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The Cavendishes

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Very many of our great families bear names of local origin; and the great ducal House of Devonshire forms no exception to the rule. Its members for some three centuries have stood prominent along with the Russells as champions of the Liberal cause, and of political freedom.
     The original home of this house is Cavendish, in Suffolk, where Robert de Gernon (a descendant of one of the followers of the Conqueror) obtained a landed estate by marriage with an heiress in this lordship and manor, in consequence of which his son exchanged his father's name for that of the locality in which his lot was cast. The Gernons were of great note in Norfolk Essex, and other counties, under our Norman kings; and their names figure in English country histories as the donors of large grants to various abbeys and other religious houses.
     The first of the family of whom we read in history is Robert de Gernon, who gave considerable property to the Abbey of Gloucester in the reign of Henry I. He was the ancestor of Robert de Gernon, of Grimston Hall, in Suffolk, who, having married the daughter and heiress of John Potton, Lord of Cavendish, in that county, left at his decease in 1325, a family of four sons, who, according to the custom of those times, each took the local name of Cavendish.
     According to Collins and the Heralds, the second of these sons, Roger Cavendish, was ancestor of Thomas Cavendish, the distinguished navigator, whose name is always mentioned along with those of Drake and Dampier, and who at his own cost victualled and furnished three ships, with which he set sail from Plymouth in July, 1586, and made a circumnavigation of the globe. This Thomas Cavendish, on his return to England, wrote a curious letter to Lord Hunsdon, the chamberlain and favorite of Queen Elizabeth; in which, after telling the courtier bow he had gained victory over her Majesty's enemies, he writes, 'I burnt and sunk nineteen sail of ships small and great, and all the villages and towns that ever I landed at I burned and spoiled.'
Elizabeth knighted this successful depredator and, from the portion of the spoils that fell to his share as capitalist and commander, Sir Thomas Cavendish was said, in the language of the time, to have been 'rich enough to purchase a fair earldom.' He was, however, not so successful in his next and last voyage; for, having set sail from Plymouth, in August, 1591, and not being able to pass the Strait of Magellan, by stress of weather, and the mutinous spirit of his men, he was driven back to the coast of Brazil, where he mot with an untimely death.
     Sir John Cavendish, the eldest son of the above-mentioned Roger de Gernon, was a distinguished lawyer, and held the post of Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench in the reign: of Edward III and Richard II. In the fourth year of the latter reign he was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and war next year commissioned, with Robert de Hales, treasurer of England, to suppress the insurrection raised in the city of York, in which year the mob, to the number of about fifty thousand, made it a point, particularly in the county of Suffolk, to plunder and murder the lawyer. Being incensed in a more than ordinary degree against the Lord Chief Justice Cavendish, the mob seized upon and dragged him along with John of Cambridge, the Prior of Bury St. Edmunds, into the market-place of the latter town, and there caused them both to be beheaded.
     The unpopularity of the judge arose in the following manner. The younger son of the judge, Sir John Cavendish esquire of the body to Richard II, is said by the old chroniclers to have been the person who actually slew Wat Tyler. 'For William Walworth, mayor of London, having arrested him, he furiously struck the mayor with his dagger, but, being armed, hurt him not; whereupon the mayor, drawing his baselard, grievously wounded Wat in the neck; in which conflict, an esquire of the King's house, called John Cavendish, drew his sword, and wounded him twice or thrice even unto death. 'For this service, Cavendish was knighted in Smithfield, and had a grant of forty pounds per annum from the King. This Sir John Cavendish (or another of the same name served under Henry V in his wars in France and played a conspicuous part in the battle of Agincourt.
     The two great-grandsons of Sir John Cavendish were the brothers, George Cavendish an William Cavendish, both of whom distinguishes themselves in no small degree. The latter held the post of Gentleman Usher to Cardinal Wolsey in which capacity he waited on the Cardinal in his Embassy into France in 1527. He was also with the Cardinal in his chamber when the Earl of Northumberland and Sir Walter Welsh arrested him in the King's name, and was the chief person they suffered to be about him, Sir Walter telling Mr. Cavendish that 'the King's Majesty bore unto him his principal favor for the love and diligent service he had performed to his lord; wherefore the King's pleasure was that he should be about him as chief, in whom his Highness putteth great confidence and trust.' To give a more lasting testimony of his gratitude to the Cardinal, Mr. Cavendish drew up an account of his life and death, which he wrote in, the reign of Queen Mary, and afterwards published it. So faithfully indeed had William Cavendish served the Cardinal that, upon the death of the latter, King Henry retained him in his own service, 'especially upon the grounds of his attachment to his late fallen master.'
