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The Fall of the Great House of Norwich

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Some four centuries ago, under our later Plantagenet and earlier Tudor kings, the Norwiches, of Brampton, in Northamptonshire, owned many of the broad acres in that county, which now belong to Lord Spencer. They had probably come in the first instance from Norfolk, and, when they settled in their Midland home, they did not drop the name which marked their origin. They ranked high among the 'landed gentry' in that county of 'spires and squires,' and mated at different times with the Giffords, the Treshams, the Kirkhams of Fineshade, the Fermors, the Shuckbrughs, and the Savages, Earls of Rivers. Indeed, they enjoyed the Honors of the peerage in the reign of Edward III, when Sir John de Norwich, having seen much active service in the wars, both in Flanders and in Scotland, was summoned to Parliament as a baron of the realm, and received the king's permission to erect his manor-houses in Suffolk and Norfolk into 'crenellated' castles. It is possible and even probable that this Sir John Norwich was descended from one of the bold and unruly barons who rose in arms against King John, and who forced him to sign the Great Charter of English Liberties at Runnymede. Be this, however, as it may, those who are curious in such matters can see, if they will, the pedigree of the family set out at full length by Sir Bernard Burke in the volumes which he devotes to 'Extinct and Dormant Peerages and Baronetcies.'
     I am not going to inflict upon my readers any long genealogical account of the Norwiches, or to draw out their pedigree in extenso here. But I will say that the family is traditionally descended from Ralph, Earl of the East Angles, who opposed the Conqueror in arms. Ralph's eldest son is called Roger Bigot, or Bigod, the founder of Thetford monastery. A second son is called William Bigot, whose sons were Hugh, and Simon, surnamed 'De Norwich.' Hugh took part with Henry II against Stephen, and had given to him in consequence the castle of Norwich, one of the finest Norman structures which remain in the kingdom. The sons of Hugh, Simon and Nicholas, and their descendants were called 'De Norwich.' One of these obtained by marriage the manor of Brampton and others in Northamptonshire. It is enough to say that Sir John Norwich, of Brampton Ash, in Northamptonshire, some sixth or seventh in descent from a Sir Simon de Norwich-who had founded the fortunes of his house by espousing Alice Christian, the heiress of large landed estates at Harborough, and at other places in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, -was created a baronet by King Charles I in 1641, on account of services which he had rendered to the royal cause in the early part of his struggles against the Parliamentarians. His son and successor, Sir Roger, represented the county of Northampton in Parliament under Charles IL, but, 'not concurring in the measures of the Court party,' he retired into private life, having married one of the Roman Catholic Fermors. It was his son by this lady who married a daughter of Thomas Savage, third Earl of Rivers, and with his grandson the baronetcy is said to have 'expired ;' and the manor of Brampton Ash is now a part of the large estates of Lord Spencer, having come into that family from Sir Christopher flatten, who bought it from the Dyves, to whom the Norwiches had alienated it.
     Some quarter-of-a-century ago I happened accidentally to learn from a local correspondent that there was it is possible that there may be still in the workhouse at Kettering, in Northamptonshire, an elderly female pauper who was known among the inmates and in that little town as ' Lady Norwich.' On making further inquiries, I found that there were strong reasons for believing that she was quite justified in calling herself by that title; for it was known all over Northamptonshire that the two last baronets who had openly borne the title were scampish and profligate fellows, men who cared for nothing but their horses and dogs, their cards and dice-boxes, and who had gained an evil notoriety by their dissipated habits and by their taste for gambling, and who, therefore, were not likely to care much for either the family register or the family reputation.
     The rest of their story can be almost anticipated from what I have said thus far; but perhaps it may best be told in the words of my informant, a person in the middle rank of life, and fairly well educated for his position and age. He wrote a long letter, from which I take the following extracts Mary Norwich (I beg her pardon, Lady Mary) says that her late husband told her that his own great-grandfather, Sir John or Sir William, lost the estate of Brampton through his passion for gambling; and that his son, Sir John, as long as he lived, received a pension of two guineas a week from the family who took possession of the estate. His eldest son, the father of my informant's deceased husband,' he continues, 'became further reduced in his circumstances, and died in the poor-house at Kettering; but was always to the last a stickler for his title as heir of the family honors, which were all that be had to bequeath to the late Mr. Samuel Norwich, her husband, who was the eldest son. This Samuel Norwich followed the trade of a carpenter and sawyer, and was married about the year 1513, at Kettering, to Mary Hollidge, by the Rev. Mr. Knight, then rector of the parish. She was his second wife, and had by him no family; but his first wife bore him five children: 1, John, now (1856) living at Leicester, who, however, is illegitimate, having been born some four months prior to his parents' marriage; 2, William, the present representative of the family; 3, another son who is doing well in America; 4, Harriet, now married and settled in Nottingham; and 5, Lydia, whose residence and fate in life are unknown. I forgot to state that the Sir John Norwich who died in the workhouse served for some years in the army, and I am told that the officers of his regiment allowed him to mess with them, and showed him other marks of respect. A paragraph relating to the fortunes, or rather to the misfortunes of the Norwiches lately went the round of the papers, and led the late Lord Spencer to send to Lady Norwich a few pounds as a Christmas present. The late Sir Arthur de Capell Brooke, whose estate and seat are at Bosworth Park, near Kettering, would occasionally visit the old lady and minister to her comfort with a liberal hand.'
     I have heard nothing of late years from my then correspondent, who probably long ere this has left the neighborhood of Kettering, and doubtless the old' Lady' Norwich has gone the way of all flesh, though I have never seen her death recorded in the tell-tale columns of the Times. But I can parallel the story of the --Norwiches by a fact within my own personal knowledge ; for, forty years ago, my own father employed on his estates at Boreham and Hatfield Peverel, near Chelmsford, a day-laborer named John Everard, whose person and whole bearing and manners betokened good blood in his veins. He was truly one of 'Nature's gentlemen: My father used to tell me that he was a member of the once wealthy and important family of that name, whose heads were baronets of Great Waltbam, in our own neighborhood; and that one of his ancestors had staked on the throw of the dice the fine estate of Langleys,  in that parish, with its woods, gardens, and deer park, and had lost them all. Such, alas! are the freaks of fortune; such the 'ups and downs of life;' such the vicissitudes of families.' Let, then, one and the same inscription be engraved on the tombs of both the Norwiches and the Everards,-Voluit Fortuna jocari.
Since writing the above, I have received the following communication from a literary friend: 'Northampton is my native county, and I looked with interest into what you say about " Lady " Norwich. The old woman cannot have been what she pretended. Sir William Norwich was unmarried in 1741, and in 1712 he died a bachelor. All that follows afterwards is, me judice, a string of "old wives' fables."'
     I add my friend's remarks for what they are worth, and no more. Like 'doctors,' I suppose, the writers of family histories are bound to differ.' The title could die, and yet Norwich still survive as a family name.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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