First Sheldon appears in 1189
THE EARLIEST RECORDED SHELDON DYNASTY begins with Anselm de Scheldon, who is documented as Lord of Machitone (Mackadown in modern-day English), in 1220. From these humble beginnings was to grow a hugely wealthy and powerful family that would spread its power and influence into every corner of English life over the next 500 years.
We have knowledge of an even earlier Sheldon, one Owen de Scheldon, who appears in the Warwickshire Pipe Rolls of 1189/90, when he is fined half a mark (about 35 pence or 45 cents in today’s money) for selling wine “contrary to the assize”, i.e., without having paid the appropriate duty. Since records were few and far between at that time, we have no further information about Owen so it’s difficult to know where he fits in. Was he Anselm’s father? It’s unlikely we will ever know.
Lord Anselm, or Ansel as he appears in some records, was almost certainly an Anglo-Saxon; the name Anselm is Germanic in origin and it’s likely he was named after St Anselm, a late 11th, early 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ansel(m) was succeeded in 1242 by his son Henry de Scheldon, who in the 1250s built the first church in the village, dedicated to St Giles. In 1260 he gave a house and two acres of land to William, enabling him to become the first parson of Sheldon. Religion will come to play a key part in the future of these Sheldons, as we discover their developing timeline.
It was about this time that the focal point of the village moved from the site on which it was recorded in William the Conqueror’s Domesday survey of 1086, a farm at Mackadown, to the site of the new church, less than a mile away.
Indeed, by then the family influence was such that the name Scheldon, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for a ‘shelf hill’, is how the village became known, rather than Machitone.
Henry de Scheldon, knight of the shire
Henry soon came to the notice of the king and we learn from the Close Rolls of Edward I that in 1276 he was, according to William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire, showing “knight’s service to the king”. Two years later, a 1278 document sees Henry entrusted with the duties of an inquisitor, to “enquire and certify… the liberties, privileges, and extent of the same” of the lords of every manor in Warwickshire and Leicestershire.
By the time of the 1279/80 Hundred Roll survey of Warwickshire and Leicestershire, Henry was acting as a King’s Commissioner, his duties being “to enquire by the oaths of substantial and honest men, concerning all those that had lands, or one whole knight’s fee of that value, and who not being knights, ought to be”.
Edward I was involved in wars on two fronts at the time, an expensive and destructive conflict with the Welsh that began with a campaign in 1282/83 and the dealing with rebellions in 1287, 1295/95 and 1316. At the same time, a period of peace with Scotland came to end in 1295 when the Scottish nobility formed an alliance with Edward’s long-standing enemy, Philip IV of France.
Henry and three others were appointed Keepers of the Peace for Warwickshire in 1287, by which time he was probably too old to be considered for military service. He continued in the king’s service until 1298 and was “every year a commissioner for the gaol delivery at Warwick” but by 1315, he had been succeeded by Nicholas de Scheldon as head of the family.
Nicholas died in around 1327, at which point his heir, another Henry and his widow Joan released the manor to the Bishop of Ely in return for a pension of £10 a year to Joan. The young Henry and his wife Beatrice regained control of the manor in 1336 and they held on to it until 1347. Henry and Beatrice remained childless and the manor was eventually leased out to John de Peyto, ending Scheldons’ association with the manor that bore their name.
However, the name continued through Ralph Sheldon, possibly a younger son or grandson of the first Henry de Scheldon, who had moved his family to nearby Rowley Regis in Staffordshire.
Click on the link to learn more about the reign of Edward I
For information on St Giles Church, Sheldon, see http://www.stgilessheldon.org.uk
Saxons in positions of prominence
What is unusual about these early Scheldons is that they were Anglo-Saxons in positions of power and influence in the years following the Norman conquest of Britain.
Their lofty place in a Norman-dominated England is due in no small part to the influence wielded by of one of the few Saxons to hold on to substantial landholdings in the wake of the conquest.
By 1086, when the Domesday Book was prepared, the Norman invaders collectively owned more than 90 per cent of the land. Only three native Englishmen still had significant landholdings, one of whom was Thorkil of Arden, who was tenant-in chief of 71 manors across Warwickshire and whose pedigree connected him with the ancient Kings of Mercia.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded the history of Saxon Britain over a period of some 250 years, described Thorkil as “a great nobleman… dwelling in the region of Arden” and by subsequent historians as being “exceptionally wealthy for an Englishman of 1086”.
An elaborate feudal system
Norman society had an elaborate feudal system of landholdings in which the King sat right at the top. The King granted land, called fiefs, to tenants-in-chief, mainly the barons who travelled over with him from Normandy and made up his invasion army, plus representatives of the church in the form of bishops and abbots.
This was partly a reward for their backing but also as a means of ensuring their loyalty and service. The ‘service’ element usually came in the form of supplying men-at-arms and knights for the King’s armies as and when required.
The tenants-in-chief in their turn parcelled out their holdings to sub-tenants on similar terms, usually involving military service.
Back in the 11th century, Machitone, according to the Domesday survey, was also a relatively prosperous manor, particularly when compared to its neighbours. It had a population of 14 households, pretty much average for the period, but a tax assessment of 14 geld units, significantly higher than it’s neighbours, indicative of a comparatively wealthy manor.
