1066 Info 5 for Norman Origins
The life of Gilbert de Venables in Cheshire - an alternative

A modern interpretation

Exactly who fought at Hastings has been the interest of many academics for centuries. Many Anglo-Norman families have claimed descent from an ancestor who supposedly fought at the great battle but few can show proof of this. Beyond the trifling 20-40 identified, depending on which source, the participants will remain unknown forever. However, the chroniclers insist that there was a wide ranging recruitment of auxiliary troops, the clear importance of ducal loyalty and Norman government as well as those Normans who migrated from the original base. (Keats-Rohan, 1999 p.9)

The Foundation of Medieval Genealogy acknowledges the fifteen commanders named by William of Poitiers (circa 1073-1074) who fought at Hastings and another five possible names from those identified by Odericus Vitalis Angligena. [This source can no longer be traced.]

In addition to the commentary of Master Robert Wace, the medieval poet-chronicler of Le roman de Rou, written in 1160, There are three lists of those who allegedly fought at Hastings: The Battle Abbey Roll, The Dives Roll; and The Falaise Rolls.

In this information, there is much on-going debate to reliability and validity of the evidence of who actually fought with William, who provided materials and men, who remained in Normandy maintaining the peace and who ventured to England after the Conquest. Keats-Rohan argues that the Chronicles were concerned, apparently, with auxiliary troops, composed of well-born and led by nobles, rather than mercenaries. (Keats-Rohan, 1999 p.30) Though named on all three Rolls, there is no written evidence that Gilbert de Venables came with the Conqueror.

The Battle Abbey Rolls

Prior to the 'Dissolution of the Monasteries’, a scrolled tablet hung in Battle Abbey, which reputedly held the names of the commanders at the battle. The earliest known printed version dates from the 16th century, translated from a probable 14th century edition. Its origins are thought to be the third and final section of Le roman de Rou. Written in the language of the time it records the surnames or, more accurately, the names of the places where men came from. It was altered by the Battle Abbey scribes to the 12th century Anglo-Norman spellings. There are various ‘copies’ of this roll with considerable additions and differences.

The ‘Battle Abbey Rolls’ appears to be a composite list from different sources. An aggregate number, with duplicates removed, from all the rolls suggests there were about 600 named people, from a total force of about 5000 men. Midgley suggests there were 375 elite ‘commanders’ who provided ships, men and horses.

It has been suggested that monks were bribed to insert names of lower origins men whose families had become wealthy and powerful, but were not at Hastings. Such insertions are thought not to be more than twenty. It is also suggested that the monks associated and recorded Norman-sounding names of those who followed later with descendants of the invaders. The Roll could be a list of 14th century families of Norman origin, including the grandchildren of those who fought. It is probable that these were the progenitor of families who demonstrated Norman descendancy and entered England as a settler after the Conquest. (Midgley)
A page from the Battle Abbey Roll - 35kB jpg

Above: A page from the Battle Abbey Roll

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The Dives Roll

William’s gathered his invasion fleet at Dives-sur-Mer.

Perhaps the earliest reference to the Roll of Dives came from 'The Vicissitudes of Families, third series', by Sir Bernard Burke, second edition, Longmans, London, 1863. This stated that the compilation of a Roll of William’s Companions, in the Church of Dives sur Mer, was inaugurated on 17 August 1862. Presiding over an International Academic meeting Monsieur de Caumont, chairman of the French Society of Archaeology, with the approval of Mgr Didot, Bishop of Bayeux, Monsieur Renier, Vicar of Dives, Copunt Foucher de Careil, member of the Conseil General, Monsieur Arnet, Mayor of Dives compiled a list of 485 names.

The results were perhaps from the research of Léopold Delisle, who left no records of his sources. It has been described as being ‘a companion record to that at Battle Abbey, but while the Battle Roll lists those who allegedly actually fought at Hastings, the Roll at Dives lists those who were otherwise engaged in furthering the Conquest of England’.

