To Become Deep In History Is To Become Catholic: My Family Were Welsh Catholic Farmers And My Great Great Grandfather Was A Crusader With Richard The Lionheart

     "To become deep in history is to become Catholic." This is not just true of studying wider history, but is very true of studying our family history, and even, in a psychological sense, our own personal history.
     The following is an excerpt from the history book written by my brother, Michael Mincher. I asked to post an excerpt from the section about the origin of the Mincher family.  It's important to know that everything and everyone is historic. This makes me realize how at home we are in the Catholic Church.
     I also just really like reading about how my people lived, which was in so many ways the same. And the ways in which it is different, I would like to remedy, essentially.
     It's also easier, for me, to understand realities like, "the People of God," if I think about my people, and in terms of having, "my people." For some reason I can feel the proximity to our Catholic heritage when I read what the Minchers were doing when, for example, St. Thomas Becket was at odds with King Henry II.
     The first excerpt is about the people in the valley of the Severn River. The second excerpt tells how these people begat the Minchers.


"Whatever else may come to pass,
 I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement
 any race other than the Welsh,
or any other language,
will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all
 for this small corner of the earth."

-- An Unnamed Welshman, quoted by Gerald of Wales

     The Severn River valley stretches from the southern reaches of Cumbria to the northern borders of the Cornwall peninsula, where the river empties into the bay separating South Wales from Cornwall, Bath, and Somerset. It lies on the western edge of the Midland Plains, which stretch eastward to London and Kent; the rolling hills of the valley mark the beginning of the craggy and mountainous peaks charateristic of Wales, into which the Welsh found themselves increasingly pressed. The natives of the valley were descendants of families who had hardly left the region, except perhaps to go on trading voyages or fight in wars, for centuries. Britain today is known for its pastoral countryside, spotted with woods and wide-open pastures. In the sixth century, however, much of the land that was not bog was covered in deep, primeval forests. The people lived in small villages, pasturing cattle and sheep in the glens and open field, and tending half-wild pigs in the woods. No one lived alone on a distant farm away from a town; the hermits of legend, and the more isolated monasteries, were the exception. Though the villages were usually never more than a few miles from another, people did not travel often- unless mustering for war (or fleeing from it), there was never a need, and a few miles then was a considerable, and dangerous, distance. For the most part, people where born, lived, and died in the same place.
Mary's Festival of Candles
     Life was not easy for the poorer folk, who farmed much the same as their ancesters did centuries before. Work was not constant, though, especially during the colder months. Communal festivities were common, not only because they were one of the few means of leisure. Christian holidays such as Christmas, Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles), and St. David’s Day, as well as local occasions (marriages and such), were celebrated with a noson lawen, a party with music similar to the Irish ceili. Most of the surviving music of the time, unfortunately, is limited to hymns and the Gregorian chant of the monastic choirs, since few others could write. The traditional music of the people was (and still is) similar to the other Celtic peoples of Ireland and Scotland. The most important instrument was the fiddle; the Welsh triple harp, bagpipes, whistles, and other instruments often accompanied a sung poem or dance, called penillion. 

     Generally, they dined on whatever was readily available, but on important occasions nationally popular foods including lamb, trout, cockles, and leeks were served. They also had a long history of alcohol consumption. Records show that whiskey has been consumed in Wales since the fourth century. Beers came along somewhat later, in the sixth century. Legends tell of a certain Druid named Ceridwen who brewed a beer, Gwin a Bragawd, said to have brought “science, inspiration, and immortality” to its drinkers. Welsh beer was strong and flavorful, often including cloves and other spices.
     Despite this generally peaceful existence, the Severn natives lived with the constant threat of Saxon invasion hanging over their heads, a very real and present danger that could strike at any time, destroying homes and loved ones without warning. Ever since the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts had managed to maintain control over the Midland Plains and London, despite losing ground elsewhere, and the people of the Severn valley were protected. This all changed in 577, when Cuthwine and Caewlin, kings of the West Saxons, smashed through the Celtic defenses at Dyrham, capturing Cirencester, Bath, and Gloucester. These were all large, strongly garrisoned towns that governed a wealthy and sophisticated region, and the loss for that reason alone was a severe blow to the Romano-British. Perhaps more importantly, three leading nobles of the Britons were slain, and the Celts of Wales were cut off from their kinfolk in Cornwall permanently, except for the occasional passage by boat over the Bay of Severn. London was lost to the Britons forever. Subsequent Celtic uprisings in the London area were brutally crushed and the countryside “pacified”. Welsh armies and nobles were destroyed or expelled to the west bank of the Severn, and the Celtic peoples of the valley fell under the dominion of the Saxons, for a time. In the east, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia rose to dominate the Midlands, and the Anglian kingdoms of the north merged to become the kingdom of Northumbria.
     Eslewhere, Pope Gregory I codified what became known as Gregorian Chant. St. Augustine of Canterbury, sent to evangelize the Germanic invaders of Britain, converted King Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity, while Irish missonaries traveled to Germany.  Saint David, the patron of Wales, died in 601. The game of chess was developed in Persia, as well as the technique of using windmills for irrigation.

