Critique : Fraser/Norman Critique I

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Fraser/Norman Critique I
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The House of Grant:`Norman Origin` Reassessed Part 1

by Peter Grant, July 2002

The story of the origin of the House of Grant is a long and sometimes contentious one which crystallises into two versions, a Norse or an Anglo-Norman one. The story of the Norse origin is being written up by Adrian Grant as "The Early Chiefs of Grant and their Ancestors (c850-c1450). This gives an account which sets out a plausible and credible history showing how the early Chiefs could be descended from a Norse line and how this line fits into a contemporary time frame of both Norse and Scottish history. It is therefore time to re-assess the Norman version of events as both cannot be correct. I set myself four questions to answer in this re-assessment.

(1) When did the Norman story supplant the previous traditional clan version of a Norse origin? (2) Why has it been allowed to survive for over a hundred years unchallenged if wrong? (3) What is the basis for this claim? (4) Is this claim sustainable in the light of new evidence?

To answer the first question I needed to trawl through as many accounts of the Grants as I could find, surprisingly there are not that many, only three books have been solely dedicated to the family, The Chiefs of Grant by Sir William Fraser, The Rulers of Strathspey by the earl of Cassillis, A History of Clan Grant by the late Lord Strathspey [the only book still in print]. I did not include Isobel Grant as her short book has very little to say and I know from private correspondence that she herself had expressed some reservations as to a Norman origin. Other MS included Genealogical Collections (1729) edited by Walter MacFarlane, early traditional texts which had circulated within the clan which include The Monymusk MS, The Birkenburn MS, there were other MS circulating within the clan, The Carron MS, and the Bonhard MS both for the moment lost but believed to conform closely to other early texts. All three editions of History of Moray by Lachlan Shaw plus the editor`s notes and additions to both the second and third editions, by John Grant of Elgin and J. F. S. Gordon - The Baronage by Douglas - Annals of the Parish of Elgin by Robert Young and the History of the Priory of Beauly by Edmund Batten.

From the earliest, 1729 (1) until 1877 not one writer put forward a case for a Norman origin, they either believed in a Norse one or were at best ambivalent Shaw makes a fairly typical remark when he says "From what country to fetch the Grants originally I know not." Apart from the clan MS, Batten, Fraser and Strathspey none of these authors were writing exclusively about the Grants, they only feature as a part of their work but all manage to give a pedigree.

The critical book was by Edmund Batten, published in 1877 for the Grampian Club and devoted to the history of Beauly Priory, he is the first person that I can find to put forward a case for the Grants being of Norman origin. (2) His theory was taken up by Fraser who quoted Batten in his Chiefs of Grant published just six years later in 1883. Fraser expanded on Batten`s theory and was able to quote seemingly impressive source material. (2) Cassilis published a few years later in 1911 and followed the line taken by Batten/Fraser which has been the "official" line ever since, this is the version which comes up in all reference books and post 1883 works on the clans.

The answer to my first question is 1877; this was the key date when the Norse version was formally supplanted by the Norman origin.

Why this version has been unchallenged for 125 years must be conjecture, there is no way of knowing how members of the clan felt when this view was first proposed. What we can say is that when the then chief privately published Fraser`s massive three volume history of the Grants as The Chiefs of Grant in 1883, Fraser very firmly stamped his credentials on the clan as their official historian. Fraser was by then the doyen of Scottish historians and knighted not long after and it seems unlikely that anyone at the time was going to set out to challenge his views. When Cassillis published what he intended to be no more than a cut down version of Fraser`s work in 1911 this only helped to support the Norman claim and there it has remained to the present day.

The clan as a cohesive force had long ceased to exist and between 1883 and 1911 we had three chiefs in quick succession with Sir James Ogilvie-Grant becoming chief in 1884 and the Grant and Seafield estates being bequeathed to Caroline, Countess of Seafield - a period of upheaval within the clan. I suspect that the chiefs of that time had more to worry about than the origin of distant ancestors. The clan societies of the day were more of a social club comprised of professional people who were unlikely to rock the boat.

