Blenkinsopps and Thirlwalls

Blenkinsop Coat of Arms

Blenkinsopp Coat Of Arms

Before the Norman Invasion in 1066 there was little need for differentiation by surname, only the elite, the nobility used them mainly as a mark of status. However when William the Conqueror decided to introduce personal taxation, surnames became a necessity to ensure that none of his subjects could evade tax. This lack of surnames posed a problem for the populace in that they needed to invent surnames today this means that approximately a quarter of English surnames are based on place names. They have what is referred to as a locative root, i.e. the name comes from a location.

The two family names of Blenkinsopp and Thirlwall have such roots. They are based on locations in Cumbria and Northumberland. In the case of the Blenkinsopps, it is suggested that they took the root of their surname from the name of a Norse or Viking hamlet not far from modern day Penrith. The hamlet of Blencarn lies along the banks of the Blencarn Beck and it would appear a family living in the hamlet of Blencarn took it as the basis of their surname. The derivation of the word Blen appears to be Norse or Viking meaning a settlement beside a beck or river. Kin was then added to the base word Blen, where kin means exactly the same today as it did then, i.e. kin or family. We now have Blenkin which is followed by sop a Norse word for wheat, supported by the inclusion of three wheat sheaves in the Blenkinsopp Coat of Arms.

The Thirlwalls seem to have taken their surname from a similar locative root. The hamlet of Thirlwall lies on the line of Hadrians Wall, near to Greenhead and west of Haltwhistle in Northumberland. The word Thirl – Wall is an Old English place name meaning a break or gap in a wall, presumably the gap in Hadrians Wall where the Tipalt Burn passes through.

The first reference to a Thirlwall is probably Richard de Thurewall recorded in the Pipe Rolls of Northumberland in 1260. The Pipe Rolls were the earliest series of public records, accounts in fact, detailing Crown revenue from rents etc.

It was during the 1300s that the Thirlwalls appear to have acquired considerable wealth campaigning with the King in France. Competition between other local families for status, influence, power and land became more intense. The local power struggle threw up one important factor, security; a stronghold of some form was needed to protect the family and to project the Thirlwalls position in the neighbourhood.

John Thirlwall built a stronghold in the early years of the 14th century, Thirlwall Castle as we know it today. In fact it is not a true castle, but a stone built, L shaped, fortified hall-house. The site that John chose on the banks of the Tipalt Burn is not a naturally defensible position, but all the material he needed was close at hand, timber, water and a limitless supply of dressed stone thanks to the Roman Army (i.e. he simply knocked Hadrian’s Wall down and used the stone). Other families such as the Blenkinsopps were also building similar strongholds as a part of the defence of the English Border against raids by the inhabitants of Scotland.

John Thirlwall’s stronghold protected his family and their descendants through the turmoil of the 300 years of fighting between Scotland and England until border strongholds became redundant after the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

By the middle of the 1600s, the Thirlwalls had given up the castle and moved to a more comfortable and convenient residence close to Hexham. The castle had changed little in its 300 year occupancy. It was no longer a suitable or convenient place to live now that peace had at last come to the Border area. The last of the Thirlwall family line eventually abandoned the castle completely when in 1738 Eleanor Thirlwall married Matthew Swinburne of Capheaton Hall. By 1748 Swinburne had no use for the Thirlwall Estate and sold it to the Earl of Carlisle for £4000. The Earl himself had no use for the castle and it gradually fell into decay.

In recent years the fabric of the castle has been stabilised and is open to the public.

The family of Blenkinsopp with connections to Holy Cross Church appears to be descended from Randolph de Blenkinsopp who owned land in the area of Haltwhistle in 1240 as recorded in the Pipe Rolls of Northumberland. His residence may have been a medieval fortified manor house built sometime in the 13th century and would suggest a local family of status and power. It would appear that a local struggle for power and influence between the Thirlwalls and Blenkinsopps led to a medieval arms race, a stronghold of some form was needed to match that of the Thirlwalls and to project the position of the family in the local area. Competition between the local elites can also be seen in other areas, Holy Cross has been furnished with ornately carved grave covers by both the Blenkinsopps and the Thirlwalls.

On the 4th of February 1340 Thomas de Blemansopp (Blenkinsopp) was granted a Royal licence to crenellate Blemansopp in Marchi, Scoiae (Blenkinsopp Castle).

The exact wording of the licence being; “mansum suum de Blemansoppe in marchia Scocia”. It was granted at Kennington by letter of the Keeper. The licence was confirmed on the 11th of May 1340 by Edward 111 at Westminster by privy seal. As recorded in the ‘Calendar of Patent Rolls (1338-40)’.

In 1415 John de Blenkinsopp still maintained the castle at Blenkinsopp in good repair, but his descendant of the same name moved his family to the nearby castle at Bellister. By 1541 the castle at Blenkinsopp had fallen into disrepair; “At Blenkinsoppe ys a toure of thinherytaunce of John Blenkinsoppe and is decayee in the roofe and not in good rep’ac’ons”.

By 1727 the castle was in ruins.  At about this time the Coulsons of Jesmond became the owners of the estate through marriage.

The castle was rebuilt as a Victorian mansion in the late 19th century and was sold by the family to Edward Joicey. Later still it was sold again and became a hotel but unfortunately it was burnt down in 1954. Some of the ruins were demolished in the 1960s and again in 1986.

© Holy Cross Church Haltwhistle 2013