Hwicce's chapel
     The Severn river valley was a hotly contested region in the seventh and eighth centuries. Its inhabitants remained Welsh, but their rulers changed fairly often; sometimes Powys or Gwent pressed forward into the area, only to be driven back by the Mercians or the West Saxons. This led to an interesting situation in the mid seventh century, in which the kingdom of Hwicce arose to fill the vacuum. Its territory continually fluctuated, but consistently included the cities of Gloucester, Cirencester, Bath, and Worcester- the present day West Midlands. In the east and north, there were some Anglo-Saxon settlements, but the primary population remained Welsh, especially in the old Roman cities of the south. However, the ruling family was a mysterious and confusing combination of Celtic and Saxon; they were probably older Brythonic families that intermarried with Saxon princes to create the kingdom. It was a small kingdom, but wealthy, controlling as it did many important urban centers. In the eighth century, Hwicce’s king Osric helped set up a stronger religious presence in the valley by demanding that Hwicce have its own bishop. This led to the establishment of the See of Worchester, and during this time also chapels were built in Stroud, Avening, and Hampton, three ancient settlements within four miles of each other.

     These three towns had been the sites of human settlement since the Iron Age, and evidence of this fact still remains. Stroud was the site of an important hill fort in pre-Roman times, and remained a significant town well into the modern day. Hampton and Avening, about two miles from each other, sit on a plateau overlooking the Severn Estuary, about eight miles to the west, and onwards into the hills of Gwent. In terms of size, they have not changed considerably since the seventh century; in fact they may have decreased slightly. The cottages there today are built of stones scavenged from former abodes over the centuries.
     Whatever name the towns had under Romano-British rule, if any, has been long since forgotten. Hwicce was, strictly speaking, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and many of the place-names in the region are Anglo-Saxon in origin. However, there is no evidence that Hwicce was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in anything but name. The nobility was a mixture of Celtic and Saxon, and this is reflected also in the appearance of Saxon-style tombs for nobles from the time of the kingdom’s founding. The Church in Hwicce was Celtic, distinctive from the parishes formed by missionaries to the Saxons such as Augustine of Canterbury. Hwicce’s common people were also Welsh of the Celtic Church; this is confirmed by Bede’s report of a conference between the visiting St. Augustine and the Welsh bishops in Hwicce.

                                                                         * * *
     That's the end of the first excerpt. The next excerpt begins with the conquest of the region by William The Conqueror. During his reign, William had a census made of his kingdom which was codified in 'The Domesday Book'. In this book is the first reference to the Minchers.