Click on the Roll to open a 653kB A4 landscape image of the full Roll. Return to marker
Gilbert's name on the Dives Roll - 33kB jpg Gilbert's name on the Dives Roll - 33kB jpg
Above: Gilbert's name on the Dives Roll
Dives-sur-Mer church - 82kB jpg
Above: The church at Dive-sur-Mer. The Roll is located above the west door.
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The Falaise Roll

The French Government, in 1931, produced the "Falaise Roll" whose list shows considerable differences again.

There are about eight versions of the Roll in addition to the version accepted by the French Government. This lists 315 men whose names were engraved on the bronze tablet erected, on 21 June 1931 in the Chapel of Duke William’s castle at Falaise. Its probable source was Wace’s Le roman de Rou and the Battle Abbey Rolls.

Falaise Town Hall, downhill from the castle, now houses The Falaise Roll. The chief archaeologist at the castle is sceptical about its completeness and suggests the wall mural over the main entrance to Dives-sur-Mer church may be more correct.

Le roman de Rou [The romance of Rollo]

Written 100 years after the battle, the work of the poet-chronicler Master Robert Wace, a Jerseyman who studied in Paris and Caen and later became ‘clerc lisant’ in Caen itself, has long been disputed and his reputation virtually demolished. In 2005 Dr Elisabeth van Houts argued that some of the names, in the rhyming poem, could be identified in Normandy and linked to men who settled in England after the Conquest.

Written in a time of a changed political situation it is thought that Master Wace may have written his chronicle to celebrate Normandy’s former greatness and, it is now believed to honour neglected local heroes from his home region of western Normandy. van Houts argues that Master Wace, in his home of Caen, didn’t know of the existence of the Domesday Book or other English works when he talked to the descendants of more than 100 Hastings veterans and recorded the oral history. But, if he was unsure about individual claims he could have had them confirmed from the then contemporary financial and church records in Caen, and other documents of William’s court, now long since lost.

Master Wace mentions 116 individuals, surnamed by their toponym (place of abode), because, as he wrote, ‘I do not know the names of all the men from Normandy and Brittany’. He refers to three types of people:

  1. seventeen participants mentioned by first name and surname, with long accounts of their actions;
  2. twenty two participants mentioned by first name and surname, with no accounts of their actions; and
  3. seventy seven names indicated as lords of such-and-such.

Most of the names in category 1 and 2 can be identified and the likelihood of them taking part in the Battle of Hastings is very great indeed. (van Houts 1997, p.112)

Identifying individuals by their toponym in English post-conquest documents is almost impossible because formal family names were not adopted until in the reign of Henry II. By comparing the names on late 11th century and early 12th century Norman charters with those in Domesday and other English records van Houts found evidence of the continuation of the family name of new knights and minor barons in the districts of Caen and Bayeux and England of Domesday. Several names were also found from the generation that would have fought at Hastings. Near-contemporary English documents link names such as Bohun and Averenchis [sic] [Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester] with Normandy.

It can be argued that, if the Battle Abbey Roll was based on Le Roman de Rou then van Houts’ research authenticates some of the names. Although Wace mentions ‘the good citizens of Rouen’ and eight people from Eure, the absence of Gilbert’s name from Master Wace’s list is perhaps due to the geographical location of Venables, in High Normandy.

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William of Poitiers

William of Poitiers was a Norman born in Préaux (Department of Eure). Between 1050 and 1077 he was sometime Archdeacon of Lisieux. Though not present at Hastings, he crossed the Channel sometime after the invasion.

His book, Gesta Guillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum [The History of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English] was written circa 1073–1074 when he was chaplain to King William. It is possible that King William’s oral history was his source. The Gesta is by far the most complete account of the invasion written in the eleventh century. It existed only as a copy, published in1619, but this is now lost.

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In the translation by Thorne, William names twelve who fought in the battle, and adds that there were ‘a great number of other most famous fighting men whose names should be recorded in history books for their war like deeds’. [Translated by Thorne] Thorne lists another three names, identified on the Bayeux Tapestry, making the fifteen accepted by the Foundation of Medieval Genealogy.

