The Mystery of William Peverell
The Dubious Origins of Lenton's Norman Knight Explored
The keep of Peveril Castle, Castleton. Photograph by Darren Copley
William Peverell, the first Norman lord of Lenton and founder of ill-fated Lenton Priory – is an interesting and controversial character. Everything about him, from his presence on the field at Hastings to his allegedly illustrious yet illegitimate parentage is shrouded in mystery and mediaeval propaganda. Unpicking the truth from the fictions this long after his death is a difficult task – but the stories told about him reveal much about the mind-set prevalent in England in general and Lenton in particular in the turbulent years following the Norman Conquest.
Son of a Saxon Princess
Peverell was born in around 1040, although the exact date of his birth (like so much about his life) remains a mystery. His mother was an Anglo-Saxon princess of some prominence named Althelida Ingelric – a name later Normanised to 'Maud Ingelrica'. Her own father – William's grandfather – was Prince Ingelric, the Earl of Essex, who may have been a son of King Æthelred the Unready. At some point in her youth she travelled to Normandy, before returning to Essex around 1072 to marry a Norman nobleman named Ranulph Peverell. Keen observers will have noted that by the time she thus bestowed the surname 'Peverell' upon her family, William Peverell was undoubtedly already a grown man. Who, therefore, was his father? This is just one of the juicy mysteries surrounding Peverell, and one which would give his later tenants in Lenton much illicit speculative joy.
Alleged Role at the Battle of Hastings
Given his mother's ancestry, William was clearly as much an Englishman as he was a Norman – yet he fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Or, at least, it is assumed that he did. Certainly he is listed in the Battle Abbey Roll, in which Peverell (or 'Peuerell') is given a newly built castle "on the site of the old Danish fort that had previously crested 'the dolorous rock' overhanging the River Lean". However, the Roll itself is of dubious authenticity. The original was supposed to have been a list of those knights who had fought with Duke William, kept in the Abbey at Battle. However, the original has been lost for around five hundred years, and modern historians are reliant on somewhat untrustworthy 'copies'. It is asserted that monks copying the document may have inserted the names of their own patrons in order to lend their monastic houses a grander mythos. E.A. Freeman dismissed the entire Roll as "transparent fiction", and other historian have agreed with his assessment. Nonetheless, the Roll and empirical evidence remain all we have to go on regarding Peverell's involvement in the Norman Conquest. Certainly he would have been of an age to join William the Conqueror's knights in their 1066 assault upon England, and William's later generosity to Peverell does perhaps indicate the kind of land-gift based gratitude which was commonly received by Conquest knights in recognition of deeds wrought on the battlefield.
Unprecedented Ducal Generosity
However, Duke William does seem to have been uncommonly generous to Peverell. The 1086 Domesday Book records him as holding a staggering 162 English manors – although he was resident largely at Lenton. The 1086 Domesday entry for Lenton describes him both as Lord and 'Tenant in chief', making him undoubtedly the lynchpin around which life in Lenton at that point would have revolved. Effectively, Peverell owned the village – and many more besides. Anyone with the resources to do so can easily find evidence of his manorial influence over England. The number of location names involving 'Peverell' in Britain is testament to the vast swathes of the nation which he and his descendants took hold of. Sampford Peverell, Hatfield Peverell, or just plain old Peverell are but a few examples which take their names directly from the illustrious William. This generosity did not go unnoticed. It was not long before subversive tongues began to wag. The discrepancy in years between his birth and his mother's marriage to Ranulph, Althelida's sojourn in Normandy, Duke William's generosity towards Peverell…to the peasants of Lenton, it all began to add up to one salacious conclusion: William Peverell was the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror.
This is not a conclusion which can be supported by any historical evidence whatsoever. That William was illegitimate seems likely, given that he took on the surname of a man who was obviously his stepfather. It is also true that sons were often given the same first name as their fathers. However, it was common practice in Anglo-Norman culture (to which Peverell most affirmably belonged) to give the illegitimate offspring of royal princes their father's name with the prefix 'Fitz' as a surname – which would have rendered William Peverell William Fitzwilliam instead. Royal illegitimacy was not something to be particularly ashamed of - the Conqueror himself was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy and a tanner's daughter. He was frequently mocked for being the grandson of a tanner, and would brook no mention of this fact. Indeed, during the siege of Alencon, citizens of the city taunted him by waving skins over the city walls to remind him of his humble origins. Upon capturing the city, William's vengeance was characteristically ferocious – "...when William took the fortress, he had all those who had mocked him brought before him, and then he had their hands and feet cut off". However, his illegitimacy appears to have had little impact upon his career – he was known to his contemporaries as 'William the Bastard' which, while it may have rankled a little, never cost anyone their extremities.
Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire. Photograph courtesy of CastleUK.net
William Peverell's parentage thus remains one of the great unknowns about him. While Duke William certainly showed him a disproportionate amount of favour, there is little evidence to suggest that the rumours about his parentage were true. It is entirely possible that the Conqueror had other motives for his generosity – some claim that Althelida was his cousin, and family ties drew the two Williams together. Certainly Duke William was also quite generous towards Althelida's legitimate son, Ranulph. Whatever the truth of the matter, gleeful speculation into the illegitimacy or otherwise of their overlords would have allowed the people of Lenton an outlet for the frustrations and uncertainty they must have felt during those turbulent, changeable, and scary times following the Conquest – during which their entire world changed forever.
A Lasting Legacy
Peverell was an inveterate castle builder - perhaps fearing rebellion from the peoples whose lands he had been granted. Many of his castles - or remnants thereof - can still be seen today. Nottingham Castle, although largely now a 17th century rebuild of Peverell's original, still retains many aspects of the mediaeval castle (which would, of course, have been the very castle around which many of Robin Hood's adventures purportedly took place). Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire eventually came the family seat of the Peverell family. Once this was a mighty and intimidating fortress - although it has long since softened into a respectable lordly home. Peveril Castle in the Peak District - named for its founder - is a haunting and atmospheric ruin worth visiting by all with a yen for a romantic ruin. And these are just a few of Peverell's castles. He was also responsible for Codnor Castle and Langar Hall. Those wishing to get close to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the modern world are, therefore, somewhat spoiled for choice!
Article written by Emma Bell - 2014