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  • A Genealogical Puzzle

    John T. Fitch

    Published Date : December 1987
    The parish church of St. Mary the Virgin in the small village of Lindsell, county Essex, England (Figure 1) has, for generations, attracted pilgrims from America who bear the name Fitch.  You can find their names inscribed on the pages of the guest book at the entrance to the church.  My wife and I have ourselves visited St. Mary’s three times during the past 25 years, most recently after completing the 1987 “Family History for Americans” course sponsored by NEHGS and Family Society Tours in association with the University of Leeds.

    Descendants of the immigrant Fitch brothers, James, Thomas, Joseph, and Samuel from Bocking in Essex, are drawn to Lindsell to see the brass and the stained glass window depicting a pair of their ancestors, Thomas Fitch (1465-1514) and his wife Agnes.  Such memorials seem somehow more real than the microfilmed wills and deeds with which we must usually satisfy our curiosity about a family’s past.  They are pictorial evidence of actual people along the slender genealogical thread that connects Wiliam Fiche of Wicken and Widdington (ca. 1400-1466) to the multitude of his descendants in America today.

    The brass (Figure 2), which is still in remarkably good condition, is set in the floor before the chancel arch1. Countless rubbings have been made of these effigies, which portray Thomas and Agnes Fitch2 and their eleven children. We have such a rubbing ourselves, and one of our children was astonished one day to have a classmate (not named Fitch) unroll a copy of the rubbing during a schoolroom “show-and-tell” and explain about her family’s connection to the Fitches of Lindsell.

    [Footnote 1:  For a full description of the brass, see Miller Christie, “On Some Interesting Essex Brasses,” The Essex Review, vol. vii. (1898) pp. 39-41]

    [Footnote 2:  The surname, now spelled “Fitch,” appears as though it were spelled “ffytche” on the brass and in the window. It should not, however, be spelled that way in print; what a pp ears to be a double lower-case “f” was, until well into the l8fh century simply the way of making a capital “F.” Furthermore, because the name was various iy spelled Fiche,” “Fyche,” “Fytche,” and “Fitch” over the course of just four generations, and was spelled differently for the same person on different occasions I have tried, where possible, to use the spelling used by the College of Arms.]

    But it is not the brass that is the basis of my genealogical puzzle; it is the set of stained-glass portraits in the east window over the altar. Portrayed in separate panels are two couples at prayer (Figure 3).  Closer examination reveals that the man on the [245] right is considerably older than the man on the left, although the two women appear to be about the same age.  Beneath the portraits are legends - difficult for the non-specialist to read: they are in Latm. lettered with 16th-century orthography, and employ numerous abbreviations.

    A pamphlet (available at the door), most recently edited by vicar Peter Swinbank, points out that, “At one time they formed part of the north window.”  (The window in which they are now set, being over the altar is, as is traditional, the east window.)  The pamphlet continues, “The inscriptions are mutilated...” But, as best I could make them out, the one on the left reads: “Dni Wyle/ate p aiabz/ate /p prosperitate”, and the one on the right reads: Thom? Fytche/?fuit s/dus filius/Dumowe/ algrz” where the “/“ represents the leading between pieces of glass.  I have not attempted to reproduce the tildes or squiggles over some of the letters (indicating abbreviations), the crossed stem of the lone “p” (for a missing “ro”), and have had, rather lamely, to substitute a “z” for the character indicating an “es~~ or “us” word-ending and a “?“ for a character or symbol I simply didn’t recognize.  The above transcription differs in minor detail from that given in the pamphlet, but, as will become apparent, it really doesn’t matter.  The important feature of the legends has always been the name of our venerated ancestor, Thomas Fitch - clear for even the nonspecialist to read.

    But, what caught my attention on this latest visit, and led me to look further into the matter, was the conclusion in the vicar’s pamphlet stating, “The persons represented are presumably William Fytch and his wife Elizabeth, and their son Thomas and his wife Agnes.  The latter pair are also commemorated by the brass before the Chancel Arch.”

    The inscription does seem to include the letters “Wyle/” in the first line, which might be the start of “Wylelmi,” i.e. “William”.  And the second line seems to say something about Thomas Fitch being the son (“filius”) of someone.  One archivist to whom I showed the printed transcription opined (correctly, it turns out) that the “s/dus” just before “filius” was an abbreviated “secundus.”  Thus, the inscription makes it appear that Thomas was the second son perhaps of William.

    The only problem with this interpretation was that by the time of our most recent visit I was carrying a copy of a Fitch pedigree prepared in 1977 by the College of Arms3. [Footnote 3: This pedigree is virtually identical to that published originally in Roscoe Conkling Fitch, History of the itch Family, vol. 1 (1929), facing p.12.]  Thus, I was quite sure that Thomas’s father was not named William (or even Thomas, as reported in the various Visitations of Essex).  His name was John (ca. l436-l468)4. [Footnote 4: Court Rolls, Manor of Widdington, for 1440, 1459, 1466, and 1468, at New College, Oxford.]  Furthermore, Thomas was his only son.  On the other hand, Thomas had a son named William; moreover, this William was his second son.  And William’s first wife was Elizabeth.

