The Origins of the Gascoigne Family

Chris Bovis delves into the history of the Gascoigne family, who were residents of Lotherton. In this blog, Chris debunks some of the myths and stories about the prominent medieval family.

In my last post, I shared the story of Sir Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham (1693-1750), who destroyed a collection of documents relating to his family and others in Yorkshire in order to facilitate his appointment to the Barony of Malton. From the piecemeal evidence that survives Thomas’ efforts, most of the documents seem to have belonged to antiquary Richard Gascoigne (1579-1611), and detail elements of the Gascoigne family’s history and pedigree, including some stories about their origins in the region. The following post records some of the most common stories and myths surrounding the origins of the family in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Companions of the Conqueror

The first story written in the notes of Richard Gascoigne record the family as having arrived in 1066 as companions of William the Conqueror. It notes that they originated from Gascony (as etymologically indicated), where the family was one of note. This was shown by the apparent inclusion of the family’s name in the Battle Abbey roll, the commemorative list of families that accompanied the Conqueror, following the church’s completion in 1094. For such service, they were apparently rewarded with lands in Harewood.

A white china dish stood on a plate. It's decorated in painted flowers and a gold crest.
Tureen and stand from the Chinese armorial dinner service commissioned by Sir Thomas Gascoigne in 1780, featuring the distinctive heraldic device; the demi-luce, or fish head.

This is probably the most widespread fact relating to the Gascoigne family, despite there being zero evidence to back the claim. Some even take this myth much further – a quick google search will reveal websites that still record this genealogical descent, claiming the family’s relation to William V, Duke of Aquitaine (969-1030), from an illegitimate child of his second son. This claim is almost certainly unprovable, but certain aspects can be queried. There is no evidence to indicate that any Gascoigne was among the Conqueror’s companions, and it is arguable that their appearance on some (not all) copies of the Battle Abbey Roll was a result of greasy palms and a desire to create a false, yet prestigious, lineage. Moreover, the Domesday book shows that the manor of Harewood was divided between three individuals: Thor, Sprot and Grim – none of whom can be linked to the Gascoigne family. In fact, even if we widened our search and looked for surrounding land grants, none can be definitively traced to the Gascoignes. Between William V and the earliest traceable member of the Gascoigne family in Yorkshire, William Gascoigne Senior (c. 1309 – 1378), there are three centuries where I have not been able to find a single piece of evidence that can be reliably connected to the Gascoigne family.

The Goldsmith and the Fish

The second myth apparently stems from a chance encounter with a goldsmith in London. Richard recalled how he met the goldsmith, Lawrence, on Lombard Street, where he was regaled with a story about how the Gascoigne family’s arrival in England and how they came to have a fish head as their heraldic device. Lawrence stated that on arrival in England with the Conqueror three knights were granted heraldic devices for services to their lord. To mark this occasion each knight took a part of their lord’s device – the Lucie fish. One knight adopted the fish head, whilst the other two adopted the tail and body.

An illustration of sir william gascoigne
Print of Sir William Gascoigne, Chief Justice to the King’s Bench, c. 1793. Sir William was the first to use the Lucie head as Gascoigne heraldry around 1415.

This is dubious for a number of reasons. First, because Richard believed that somewhere in England there was a knightly family who had part of a fish body as a heraldic device – possibly some scaly rectangle-type shape with fins. Second, and more seriously, no evidence survives to indicate the use of the Lucie head as Gascoigne heraldry before c. 1415 when it was employed by William Gascoigne I (c. 1350 – 1419), Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.

The Maid and the Pond

The most remarkable account from the writings of Richard Gascoigne relates to the acquisition of the main Gascoigne estate of Gawthorpe. He noted that at some point during the thirteenth century, a William Gascoigne married Matilda de Gawthorpe, the only daughter of John de Gawthorpe of Gawthorpe, after a precarious first encounter. Richard’s narrative told of how John hosted a fishing party at his estate during which his daughter fell into the angling pond and began to drown. Gascoigne, in apparently heroic fashion, rescued Matilda from the pond by unceremoniously pulling her out by her hair. For this act, Matilda, an heiress, was bestowed upon Gascoigne with all the lands, fortunes and manor of Gawthorpe. This again is fallacious. Evidence from the late fourteenth century indicates that Gawthorpe Hall was founded in 1363 by William Gascoigne Senior and his wife, Agnes.

A colourful but old painting of Gawthorpe near Leeds. A crest and some descriptive writing are at the bottom of the painting, which shows a grand house amidst some fields.
View of Gawthorpe Hall, by Willem Van Hagen, 1721-22. This was the scene of the alleged heroic rescue of Matilda Gawthorpe by John Gascoigne in the 13th century – perhaps the tallest of all the Gascoigne fables.

The Rebel and the Bishop

It would be wrong to assume that it was only Richard Gascoigne that recorded myths of the Gascoigne family. The myth that the Gascoignes descended from Anglo-Saxons was pervasive among antiquarians. Both William Smith and Ralph Thoresby observed that Ailrichus could be included among the Gascoigne ancestors, a rebel who fought against the Conqueror, and Aethelric, Bishop of Durham (d. 1072). These claims cannot be verified as I have been unable to locate any evidence of the family before the fourteenth century. Interestingly, they contradict all of Richard’s stories about the origins of the family, and suggest a link to England before the Normans.

Though most likely fictitious and fairly outlandish, these stories raise some interesting possibilities and questions. Why did Richard include them within his family history, especially when he himself raised concerns about their accuracy and authenticity? Did Richard fabricate these stories personally? If so, does this reflect an attempt to tie his lineage and genealogy with a far-forgotten time to bind the name Gascoigne with the local area and create an identity of ownership, authority and legitimacy in a time when the Gascoigne family was in a period of decline. Or the opposite? Was the authorship of these stories not an attempt to create an identity of authority and status on the landscape, but a reflection of an authority that already existed, simply recorded by a suspicious Richard in his research? These questions are too large to answer effectively now, but represent how significant such stories can be, not just for stories of local gentry families, but also for regional legends and national foundation myths.

Next time, I’ll detail the earliest appearances of the Gascoignes in Yorkshire and show how they came to own Gawthorpe Hall.

By Chris Bovis, Medieval and Tudor Gascoigne family PhD

For more information on Lotherton, click here.

This year, Lotherton celebrates it’s 50th anniversary as a museum. Explore our 3 new exhibitions celebrating this birthday, including 50 Years in the Making, which highlights some of the key objects in the collection at Lotherton.

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