     William and his queen, Matilda, married outside certain bounds that had been declared by the Pope. In 1066, they founded the L’Abbaye aux Dames in Hampton, near Gloucester, as a means of doing penance. The abbey was for ladies of noble birth, and the first abbess was Cecily, the king’s own daughter. At this time Hampton became known as Mynchonhampton, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word for "nun," mynece.
     The people of the Severn valley had been relatively uninvolved in the Norman Invasion, until after the fact. King Harold had not raised men for his army from the region. They were untouched by the war until the Welsh-Mercian alliance that led several rebellions out of the Forest of Dean nearby and out of Gwent to the Southwest, and all of these rebellions were quelled. Like elsewhere in England, Norman lords replace the long-standing ruling nobles of the Cotswolds and the Severn. Nevertheless, the ancient families remained, holding on to their land through legal wrangling and securing unshakable rights of succession among their sons, ensuring the Normans could find no legal loophole through which to seize their holdings. The Normans found it difficult to remove the Welsh influence within the Cotswolds and never succeeded in stamping out the ancient Celtic spirit of independence and love of country that had lasted there since Roman times. Ultimately, many English and Welsh found Norman rule so unbearable that they simply packed up and left. Tens of thousands, over a period of one-hundred and fifty years or so, moved to the Scottish lowlands, or deep into the mountainous heart of Wales, or to the Byzantine Empire (refugees from Britain made up a noteworthy portion of Crusaders).
William's census, "The Domesday Book"
     The family that came to take the name of Mynchon was small, first described as yeomen and minor landowners in William’s great census of England. Gradually they put out branches into the valleys and villages of the hill-country, gaining land and starting families in Avening, Stroud, Wyck Rissington and elsewhere. They tilled the soil but their primary livelihood was in shepherding, tending to large flocks of sheep that grazed and played on the rolling hills and glens of the Severn valley. Their communities were close-knit, as they still are, meeting around the church, discussing politics, bow-hunting in the Forest of Dean and holding games when they had the time. Some of them became farm managers, overseers and officials that managed the affairs and holdings of higher nobility. For the most part, they lived on their own land in comfortable stone houses that were neither low nor opulent. Given their status and their proximity to a major religious center, it is likely that they were at least partially literate. What they read and what songs they knew and sang with one another is not well known, but some survive. Here is an ancient Welsh song, called “Pais Dinogad”, that would have been known among these people:

Dinogad's shift is speckled, speckled,
It was made from the pelts of martens.
`Wee! Wee!' Whistling.
We call, they call, the eight in chains.
When your father went out to hunt -
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand -
He called on his lively dogs,
`Giff! Gaff! Take, take! Fetch, fetch!'
He killed fish from his coracle
Like the lion killing small animals.
When your father went to the mountains
He would bring back a roebuck, a boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain,
And a fish from the Derwennydd falls.
At whatever your father aimed his spear -
Be it a boar, a wild cat, or a fox -
None would escape but that had strong wings.

Which is somewhat clumsily rendered in modern English. Another of the few surviving songs and poems of the time is “Suo-Gan”, a lullaby presumed to be from the tenth century, or thereabouts, and has been more deftly translated:

To my lullaby surrender
Warm and tender is my breast
Mother's arms with love caressing
Lay their blessing on your rest
Nothing shall tonight alarm you
None shall harm you, have no fear
Lie contented, calmly slumber
On your mother's breast, my dear

Here tonight I tightly hold you
And enfold you while you sleep
Why, I wonder, are you smiling
Smiling in your slumber deep?
Are the angels on you smiling
And beguiling you with charm
While you also smile, my blossom
In my bosom soft and warm?

Have no fear now, leaves are knocking
Gently knocking at our door
Have no fear now, waves are beating
Gently beating on the shore
Sleep, my darling, none shall harm you
Nor alarm you, never cry
In my bosom sweetly smiling
And beguiling those on high

     As landowners, the political matters of the day weighed heavily on their minds. Much was at stake for them whenever the Welsh and the Normans met in battle; most likely they secretly cheered for the defeat of their French overlords, having familial and cultural ties to their Western cousins and none whatsoever with the Normans. Indeed, in 1136 combined Welsh forces from the various kingdoms forced back the Marcher Lords, humiliating the Normans at the Battle of Crug Mawr at Cardigan Castle. For a long time afterwards was the period known as The Anarchy, when Stephen de Blois and the Empress Matilda both claimed the throne of England, and all were forced to choose a side. Gloucester and its people eventually chose the side of the Empress, who ascended to the throne for a while but was ultimately defeated. Luckily in the confusion of the aftermath it was not certain who had stood for whom, and the Mynchons avoided the purge.

     In 1157 King Henry II of England decided to teach the Welsh a lesson, and invaded the country, but was made to look a fool in several defeats and was nearly slain himself. During this conflict, the southern Welsh of Gwent rose up and attacked the Marchers of the Midlands and, for a time, it seemed they would regain rule of the Severn after a centuries-long hiatus. However, the attack petered out before this was accomplished. These were dangerous times for the Mynchons and their neighbors, as any indication that they favored Welsh victories could put their necks on a chopping-block.
     In 1163 an even greater war between the Welsh and Normans took place. Henry II, this time aggravated by his widening quarrel with Archbishop Thomas Becket, again decided to attack Wales, assembling the largest force ever gathered for that purpose. Owain I of Gwynedd, victor in previous wars, forged a strong alliance of all the Welsh kingdoms and raised an equally strong army. However, he did not engage Henry, but merely let him march his host deep into the Welsh mountains and bog-valleys, until his army was so stretched and dispersed along the winding supply line as to be worthless. Owain then harassed them with raids and skirmishes, while hurricane-force winds and rain pelted the freezing, hungry Normans. Eventually, Henry gave up and withdrew, utterly humiliated and beaten, resolving never to bother with Wales; in fact, he spent most of the remainder of his reign in France.
     During these years, quite apart from being subdued, displaced, executed or exiled by the Normans, which was the fate of many old families, the Mynchons rose to a very respectable and wealthy status, for non-Normans that is, enough so that contemporary historians could be bothered to mention the head of the family.

