfield. When Robert died at the end of 1556 he owned, says Sir Sidney Lee the biographer of Shakespeare, "a farmhouse and many acres at Wilmcote besides some hundred acres at Snitterfield with two farmhouses which he let out to tenants."

He lived in comfort and to his two youngest daughters he showed his affection by naming them as his executors. Mary the youngest of his seven daughters received under the will, some money and an estate of 50 acres known as Asbies at Wilmcote. She also had proper at Snitterfield. She married John Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, and her third child was William Shakespeare.

The Ardens have continued to the present day, serving their country in Church and State, several of them having been clergymen of the Church of England.

In the reign of the first Elizabeth they had varied fortunes. Edward Arden, of Park Hall, Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1575 was connected by marriage with, the Throckmortons, and perhaps through this was involved in a plot against the Queen, for which he was beheaded at Smithfield in 1583.

Naturally, this had a serious effect on his family's fortunes, but with their usual tenacity the Ardens recovered Park Hall which remained theirs until the death in 1643 of Robert Arden unmarried.

Another line bought Longcroft in Yoxall, Staffs, and this property was owned by them for some 350 years. It is this stock which is now the lineal representative of the oldest recorded English family.

 William Shakespeare, like his father before him, was anxious to obtain a coat of arms, the sure sign of gentility. In the Tudor period there was a vast develop­ment of heraldry. Prom being the prerogative of nobles and gentry, armorial bearings became the possession of the new wealthy mercantile and classes.

All rising men felt that they must have "their signs of gentle birth”. In Shakespeare's case the desire was heightened by the knowledge that his mother's family were ancient gentry,

During the years of application for arms, John Shakespeare had gone bankrupt, but none the less it was in his name that the grant went through. As May Arden was an heiress, the Shakespeares could quarter her arms. They claimed a grant of land in Warwickshire from Henry VII for services in war, and the most reliable modern sources consider the surname, Shakespeare, to be derived from an ancestor's prowess.

Certain it is that England's greatest poet came of England's oldest recorded family on his maternal side.

The Birmingham Post   28/4/1968

 

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