The conquerors’ long legacies

In 1066 four knights came over from Normandy to England in William the Conqueror’s retinue. They would fight alongside their duke and would be rewarded for their loyalty with grants of land in the conquered country. Almost a millennium later, their descendants still populated England as the only existing families known to descend from knights who fought at Hastings.

The Malets, Giffards, Gresleys and De Marris are amongst the 39 knights recognised by the Augustan Society as companions of the man who would become King William of England. They are also amongst the 20 individuals recognised by the Complete Peerage.

The Norman invasion of England depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Scene 39 By Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These are not the ancestors of some of the showier families in the Peerage. Other families can trace Norman ancestors (albeit from knights who came over after the all-important first battle) – Curzons, Greys, Seymours, Haigs and St. Johns are names that reverberate through English history.

But the Malets, Giffards and Gresleys quietly settled and established themselves. The new men would, over time, become ancient Norman families. Royal dynasties would rise and fall whilst other family’s fortunes peaked before precipitously declining; but still they remained.

For much of their time in England, these families would remain commoners. Those who directly served the Conqueror were well rewarded for their service. William Malet received the ‘honour’ of Eye. An honour was a great lordship, comprising of tens or hundreds of manors. And the Honour of Eye was one of the greatest lordships at King William’s disposal.

These first Malets would occupy high office, as Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, High Sheriff of York and Lord Great Chamberlain. They would then sink into obscurity, resurfacing as guarantors to the Magna Carter before drowning under the waves of history. Eventually, the family would rise again, finally making it to the peerage when the descendants of William Malet would assume the Malet Baronetcy of Wilbury in the County of Wiltshire in 1791. The 9th Baronet, Sir Harry Douglas St Lo Malet, is now 77 but still represents this family with 950 years of English history.

Eustache de Boulogne as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Walter Gifford was a lord whose son, also called Walter, became one of the key Anglo-Norman peers by adding an English earldom to his father’s Norman lordship. The family then sank into provincial obscurity, tending to their lands in Devon. The family would wait until the end of the nineteenth century to be elevated once again to the peerage as the Earls of Halsbury. Just over a hundred years later the line would be extinguished following the death of the heirless fourth earl.

The Gresleys of Drakelow had long been preeminent in Derbyshire, being the scions of the de Staffords and thus of one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman families. They were raised back into the peerage in the 17th century following the creation of the Baronetcy of Gresley of Drakelow.

Drakelowe Hall, Derbyshire - seat of the Gresleys

One of the oldest English families has ridden the rollercoaster of nobility and ended up as perhaps the pre-eminent commoners of the realm. In their time, the Scropes have been Barons, Chancellors, Earls, Archbishops and even sovereigns in their own right (as Lords of Man)

The Scropes of Danby now have no hereditary titles left. The head of the family, Mr Scope, can only be marked out by referring to him as Scrope of Danby. Such is the pedigree of their name, Nancy Mitford suggests that even if they were offered elevation to the peerage they would refuse it.