Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ranulf & Robert, Lords of Middleham, Yorkshire

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

I recently had a request to use my images of the effigies at Coverham Abbey. One of the images, in the blog header above, is of my ancestors' effigies, and me. It's one of my favorite photos, ever. I granted permission for the request, with the addition of my copyright notice. But it reminded me of the photos, which I'm including in this post.

I've searched for Ranulf and Robert in genealogy sites (always suspect and rarely reliable), and Wikipedia (need I say, same traits). Family history sites have the Lords Middleham descending from Basil I "the Macedonian,"  Emperor of the Byzantine Empire in the ninth century. Mmm, I'm skeptical. The more royal genealogies I read, and there are oodles of them, the less I trust their accuracy. I do believe, however, that the Lords of Middleham were the ancestors of the Nevilles of Raby

Some years ago, I had read that the effigies of Robert and Ranulph were kept at the property on which Coverham Abbey had stood for hundreds of years, in the Yorkshire Dales. After spending the night at an inn in Masham, I drove past Middleham Castle to find Coverham Abbey nearby. There's a small sign on the driveway. I wasn't prepared to find a private residence there, but yes, that's what the property is. It's beautifully groomed and landscaped, with a flock of sheep in the paddock by the Cover river, a duck pond, graveled drives, and stone walls made of pieces of the ruined abbey. In the walls, you see lintels and cornices, and all sorts of odd pieces and sculptures--it's lovely, and an archaeologist's dream to sort out. 

Seeing that it was a private residence, I parked at the side of the driveway and walked near the house, calling out over the sound of a small alarm-dog. The lady of the house came outside and greeted me pleasantly, and pointed me to the effigies standing up against a garden wall. She took a photo of me with the effigies, and allowed me to walk around the garden and up the hill to the parish church. While I was up the hill, she and her husband and child drove away, perhaps to church or breakfast.  

The effigies would have been recumbent, on the tomb chests of the Middleham patrons, in the Chapter House of the abbey. When King Henry VIII ordered the closure of religious houses in the 1530s, the lead roofs and fittings were scavenged for salvage, then the structure (with roof timbers and supports) was burned or fell in with inclement weather. At some point, probably in the 19th century, the effigies were rescued from the wreckage of the abbey.

ROBERT FITZ RANULPH  3rd Lord of Middleham and Spennithorne, b. 1110 Middleham, Yorkshire, England   d. 1185. 

Robert married HELEWISA DE GLANVILLE 1140-1195, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice Ranulf de Glanville. Robert and Helewisa had at least three children:
  1. Waleran, b. 1170
  2. Radulph/Ralph, b. ____ , died before 1299.
  3. Ranulf FitzRobert, b.  ca. 1181-1184
In about 1183, Robert founded Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield as penance for not revealing knowledge of the plot to assassinate St. Thomas of Canterbury.   

Several sites (and Wikipedia) say that Robert died in 1185, AND that he built the castle of Middleham in  1190 –apparently 5 years after his death in 1185! Have to love Wikipedia and those genealogy websites... I have some difficulty believing the timeline for Robert and Helewisa. If he was born in 1110, he was about 60 at the time of his marriage to Helewisa, aged about 30. Certainly it could happen, but Helewisa should have been married 10-15 years earlier than age 30. And Robert growing so "old" before he produced heirs is very unusual.

If we take the 1190 foundation date of the castle, my best guess is that his widow Helewisa and/or her powerful father began the Middleham Castle building program after Robert's death, during the minority of her three sons. 

Robert was buried elsewhere, probably, then reinterred at the Chapter House, Coverham Abbey after its founding a few years later. I suspect that his son commissioned the memorial effigy. 

Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, in the county of North Yorkshire, was built by Robert Fitz Ralph, 3rd Lord of Middleham & Spennithorne, commencing in 1190. It was built near the site of an earlier motte and bailey castle. In 1270 it came into the hands of the Neville family... The ruins are now in the care of English Heritage.

More information on Middleham Castle.

Pictures of Ranulf and Robert of Middleham
in the new book EFFIGY HUNTER at

Robert's and Helewisa's third child, Ranulf, inherited the titles and properties on the demise of his siblings. 

RANULF FITZROBERT  4th Lord of Middleham and Spennithorne.
b. c. 1180 Middleham, Yorkshire, England, d. bef. 7 Dec 1251, buried Coverham Chapter House. 

Ranulf married MARY BIGOD (b. abt. 1186 in Menthorpe, East Riding Yorkshire). She was heiress of Menthorpe, daughter of Roger BIGOD 2nd Earl of Norfolk and Ida TOENI (former mistress of King Henry II). Ranulph and Mary married in about 1198-99, when both were teenagers. Ranulf's parents were dead, and his older brothers were dead, so it was imperative that he marry and get an heir for his properties and titles, before they could be forfeit to the king. It may be that his warden or guardian was Roger Bigod, who would have known and worked with Ranulf's grandfather, justiciar Ranulf de Glanville, in legal matters for King John. 

Ranulf lived during the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III. He held six knights' fees (manors) in the Honor of Richmond in Yorkshire, and his effigy shows him in mail, so he was probably a military man who saw action under regent William Marshall and King Henry III.

He also must have been very wealthy. In 1207, Ranulf gave 200 marks (3-4 million pounds today) fine to the King [John] for livery of the property belonging to Bertha the "Lady of Leyburn," niece of Lord Ranulph de Glanville, and recent widow of William de Stuteville, lying in Leyburn and Barham. (Notice that the 200 marks were a fine, so the money for the property did not go to Bertha or William's heirs, but instead to King John.) Bertha was Ranulf's wife's cousin, and may have had a young daughter. Bertha's fate was probably to be "sold" (by King John, who profited again) to one of John's lesser knights. 

Coverham Abbey, North Yorkshire, England was a Premonstratensian monastery originally founded at Swainby in 1190 by Helewisia, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice Ranulf de Glanville. It was refounded at Coverham in about 1212 by her son Ranulf fitzRalph, who had the body of his late mother reinterred in the chapter house at Coverham.
There is some evidence that during the first half of the 14th century the abbey and its holdings were attacked by the Scots, with the abbey itself being virtually destroyed. Later in the century there is a record of there being fifteen canons plus the abbot in residence.
The site is usually inaccessible to the public but can be glimpsed from the churchyard of Coverham's redundant medieval parish church.
Note from author Elizabeth Chadwick: “As you probably know I use psychic resources to aid with my research and Alison, my friend and consultant, described Ranulf Fitzrobert of Middleham, husband of Mary Bigod, as having straight brown hair with a heavy fringe, and clear, light green eyes. Very handsome apparently too!” 


If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.  

Christy K Robinson is the author of five-star nonfiction and fiction historical books, as well as author of Rooting for Ancestors and William and Mary Barrett Dyer websites. You will find her books at http://bit.ly/RobinsonAuthor.

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)

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