Only three years after Cassillis, we had the World war followed by a peace dominated by economic uncertainty and yet a further World war. This long period of time gave the Norman theory time to bed in and become established. There is no evidence that anyone during this period was in the least concerned about the origin anyway. It has only been since a post war revival in clan awareness - new societies and the late Lord Stathspey`s book in 1983 that interest in our clan history began to revive. Many authors of popular Scottish and clan history simply plagiarize and regurgitate previous writers and over time what was a theory becomes by default a "fact". It should also be remembered that line went via Sir Francis Ogilvie-Grant then living in New Zealand and completely cut off from any local Strathspey lore and as effectively a "remittance man" of the Dowager Lady Caroline; he no doubt had other problems in hand than those of his ancestors.

The Norman theory survived through inertia, nobody challenged it and the longer it remained unchallenged the firmer it became until the Norse origin became more or less forgotten.

The historic basis for the claim is quite seductive and plausible, it only becomes less so when investigated more deeply. Although Edmund Batten was the first writer to propose the Norman origin it was Fraser who developed this and who is the writer general referred to by subsequent authors and students of the clan history and it is his developed version which I will refer to.

There are three strands to Fraser`s argument, firstly an etymological one based on the name Grant being derived from the French Grand, (4) [the etymological argument is open to wildly differing interpretations and there are possibly stronger contenders than Grand.] the second strand based on the apparent "fact" that as the name of Grant is found recorded in England prior to Scotland this is indicative of a migration from England to Scotland. (5) And his main argument based on historical data suggesting that the Grants first went north to Scotland with Sir Walter Bisset at the end of his exile from Scotland in 1249. (6)

I propose to ignore the first two arguments because however attractive they may or may not appear the fact that the third argument, the historical one does not work on chronological grounds negates the first two as irrelevant. I will be covering these in more detail when I write up a fuller account of the Norman case, I propose here to only to detail the historical argument as put forward by Fraser and why it does not work.

It is important when discussing Fraser`s work to recall his own words "the present work [The Chiefs of Grant] treats only those members of the family or the name who appear in historic times and authentic records". (7) In other words he ignores all the traditional MS although he was well aware of them and starts his history from Sir Laurence Grant, Sheriff of Inverness. 1258-66. he forgets that absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. Only the first few pages of Vol. I of his history are concerned with what we could call the pre- recorded history of the Grants.

The historic argument is based on the story of a William le Grant or members of his family migrating to Scotland with Sir Walter Bisset in 1244 on his return from exile.The facts as told by Fraser are that (8)

"in 1242 John and Walter Bisset are forced to leave Scotland having been accused of the murder of Patrick earl of Athol at Haddington. In the following August, King Henry iii [of England] bestowed the manor of East Lowdham in Nottinghamshire, upon Walter Bisset, who went to England, while John passed over to Ireland. The object of the grant, as set forth in the charter, was to maintain Walter Bisset in the King`s service as long as the later pleased. The manor of East Lowdham adjoined the manor of East Bridgeford, the property of the English Bissets, which was about this that time held by William le Grant and his wife Albreda. It is distinctly stated that William le Grant held his manors by right of his wife and in trust for her heirs, but it is an important fact that shortly before the appearance of the Grants in Scotland, in attendance on or as companions of John Biset, Lord of the Aird, a William le Grant was not only a neighbour of the Bissets in England, but was also allied to that powerful family by marriage. ......The exile of the Bissets from Scotland was not of a long duration, as Walter Bisset appears as a witness to a charter of King Alexander ii of Scotland...dated 13th Jan 1249.......John Bisset, Walters nephew, and founder of the Priory of Beauly, died between 1244 and 1258, leaving a son John Bisset, that Lord of the Aird who, in the last named year, entered into agreement with the Bishop of Moray to which Laurence and Robert le Grant were witnesses. In view of these facts, and as it is in this agreement that the Grants are first named in Scotland, the suggestion is a very probable one, that the Grants were brought to Scotland from England by John and Walter Bisset on their return from the exile of 1242. This remark is qualified by the statement of the same writer, that John Bisset, the exile did not go to England or did not remain there, and no evidence exists of his return to Scotland. But it has been shown Walter Bisset of Aboyne, who was the neighbour of William le Grant, the husband of Albreda Bisset, did return to Scotland. Laurence and Robert le Grant may have come to Scotland in his train, and after his death, which took place in 1251, they probably continued their attachment to his family. Any weight which can be assigned to the traditional accounts of the family tends to support the above statement, as it is uniformly asserted that at a very early period the Grants possessed lands in Stratherrick, and Walter Bisset was lord of that territory".