Odericus Vitalis

Odericus Vitalis was born near Shrewsbury c.1075, the eldest son of an English woman married to Oderlerius, the Norman confessor and advisor of Roger of Montgomery, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. He spent most of his life as a monk in the monastery of Saint Evroult near Lisieux in Calvados.

His Historia Ecclesiastica, written 70 years after the event, is composed of thirteen books written between 1123 and 1141. It is said to names an additional five men who fought at Hastings. Hostile to Hugh d’Avranches (Odericus Vitalis ii 260-2), questioning of William

I dare not commend him for an act which levelled both the bad and the good in one common ruin by a consuming famine...I assert, moreover, that such barbarous homicide should not pass unpunished.

and sympathetic to Harold. He was still putting the final touches to the story of the Norman master race when the death of Henry I brought to an end the male line which could be traced back to 911AD.

He records that ‘Men from Anjou, Brittany and Maine were still serving in January 1070, complaining bitterly and asking to be discharged’, (Odericus Vitalis ii 234) having presumably taken part in the Harrying. According to the Hastings battle plan Gilbert, a pure Norman, would not have been part of these ‘auxiliary’ troops.


It can be argued that these sources include four types of persons:

  1. Those twenty real people who were generally agreed to have been present at the Battle of Hastings.
  2. Real people who may well have been at the Battle of Hastings, but for whom it is not possible to produce evidence to show this.
  3. Real people not at the Battle of Hastings.
  4. Fictitious characters.

The difficulty is that although category 1 has been well defined by earlier work and category 4 can usually be found out by research, it is not possible to distinguish those in categories 2 and 3.

Though Gilbert de Venables appears on the three Rolls neither he nor his tenant-in-chief, Earl Hugh d’Avranches, have been positively identified as having fought at Hastings. Gilbert may have:

Or, as an opportunist ‘youngest son’ who, on hearing of England's potential, sought a better parcel of land than his Venables fiefdom. He may have arrived in England as reinforcements for the ‘Harrying of the North’ and the maintenance of William’s post 1069 peace because:

We know of Gilbert circa 1050/66 from the Caen records and of Gilbert in the great survey of 1087. Whilst he appears on the three Rolls neither he nor his Earl, Hugh d’Avranches, have been positively identified as having fought at Hastings. Gilbert may have arrived in England, to enhance his fortunes, at the time of Hastings or he may have arrived as reinforcements for the ‘Harrying of the North’ and the maintenance of William’s post 1069 peace. We will never know of his life between those dates.

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What may have happened

Gilbert, being a minor son and having the small estate of Venables, may have jumped at the opportunity for fame and the fortune of an improved estate. He may have gained his Cheshire lands in one of the following ways:

'Fifehide Magdalen is a little village situated a mile north from Marmhull. It is a well inclosed parish, upon the western banks of the Stour, between the river and the parish of Stalbridge. The village is beautifully situated upon the summit of the hill which rises with a gradual ascent from the banks of the Stour. It is called Fifehide from the five hides of land it contained, and received the addition name Magdalen from the saint to whom its church is dedicated. In Domesday Book this place is survey amongst the lands of Earl Hugh.' (Hutchins 1861, p.56)

(200) Earl Hugh holds FIFEHEAD MAGDALEN, [Fifhide] and Gilbert [holds] of him. Alnoth held it TRE, and it paid geld for 5 hides. There is land for 5 ploughs. In demesne are 3 ploughs, and 6 slaves; and 4 villains and 4 bordars with 2 ploughs. There are 2 mills rendering 22s 6d and 30 acres of meadow, [and] woodland 4 furlongs long and 2 furlongs wide. It was and is worth £7. The Domesday entry for Fifehead Magdalen - kB jpg
Above: The Domesday entry for Fifehead Magdalen

