Introduction to the Bretton family history

The information in this history has been collected, generally laboriously, over about 37 years at the time of writing. We have been helped enormously in this undertaking by the work of Dom Hugh Bowler, who, as we say in the introduction to the attached booklet on John Bretton, had done marvelous work on his life and martyrdom and who was alone responsible for the tremendously detailed history of a man who is well on his way to Roman Catholic Sainthood. We had also been helped to some extent by scraps of correspondence between Dom Hugh and a distant cousin, Rowland Bretton. These copy letters were given to us some time after we had already started on our own research and at the same time they both gave us additional leads and encouraged us to dig deeper and deeper. We obtained a great deal of information about the family from a variety of sources but years of work have been spent on two areas. We have sought information throughout the country about Sir William Bretton to link him to the first Bretton, John Bretton, who we have traced back in a direct line and who was born in the 1400’s. If we could find that link we could take the family back to the 1300’s and that would be a marvelous achievement. But all to no avail. At the present time we still cannot identify that vital link and so we have a mass of information about the “Brettons” up to the late 1400’s, and whilst we know they are all related to us in some way or other, we do not know the precise relationships, or which of them are our direct ancestors.

The other link that has occupied even more of our research is the link between Ailric, Swain and Adam and the earliest Brettons. The correspondence between Dom Hugh Bowler and Rowland Bretton clearly states that they believed these three famous Saxon Thegns (Thanes) to be the start of the Bretton line - but nowhere did they say where this information had come from. We were equally puzzled because the letters gave the impression that Rowland Bretton, who was a very well known authority on Heraldry, had done practically no research on the Bretton family before he was in contact with Dom Hugh in the 1960’s. Yet in 1937 he was granted his own armorial bearings and took, as part of them, the bearings ascribed to Ailric after his death in the 1100’s  “Or, a lion rampant sable”. So in our quest to prove the link between Ailric, Swain and Adam we pulled together a number of pieces of information and suggested how we thought this link could have occurred and, more especially, how the name could have changed from Adam Fitz Swain to Adam Fitz Swain de Bretton. What we argued was :-

Ailric was a Saxon Thegn who, at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 had huge holdings of land in Yorkshire. His lands are described as Silkstone, High Hoyland, Clayton, Thurgoland,  Skelmanthorpe, Cumberworth, Hunshelf, Thurlston, Wortley, Pilley, Tankersley, Brierley,  Hidley, part of Shafton and Carlton, Cawthorne, Kexborough, Gunthwaite, Peniston, Worsborough, Carlton, Newhill, Walton, Mensthorp, Wrangbrook, Middleton, Bretton, Newhall, Raynebergh, Lyntwayt (Linthwaite?), Brainton, Dirnham and Stanclyf (Staincliffe?), Meresbrick, Dyrne (Dearne?) and Lunda in Cumberlanda. After the Conquest it appears that he had the lands taken from him but retained the tenancy under de Lacy, the new owner.

It would appear that, at the time of Adam fitz Swain (Ailric’s grandson) names were becoming more formalised and it was apparent that “Adam fitz Swain” may have no longer been sufficient to identify an individual. The next generation to Adam were, apparently, the first “de Bretton’s” (“of Bretton”) we have found recorded and one of Adam’s children had the same christian name as a “de Bretton” and was of the same time scale. We discovered further examples of changes of name, within the person’s lifetime, at this same period, and these  are contained in :-

1. “the History of Shitlington” (correct spelling of a name that has only recently been changed since the Domesday Book) when the land, in the 1150’s was owned by Asolf. He apparently followed the old Saxon custom of dividing his lands between his sons and the most prominent of these, Peter, instead of being known as Peter fitz Asolf, took the name of Peter de Birkin, because he inherited the manor of Birkin. Presumably, if his brothers did the same they would then have all borne different surnames even though they were brothers.

2. Page 431 of “West Yorkshire: An Archaeological Survey to A.D. 1500” discusses  a court case on ownership of land and states  “Hugh and John denied the existence of Adam son of Orm ...... Adam son of Orm certainly existed as he witnessed a number of late 12th century charters, and was apparently the same person as Adam de Birthwaite ............

To see what further possible evidence there could be for a change of name we looked at the places they lived. We know that Alric lived originally lived at Walton but he owned Bretton at one time and it is possible that Adam lived there.

We also considered whether the naming of Monk Bretton Priory was of any significance. Monk Bretton was founded by Adam fitz Swain (de Bretton) - that is confirmed by a weight of evidence and we have examined the implications of the naming of Monkbretton Priory. There are two possibilities - either it was named after nearby Monk Bretton in Barnsley or it was named after the founder which would assume Adam had adopted the name “de Bretton”

The priory (or its ruins) known as Monkbretton Priory was founded about 1154 and lies at Lundwood not at Monk Bretton, which is well over a mile away. The book on the history of Monkbretton Priory states that it was the “Priory of St. Mary Magdalene of Bretton or of Lund” and that was its first name. Subsequently it became known as “Monkbretton Priory.” and the village of Monk Bretton  took the word “Monk” after the priory and not vice versa.