     The prevailing system of government in the Isles at the time was feudalism. The king, under only the authority of the Pope, expected loyalty and service from his vassals, a hierarchy of nobles and peasantry, and in return he gave them land and protection, in theory. A rough summary of this system can be described thus: the King was head, followed by a number of barons, dukes, and other high nobility, who were served in turn by lesser nobles and minor lords who had seats in smaller cities. These high and middle aristocracies were entirely Norman (or ardently pretended to be Norman), and their primary subjects were knights. The word, “knight” has come to signify many different things, but at the time in the Isles it referred to a minor landowner of some social elevation and wealth who pledged fealty to the regional lord or baron to fight when called upon. Simply put, they were members of the warrior class who were wealthy enough to purchase the high-quality horses, armor, and weapons needed to go to war, where they were typically put in command of contingents of peasant infantry or other soldiers from their own area. By the twelfth century, the concept of “chivalry” and a common code of conduct was already widely applied and required of knights, although perhaps not in the romanticized sense that is thought of today. Unlike higher nobles, knights could afford to be openly non-Norman, and some were, but most were not, except in frontier areas in which older customs still prevailed.
     In the decades prior to the Third Crusade, which was launched in the late twelfth century, the Mynchons of the Cotswolds produced a son that they named Stephen. He was a relation, possibly the son, of Alderedus Mynchon, who currently is listed as the first-recorded bearer of that surname. Alderedus was described as a minor landowner in the pipe rolls (census and property records) of the Cotswolds in 1190; unfortunately little else about the man has been kept for his descendants to learn. Stephen, however, matured to become the head of the family, and earned a place in history apart from his blood-line.

     As a young man, perhaps eight or nine, he was sent by the family to the nearby castle of the lord to whom they pledged service; it was probably Sudeley Castle in modern-day Winchcombe. The name of its lord has been lost. While residing there, Stephen studied the finer arts, history, what literature there was to read, and especially theological histories and probably more than one language, certainly medieval Latin at least. Such an education he had in common with all “pages”, young men aspiring to knighthood and entitled to it by birth. He cleaned, carried messages, and generally attended the residents of the castle, and in addition to his formal education he was trained in combat and military arts, an education which continued for many years.  At age fourteen, Stephen followed custom in progressing to the rank of squire, taking on more formal and mature responsibilities, closely attending and serving a particular knight as shield-bearer and loyal companion. At age twenty-one a squire became eligible for knighthood; the age at which Stephen attained knighthood is unknown, but he was certainly a young man when dubbed, probably no older than twenty-one or two, and he inherited all responsibility for the actions and welfare of a large number of tenants, at least one-hundred or so, as well as the maintenance of his family’s holdings and position.

     It was not long after Stephen rose to knighthood that news came to Britain of the recapture of Jerusalem in the Holy Land by the Saracens. This news was a grievous blow to the Christian West, and the Pope put out the call far and wide for a Third Crusade to be launched in Palestine. Perhaps it was even due to this event that Stephen was made a knight. However it occurred, in 1188 Stephen was visited by Baldwin of Exeter, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the scribe Gerald of Wales, who were touring the Welsh country recruiting men for the Crusade. Stephen joined many others from the Cotswolds, mustering his men and pledging his service to the army of King Richard I (Lionhearted), and set out on crowded, small, barely seaworthy vessels for the voyage to the Holy Land. As was the case with many of the knights and nobility of the Crusading armies, his young wife accompanied him.
     The fleet departed in 1190, and it consisted of about eight-thousand soldiers and knights, and sailed on one-hundred ships. The journey was difficult, long, and stormy, as well as indirect. The king chose to stop at Sicily, resolving a royal family issue and fighting a number of skirmishes, and even captured Cyprus as part of another squabble; so it happened that Stephen and his men fought many battles for varied reasons before ever reaching Palestine. Nevertheless they did reach the Holy Land in June of 1191, landing at Acre and joining the siege of that city. They were also joined by the Knights of St. John, and forces from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Frankish Kingdom. In July, Acre was captured by the Crusaders, who went on to win other battles but failed to win the ultimate prize, Jerusalem. Richard I departed from Palestine in 1192 with most of his army, although he was soon taken captive and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Empire for one of his many personal intrigues. Many Crusaders remained to guard the Kingdom of Jerusalem; before he departed, King Richard appointed Stephen to the governorship of Acre. The office was held simultaneously by two or three men at a time. The reasons for Richard granting Stephen this honor can only be guessed at, but Stephen remained in Acre for a time as governor, eventually returning to Britain. How long he stayed in Palestine is unknown, as is the date of his death.

