Reunion 2002, Joe Whitney, Whitneys of the Middle Ages
Whitneys in the Middle Ages
by Joe Whitney
Although there is currently no verifiable direct connection between our various Whitney family lines in America and the eminent Whitney family of Herefordshire England, their story is one that American Whitneys should be familiar with, for it is a fascinating one, and they were, after all, the first Whitneys. The following information is primarily taken from Henry Melville's The Ancestry of John Whitney, published in 1896, and republished by the Higginson Book Company in 1989.
The historical record of the Whitney family begins around 1066 A.D. with a brave knight who was referred to as either Turstin the White for his fair complexion, or Turstin the Fleming for having come from Flanders, which today can be found in the lowlands of Belgium.
This adventuresome knight left his native land to join William, the Duke of Normandy, in William's campaign to invade England and become its king. William claimed that the recently deceased King Edward had promised to honor his hereditary claim to the throne, rather than that of the other claimant, the Saxon Earl Harold. William also asserted that Harold had previously agreed to recognize William's claim in return for the assistance William had provided to him when Harold had once found himself shipwrecked on the Norman coast.
In this royal contest, William had won over one very important person whose support gave great weight to his claim, the Pope. His Holiness decreed that anyone supporting Harold and not William would be excommunicated from the Christian church. The soldiers in the Saxon army faced not only the threat of capture, injury and violent death, but more importantly, their immortal souls were at risk. To clearly demonstrate his support for William's cause, the Pope had allowed him to campaign under his papal Gonfannon, or banner.
After landing on shore, William's army marched inland to meet Harold and his army, who were rushing back from having just fought off invading Vikings in northern England. The two armies clashed near Hastings, at a place then called Senlac, and known today as Battle. As the two armies prepared for battle, William asked one and then another of his leading knights to carry the Gonfannon and stay by him, so his subordinates could locate him in battle. But knowing that both the flag and William would be a visible target for the enemy and a magnet for danger, they both declined.
Turstin the Fleming apparently had no such fears, and gladly accepted both the honor and peril of carrying the flag. It is reported that he played a vital role, bearing the banner "boldly, high aloft in the breeze, and rode beside the Duke, going wherever he went." Seeing the holy banner waving in their faces must have further emphasized to the Saxons that they fought not only against the upstart Duke from Normandy, but the Holy Mother Church as well.
At a critical moment, rumors swept the Norman lines that William was killed, causing them to waver. To counteract this, William took off his helmet and rode along the lines to show he still lived. Turstin no doubt rode along with him.
Just as the sun began to set, Harold was killed, probably by an arrow piercing his eye, and his forces were slaughtered as they fled the field. The account of the battle was recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry, where the story of the battle was told in images handwoven into a long cloth. Of the thousands of participants, few are expressly represented on the cloth, but Turstin is shown riding along bearing the Gonfannon.
Having conquered a nation, William set about making it his own, confiscating most holdings of the Saxon nobility, and doling out vast tracts to his most loyal supporters. Turstin obtained land in the Wye Valley region along the Welsh frontier, especially in Pencombe near Wigmore Castle, and so is sometimes referred to as Turstin de Wigmore, meaning Turstin of Wigmore. About this time, we find the earliest recorded mention of the region called Whitney in the old Saxon tongue, in the Domesday Book, which was commissioned by William to survey his newly won kingdom. There it is called "Witenie, King's land".
Turstin and his descendants worked hard to fortify their holdings against local rivals, as well as their fiercely independent neighbors, the Welsh. Turstin's son, Sir Eustace de Whitney, was probably the first to officially adopt the surname Whitney, and establish the family's headquarters there. Over the centuries, much of the land was slowly cleared, and the great forests of Whitney were eventually reduced to the small area known today as Whitney Wood.
Over time, the English kings tried to exert authority over their lands and those of the Welsh. But up through the 1500's, the Whitneys belonged to that class of nobles which lived on the outer reaches of royal control. They were called Lords of the Marches, and they maintained their own small armies, ruling over their own lands, not officially part of England, nor of Wales. Rather than the rule of King or parliament, the only real law was the power of the sword, and a neighbor's lands and castle were yours if you could take and hold them. One source described the Whitney family as "doing perpetual battle in their own behalf, and except when it suited their purposes, bidding defiance to right and law".
