Updated 6th Dec 2015

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Fairfax Notebooks


By Gerry Webb

In 1938, Henry Clifton of Manchester, a descendant of the Fairfax alias Clifton branch of the Fairfax family, sent two notebooks to Albert Kirby, 12th Baron Fairfax of Cameron. Each notebook contains 88 pages in clear, orderly handwriting, the first volume bearing the title BIOGRAPHIES OF THE FAIRFAX FAMILIES PRIOR TO A.D. 1460. Volume 2 has the heading FAIRFAX FAMILY: NOTES. This gives in meticulous detail, with much information added, the complete list of genealogical sources from which the material in the first volume was derived. The highly professional way in which the material is set out suggests that the author was an expert in his field and that the results of his research can be relied on.

Albert Kirby died within a few months of receiving the notebooks and so had little time to take them in. Thereafter, they seem to have become buried in his library, unread and undiscovered, until they were recently found and brought to light by his grandson, Hugh Fairfax. With his permission the notebooks have been painstakingly photocopied by Norman Fairfax, and it is pleasing to report that this copy is now housed in the Fairfax Society library.

It would be interesting to know more about the man who compiled the notebooks which must represent years of careful study and diligent research. How much help did he receive from others, one wonders, in the long hours spent amongst the archives in many different locations. For the moment this will have to remain a mystery.

It should perhaps be said that the notebooks are not all easy reading. There are many lengthy quotations from obscure medieval legal documents, couched in the arcane, repetitive language of lawyers which seems to persist to the present day. Not only that, but some of the documents are written in Old French or medieval Latin which baffled even accomplished scholars of Classical Latin who were consulted. Presumably it didn't baffle the redoubtable Henry Clifton, for in offering no translation he seems to have assumed that his future readers would be as erudite as he. Fortunately a translator was eventually found and we are greatly indebted to Jonathan Holden of Leamington Spa for undertaking this formidable task so successfully (‘e & o e’ as he hastens to point out).

But these were just the difficult parts. For the rest, a wonderful picture of life in medieval England unfolds in which many of the 90 or so members of the Fairfax family, whose biographies are recorded (sometimes very briefly), played a prominent role. Inevitably we get a rather one-sided view of our characters, often through legal documents which are much more likely to have survived than other more ephemeral material. No doubt many Fairfaxes led obscure and blameless lives six or seven hundred years ago, but it seems that once you had made your mark on society by acquiring wealth and property, this position could only be maintained by frequent recourse to litigation, often after first having taken the law into your own hands. As a result many fascinating stories have been brought to light.

In a short article like this it is only possible to give a brief glimpse of what the notebooks contain. I would have been glad to have had access to them when writing my book Fairfax of York. At the time I felt quite pleased to have found an earlier date for the start of recorded history of the family in York, which is usually given as 1205. I had discovered Nicholas Fairfax, a vintner, who in 1196 had been fined the large sum of twenty shillings for ‘selling wine against the assize’.

Henry Clifton gives additional interesting information about this case. Nicholas does indeed seem to be the first Fairfax to appear in the York public records and by 1195 he had evidently become a very successful and influential businessman. His career may have been helped by his marrying Juliana, daughter and co-heiress of Roger de Askam though evidence of this match is not conclusive. Nevertheless, Nicholas was powerful enough to resist paying the fine which appears in the Pipe Rolls each year until 1199, showing that it remained unpaid until then. Clifton then goes on to explain this assize law. It seems that the authorities at this time tried to fix the price of wine according to the abundance of the vintage. Importers of wines from the King’s French dominions were ordered to “bring testimonial, under chief officer’s hands, of the price of the same so as the Justice of the Peace, at their arrival, may set the assise of the same”. When this proved impracticable, the price or assize of wine was fixed according to official discretion, usually at too low a figure to be remunerative to the importers. Fairfax’s offence therefore, was the selling of his wine at a price above that fixed by the Northern county authorities.

The notebooks are particularly interesting for those who live in York because so much of their contents relate to the city itself or the surrounding country. We get an insight into the problems facing the city, both in times of trouble and in the day-to-day activities involved in maintaining the city’s commercial prosperity. In those far off days the river Ouse was the main artery for the transport of goods, both locally and from further afield. The prosperity of York depended largely on overseas trade. The river was tidal for the 79 miles from the mouth of the Humber up to the staiths in the centre of York at which ships ended their voyages after bringing timber from Scandinavia, wine from Bordeaux and a multitude of other goods from ports in between. It was therefore imperative that nothing should impede the passage of ships on a waterway which in any case presented formidable problems of navigation for sailing ships.

There was a conflict of interest here with other legitimate users of the river, as a Statute of Edward III shows: “Whereas the common passage of ships and boats in the great rivers of England be oftentimes disturbed by the levying of weirs, mills, stanks, stakes and kiddles to the great damage of the people…” Commissions respecting the state of the banks and dykes of the great Yorkshire rivers were established to deal with these problems. These commissions were termed “de walliis et fossatis” and at times the judgment of Solomon must have been needed to keep a fair balance between the different parties. The services of Guy Fairfax  were specially in demand. His name first appears on 15 May 1419 when he was appointed with 7 others to serve on the commission for “the waters of Ayre, Ouse and Don between Turnbrigge by Roucliff and the old course of the Don in the parts of Marshland, Yorks.” Similar appointments were made in many subsequent years and in 1439 he was still serving as an “overseer of the waters of the Humber, Ouse, Don, Ayre, Derwent, Querf (Wharfe), Nidd, Yore, Swale and Tees.” And this was just one of his numerous public duties.

Space does not permit further delving into this goldmine of Fairfaxiana for the moment, so the account of what Thomas Fairfax did in 1377 to upset Archbishop Neville, and the scandalous activities of Margaret Fairfax, Prioress of Nun Monkton nunnery, together with many other stories, will have to wait until another time.



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