    So then the question became: Could these two couples be Thomas and Agnes Fitch and their son William and his first wife, Elizabeth? And, if so, why were the inscriptions so confusing?

    At the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, we found the answers the probable source of the error regarding the relationship between the persons portrayed and an explanation for the strange inscriptions.

    The first answer was on a long pedigree compiled in 1636 for this William’s grandson, Sir William Fitch of Garnets, with later annotations and additions.  It begins with several apparently imaginary generations who dwelt in “Fitch castle in the North.”  (The fact that no such castle or ruins of a castle or even foundations for a castle have ever been discovered, either in the North of England or even in the northern part of Essex, has done little to assuage the apparently insatiable American appetite for a coat of arms and an ancestral castle. The coat [246] of   arms exists; the castle is almost certainly a myth.)  One of the annotations next to the first William’s name gives the text of the original inscription under the portraits when they were still mounted in the north window. This note, though hard to read, is very close to a similar transcription made about 1720 and included in The Holman manuscript quoted by Bernard Rackham5:

    [Footnote 5:Bernard Rackham. “The Ancient Stained Glass at Lindsell Church,” in Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, XX New Series, vol. 20 (1933), p. 76.]

    “Orate [pro animabus] Willi Fytche et Elizabet [ux] quond[a]m (manent) in Rectoria de Dunmowe [?] fuit secundus filius Thome Fytche et Agn...t heres Robto Alger”

    where, again I have not been able to reproduce the orthography precisely, and have indicated a couple of the differences between the two versions with square brackets.

    Now the relationship seems to sort itself out, for the complete inscription reads (approximately):

    “Pray for the souls of William Fytch and Elizabeth his wife, formerly of the rectory of Dun-mow who was the second son of Thomas Fytch and Agnes, heiress of Robert Algor.”

    The puzzle is now partly solved.  The inscription is about Thomas and his son, not Thomas and his father. Yet, right after quoting the above Rackham inexplicably adds, “The persons represented are presumably William Fytche and his wife, Elizabeth, and their son [emphasis added], Thomas Fytche and his wife Agnes.” This 1933 article may have been the source of the error in the church pamphlet, or perhaps Mr. Christie, the author of the 1898 article in The Essex Review6 about the brass, may have been in error. He states:

    [Footnote 6: Christie op. cit., p. 41]

    “According to the Heralds’ Visitations of Essex of 1558, 1612, and 1634,” [and a footnote cites The Publications of the Harleian Society, vol. xiii (1873), pp. 51, 197, and 397, as his source] “this Thomas Fitche was a son of William Fitche, of Fitche’s, in Widdington... Thomas Fitche and his father William are also commemorated by a fragmentary inscription in the great east window of the church, the glass of which they not improbably had inserted.”7

    [Footnote 7: Christies article refers to a still earlier description of the “fragments,” in Nathaniel Salmon, The History and Antiquities of Essex (1740), p. 197, which I have not been able to consult.  Since, however, he says that Salmon “has wrongly given the fragments of this inscription,” it seems an unlikely source for his own interpretation.]

    However, in both the original manuscripts of the visitations and in the printed versions referred to above (Figure 4), Thomas’s father is said to have been another Thomas. This statement is also wrong, as the more reliable Court Rolls prove. Thus it appears that the source of the confusion was the 1898 Essex Review article.

    The puzzle of the present legends is not yet solved, however.  There are words in the inscription that do not appear in the original: “prosperitate,” for example. Where did that come from? The answer is also in the Holman notes.  For the original north window had still another panel, depicting a shrine, with the words:

          “Orate p prosperitate Dni Wylemi Cooke”

    which asks us to pray for prosperity and ends with the name of William Cooke, vicar of St. Mary’s from 1501 until 1550.  (The “Dni” for “Domini” means “Lord,” but could, before 1600, be used to indicate a clergyman.) This inscription, then, accounts for the completely irrelevant “Dni Wyle/” and the “p prosperitate” in the present window.

    But, note that we aren’t being asked to pray for the soul of William Cooke; in fact, it sounds as though he is the one doing the praying. If so, the north window may have been made and installed before 1550. Furthermore, the supplication for prayer is for William and Elizabeth, not Thomas and Agnes. William. who lived until 1578, may have bought the window perhaps while Elizabeth was still living.  At least that chronology would explain why his second wife, Anne, is not in the picture.

    In retrospect, I missed the importance of the word “mutilated” in the vicar’s introduction to the legends under the portraits.  I think “scrambled” might have been a better choice, if meant as a word of caution. For, as it turns out, the present legends are virtually meaningless, composed of random pieces from two unrelated inscriptions in the earlier north window.  Perhaps like Alice, we need a little sign that says “Read Me” and points to the tiny lozenge of glass, set into the present window, well beneath the portraits. It reads:

    “The ancient glass in this window was assembled from various parts of the Church & was restored & replaced by A. R. Nicholson in the year 1929 for Miss Valentine Fane.”

    [Note: Figure 4, appearing in the above article, is a Firch Family tree which is reproduced from the Publications of the Harleian Society vil. xiii (1873), p. 51.]

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