Barbencon Castle and Lake

The Meath Family Crest
Window at Killruddery depicting William's arrival in England and Jacques le Brabanzon as his standard bearer
I suppose the way any incredible story commences - and ours is an incredible story - is 'In the Beginning'. And in our beginning was Jacques le Brabanzon, the Great Warrior, said to be a general in the invasion army of King William the Conqueror, and to boot, his standard bearer. Like any story from the mists of time, how do we know what is true and what belongs to the realm of mythology?

In actual fact, we have no historical documents regarding the person or life of Jacques, with the exception of the reference to him being included in the Roll of Battle Abbey, which is purportedly the record of the Normans who fought at the Battle of Hastings. I located a copy of The Roll, as I thought, in the British Museum and obtained permission to personally examine it. What a shocker when I found no name on it even vaguely like that of our heroic ancestor. After frantically going up and down the list a dozen or so times, I asked the archivist what she thought - had the family been living a lie and, if so, why was Jacques' name on the Roll inscribed in the Cathedral at Caen? The reply was that although everyone spoke of The Roll, in fact there is a plurality of Rolls - some extant and some lost or destroyed - and the Museum had but one of them. Further, the list at Caen is a compilation of the Rolls plural. Fair enough. So although Our Roll is in the lost or destroyed category, it does appear to be accepted by all the official genealogical bodies.

Next question - are the Rolls veracious in themselves? The answer - not completely. Apparently, names of Norman wannabees or their fathers were added to the lists (by paying large amounts to the monks who prepared them): one might say the Johnnies-come-latelies, but does that include Jacques-come-lately? My gut feeling is no, that I believe the inclusion is original, and the reason is to do with Jacques' racial and cultural origin. Although we tend to reiterate the laid down story that our ancestor was a Norman, in fact as a mercenary - and his appellation (which I'll explore a little in a minute), le Brabanzon, means he was a mercenary chieftain - he would have hailed from the Lowlands, in what is now Belgium. In fact, the village of Barbencon in the province of Hainault is the most probable genesis point. Jacques was therefore Frankish rather than Norman. Although King William reinforced his governing elite after the Conquest with additional continental families, these were Norman. He had employed Frankish mercenaries - and Bretons - to supplement his Norman knights: the Franks provided extra cavalry and the Bretons the infantry. Jacques, then, as a mercenary, could only have been in the actual invasion and unlikely to have been a later arrival. Furthermore, his descendants appear in English records already established, Franks intermarrying with the Norman settlers, with no other bone fide ancestry than that of the Great Warrior.

Indeed, for a mercenary to be included amongst the ranks of Norman nobility must have been an honour par excellence. And by turning the appellation, le Brabanzon, into a surname meant Jacques' descendants were displaying their past with pride. It is well known that the King paid his mercenaries very handsomely after the success of the Invasion and their leaders would have become, in a word, rich. So even if we accept that Jacques was at the Battle of Hastings, what is the truth, if any, that he was William's standard bearer?

The battle plan at Hastings was an opening attack by the Breton foot-soldiers on Senlac Hill, followed by an onslaught by the Norman cavalry, led by Duke William himself. The Frankish mercenaries were held in reserve on William's right flank, which means that Jacques could not have been the standard bearer at the commencement of hostilities. However, in the heat of battle roles are taken-on and lost in a matter seconds. Of the different accounts of the Battle of Hastings, one of them maintains that when the Norman cavalry was routed at the first attempt to dislodge the English William's standard bearer either fell or dropped the flag which caused further panic amongst the retreating army - fearing the Duke had fallen. A mercenary leader is said to have galloped forward and retrieved the standard and, in so doing, turned the tide of battle. We will never know, of course, but this version of events ties in with the verbal tradition in the Brabazon Family - so I'm going for it!

Certainly, the Conquest is a cultural watershed experience in our family, in that although we retained the title of a mercenary war lord as our surname we actually became attached to one particular lord, the King of England, and his realms. This may well be the origin of, or at least the inspiration behind, our motto Vota Vita Mea - lives pledged to a particular group rather than running a self-serving militia. After all, we could simply have taken the money and run!

Before I move on in time, I'd like to add a few more details to the origin of our name. In the mid 11th century there was mass unemployment in the Lowlands, which coupled with the endless feuds and rivalries in Europe fuelled a burst of mercenary bands centred in the province of Brabant, of which our own name is a derivative. Jacques would have been the leader of such a band, hence the 'title' The Brabanzon. The fact that all this came about very shortly before the Norman invasion of England means that Jacques has to be the first generation of that name. When I visited the village of Barbencon (originally that would have been Barbanzon), the couple of local historians I was introduced to knew that the name of their village was derived from Brabant but couldn't understand why. They seemed very content with my plausible explanation that it was named after Jacques.

The family at Barbencon was eventually raised to the nobility, being given the titles of baron and prince. The male lineage ran out in the 1500s but the title of prince carried on through the female line and there are claimants to it today, the most believable, I was told, is of a Spanish nobleman by the family name of Nunez. However, the most famous carriers of the name are the Continental noble family of de Ligne, who carry the title of Baron de Barbancon - as well as Prince d'Arenberg - and are descended from Isaac le Barbanzon who was born in 1075. Tantalisingly, they have no records of antecedents before Isaac, but his year of birth does gel nicely with the lifetime of Jacques.

I don't think we'd be too far out if we surmise that Isaac may well have been the son of our own Jacques. After the Castle of Barbencon or Barbancon received its name, the le would have been easily changed to de. In fact, in our own lineage the records sometimes switch between the two. One final word on the Continental connection, Betty Meath told me some years ago that the de Ligne family was evacuated to Killruddery in the Second World War. Interesting how things come together!

Jacques' lineage in England became established at Betchworth Castle in the county of Surrey, close to Dorking, with his son John being the first Brabazon recorded as living in England. The original Norman structure was added to later on, but the extant ruins are virtually all of the original building. If you do venture a visit take rough clothes and be prepared for golfers and nettles - I don't know which are worst! However, this leaves the obvious gap: where did Jacques reside if he was indeed in the conquering army? He is not mentioned in the Doomsday Book - the Norman inventory of England - as being at Betchworth or anywhere else. Again, we're in the realms of educated guessing and I think that he resided principally at Barbancon to reinforce his fiefdom there whilst keeping a younger son in England to preserve the lineage - and therefore Brabazon influence - in the Norman heartland. After all, King William encouraged the practice of Norman families sending their second sons to the new Kingdom so that he could rule both sides of the Channel with blood-related hierarchies.