     In 1530 Mr. Cavendish was appointed one of the commissioners for visiting and taking the surrenders of religious houses, in which no doubt he obtained some good 'pickings;' he subsequently held high offices in the State, including that of Treasurer of the Chamber to the King; be likewise received the honor of knighthood, and had bestowed upon him grants of 'forfeited church lands' from the Crown.
     But his wealth in this way was augmented chiefly by his fortunate marriage with 'Bess of Hardwicke,'-she was his third wife-by whom he had a large family. It was this Sir William Cavendish who commenced the present princely mansion of Chatsworth, but died shortly afterwards, leaving his sorrowing widow in the fall enjoyment of her worldly possessions, which she took good care should be securely settled upon herself and her heirs. Some time afterwards, she became the wife of Sir William St Lo, a captain of the Guard to Queen Elizabeth whose 'diverse fair lordships in Gloucestershire' it was also arranged by the articles of marriage should be settled upon herself to the exclusion of her new husband's relatives. She survived Sir William by some years; but even to this third widowhood, as Bishop Kennet observes in his 'Memoirs of the Family of Cavendish,' she had not survived her charms of wit and beauty, by which she captivated the then greatest subject of the realm, George, Earl of Shrewsbury, whom she brought to terms of the greatest honor and advantage to herself and children.'
     Besides finishing the erection of Chatsworth, the countess built the mansions of Hardwicke and Oldcotes, all of which she transmitted in their entirety to her second son by her second husband, namely, another Sir William Cavendish, who in 1605 was raised to the peerage as Baron Cavendish of Hardwicke, in Derbyshire, and in 1618 advanced to a still higher dignity, as Earl of Devonshire. His mother 'Bess of Hardwicke, 'Countess of Shrewsbury, lived to the age of eighty six, dying in February, 1607, and being buried in the south aisle of All Saints Church, Derby, in which town she had endowed a 'hospital for the subsistence of poor people, who have each of them an allowance of near ten pounds per annum.'
     Lord Cavendish was one of the first adventurers who settled a colony and plantation in Virginia; and, on the first discovery of the Bermuda islands, he obtained, with the Earl of Northampton and others, a grant of them from the king. The islands were afterwards divided into eight cantons or provinces, bearing the name of eight of the chief proprietors, and accordingly one of them became known by the name of Cavendish.
    William, the fourth Earl of Devonshire, having taken an active part in the revolution of 1688, was created, in 1694, Marquis of Hartington and Duke of Devonshire. His son William, the second duke, was grandfather of Henry Cavendish, the eminent chemist and philosopher. The third duke, having held the post of Lord Steward of the Household, was appointed, in 1737, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, which office he held till 1744. His son William, the fourth duke, who was also Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, marries Charlotte, Baroness Clifford, of Lanesborough only daughter and heiress of Richard, Earl of Burlington and Cork, by which union the Baron, of Clifford, created by Charles I. in 1628, camp into the Cavendish family. His third son George Augustus, was created, in 1831, Earl of Burlington and Baron Cavendish, of Keighley and was the grandfather of William, second Ear of Burlington, who, on the death of his cousin William Spencer, sixth Duke of Devonshire, in 1858, succeeded to the ducal and other family honors, and is the present head of the noble family of the Cavendishies.
     The fact that, in his day, the duke was all but 'Senior Wrangler' at Cambridge is regarded by himself as no small honour to the strawberry leaves which surround his coronet; and it is much to the credit of his grace's family that, wherever their territorial possessions extend, not simphly are the churches kept weather-tight and architecturally presentable, but every work of public utility and improvement is modestly and liberally encouraged and supported. It is true that the Cavendishes derive a splendid revenue from the town of Barrow-in-Furness, but few know of the princely sums supplied by him for providing church accommodation and educational advantages in that town.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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