In a family circus worthy of Jerry Springer, Mr Murray Pringle, a 74-year old accountant from High Wycombe, recently became a baronet. Or rather, it was ruled in court that he should become the next baronet of Stichill, a baronetcy established by Charles II in 1683. This was, no doubt, a blow to his second cousin, Simon Pringle, who expected to inherit the title following the death of his father, Sir Steuart, in 2013.
But DNA evidence was used to prove that Simon’s great-granddad Norman was not actually the biological son of Sir Norman Pringle, the eighth baronet, which meant Murray’s great-granddad, previously thought to be Norman’s second son, had actually been his first. The baronetcy, therefore, was to go to Murray, and the case was settled.
So far, so aristocratic Jeremy Kyle. But for me, the case of Murray and Simon Pringle is a timely reminder of just how often such seemingly medieval themes are reflected and refracted in modern life. The Pringles’ case is connected to both the medieval understanding of heritage (and what that entails), and the most modern ways of determining it.
In many ways, the Pringle case was revolutionary, as it opened hereditary titles to challenge through DNA testing for the first time. But as someone working on medieval documents – for whom hereditary succession, the rights to land and recognition of status in law are the bread and butter of research – I see the precedents of the case stretching back much further.
In the Tinsley Court Rolls project, our research team has often been fascinated with the legal lives of historical characters recorded in the Sheffield City Archives. In these remarkably preserved and chronologically wide-ranging sources, extending from the thirteenth century right up to the Victorian era, we’ve closely followed the activities – and often, the misdemeanours – of the same names and families. More than this, too, our findings have offered both fascinating parallels and clear differences with broader research undertaken across the country, marking the Tinsley archives as both fascinating and mysterious.
The oldest document about Tinsley – and one of the oldest within the whole of the Sheffield Archives – is particularly interesting (it’s this blog’s cover image). It recounts the conclusion to what appears to be something of a scandalous medieval legal case, bringing to life a thirteenth-century family in chaos over inheritance. In 1284, Walter Bret brought a case against Henry Tinsley, who, it was claimed, unlawfully held land rightfully owned by Walter.
The accusations were not dissimilar to those Murray Pringle used against Simon: Walter claimed that Henry held no rights to this land due to his being a bastard; this illegitimacy was the defining feature in a wrangle of legality over who rightfully owned the manor of Tinsley, as well as property in Nottinghamshire and Wiltshire.
Unfortunately for Walter, unlike Murray, the case did not go his way. In the absence of DNA testing, or adequate birth and parish records, legitimacy in medieval England was determined not in the legal courts, but in the spiritual ones, and a bishop would have determined Henry’s parentage.
Historians have pointed out how difficult this would have been to establish, and it would have been up to a ‘sworn inquisition of neighbours’ to help the bishop decide on the issue of Henry’s bastardy. Why these neighbours were keen to support Henry, we will never know, but the proof was obviously convincing enough to uphold his legitimacy, enabling him to defend his claims to the land.
A near-800-year old document records Walter de Bret not only acknowledging Henry’s rightful claims, but having to do so vocally, and denying any of his own hereditary stake:
‘I Walter of Bret, son of Richard, have given up for myself and my heirs the complaint against Henry of Tinsley…[and] all these lands I give to Henry to have and to hold for his heirs…Neither I nor my heirs nor anyone for me will make a claim in these lands.’
Through this (somewhat dry) legal document, tones of defeat, humiliation, victory and validation can be heard. These medieval documents often offer glimpses and snatches of medieval life that go far beyond the legal language and complicated, unruly court procedure.
For example, both Margaret Williamson and Mary Shepley were recorded as as pinders – their role being to impound stray animals. This shows not only the importance of women in local, administrative and farming roles, but more generally, displays prominent women in historical sources that are frequently dismissed as focusing almost exclusively on men.
Several names appear twice in the same documents – Seth Shepley, for example, who is recorded as a prominent, responsible byelawman in one document, is charged and fined for petty misdemeanours in another.
The Tinsley documents are both excellent typical and atypical examples, requiring far greater in-depth study to unravel these intriguing discrepancies. Greater exploration of the collection in the future will surely open up even more medieval life to be examined and understood.
Dr Elizabeth Goodwin has just completed her doctorate at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis examined the transformation of communities of English nuns in the Late Medieval and Early Modern period. You can find her on twitter at @.
The Unravelling the Tinsley Court Rolls project came from a three-year project on Tinsley Manor, a National Lottery-funded scheme with Wessex Archaeology, Heeley City Farm and Tinsley Junior School, through the work of Elizabeth Goodwin, Laura Alston, Sally Rodgers and Charles West. You can see a full (draft!) English translation of Walter’s document here.
Image: Sheffield City Archive, WWM C1/1, courtesy of Sheffield Archives.