‘All believed it was the end of the world’
THE FIRST NAME in the earliest recorded Sheldon pedigree is that of Ralph Sheldon, believed to have been born in the village of Sheldon, Warwickshire, around 1320, a hundred years or so after Anselm de Scheldon is documented as Lord of Machitone, as the village was then known.
Much changed in England as the conquering Normans consolidated their hold on the country, quelled sporadic resistance in the North and generally extended their dominance across all spheres of medieval life.
Ralph, variously recorded in Latin as Rafe, Raffe, Rauffe, Raphe in the Sheldon pedigree, was a popular name right into and beyond Shakespeare’s time and appears several times in subsequent Sheldon generations.
As a given name, it appears in English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, Scandinavian and German traditions, but not Norman. It seems our Sheldons were even then determined to maintain a respect for their traditions and roots, a stubbornness we will see reflected over and again as the dynasty spreads its power and influence down through the centuries.
‘It made the country quite void of inhabitants’
Ralph would still have been a young man when the Black Death first struck the Midlands of England in 1349. Its impact would have been devastating.
It has been estimated that the population of England fell from around four million to 2.5 million as a result of the plague, which drastically altered the fabric of society.
Within hours victims would succumb to fever accompanied by boils in the groin and under the armpits, which oozed black pus.
At the time the disease was known as the ‘Great Mortality’ and it wasn’t until Elizabethan times that historians began to refer to it as the Black Death.
Geoffrey Le Baker of Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, a chronicler writing in the time of Edward II, noted: “It made the country quite void of inhabitants so that there were almost none alive.”
It was the same across Europe, with one Italian chronicler writing: “They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown into ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I buried my five children with my own hands… And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”
Another wrote: “How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, had breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world! The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others, dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ship’s hold and covered with a little earth.”
It remains to this day the most devastating pandemic in human history in terms of the percentage of the worldwide population it wiped out. It is estimated that across the planet it killed between 100-150 million people by 1400.
Moving from Warwickshire to Staffordshire
The sudden and drastic reduction in manpower meant that there were fewer people left to tend the land and many landowners were compelled to drastically change agricultural practices established and developed over centuries. Many switched from growing crops to farming sheep because it was less labour intensive.
The Domesday survey had shown that there were more sheep in England than all other livestock put together. The sheep’s main function at the time was to provide wool, milk and manure. Meat was a mere by-product.
Sheep farming was one of the chiefs means through which the national economy recovered following the Black Death. High-quality English wool was prized across Europe and export markets developed rapidly. The subsequent growth of the cloth industry also contributed to making medieval Britain prosperous.
It seems likely that Ralph Sheldon and his descendants also switched their attentions to sheep farming at this time for this was to provide the foundations on which to build their future prosperity.
Quite how many of Ralph’s family were wiped out by the plague we will never know but it may well be that the horrific consequences sparked Ralph’s desire to up sticks and move the 12 miles to Rowley Regis.
Many English towns had been left depopulated and some villages were totally abandoned. There is no evidence to suggest that Sheldon village was abandoned but perhaps the population became so depleted that Ralph felt obliged to make a fresh start in Rowley Regis.
Why Rowley? Again, we cannot say with any certainty, but the Rowley Hills, though modest in height, would have been a prominent geographic feature in an otherwise flat landscape and as such would have been clearly visible over a wide area.
The Rowley Hills are a range of hills located in that part of the now heavily-industrialised West Midlands known as the Black Country. Although not specifically mentioned in Domesday, there is little doubt that a small Anglo-Saxon settlement would have pre-dated Ralph Sheldon’s arrival there.
To this day, the local dialect contains strong Saxon influences, with commonplace German words words such as “bin” and “bist” having exactly the same meaning in the Black Country dialect.
Ideal conditions for sheep farming
Four main hills make up the Rowley chain, Turner’s Hill, Bury Hill, Portway Hill and Darby’s Hill. The ridge forms the east/west watershed between the Severn and Trent rivers, with rainfall on the eastern side flowing towards the east coast and the North Sea whereas on the western side it ends up on the west coast in the Bristol Channel.
The earliest records for Rowley date back to the reign of King John (1199-1216) when a Chapel of Ease was built there. At some point the chapel became a church, dedicated to St Giles – the same as the church built by Henry de Scheldon some five miles away back in the village of Sheldon.
In the 12th century the Rowley hills were part of extensive Royal hunting grounds, as a consequence of which Regis was added to the name to signify that the land belonged to the King.
The hills also provided ideal conditions for sheep farming, one means through which future Sheldon generations would become vastly wealthy.
The pedigree shows that Ralph I (one), as I will call him to avoid confusion with other Ralphs to come, had two sons, Richard and Morris, both recorded as living in Rowley Regis, Staffordshire. They would have lived there about 200 years before the Sheldon pedigree was first written down.
The noted 17th century Warwickshire historian Sir William Dugdale, who was born not far from the village of Sheldon and would have known the area well, observed that William (1) Sheldon, a great grandson of Morris Sheldon, held land in the Lordship of Birmingham, which he believed was the link that established they were descended from a younger branch of the de Scheldon family who had lived in the manor of Sheldon.
The historian E A B Barnard, of whom more later, reinforced that evidence in a comprehensive 1920s research project that led to his publication of ‘The Sheldons: Being some account of the Sheldon Family or Worcestershire and Warwickshire’.
First published in 1936, it was re-published in paperback form by Cambridge University Press in 2014 (ISBN: 978-1-107-67421-9).
No documentary evidence is available for Ralph and his two sons, but Richard’s son John is almost certainly the John Sheldon of Rowley Regis named in a deed of 1416 held in the neighbouring Dudley Archives (deed number 1172). This was a grant of houses and yards by William Anthony, gentleman of Dudley, to John Sheldon and two others. “John Sheldon esquire” is also recorded at Rowley in 1430.
Nothing is known of Morris Sheldon except that he also had a son John, who married Juana de Cotton, daughter of a wealthy Norman family, and used his good fortune to lease the manor of Abberton, Worcestershire, during the reign of Henry IV (1319-1413) from the Abbot and Convent of Pershore, which has extensive landholdings across several Midlands counties.
Barnard confirms this leasing arrangement in the opening paragraph of his book,
Subsequent Sheldons will, by virtue of marrying well, similarly elevate themselves to dizzy heights on the social scale, amassing vast wealth, power and influence along the way.
Although John Sheldon moved on to pastures new, other siblings and wider family members stayed in and around Rowley Regis and to this day many of their descendants can be found either still in Rowley itself or in the many surrounding towns.
For more on the history of Rowley Regis, and in particularly its complicated geographical history, see: http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/STS/RowleyRegis/
FOLLOW THE SAGA: The Sheldons move on to Abberton
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- The Mystery of the Missing Passport
- The Sheldon Tapestries
- Sheldon fortunes take a downwards turn
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- William Sheldon (1500-1575) Part Two
- Philippa’s will that of a wealthy woman
- The details of Ralph Sheldon’s will
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