The Conqueror’s survey also records that Machitone had a value in 1086 of 40 shillings, double the 20 shillings assessment of it 20 years earlier, again well ahead of neighbouring, similarly-sized manors.
It is difficult to gauge an accurate size of the manor, despite Domesday giving us detailed measurements. The survey tells us that Machitone comprised “5 hides less 1 virgate”, “land for 5 ploughs” and woodland “a league long and a half broad”. In addition there were 10 villans (villagers) and 4 boarders (smallholders) with “3 ploughs and 2 acres of meadow’.
It is not easy to put all of that into a modern-day context. We do not know the exact size of a ‘hide’, just that it is thought to be somewhere between 120 and 240 acres. A virgate was a quarter of a hide, so all in all we are looking at an area somewhere between 570 and 1,140 acres, or between one and two square miles in broad terms.
Woodland was an important part of the countryside back then. Sheldon would have been within the north-west reaches of the ancient Forest of Arden, the dominant feature of the landscape in this geographical centre of England.
Manor value doubled in 20 years
The Forest of Arden was densely wooded, to such an extent that no Roman roads passed through it and its boundaries were defined by Icknield Street, Watling Street and the Fosse Way, the main Roman thoroughfares of the period
“A league long and a half broad’ gives the size of the woodland in ancient Machitone at around 4.5 square miles. Again, we can only approximate because we don’t have an accurate measurement to work with. A league is generally thought to have been based on the distance a man could walk in an hour, around three miles.
This, together with lands held by the villagers and smallholders, make up a substantial holding.
Furthermore, the mere fact that the manor doubled in value in 20 years, while those around it stagnated or saw only a small growth, indicates an entrepreneurial spirit that will be further in evidence as we examine the fortunes of future generations of this remarkable Sheldon dynasty.
As to the uses to which they put all this land we can only speculate, though it is probably safe to assume that the typical crops of the period, wheat, rye, barley, oats, peas and beans, would have been to the fore.
Saxon farmers also kept cows (for milk, cheese and leather), Oxen (ploughing), sheep (wool), pigs (meat and cooking fat) and chickens (eggs and feathers). Goats (milk and cheese) and geese (meat and feathers) were also popular.
The woodland would have provided fuel for warmth, forage for the animals and a ready supply of game for the table.
What they couldn’t provide for themselves they could obtain from the flourishing market town of Coleshill, less than five miles distant. Coleshill was the administrative seat for the hundred, granted a Royal Charter for its market by King John in 1207.
You can search the Open Domesday project at http://opendomesday.org
The devastating impact of the Black Death
At this point in our Sheldon timeline things become a little vague. The Black Death arrived in 1348, hitting the southern coastal areas of Dorset and Hampshire first before rapidly spreading northwards. It struck the Midlands in 1349, wreaking the same levels of havoc and misery that similarly afflicted the rest of the country, with no corner left untouched.
The plague struck England another six times before the end of the century and it is estimated that 1.5 million people, out of a total population of four million, succumbed to it.
Such was the impact of the Black Death on society in general that fields went unploughed, harvests were not brought in and animals were lost because the men who usually did the work fell victim to the disease.
Many landowners turned to sheep farming because it required fewer men than normal farming practices and this is probably how this particularly Sheldon line not only survived but thrived in the immediate aftermath of this terrible scourge. Sheep numbers doubled during the 14th century and our Sheldon ancestors were among those who adapted to the new reality.
The 12th and 13th centuries had been periods of huge economic growth in England, with the population increasing from around 1.5 million in 1086 to somewhere between four and five million in 1300.
Prior to the arrival of the Black Death, two manorial halls had been established, East Hall, which later because Sheldon Hall, and West Hall, situated in an area later to be known as Kents Moat.
By the year 1390, the West Hall in Sheldon had been abandoned and by 1420 there was no lord of the manor in residence, the Sheldons seemingly having left their ancestral home and moved some 12 miles away to an area now known as Rowley Regis.
The impact of the Black Death on the Midlands was the subject of a 2013 article in The Birmingham Post. See http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/lifestyle/a-plague-upon-the-midlands-3912093
A far cry from its rural past
Sheldon is these days a thriving and bustling suburb of Britain’s second city, Birmingham, and just a small part of a metropolitan conurbation of around four million people.
Despite being just five miles from Birmingham city centre, Sheldon valiantly held on its rural village charm and traditions right through to 1931, when its population still numbered just 525.
All that changed when much of it was gobbled up by its greedy-to-expand big-city neighbours, with other, smaller parts going to Solihull and Coleshill.
All vestiges of its agricultural past might have disappeared altogether but for the advent of the Second World War, when the rapid development of new housing estates was halted by the need to switch the city’s focus from housebuilding to feeding its population and oiling the wheels of the war machine.
Nonetheless, the Sheldon of today, with a population of around 22,000, is a bustling and prosperous suburb of Birmingham, still the UK’s most populous city outside London. Sheldon is also home to the city’s international airport.
FOLLOW THE SAGA: Nicholas Sheldon and The Feast of the Swans