Being one of the most powerful families in the shire, or county, of Hereford, the Whitneys appeared to have maintain a near monopoly on the position of Sheriff of Herefordshire, with descendants serving often one generation after another over the centuries.
With power over a substantial part of the border, the Lords of the Marches could, by providing or withholding support, influence royal policies, obtain benefits and high appointments in the royal household, and perhaps even affect who would be the next king. But in Medieval England, the more you supported one claimant to the throne, the greater your danger, should another rival succeed.
All of these conditions naturally exposed the Whitney family to much danger, from constant raids by the Welsh, conflicts with many powerful neighboring warlords, and political fallout resulting from the frequent struggles for the crown by various royal relatives. The principle of primogeniture, where the bulk of the estate passed to the eldest son, probably caused resentment among brothers, but the constant warfare also resulted in a high casualty rate among the male members of the noble families.
Throughout all of England's military struggles, the Whitneys were there, playing prominent roles. On the Crusades, the Whitneys were well represented. This probably provided the design for the coat of arms, since a cross prominently featured is generally accepted as indicating participation in a crusade.
According to one tradition, the addition of a bull's head above the shield is stated as having come from a particular incident during the Crusades:
Sir Randolph de Whitney, accompanying Richard the Lionhearted on a crusade, was sent by the king on a mission to the French commander. After leaving camp, he was attacked by two Saracens led by the brother of Saladin, the great Muslim commander. As they were closing in on him, a bull grazing nearby was attracted to the red clothing of the Saracens, making so vigorous an attack upon them that they gave up the chase, allowing Sir Randolph to escape.
At home, when Edward I Longshanks battled the Welsh at the fords of the Wye above Whitney, and later marched into Scotland to fight William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, Whitneys fought with him both times.
When Henry Bolingbroke was banished by Richard II in 1398, the event that would triggered the Wars of the Roses, Sir Robert Whitney was there, serving as Knight Marshal of Richard II's royal household. When Henry defeated Richard and became Henry IV, Sir Robert continued in that capacity. When the Welsh rose up in 1402, one of the bloodiest battles in English history was fought on June 12th at Pilleth, an event that almost spelled doom for the Whitneys.
Most of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and the outnumbered English were massacred almost to a man. In the aftermath, the Welsh women brutally mutilated their bodies. It was recorded that at this time, Sir Robert Whitney the king's knight marshal, his brother and most of his male relatives were killed, and Whitney Castle burned. The whole surrounding country was ravaged and stripped of its flocks and herds.
When his son Henry V took his army to France and fought and defeated a French army vastly outnumbering his, Whitneys fought there as well. In fact, Henry, was so pleased with the "trustworthiness and shrewdness of our beloved and faithful Robert Whitney", that he appointed him Captain of the castle and town of Vire, France."
Whitney holdings had greatly increased in 1404, when Henry IV, in return for the loyalty and sacrifice of the Whitneys at Pilleth, granted to the surviving heir Robert Whitney the temporary possession of the castle and lands of Clifford, two miles west of Whitney, being the only castle in the surrounding area that had been spared by the Welsh. This became the temporary seat of the family, until Whitney castle could be rebuilt. About 176 years later, the Whitneys would finally be granted permanent possession of Clifford, which was added to the estate. Clifford Castle was most likely an old Saxon castle that was rebuilt some time between 1066 and 1070, and expanded on over the centuries. At some point, Whitney Castle was itself rebuilt. 15th Century accounts described it as gleaming white with a central tower linked to four other towers, and garrisoned by the Whitneys with a substantial number of pikemen and mounted soldiers.
During the Wars of the Roses in the mid 1400's, 14 pitched battles were fought over a 30 year period which devastated the flower of England's nobility. In one battle, more Englishmen were killed than in 40 years of war with France. 80 princes of the blood royal and half the nobility of the realm perished. Many of the old noble house were extinguished, the men of the families having all fallen in battle. Villages and towns were sacked and burned to the ground, and the countryside reduced to smoking ruins. Fields lay untilled in many parts of the country. Some 20 outbreaks of the Black Death were recorded, with barely 5 plague-free years between. The population of England actually shrank to less than what it had been 200 years earlier.
The Whitneys were no doubt greatly affected by that conflict, but wisely gave their allegiance to the king, whomever that might be at any given time. While other houses were ruined, the Whitneys of Herefordshire survived both death and destruction, and prospered as the middle ages drew to a close.
Copyright © 2002, 2006, Joe Whitney and The Whitney Research Group