In January 2013, I began work on a PhD project that sought to piece together the early history of the Gascoigne family – a prominent medieval and early modern gentry family of the West Riding.

Many from Yorkshire may recognise the name from their visits to Lotherton or Gawthorpe Hall, as well as from the numerous parish churches across the county. In fact, it is difficult to go anywhere in Yorkshire without finding some form of connection to the family. Even at my own institution, the University of York, the Gascoigne coat-of-arms could be found on Wentworth College publicity and merchandise, after the two families combined arms in the sixteenth century, following the marriage of Sir Thomas Wentworth III (d. 1587) and Margaret Gascoigne (d. 1592).

This series seeks to give some insight into my research experiences. It will share interesting anecdotes and stories, clarify on some misunderstandings, call out sheer inaccuracies, and detail how I managed to put together a 234-person family history, across three centuries, despite the fact that significant material no longer exists. The first story shared here is how that significant material came to be lost. Although we cannot know for certain, historians tend to agree that it did exist, and that it was destroyed, deliberately, by Sir Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham (1693-1750), pictured below.

A white, very large statue of a male figure wearing a wig and a woman with her hand resting on her head, looking a bit bored. The man is standing and the woman is sitting, and they are both leaning on a pillar with Wentworth's name inscribed on it.

Statue of ‘The Hon. Thomas Watson-Wentworth’ in York Minster.

Burning the Past

‘Some men have no better way to make themselves the most conspicuous persons in their family than by destroying the monuments of their ancestors and raising themselves trophies out of their ruins.’

In 1728, antiquarian and future Norroy King-at-Arms, William Oldys (1696-1761), found himself a guest of Sir Thomas Watson-Wentworth after losing his wealth during the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. Sir Thomas was in the process of being appointed to the Barony of Malton and the words above recalled Oldy’s horror after he witnessed the actions of the future Baron (and later Earl) of Malton, who stacked high in his courtyard a large number of chests filled with documents, loose letters, books and deeds relating to his family and others in Yorkshire, which he then proceeded to burn. Much of the collection had belonged to the Gascoigne family and dated, apparently, back to the Norman Conquest. The reason for such a heinous act was the fear, exacerbated by advice from his lawyers, that Sir Thomas’ claim to his hereditary estates would be weakened by a thorough examination of such documents.

So great was Sir Thomas Watson-Wentworth’s fear that he would lose his title and property that he chose to destroy his past, yet such episodes fascinate the historian and can help identify a person. It is ironic that the episode which reveals Sir Thomas’ character to later historians is the episode that prevents historians from every knowing the character of his ancestors.

Most of the life’s work of the antiquary Richard Gascoigne (1579-1661) was lost in the fire including his family research, genealogies and likely, the final manuscript of his family history. In the centuries since, legends have been told that some documents survived the fire. It has been claimed, for example, that Oldys managed to save some documents, smuggling them out of the estate in secret and storing them at the College of Arms – if they did in fact exist, I have not been able to locate them. It has been claimed also, that an earlier draft of Richard’s work was bequeathed to Jesus College Cambridge on his death, along with his personal library. This, again, is inaccurate. Records of every document entered into the library there show Richard’s donation was substantial but did not include any of his own work. A very early draft does survive, however, alongside a small collection of research notes at the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Morley. In this draft Richard recalls a number of legends and tales about the Gascoignes, as well as producing copies of original deeds and documents from the National Archives. These legends will be discussed next time.


By Chris Bovis, Medieval and Tudor Gascoigne family PhD

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