Place names change and our research into Yorkshire place names brought us to a book of Yorkshire place names which showed the way hamlets were described in contemporary documents of various dates. This showed :-  

West Bretton


1202 known as Bretton  1223 known as Britton
1297 known as Bretton 1316 known as Bretton
1308 known as West Bretton 1397 known as Monkbretton

If those contemporary documents reflected the real position then, at the time the priory was founded, the nearby Monkbretton was known as Britton and the only Bretton was the current West Bretton, then known as “Bretton”.  It is of interest that “the Prior of Bretton is returned as Lord of West Bretton in the wapentake of  Agbrigg 9 E 2 (1315/16)” and “the gift of land in the foundation of the Priory included Bretton (presumably West Bretton - given by Adam)(page 439 of Dodsworth’s Yorkshire Notes: Wapentake of Agbrigg-Yorkshire Archaeological Society 1884).

We know of no alternative theory to explain the naming of Monkbretton than the two mentioned above.

So here we had the first uncertainty about the earliest recorded “Brettons” Are we related to the founder of Monkbretton Priory ? Why was Rowland Bretton  convinced enough to adopt Adam’s coat of arms as part of his own as long ago as 1937. How did he make the connection between “Adam” and the “de Brettons’”  We had done a wealth of research on Alric, Sveinn and Adam and nothing we have found either confirmed or denied the link with the Brettons.  However, in September, 1997 we discovered a reference to a Richard Bretton, a relative of John Bretton who was nearly martyred for his faith well before John Bretton suffered that fate. This has never been mentioned by any other researchers so if we can find this so late in our research maybe Rowland had some information hidden from the rest of us and not contained in the few copy letters we have seen between him and Hugh Bowler.

But what of Adam’s son - Is he the Richard de Bretton that is established in records in the 1100’s and alive in 1158? Did he adopt the name de Bretton or had his father, Adam, lived at Bretton and also adopted it, and, if so, when ?   Did he do the same as the two examples given above and change his name to “Bretton” ?. What happened to Alexander the other son of Adam ? Why did at least the majority of Adam’s estate go to his two daughters and their Norman husbands ?  Why was there some doubt about whether these Normans - Roger de Montbegan and William de Neville inherited a knights fee in the Manor of Wakefield on Adam’s death when the other 9 knights fees (8 in the honour of Pontefract and 1 in the honour of Skipton) were so clearly left to them ?. Did this knights fee in the Manor of Wakefield go to Alexander or Richard if they were still alive ? Farrar suggests that the two sons were illegitimate and not therefore entitled to the estate.

There was one other reason to pursue this relationship and I cannot think of a single person with the slightest interest in family history who would abandon the search in view of the following information about Alric, Sveinn and Adam’s families.

If Adam Fitz Swain or his sons were the first de Brettons then the Bretton family of West Bretton is related, back at that far distant time in history, to some of the most famous kings in English history. The chart in Appendix 1 was taken from pages 46 and 47 of the book “Monk Bretton Priory” written by J. W. Walker and published in 1926 by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. It was prepared to show the links between the founder of Monk Bretton Priory and the “Trustees” still there when the priories and monasteries were dissolved. Its main importance to us is to show the link which started  with the marriage of Adam’s eldest daughter, Amabel to William de Neville, whose family became so powerful in later years, and leads on to the eventual marriage of their descendant, Margaret Neville, to Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter and Earl of Dorset, the fourth son of John O’ Gaunt. John O’ Gaunt was himself the fourth son of King Edward III (1312-1377). Thomas and two of his brothers, (all illegitimate) were step brothers of King Henry IV.  King Henry V , on his death bed, appointed Thomas Beaufort  as guardian of the infant king Henry VI.

The second pedigree, attached as Appendix II shows this link in more detail and is taken from the book “King Edward III” by Michael Packe, edited by L.C.B. Seaman and published by Routledge and Kegan Paul. On the same chart as Margaret Neville, a descendant of Adam Fitz Sveinn are shown some of the most glamorous names in English history - King Edward III by implication (as John O’ Gaunt’s father) John O’ Gaunt, and that other famous son of Edward III, the Black Prince. Five other English Kings, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III. It also shows that John O’ Gaunt’s daughters and grand-daughters married John, King of Portugal, King Charles VI of France, King Henry III of Castille, King Ludvig of Bavaria and King Erik IX of Denmark, and it leads on to all the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England.  Adam fitz Sveinn de Bretton would have been proud to be associated with such a pedigree as this.

These then were our arguments and we had to be content with them until, in early 1998 we found many of Rowland Bretton’s research notes and the link was proved. Ailric, Swain and Adam were the first “de Bretton’s” .Much of Rowland’s research we had duplicated, but, as you might expect he had found things that we had missed and we had found things that he had missed. Now they are all incorporated into the following history.

Do we wish we had found the notes thirty years ago and saved ourselves years of work ? We most definitely do Not.. We have enjoyed so much the time we have spent and even the long periods of disappointment are now forgotten. It is a dreadful thought that we might have been tempted at the time to just accept what we had been given and do no work ourselves. The link, when we found it, was tremendous but we can now say that we have made our own contribution to this history and at the same time acknowledge the invaluable work that Rowland Bretton and Dom Hugh Bowler did. Will some-one else perhaps link Sir William to John Bretton in the 1400’s and add his or her (or their) names to the contributors ? We hope so.

But for now we must go back to the beginning and start the Bretton family history where we now know it so far begins, in the years before the Norman Conquest, perhaps starting in the 900’s.

Back to menu...