'Hugh de Abrincis [sic], son of William the Conqueror's sister, came to England, and was created Earl of Chester A.D.1070. Amongst the vast possessions given to him was this manner and nine more in the county. Ranulph, surnamed de Gernons, his descendant, gave this manor, and the churches of St. Leonard, St. Nicholas and Allhallows, in Bristol, to the canons of St. Augustine there.' (Hutchins 1861 p.56) However, Fifehead may have been given to St. Augustine's by Robert son of Harding, who survived the Conquest, and the grandson of Eadnorth (Alnoth) the staller. (VCH Dorset p.57)

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A map locating the manor of Fifehead Magdalen - 95kB gif
Above: A map locating the manor of Fifehead Magdalen, on the A30 between Sherbourne and Shaftsbury
Note the existence of a weir, which may have been the location of one of Gilbert's mills, but not of a motte.
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An analysis of Earl Hugh's Dorset Domesday lands (After Derby, 1962)

Of Earl Hugh's Dorset lands Gilbert was tenant of one manor and William the remaining ten. But Gilbert, the first named tenant, assumes a degree of importance and a closeness to Earl Hugh.

  Tenant Hides paying geld Ploughs Population Wood Meadow in acres Pasture Value Notes
In land units by team in furlongs modern acres in furlongs modern acres 1066 1087
220 Fifehead 1 Gilbert 5 5 5 14 4x2 80 30     £7 £7 Mills 2 rendering 22s 6d
221 Ilsingham William 2   3   8 5   20s 20s Mills 1
222 Tincleton William 2 2 1 6 2   5 5   20s 20s  
223 Littlemayne William 3 2 2 11     3 140acres 140 40s 40s In Wareham 1 house rendering 5d
224 Littlemayne William 2 1½ 1 5     3 8x1 89 40s 40s  
225 Clifton Maybank William 6 4 5 17 8x4 356 12     £6 £6 Mills rendering 10s
       Trill attached William 3 2 1 7 6x2 60 8     £3 £3 Mills 1 rendering 50d
226 Warmwell William 2¼ 2 1½ 10       9x2 198 50s 50s Mills 1 rendering 5s
227 Tyneham William 1¼ 1   3 6acres   1 4   20s 20s  
228 South Perrott William 5 5 5 23 7x5 420 12 14x3 420 100s 120s Restored to church on Alnoth's death 3
229 Catesley William 2 1 1½   5     12 4x4 160 5s 10s Restored to church on Alnoth's death
230 Burstock William 3 3 3 12     8 2x2 40 20s 40s  
Total   35½ 30½ 26 113   ~916 102   ~1047 635s 740s  

1 Of considerable importance are the three manors called Fifehead, the modern Fifehead Magdalen, Fifehead Neville, and Fifehead St Quintin, each assessed, not surprisingly, at five hides. (VCH Dorset p.50)

2 Probably William Malbeenc (Malbank) who appears in the Geld Roll for Beaminster Hundred as part of Catsley. It is reasonable to assume William Malbank held the other manors of Earl Hugh. (VCH Dorset p.50) Domesday records Willelmus Malbanc as holding Earl Hugh's manors of Wepre County Flint, Wincho in Cheshire (Natwich) and Witebiam (Whitby) in Yorkshire. Willelmus Malbanc and Gilleburtus de Venables co-signed both the Foundation Charter for St Werburgh's Abbey and the Great Charter of Ranulf II that confirmed the original Charter. (Barraclough, 1988)

3 If the manors of South Perrott and Catesly were to be returned to the church on Alnoth's death then either Alnoth survived Hastings and was alive in 1087 or Domesday recorded an historical fact that the conquerors had chosen to ignore.

A comparison of the Dorset and Cheshire manors suggest that the Dorset manors appear to be wealthier than Gilbert's northern manors and that the single manor of Fifehead was by far the most valuable and substantial manor in Dorset.

