SIR SIMON DE STANSTEDE


We know from the early Waltham Charters that Sir Simon de Stanstede held a house and land at Easneye (in Alwine’s Frith) in the 13th century. Today we tend to think of the knights of old as important people,  members of the elite class, practically aristocracy, unlike today when knighthoods are given out to pop stars and sportsmen if they have donated money to charities or political parties or won sporting gold medals for their country. Yet in Sir Simon’s case, we can find no reference to him fighting for king and country.  In Stanstead Abbotts, for example, Sir Simon the knight leased land from the local untitled lord of the manor, Roger de Wanchy and after his death from his son, Michael, which appears to put him on a lower social level than the manorial lord.  There is no record of Sir Simon having any great responsibility other than as local administrators and his signature can be found on many Waltham Abbey charters (property purchases) simply as a witness. The truth is that at this time in history, there were knights who achieved prestige and rewards of land from the king for fighting and risking their life in France (e.g. Sir Andrew Ogard of Rye House and Sir William Oldhall of Hunsdon, fighting later in the 15th century) and there were knights who rarely, if ever, put on their armour. However, they had an obligation to fight for their king if called upon. They were expected to supply their own horse, armour and weapons. They were actually warriors-in-waiting and the king could rely on a reserve army to call upon at will, numbering several thousand fully-armed knights.

      These local knights or shire knights were in the majority as in the 13TH century out of roughly 1500 recorded knights, only 500 had actually ever fought in military campaigns.  (13th Century Knightly Life, Caius College, 2003). What then was their purpose in life? Every town had its knight or knights, depending on its size. Some smaller villages only held a fraction of a knight’s fee and had to share a knight, with other more important towns holding two or three knights fees. A knight’s fee was a gift of a unit of land to a knight which provided him with sufficient income to enable him to be ready with a horse, arms and armour in case of need. In fact he was a soldier being held in reserve in case of emergency like an officer in the Home Guard of more recent times. If a knight was not fighting in France, what then was he doing to earn his knighthood?  A knight was expected to serve as a juror, to serve on coroner’s courts and to attend Assizes, to witness and supervise local land grants, etc. In fact he was like a civil servant, an administrator. He was not to be found prancing around the countryside on a white horse, fully armed with a lance and sword wearing his shiny armour.  Although many brave men did fight to the death in the Hundred Years War in France, some rarely left their home county. Each village and town had a knight’s fee, which ranged from a fraction of a fee to several knights fees, where a large town would require and could maintain two or three knights.

    In exchange for their military responsibilities and their local administrative responsibilities, shire knights were awarded a unit of land called a Knight’s Fee. This was based on the unit of one hide (normally about 120 acres, but of course in areas of unproductive land, this could be several hides. The size of the land awarded was meant to be sufficient to maintain a knight,  his servants and family adequately. We know that Sir Simon of Stanstead rented his house and land from the local lord-of-the-manor. Roger de Wanchy and his son, Michael. His lland at Easneye was a wood known as Alwine’s Frith (named after the Saxon lord-of-the-manor Alwine Gottone). According to early Waltham Abbey charters, there was a house there and a grove (small wood) and a place called the Hide. We know now that there was a spring there for a water supply and when Roger de Wanchy became indebted to the king who paid his debts, the manor was given by the king to Waltham Abbey (hence the village name) and all manorial land had to be handed over to the abbot and canons. In charter no.370 (dated 1184 x 1201)  Sir Simon handed over his house at Alwines Frith, the Hide and land to the abbey, but the abbot kindly returned these to Sir Simon stating that his need was greater than theirs. (The abbey was very rich, owning over 30 manors, salt mines, a haulage business and many farms).

     We have no proof that Sir Simon actually lived at the house in Alwine’s Frith, but all the indications reflect that he probably did, hence the return of the property to him by the abbot. When Sir Simon is mentioned in early documents he is described as Simon the Knight, son of Richard de Stanstede, and as knight’s fees are hereditary, it would appear that he inherited the land and title from his father. We know that he had two brothers, as one was accused of being one of four murderers of the brother of Lawrence the Clerk (see 12th Century Murder also on this web site). Another brother, Peter, is mentioned taking over the house named Alvevesholm in charter no.319. This was a substantial house with garden plus a kitchen garden and was inherited from his father through court proceedings against William of Ayot. This house the canons then transferred to Richard, son of Arnold.  There is no mention of any son of Sir Simon to take over the title. However, in charter no. 361 there is a rare mention of a lady witness to a charter. In addition to the signatures of many other East Hertfordshire village knights, is the signature of Helya de Stanstede and Helya is a female name of this period. In an earlier charter I found the signature of Beatrix de Wanchy and as Roger de Wanchy had died by this time, it appears widows were allowed the privilege of signing. This appears to be the case here as Simon did not witness this document and Helya de Stanstede did, so it can be assumed Lady Helya was his widow.

    The charters are in Norman Latin, but some local towns and villages may be recognised in the following names found in the list of witnesses.....

Ricardo de Brokesburne, Willelmo de Wrmlea, Galieno de Hertford, Luca de Berchamstade, Philippo de Cestrehunt, Ricardo de Ware, Ricardo de la Sele.

R.D.