The extracts above form the basis of the claim that the family of Grant is of an Anglo-Norman origin, I have highlighted some of the text for clarity. It is a very plausible scenario particularly if it were to be the only option which it is not - the footnotes and historical facts are in the main correct but the deductions wrong and I feel sure that the survival of the theory for so long to some extent due to students accepting Fraser at face value and not investigating further. I also feel that if Fraser were alive today he would accept the new evidence without question.

The new evidence is based on a more detailed understanding of the facts behind the Batten/Fraser proposition. Walter and John Bisset were indeed exiled from Scotland by Alexander ii, being accused of implication of the death, probable murder of Patrick, earl of Athol. [This is one of history`s "who dunit"s as the truth of this case has never been proved.] Both Walter and John Bisset went initially to Ireland on exile in 1242; they later meet Henry iii in Wales in the same year. (9) John was to take service with Henry iii, opting to fight in Guienne in return for a knight`s fee in Ireland and takes no further part in this history.

Walter put up an ingenious argument to Henry, namely that the king of Scotland had no right to disinherit him since the king of Scotland was the liegeman of the king of England and that he Walter, was unconvicted without the king of England`s assent. This was an argument that would have appealed to any king of England at that time and one which gave Henry another chance to meddle in the internal affairs of Scotland. The extended Bisset family not only held considerable land in England but were well known to the English crown with a record of royal service.

In 1243 Henry iii, granted Walter the manor of East Lowdham until such time as he or his heirs regained their estates in Scotland. (10) It is also quite true that this manor adjoined the Manor of East Bridgeford, was a property of the English Bissets. This was held not by William le Grant [Graunt] through his wife Albreda Bisset but by Warin de Basingbourn who at that date was married to Albreda, a Bisset heiress who also held the manor of Athelington [now West Allington] in Lincolnshire. Warin de Basingbourn`s life can be easily verified: he came of age in c1248 (11) and died in 1269 (12) - his father also a Warin died in 1229 (13) and our Warin`s son was Edmund (14) so the only possible tenant of East Bridgeford and Athelington c1243 would be Warin. I have found a date of 1240 for his marriage (15) to Albreda so if correct he was firmly in control of East Bridgeford throughout Walter`s exile and until long after his [Walter`s] death. It may just be a coincidence that Walter got East Lowdham at that time, it might have been fortuitously available or indeed it might have been the family connection that obtained it but its importance has been over stated due to the Bisset connection and too much read into it without further research.

As one of the main thrusts of Fraser`s proposition hinges on who was or was not in tenancy of East Bridgeford at this date, a further explanation is due. The key to Fraser`s thinking should have been his reading of Dr Thoroton`s Nottinghamshire (1677), which gives a genealogy showing an Albreda, married to a Warin de Basingbourn. (16) It is not clear if he ever read this book although he refers to it as a footnote, because if he had he would have seen that the date given for the marriage of Albreda to William le Grant was 1293 [possibly mistakenly] shown as 21E, 1. the twenty first year of the reign of Edward the First. Fraser should have realised then that this date made his proposition untenable. The genealogy shown is poorly presented and it had been assumed wrongly that Albreda had married twice and that as a result of the second marriage there was a daughter named Beatrix, the whole genealogy of the Bisset family is further confused by the numerous women all named Albreda.

While I knew that Warin`s dates were the most important I did harbour a doubt about his wife remarrying again at what would be very late in life. If the marriage was for the protection of the estate rather than pro-creation for the estate, a second marriage could still work, but there is no evidence that this happened in this instance. The crown had a nasty habit of marrying off widows and heiresses to members of the court or people who were owed a favour and one way around this was for the family to act quickly and marry off the widow to a safe person of their choosing. This practice was eventually brought to a stop as a clause in the Magna Carta. However further research (17) showed that Albreda and Warin had two daughters, Albreda and Constantia, and that Albreda married William le Graunt 1274 they in turn had a son Eustace le Grant and a daughter Beatrix..

