"Henri le Sire de Ferriers," commemorated by Wace as a combatant at Senlac, was Seigneur de Saint Hilaire de Ferriers, near Bernay, and son of Walkelin de Ferrers, who fell in a contest with the first Hugh de Montfort we hear of in the early days of Duke William II, and therefore, though a younger son, for he had an elder brother named Guillaume, who Monsieur de Pluquet tells us, was also in the great battle, must have been well advanced in years in 1066.
Whatever his services, it was not till after Hugh d'Avranches was created Earl of Chester, in 1071, that Henry de Ferrers received at least the Castle of Tutbury, his "caput Baronie," which had been previously granted to the said Hugh, and resigned by him on becoming Earl of Chester. In 1085, we find him appointed one of the commissioners for the general survey of the kingdom, and in that year he is recorded as the holder, besides the Castle of Tutbury, of seven lordships in Staffordshire, twenty in Berkshire, three in Wiltshire, five in Essex, seven in Oxfordshire, two in Lincolnshire, two in Buckinghamshire, one in Gloucestershire, two in Herefordshire, three in Hampshire, thirty-five in Leicestershire, six in Warwickshire, three in Nottinghamshire, and one hundred and fourteen in Derbyshire! When bestowed, however, or how obtained, whether wholly by grant of the King, or partly by marriage, is not recorded. Neither have we succeeded in identifying his wife, Berta, in conjunction with whom he founded and richly endowed the Priory of Tutbury in 1089, "by the concession and authority of William the younger (Rufus), King of the English." The date of his death also is unknown; but he had issue three sons, Enguenulf, William, and Robert. The two eldest died in his lifetime without issue, and Robert, who succeeded him, was the first Earl of Ferrers, not Earl Ferrers, as incorrectly described, by some, but "Robertus, Comes de Ferrarius" or "de Ferriers," as in the charter of the second Earl Robert, who was also Earl of Nottingham, and according to Orderic Vital, the first Earl of Derby.
It is no part of the plan of this work to enter into details respecting the descendants of the actual companions of the Conqueror, but there are exceptions to most, if not to all, rules, and there is so little to be said about Henry de Ferrers, and so much about his immediate successors, that I am tempted to depart from my own rule on this occasion.
There is considerable difference of opinion, in the absence of indubitable facts, as to which of these two Roberts — father and son — distinguished himself in the famous battle at Northallerton, known as the Battle of the Standard, also as to the exact period at which the earldoms of Nottingham and Derby were conferred upon an Earl of Ferrers; but the principal bone of contention is the identification of the fortunate member of that family who married Margaret, daughter and heiress of William Peverel, Lord of Nottingham, who was dispossessed of his estates by King Henry II, for conspiring with Maud, Countess of Chester, to poison her husband, Ranulph Gernons, Earl of Chester, in 1155.
Now this is a very curious story, which has been received in perfect confidence, and handed down from writer to writer, as a portion of the history of England, until, at the Newark Congress of the British Archaeological Association, I ventured to question the very existence even of the Margaret Peverel, who has been married by various genealogists to at least three successive Earls of Ferrers.
In the charter of King Stephen to the monks of Lanton we find mention of this William Peverel, of his wife Oddona, and his son Henry, at that time most probably his heir apparent; but there is no notice of any daughter, and the rolls of the reign of Henry 1, Stephen, and Henry II, in which mention is made of many Peverels, including the mother and sister of William Peverel of Nottingham, are equally silent on the score of a daughter, and acknowledge no Margaret Peverel of any branch.
Vincent gives Margaret to the first Earl William, who tells us himself that his wife's name was Sibilla; others to William's father, the second Robert, who explicitly declares that his wife was another Sibilla, daughter of William, Lord Braose of Bramber; and my dear lamented friend, the late Rev. C. Hartshorne, in the "Archæological Journal" (vol. v., p. 129), calls Margaret the wife of the first Robert, who married Hawise de Vitry.
