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Morning mist hangs beneath the gnarled trees. A group of horsemen, clad in armour and carrying weapons, has assembled on the ridge looking down into the valley where Thurstaston Hall stands. At their head is an ancient man whose eyes are alight with avarice as he studies the scene. Near him is a man wearing the green garb of a Master Forester, round whose neck hangs a horn. At this man’s side is a youth with a marked family resemblance. Many other riders accompany them.
All survey the peaceful village below them with greed, before spurring their horses and thundering down into the valley.
The Forest of Wirral
This was a scene from the medieval Forest of Wirral, that
…wilderness of Wirral, where lived but few
Who either God or man with good heart loved.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Author’s translation).
It is the Year of Our Lord 1369, and the feud that has raged between the Whitmores (owners of Thurstaston and the surrounding lands), and the Vernon family of Shipbrook, has reached its peak. Accompanying Ralph de Vernon in his raid on Thurstaston is Sir William Stanley, Master Forester of the Forest of Wirral, and his younger brother John. Sir William himself has used his position to terrorise and plunder the people of the Forest, murdering his neighbours to gain their lands. But to understand why Baron Shipbrook led an unruly posse of dissolute Cheshire nobles in an attack on Thurstaston Hall, it will be necessary to step back even further in time…
Sir Patrick de Haselwall
King Edward I visited Wirral in 1277, while preparing for his attack on North Wales. A few years earlier, when Edward had returned from the crusades to take his throne, he had summoned Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Gwynedd, to do homage to him as his overlord. This was a direct challenge to Prince Llewellyn, whose dynasty had been resisting the English for centuries. As the independent ruler of his own principality, Llewellyn refused.
Edward raised an army of one thousand knights and fifteen thousand foot soldiers. He invaded Wales, sailing from Shotwick Castle across to Flint, where he began work on Flint Castle, first in a programme of castle-building that was to result in a circle of fortifications; Rhuddlan, Conway and numerous others, ringing Llewellyn’s mountainous domain. After cutting Llewellyn off from Anglesey, the “mother of Wales,” from which the Welsh got most of their grain, Edward forced the Prince to surrender and accept him as overlord.
During this period, Haselwall, or Heswall as it is today, was home to a man named Patrick. Little is known of him at this point, although it is believed that he was born around 1230, making him in his late forties at the time of the Welsh war. He joined King Edward on his campaigns in North Wales, and in return for his services he was made a knight. As a result, he came to own lands in Heswall, Thurstaston, Great Caldy, and also held half the manor of Speke. To top it all, he became Sherriff of Cheshire. Although history does not record them, his services to his king in the Welsh wars must have been substantial to deserve such a lavish reward.
Sir Patrick had two sons and three daughters by his wife, Agnes de Thurstanston, who he married in about 1290, gaining lands in Thurstaston to which she was heiress. Sir Patrick’s eldest son, David, married Eustachia, daughter of Ralph de Vernon, Baron of Shipbrook (now Shipbrook Hill Farm near Northwich). After his nephew Warine died while fighting in France, Ralph, who was Rector of Hanwell, had pursued a long legal feud against his nieces, seizing half the Shipbrook estates in the process. Ignoring his vows of celibacy, taken on entering the priesthood, Ralph fathered Eustachia and two sons, including his namesake. Ralph de Vernon the Younger, in his old age (he is said to have lived for a hundred and fifty years), proved even more unscrupulous than his father.
David de Haselwall and Eustachia had five sons and one daughter, Cecily, who received Thurstaston as her dowry. At the age of sixteen, she married John de Whitmore, and Thurstaston passed into the hands of the Whitmores, a family originally from Staffordshire. However, the Whitmore claim to the legacy of Sir Patrick de Haselwall was not to go uncontested.
The “Wirral Mafia”
Ralph de Vernon (the Younger) seems to have coveted his sister’s estates. It had been settled that Thurstaston should pass to Cecily and her husband, or in default to Ralph’s brother, Richard. When Cecily and John de Whitmore succeeded, Ralph began to scheme against them. Like his father before him, Ralph began his campaign with lawsuits, claiming that Thurstaston had been seized unlawfully from “a certain Alice… [in]… time of peace” during King Edward I’s reign, and that the Haselwall claim was thus invalid. Sir Patrick had in fact received the manor as his wife Agnes’ dowry. Agnes was daughter of Peter de Thurstanston, whose claim to the manor could be traced back to Robert de Rodelent (of Rhuddlan), who received Thurstaston, and numerous estates in Wirral and elsewhere, following the Norman Conquest.
Ralph de Vernon’s trumped-up claims proved unsuccessful in court. By now very old, he turned to other means of ensuring his brother gained Thurstaston. He entered into a criminal conspiracy with Sir William Stanley and his younger brother John. As suggested earlier, these two local likely lads were true medieval bandits. Sixteen years earlier, during a trial by the Black Prince in his capacity as Earl of Chester, Sir William had found himself facing a battery of charges including illegally extracting money from forest townships, taking bribes from a former prior of Birkenhead, and impressing labour from several villages to work in his fields during harvest time. The court claimed that Sir William’s foresters terrorised Wirral people and issued threats to keep them quiet. It comes as no surprise that eminent local historian Paul Booth refers to the Stanleys and their henchmen as a “Wirral mafia.”
It seems that Sir William and his brother joined this particular conspiracy with glee. What they stood to gain is unknown, but it is recorded that they and their men accompanied Ralph de Vernon to Thurstaston, armed with bows and arrows: during this period, Cheshire archers were renowned both for their skill and their lawlessness. On surrounding the hall Ralph de Vernon and his cronies were challenged by a woman inside. During the ensuing altercation, they told her to go and call a bailiff to settle the matter. When she departed, they forced their way into the hall and closed the door behind them. The manor was theirs.
The conclusion to this saga of Cheshire gentlemen gone bad is less dramatic. Forced to give up the hall, the Stanleys and their ally were put on trial for trespass and forced entry, despite their rank. Ralph de Vernon never got Thurstaston, which remained in the possession of the Whitmores until the mid-eighteenth century. On the other hand, the Vernon family line died out in 1403, when Ralph’s grandson Richard was executed for treason after fighting on the wrong side at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Sir William Stanley’s post as Master Forester was abolished, along with the Forest of Wirral itself, after the petition of the “poor Commonalty of Wyrall” who had “suffered great harm, damage, and destruction” from the beasts of the forest. But his brother John, who had quietly aided William in all his “burglaries, prison-breaking, rapes, poisonings and conspiracies” and was once outlawed for murdering one of his brother’s enemies, proved the most successful of the raiders.
After marrying the heiress of Lathom in Lancashire (despite the disapproval of John of Gaunt), John Stanley went from strength to strength. Having the good sense to support Henry IV at the Battle of Shrewsbury (unlike Richard de Vernon, who sided with the rebels Mortimer and Hotspur), John was greatly favoured, being made King of the Isle of Man and Knight of the Garter. Distinguishing himself again in Ireland, John died there and his remains were interred at Burscough Abbey near Ormskirk. Finally, in return for a pivotal act of treachery against Richard III, Henry VII conferred upon John’s grandson Thomas the title “Earl of Derby,” which has remained in his family until the present day.