Norman Conquest and Medieval Roots

Not only are the Rowsells alleged to have arrived with the Norman conquest but the Congreve family from whom the descendants of Norman Rowsell also claim descent, are supposed to be equally old. When speaking of the dramatist William Congreve (my first cousin 8 x removed), Dr Samuel Johnson said that he was “descended of a family of so great antiquity that it claims a place among the few that extend their line beyond the Norman Conquest”.

Whether the Congreves were of Saxon or Norman origin is unclear. My own research has traced the line no further than Simon de Congreve who was born prior to 1315. However there are several other illustrious old branches stemming from the Congreve family from which I can also claim descent, including the judge Sir Thomas Birch (1690 – 1757),  The Harwood family of Hagbourne and Streatley, Berkshire, famous Anglo-Catholics Anthony Fitzherbert and Ralph Fitzherbert and the recusant judge Sir Robert Broke SL. Simon de Congreve’s great great great grandson John Congreve (1480-1556) was married to Dorothy Giffard and fathered the first 5 of her children.

(NB: While the preceding facts are verified, the accuracy of the following information is dependent on the assumption that Francis Congreve (1539-1601) was one of Dorothy’s children – According to Sir Geoffrey Congreve’s book “The Congreve family”, John Congreve (1480 – 1556) married Dorothy Giffard d/o Sir John Giffard of Chillington Hall & Jane Hoord, c 1535. Francis (1539 – c 20 Sept 1601) is recorded as their son and he married Isabella Fowke.)


dorothy giffard

Dorothy Giffard and her second husband Francis Shirley (1571) – Alabaster; their sons and daughters hold shields

Dorothy Giffard was from a very noble family which to this day occupies their ancestral home at Chillington Hall near Brewood, Staffordshire. Through the offspring of the marriage of John Congreve and Dorothy Giffard, all the subsequent Congreves and Norman-Rowsells can trace their line to the Norman Conquest and beyond. Dorothy remarried after John Congreve death and had 7 children with Francis Shirley. Dorothy was the daughter of Sir John Giffard (1466-1556) and Jane Hoord (1465-1491).

Sir John Giffard and his wives, Jane and Elizabeth, from their alabaster tomb in Brewood parish church.

Sir John Giffard and his wives, Jane and Elizabeth, from their alabaster tomb in Brewood parish church.

An early 17th century epitaph described Sir John Giffard (my 13th great grandfather) as ‘a noble courtier, one of the best bowmen and horsemen in England, a man in great favour’ with Henry VIII. He came from one of the principal families in Staffordshire, and his whole life was spent in public service. His career at court, to which his father-in-law Thomas Horde perhaps introduced him, may have preceded his advent in local government, but he is first heard of there in 1509 when he attended the funeral of Henry VII and the coronation of the new King.

In 1513 he bore the arms of England before his royal master in the Tournai campaign and he was among those knighted when the town fell; ten years later he may have served in southern France, as on the eve of the expedition’s departure he obtained the grant of a standard; and in 1536, when the north rebelled, he was called upon to help restore order. His otherwise excellent relations with the King were marred briefly in 1515 when he took Elizabeth Montgomery as his second wife without first obtaining royal approval, but after an apology and payment of a fine he was restored to favour.

John was directly descended from a Norman knight Osbern Giffard (1024-1086) who fought alongside William the Conqueror in 1066. He was rewarded with holdings throughout Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. He settled in Brimpsfield, where he built a castle which was destroyed by Edward II in 1322. It is believed that the Gloucestershire village of Stoke Gifford is named after him. Giffard’s nephew, Walter became the 1st Earl of Buckingham.

One of Osbern’s siblings was the famous knight Walter Giffard, Lord of Longueville who not only fought in 1066 as William the Conqueror‘s right hand man, but also fought to drive the Muhammadans out of Spain during the Reconquista. Osbern and Walter were in fact cousins of William because their mother was Avelina de Crepon whose sister was the famous Gunnor of Normandy. This means Duke William is my 3rd cousin 24x removed. Osborne de Bolbec, Lord of Longueville and his wife Avelina de Crepon are the most distant of the Rowsell’s direct ancestors whom I can name, but I know a bit about Avelina’s heritage because her sister Gunnor was described by Dudo of Saint-Quentin as of noble Danish origin – which basically means that her father was a Viking jarl, probably under Harald Bluetooth who was king of Denmark at the time.

Gunnor de crepon

Gonnora confirming a charter of the abbey of the Mount-Saint-Michel, 12th century (from archive of the abbey).

Gunnor is my 26th great aunt. She married  Richard “The Fearless” Duke of Normandy (933-966) whose grandfather was the famous Viking Hrólfr (846-932) also known as Rollo. Rollo has been made famous in a recent television drama called Vikings (see image below).

rollo vikings

Duke Richard and Gunnora had seven children, including Emma of Normandy who first married King Æthelred the Unready of England and then the Viking King Cnut of Norway and England. Emma’s brother Richard II of Normandy (my 1st cousin 26x removed) was William the Conqueror’s grandfather whose royal descendants are also therefore distant cousins of mine. This includes Duke William’s great great grandson Richard Coeur de Lion (1157-1199), the famous crusader King of England who scored great victories against his Muhammadan adversary Saladin.

Statue of Richard the Lionheart outside the houses of parliament

Statue of Richard the Lionheart outside the houses of parliament


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