For the proof that William was the happy man we are referred to the Oblate Boll of the 1st of John, in which it is said that William, the third earl of that name, calls Margaret his grandmother. Now here is the entry referred to, in which you will find no such thing: — "The Earl of Ferrers gives two thousand marks for Hecham, Blidsworth, and Newbottle, that the King may forego all claim to other lands which were William Peverel's, and the King gives to him the park of Hecham, which the Lord Henry, his great-grandfather (that is, King Henry II) gave in exchange to the ancestors of William Peverel," Where is Margaret? Where any mention of the grandmother of the Earl of Ferrers?
The next reference is to a plea-roll of the 25th of Henry III, which certainly proves that some Earl of Ferrers assumed a right of heirship to William Peverel, but by no means hints that it was in right of his wife, or makes any mention of Margaret. The words are remarkable. The Earl of Ferrers is therein stated to have made himself heir of the aforesaid William Peverel, and to have intruded himself into the same inheritance during the war between the King and his barons. Now, we are told that one of the earliest acts of Henry II in the year after his accession, viz., 1155, was to disinherit William Peverel, the staunch supporter of his old rival Stephen, upon the opportune charge of poisoning the Earl of Chester, as before mentioned. Henry himself does not charge him specifically with it, but the cause is distinctly stated by the Chronicon Roffense, the register of Dunstable, Matthew Paris, Matthew of Westminster, and Gervase of Dover, a goodly array of highly respectable authorities.
But how are we to reconcile this statement with the fact that Henry, before he ascended the throne, most probably at the time of the pacification with Stephen in 1152, and certainly not later than 1153, in which year Earl Eanulph died, gave to this very Ranulph the man Peverel is accused of poisoning, with other large estates of hostile nobles, the castle and town of Nottingham, and the whole fee of William Peverel, wherever it was (with the exception of Hecham) unless he (William Peverel) could acquit and clear himself of his wickedness and treason? Are we not justified in believing, upon the evidence of this agreement — for such is the nature of the instrument, which is witnessed by parties both for Henry and Ranulph, — that Peverel was dispossessed of his estates, not for assisting to poison the Earl of Chester, for to that very Earl the estates are given, but for wickedness and treason generally — in plain words, for supporting Stephen manfully and faithfully against Henry and his mother.
Such was evidently the opinion of Sir Peter Leycester, who printed this important document at length in his "Prolegomena," prefaced with these words, "How Randal Earl of Chester was rewarded for taking part with Henry Fitz-Empress, being yet but Duke of Normandy and Earl of Anjou, may appear by this deed following." No hint of its being a compensation to him for injury inflicted by Peverel.
And what was the punishment of the Countess Maud, the supposed accomplice of Peverel, and if so, the most culpable of the twain? She survived the Earl her husband many years, and her name is associated with that of her son, Hugh Kevilioc, in several acts of benevolence and piety, amongst them actually the purchase of absolution for her husband, who died excommunicated.
Hugh Kevilioc, who succeeded to his father's earldom with all his possessions, had a daughter named Agnes, who became the wife of William, second of that name, Earl of Ferrers and Derby, and thus it is clearly evident how that Earl made himself heir of Peverel and intruded himself into that inheritance,
having purchased Hecham of the King, which had been excepted from the rest of the fee of Peverel in the grant of Henry Duke of Normandy to Ranulph Gernons, and claiming heirship to the estates of Peverel, in right of his wife Agnes, sister and co-heir of Ranulph Blondeville, Earl of Chester, the grandson of the grantee, and not through any marriage with this phantom Margaret Peverel, no trace of whom has ever been found in one authentic document.
The reputed victim of Peverel's machinations is said by King, in his "Vale Royal," to have died after lingering in agonies, which I suspect to be an absurd translation of the "post multos agones" of Gervase of Dover. His words are, "post multos agones militaris gloriæ," and the context proves that the words do not apply to bodily torture, but to struggles or contests as a soldier in pursuit of military glory. (Vide Ducange sub agonia and agonizare.) What conclusive proof have we that Ranulph, Earl of Chester died of poison at all? "Ut fama fuit" is all Gervase of Dover can say about it.
Added to this site through the courtesy of Fred L. Curry, who provided a photocopy of the section.