1244, and back to Walter Bisset, he joined Henry iii on a campaign against Scotland. This seems to have been a half hearted venture and petered out at Newcastle. A Peace was made at Pontland (18) a village nearby where Walter was a witness for the English side and John Bisset the Younger of Aird, the son of the exiled John Bisset signed as a witness for the Scottish side. Walter then appears in various English state papers in the service of the crown and involved as a messenger between the king and Ireland. In 1248 Walter was captured by the Scots in the form of Alan of Galloway (19) when Dunavarty castle was captured. Walter seems to have been able to make his peace with king Alexander ii probably by turning his coat and gaining his freedom in exchange for information of English intentions. He appears to have had a good relationship with Alexander prior to his exile and it may well be that the king by exiling him saved his life. He appears as a witness to a royal charter dated 13th Jan 1249 also a deed by Gregory de Manderville in 1251(20) and was dead by1251.

The claim for an Anglo-Norman origin is not sustainable in the light of a reappraisal of the evidence.

We can see that William le Grant did not marry Albreda de Basingbourn [Bisset] until 1274 [we have two conflicting dates for this event 1274 (Du Boulay Hill and 1293 from Thoroton and I have taken the earlier date] This is 16 years after Laurence and Robert le Grant appear as charter witnesses in Scotland. (21) So we can say that Grants were recorded in Scotland well before the William le Grant marriage - in fact we could turn Fraser`s argument upside down and even suggest that this William came North to South and not the other way as he proposed.

Walter Bisset did not return from exile and reclaim his estates; he was captured as a traitor and subsequently in someway gained his freedom. The evidence is that Aboyne was retained by the crown (22) but he may have regained a small estate at Lessendrum. [He also interestingly seems to have held some land in Yorkshire] (23) Walter would not have been a good choice as someone to promote one`s interest in Scotland at that time.

The only conclusion that we can come to is that Grants were active and recorded in Scotland before any dates suggested by Fraser for an English migration north or conversely the English Grants which he relies on are recorded after the Scottish Grants and this must rule out any suggestion of an Anglo-Norman origin at this time.


(1) Although first published in 1729 an analysis of the MS indicate a pre 1714 origin.
(2) History of the priory of Beauly - Edmund Batten 1877. pp53, pp55.
(3) Chiefs of Grant, - Sir William Fraser 1883. vol 1 pp1-8.
(4) Ibid, - vol 1 pp 2.
(5) Ibid, - vol 1 pp 3.
(6) Ibid, - vol 1 pp 6.
(7) Ibid, - vol 1 pp 1.
(8) Ibid, - vol 1 pp 3-6
(9) History of the priory of Beauly - Edmund Batten 1877. p47.
(10) Chart, 31 Hen, iii. m.13.
(11) Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 33. [See VCH Cambridge / Armingford Hundred.]
(12) Cal .Inq .pm. 1, p.225. [as above ]
(13) Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 323, 549; Pat. R. 1216-25, 172; Bk. Of Fees, ii. 1433. [see VCH Cambridge / Armingford Hundred]
(14) Cal. Close, 1272-9, 511-12; Rot. Hund. i. 51 [see VCH Cambridge as above]
(15) East Bridgeford - A. Du Boulay Hill, M.A. (1932) OUP p28.
(16) Thoroton`s Nottinghamshire 1677. p293.
(17) East Bridgeford - A. Du Boulay Hill, M.A. (1932) OUP p28.
(18) History of the priory of Beauly - Edmund Batten 1877. p46-47. [Foedera, vol. 1, 248.]
(19) Alan of Galloway was a natural half brother of Patrick the murdered earl. Bower, Continuation of Fordun, b.ix., c.62.
(20) History of the priory of Beauly - Edmund Batten 1877. ib., p.93.
(21) c1258 Robert le Grant was granted land at Coulmony by John Prat and in the same year Sir Laurence and Sir Robert le Grant are witness to an agreement between the Bishop of Moray and John Bisset. (Registrum Moraviense, pp133-135) these are the first surviving record of the name of Grant so far found recorded in Scotland.
(22) The castle of Coull (Aboyne) seems to have remained a royal castle until 1291 when it became a Durward property. [The Castle of Coull -Alistair Lilburn of Coull. 1984.
(23) VCH: Yorkshire, North Riding p69. Sir Walter Bisset held Ovington in demesne of the lord of Bedale. [Cur.Reg.R. Mich. 37 Hen. Iii, m.30.]

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