     In the Cotswolds at that time, the Mynchons continued to live and prosper in relative peace and security. Perhaps the only remarkable historical event that occurred within their neighborhood was the coming of Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany, the cousin of Henry III. She had been under “house arrest” for years due to fear over her claim to the throne, and was reputed to be one the most beautiful women ever witnessed. In the 1230s, she spent her time in Gloucester, living comfortably under the authority of the sheriff and the local nobles. The estates of the Mynchons were close by her home, and they shared some of the responsibility for her. Doubtless the princess’s doings were a common subject of conversation at the dinner table.

     At some point during the 13th century, a significant portion of the Mynchon clan moved away from the region of Gloucester, Minchinhampton, and Stroud further into Wales proper. The exact method, number, and time are unclear and sadly lost to history. The family of Sir Stephen and his descendants are not noted as being among those who remained in the Severn River valley, but rather histories go on to describe other, different branches of the Mynchons who went on to pursue other ventures, either remaining in the Cotswolds or traveling to diverse regions of Britain. Some facts do bear mentioning. In the 13th and 14th centuries, variations of the Mynchon surname began to appear. The variation “Minchin” or “Minchon” were common in the Cotswolds and the Severn regions, and spread as far as England proper. However, variations such as “Mynchir”, “Minchir” and “Mincher” began to appear to the west of the Cotswolds, deeper and deeper into Wales; the name proliferates and moves west, in historical records, as the years progress.

     The most likely explanation for this split is explained by the development of the Welsh Marches, which coincided to a large degree with the movement of the name “Mincher”. Sir Stephen’s branch of the family, being the wealthiest and most prominent of the name, sporting the name of a former Crusader commander and governor of Acre, and being close by to Wales, would have been prime candidates for Henry III’s, and later Edward I’s, colonization of eastern Wales. Both kings, and others after them, desired to “settle” the Welsh frontier by such methods, seating veteran families and nobles to improve the cultural stability of the frontier, and giving them authority over their marches to improve military stability as well—in effect, killing two birds with one stone. History records typical candidates for such settlement as being nobles from Chester, Shrewsbury, Gloucester, and Cirencester, all close by the Welsh border. Further, the fact that Sir Stephen’s line is no longer mentioned at all alongside other contemporary family members in the Cotswolds strongly suggests that neither he nor his descendants stayed there after the early 13th century. Sir Stephen’s motto, that had been instituted along with his own coat of arms, remained in proud traditional use among all branches of the clan at that time, which indicates he had not fallen out of favor or his family become destitute and shunned. Thus it seems reasonable to presume that Sir Stephen’s branch of the clan was sent into Wales as part of the effort to colonize the region.
     It is most likely that, due to the family’s origin, they were sent to Glamorgan in South Wales, Brecon in the Cambrian Mountains, or Elfael southeast of Snowdonia. The people of the Marches interacted frequently, even daily—this was not the pseudo-apartheid of the Saxon past, at least for the lesser nobles. The Norman lords ruled with an iron fist over their stretches of Wales, and remained within “Anglified” safe zones and city centers. But the lesser colonists, the Minchers among them, gradually integrated with the local population. This is unsurprising, given the long-standing blood-ties between the two groups. To call them a meeting of two nations or peoples would be incorrect; rather, it was the intermingling of two distinct but related groups.
     Life in Wales in the High Middle Ages was, as in ages past, one fraught with the worry of war and death. However, much else, concerning peace and happiness, is also known of the period, thanks to historians such as Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales).  Gradually, during the following centuries, the Mincher clan simply melted into Wales. No family member is mentioned in prominence again in the historical annals until centuries, and continents, later, in entirely different contexts.


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