Domesday measures Mean Cheshire 18 manors Dorset 1 manors
Hideage 1.7 5
Plough land 2 5
Ploughs - actual 1 5
Population 5.6 14
Wood in modern acres 3024 80
Meadow in modern acres 0.7 30
Mills 0.1 2
Mills value ~3d 22s 6d
Value 1066 9s £7
Value 1087 8s 6d £7
  • In terms of hideage and value, the Dorset manor was more valuable even before the 'Harrying of the North'.
  • The Cheshire manors were dominated by wood, whilst in Dorset meadow and pasture dominated.
  • The Dorset land cultivation supported more ploughs and a denser population.
  • The Dorset land had all the ploughs needed, whilst Cheshire only had 50%.
  • The value of the single Dorset mill, worth 562% more than the Cheshire mills, reflected the domination of cultivation.
  • Only Eccleston, in Cheshire, had the same hideage as Fifehead and Blackenhall the same area in plough units.
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The assets of Fifehead Magdalen suggest that Hugh d’Avranches had entrusted a prime manor to Gilbert de Fifehead.

The possession of a southern manor usually suggested that the previous owner, Alnoth, had either been killed at Hastings or dispossessed for being involved in the defence of Saxon England. This suggests that Gilbert de Fifehead fought at Hastings and was rewarded shortly after.

Though one can never be certain, the evidence linking Gilbert de Fifehead to Gilbert de Venables is dependant on:

However, the Fifehead manor did not pass to the Venables of Kinderton.

If the manors of South Perrott and Catesly were to be returned to the church on Alnoth's death:

I would like to believe that Gilbert de Fifehead and Gilbert de Venables is the same person.

Odericus Vitalis, in Historia Ecclesiastica suggest that whilst some Normans found themselves endowed with lands and riches beyond their wildest dreams, others complained that they had been given ‘barren farms, and domains depopulated by war’. Gilbert, judging by the Domesday values of his Cheshire estates, fell in to the latter category. However, the manor of Fifehead Magdalen alone returns only 14s less than all his Cheshire manors and was therefore rich lands, perhaps richer than his Normandy Venables.

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I would like to believe that Gilbert of Fifehead was suitably rewarded for fighting at Hastings with the high status manor of Fifehead Magdalen, so establishing his high status allegiance to Earl Hugh. After taking a prominent part in Earl Hugh's Harrying of the North he was rewarded with his Cheshire manors and high position in the Cheshire court, where Domesday recognised him as Gilbert de Venables.

Fifehead Magdalen today

Gilbert would have been at home in his first English manor. Though Venables is a larger settlement than Fifehead the visiting Venablois would recognise:

Index to photographs of Fifehead Magdalen, taken February 2007

  1. Fifehead from the Stour valley
  2. A house at the T-junction
  3. Houses along the main street
  4. Houses north side of the main street
  5. House adjacent to the church
  6. The Old Rectory
  7. Fifehead church
  8. The interior of Fifehead church
  9. Fifehead main street looking east
  10. The village hall
  11. The Stour valley looking east from the church
  12. The Stour valley looking southeast from the church
  13. The Stour from Fifehead looking west
  14. A weir under the flooded Stour - the site of a mill?
Index to Fifehead Magdalen photos - 16kB gif

Sources: (Researched on the 940th anniversary of Hastings.)

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Did the first Gilbert live in Kinderton, as has been suggested?

The Venables are now known as the Barons of Kinderton. From at least the middle of the 13th century until the death of Peter Venable, last of the male line, in the late 17 th century Kinderton was their main residence. However, whilst Kinderton was amongst Gilbert's holdings, it is likely that he settled in Eccleston for a number of reason:

  • Domesday tends to list holdings of the Normans in a particular order; the major holding is named first, which in Gilbert's case is Eccleston.
  • Eccleston is near Chester, which was the heavily defended centre of power in the County.
  • Eccleston was on Walting Street, the old Roman road leading in to Chester: a route for any rebel attack.
  • It protected Chester from any indirect invasion from Dublin.
Map locating the motte at Eccleston - 65kB gif
Above: Map locating the Eccleston mound, the possible site of Gilbert's northern home
‘Below the church, in one of the glebe fields, was formerly a Tumulus (adjoining a bath), the site of which is now planted with trees. It stood on the Roman road which ran from Chester to the Iron Bridge over the Dee. The tumulus was opened by the rev. Charles Mytton, then rector, about half a century ago, and a great quantity of human bones and, some say, coins were discovered.’ (Ormerod 1882) However, this single ‘mound’ is certainly not the size of a motte neither does it have the skyline location of a tumuli cluster.
A ‘round earthen mound; diameter 20m height 3m. Many human bones and, according to some, coins found in late 18th century. Mound was badly disturbed in c.1770 and 1850. ’(VCH)
‘Mound, variously suggested as a Bronze Age barrow or a medieval Motte. Ormerod records that the tumulus stood on the Roman road which ran from Chester to the Iron Bridge over the Dee. It was opened ‘about half a century ago (c.1830) and a great quantity of human bones and some say coins were discovered’. … [The} site consists of an oval earthen mound, mutilated on east side and partly surrounded by a ditch and bank with other banks to south and south-west. [The] Motte measures 28m x 14.5m and is 3m high. … [It] is one of several castles in Cheshire that were constructed in the medieval period to defend the rich agricultural resources of Cheshire from raids.’ Historic England (ref: 1011118) ‘Motte & associated earthworks east of Old Rectory’, 1993. (Accessed 13 March 2020)
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1066 Eccleston mound 3 - 24kB jpg   1066 Eccleston mound 4 - 19kB jpg
Top left: The Eccleston 'mound' looking east, showing the December flooding of the Dee valley.

Top right: The Eccleston 'mound' looking north, showing the much reduced brambled 'hump'.

Bottom right: An artists impression of a Norman motte and bailey - what Eccleston may have looked like.
  1066 Eccleston motte - 22kB jpg

There is no evidence of a motte at Kinderton but it should be noted that the Normans did not construct them at all of their settlements. As such, that apparent absence would not of itself preclude Gilbert's settling there instead of at Eccleston.

However, it is likely that Eccleston was still the seat of the Venables in the early 13th century since the deeds of that date (Catalogue of the Vernon Collection, Cheshire Records Office DVEI/MII/15 ) shows William de Venables (circa 1228) as 'Lord of Eccleston'. However, it seems clear that Kinderton had become a much more valuable holding than Eccleston by the middle of the 13th century.

This proposition is supported by statements in the Victoria County History of Cheshire, which makes reference to:

After the devastation of 1069-70, recovery was at first slow, but as the town of Chester rose from the ashes, small villages were encouraged to sustain the economic growth. The evidence of the Domesday Book suggests a landscape of woodland, arable lands, meadows and wasteland across the width of the County. Every manor grew subsistent crops of wheat, barley and oats of necessity and annually ploughed, sowed and reaped two-thirds of their common open fields, always leaving one- third fallow.

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Gilbert’s ‘castle’ motte may have carried a simple watchtower keep, whilst the inhabitants of the village lived in the surrounding area of the bailey.

If the Eccleston motte is not the location of Gilbert’s keep then there appears to be no other alternative location unless it is beneath the village

Right: An artists impression of a Norman bailey
An artists impression of a Norman bailey - kB jpg


Eccleston today

The village gives every appearance of being an affluent village with the solid house built in solid Cheshire sandstone. The same white cast iron village nameplate, surmounted by a golden dog, adorns each house or gatepost. The settlement and its cathedral-like church, built in the Early English style and consecrated in 1900, have been, and may still be, heavily influenced by the affluent Grosvenor estate at Eaton Hall, 2km south along Walting Street. It is a village worthy of the Duke of Westminster, the richest British person in the United Kingdom, whose property investments were valued by The Sunday Times Rich List 2006 at £6.6 billions.

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Eccleston's buildings - 25kB jpg   Eccleston's large house - 43kB jpg
The centre of Eccleston - 21kB jpg Top left: Eccleston's substantial Cheshire sandstone buildings, built above the river footpath.

Top right: The large house.

Bottom left: The 'centre' of Eccleston, at the stat of the continuing Roman Road to Eaton Hall, showing the tower of 20th century Early English style church.

Back to top To Gilbert's page Use portrait to print - 5kB gif
This page was created by Richard Crompton
and maintained by Chris Glass
  Version B6
Updated 13 March 2020