Viva Villiers : Archival research throws new light on an old story

I’m delighted to present a guest blog, written by researcher and author Midi Berry concerning papers relating to the Villiers family found amongst the Graham Archive – thanks Midi for sharing your knowledge, passion and expertise!

I’ve long been researching the story of a family entangled four centuries ago with the ambitious and unscrupulous George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and lover to King James 1st. When Sir Edward Coke, England’s chief lawyer, fought his way out of a political hole by forcing his teenage daughter Frances to marry Buckingham’s brother John, Viscount Purbeck, a train of events began that would blight the young bride’s life and leave an unhappy Villiers stamp upon generations of descendants.

frances-villiers-nee-coke-2

Portrait of Frances Coke, Viscountess Purbeck (oil on canvas) by Michiel Janszoon van Miereveldt  (1567-1641)

Despite a weak constitution, including bouts of manic depression during which he was banished from court, Viscount Purbeck outlived Frances. After her death in 1645, he remarried the widow of a soldier, Elizabeth Fortescue, née Slingsby. This second Purbeck union lasted only a few years before John Villiers died and the Dowager Viscountess secured a match for the daughter of her first marriage, which would enable her to spend the last 35 years of her life as mother-in-law to Sir Richard Graham of Norton Conyers.

Viscountess Purbeck

Elizabeth Slingsby, Viscountess Purbeck. Copyright : Francis Crick Collection

On learning about the Norton Conyers connection, I hoped North Yorkshire County Record Office’s exciting Graham family archives project might help me answer some questions about Lord Purbeck’s second marriage. I was eager to learn anything new about the relationship between John Villiers, Elizabeth and his ‘son’ Robert Villiers.

I knew that Robert had fought for King Charles as a teenager but changed sides after his mother’s death. Unrelated to Lord Purbeck (his father was Frances’s lover), he was still officially recognized by the Viscount as his son and heir for many years. I also knew that Elizabeth was executrix and sole beneficiary of Purbeck’s will, but that it was actually Robert who inherited the vast English estates and domains that his famous grandmother and grandfather had inherited and amassed. Lord Purbeck was only allowed to ‘quietly enjoy’ their lifetime use, and Elizabeth inherited no property at his death.

Papers have been found in the archives covering the years 1651-1652, relating to Elizabeth, Viscount Purbeck and Robert Villiers. Most are indentures describing a complex series of land exchanges and transactions involving manors and domains in the vast Hatton and Cook estates in Norfolk, Buckinghamshire and Essex. Lord Purbeck, and Robert Villiers cut many deals over these lands with each other and with a succession of men out to profit from the troubled years of land sequestration and reassignment following the Civil War. As a former Royalist, Robert Villiers asked leave to compound for his delinquency in 1646 but did not complete until 1653, when he paid fines of 2,650l (i.e libra = pound).

The Norton Conyers documents give some hint that Robert acted quite flexibly even kindly, in seeking to accommodate Lord Purbeck’s interests, by offering several alternatives and assurances in their dealings. One also may infer some understandable kindness to one who had been ready to accept his wife’s lover’s child as son and heir, from a paper offering evidence on non- and late payment of rents and bonds on the manors of Stoke, Cippenham and Baylis. One witness asked Robert Villiers “that if there should be any slip or mistake by reason of hast if he would consent to amend all rents according to agreement and he did promise he would.” The same witness reported hearing from a third party that, although Villiers had said there was a mistake, “no advantage should be taken.”

Witness testimony

Witness testimony. Copyright : North Yorkshire County Record Office

The most interesting and – for me – new evidence shows that Purbeck married Elizabeth much later than 1646, a date offered by some genealogical sources for their nuptials. On 7th October 1652, an indenture between Purbeck, Elizabeth, one John Urline and John and Humphrey Mitchell, recorded that “a marriage is intended to be had between my Lord and Elizabeth Fortescue in consideration whereof my lord hath agreed that 2000l shall be raised for a portion for the said Elizabeth out of the yearly sum of 300l, part of the said yearly rent of 600l, if my lord shall live so long that the sums may be raised. It is covenanted and agreed by all parties and my lord doth appoint John Urline and all other persons interested in the Manors and premises in trust for my lord for so swearing that the said yearly sums of 600l shall from henceforth be possessed and interested therein, that the said Mr. Mitchells shall from henceforth receive yearly out of the same 300l until they shall have raised 2000l as a portion for the said Elizabeth for a future livelihood and as a separate estate for her during jointures wherein my lord shall not nor will intermeddle, and shall make and execute estates to the said Mitchells accordingly”.

Purbeck Fortescue Indenture extract

Purbeck Fortescue Indenture extract, 1652. Copyright: North Yorkshire County Record Office

A sum of 2000l was generous, but did Elizabeth enjoy her full marriage portion? At best she would have received only 1,500 of the full 2,000l in the years available, since her husband died in February of 1658. Moreover, Chancery records held at the National Archives indicate that Purbeck’s appointment of John Urline may have been misplaced since, in 1653, the Viscount took out a lawsuit against him concerning those very Norfolk manors supposed to provide Elizabeth’s 300l a year.

Just as sad for the tenor of the relationship between Lord Purbeck and his ‘son’ is more Chancery proof, that in the next year Robert Villiers became plaintiff and Viscount Purbeck the defendant in another lawsuit concerning those same manors of Aylsham next Burgh, Little Dunham and Thornham.

Elizabeth Slingsby was not dealt the best of cards in her two marriages. Her first husband died in the Siege of Drogheda only three years after they wed, and she had to fight in the courts for that marriage settlement. Thereafter, she only spent five years married to Lord Purbeck and almost certainly never received her full promised portion, albeit through no fault of the Viscount. All the more valuable then if she found a haven in Norton Conyers for the second half of her life, where she could enjoy gentle domesticity in exploring her culinary interests, as already revealed from her recipes found in the Graham family papers.

I thank Maxine Willett and all at the Attics and Acres project, who have enabled me to piece together more of the Villiers family story through access to their Norton Conyers connection.

Midi Berry is a researcher and author, whose Nights of the Road (2015) tells the story of Frances Cook, her ill-fated marriage to Viscount Purbeck, and her touching love affair with Robert Howard. Her next novel will follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Frances’s son, Robert Villiers

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