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The Myth of Stanstead Abbey, Hertfordshire

November, 2009

 

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Stanstead Abbots

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."

The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Caroll

A cautionary tale about the information you find on the internet

One of the disadvantages of using the World Wide Web for genealogy is that it provides an easy way for disseminating and multiplying errors. When this site was started the second information topic was entitled The Dangers of Internet Genealogy and its message is as true as ever it was.

Some of the worst examples are linked to Americans who are trying to link ancestors that sailed across the Atlantic in the 17th century to their origins in the UK. It is clear that some of the errors started over 100 years ago, and one must suspect that at least some of the "errors" were created by "professional" researchers in England who were commissioned by rich Americans to research their ancestors. These researchers were more interested in keeping the funds coming by supplying a continual flow of "possible looking" information than in spending weeks or months checking the accuracy of the facts. (This behaviour is not new - many of the Medieval English family trees in the Visitations contain much wishful thinking by people who wanted to claim a right to carry a coat of arms.)

Many of the resulting errors (or at best unsubstantiated guesses) have been recorded on the IGI and turn up on familysearch (see The Limitations of the IGI on Familysearch). What is happening is that beginners look at the IGI, on published family trees, and at family history web sites and assume that such "common knowledge" must be true. They add the dubious information onto their own family tree  without checking the facts - and then publish the results themselves - propagating the myth.

When I first set up this site I received a number of queries from America about the origins of these early refugees from England. It was as if I was trying to build a castle on quicksand - as the "foundations" of the query vanished as soon as I looked at them closely. When I asked the questioner about the American sources of information (see My Ancestors Emigrated from Hertfordshire) it rapidly became clear that the questioner had little or no knowledge of the 17th century New England documents which lay behind the query. Few, if any, of the questioners had sufficient historical knowledge or experience in working with old documents to know whether the information they had taken from published family trees (or assembled from trees which had been held as records on the IGI) was reliable.

I am afraid that I took the easy way out - and stated I didn't answer questions before 1700. However in February 2008 I was asked if I could throw any light on what and where Stanstead Abbey was.  The questioner clearly had some relevant knowledge of contemporary American documents and was trying to find out why a plot of land in Maryland had been named Stanstead Abbey. She supplied two 17th century references, and had noted the large number of references to Stanstead Abbey on the World Wide Web - but was unable to tie the information down to a place in England, much less Hertfordshire.

I decided to use this example to demonstrate how much highly misleading or downright incorrect family history information exists on the World Wide Web - and other online sources.

The Main Hertfordshire Sources

There are 5 main histories of Hertfordshire which detail the county parish by parish.  They are Chauncy (The Historical Antiques of Hertfordshire, 1700), Salmon (The History of Hertfordshire, 1728), Clutterbuck (The History of the County of Hertford, 1815-1827), Cussans (History of Hertfordshire, 1870-1881) and the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire (1902-1914). These histories tell us very little about the common man as they all concentrate on the ownership of land, and the church (which was also a one-time major owner of land) - and deal with changes in ownership connected with the dissolution of the monasteries in detail. None mention "Stanstead Abbey" (including variant spellings of "Stanstead") or even hint at an abbey at Stanstead Abbots. This is a Hertfordshire village which was named because in Medieval times it had been a manor which was owned  by the Abbot of Waltham Abbey. All were written by scholars who would try their best to ensure the accuracy of their information and the reliability of their sources. All, except the last, were written to be purchased by rich and discerning customers, while the last is a serious piece of academic research. One thing you can be virtually certain about - if these books do not mention an abbey or a monastery at Stanstead Abbots there wasn't one there.

The same negative result is obtained if you look at old maps going back to Saxton (1577) or a wide variety of other less profound histories, tourist guides, etc. You will find nothing in Tracing Your Family History in Hertfordshire - the "bible" for those currently researching their family history in the county.

UK Wide Sources

Directed searching online on GENUKI or in the National Archives index failed to produce a single reference. Interestingly a search of www.google.co.uk restricted to UK web sites was also negative once you have eliminated a few irrelevant rogue pages. (This will change when this page is posted.) It would seem that, at the time of writing, none of the web pages which refer to a Stanstead Abbey originate in the UK, and inspection shows that most, if not all, originate in the USA.

A search of a variety of other modern and antiquarian reference books draw a blank.

17th Century Sources - The "Hopewell" 1635

In the early 17th century, starting with the Mayflower, many ships crossed the Atlantic carrying people who wanted to settle in New England. A surviving passenger list [see ref.] tells us that at the beginning of April 1635 the Hopewell, under the command of William Bundick, moored in London with a view to transporting a boat-load of passengers. These passengers had to have certificates from their minister and from justices of the peace as to their eligibility. My interpretation of the document is as follows:

On April 1st there were four families (three from Olney, Bucks and one from London) waiting to board, together with two single men who were probably brothers. A list was started and at the top were the four heads of the families, and the single men, all of whom would have held the certificates. Once they were processed the wives, and then the children and one servant, were listed. On April 3rd (possibly spread over three days) other groups arrived and a new list was started, When the first group arrived the scribe responsible wrote:

Theis under written names are to be transported to New England imbarqued in ye Hopewell Mr. Wm Bundick. The p'ties have brought Certificates from the Minister & Justices of peace that they are no Subsedy men they have taken the oath of alleg: and Supremacee.

Joh: Astwood 26 Husbandman
Jo: Ruggells 10
Martha Carter 27
Marie Elliott 13

The scribe, unfortunately, failed to record the place that John Astwood, etc., had come from. The next party came from Hertfordshire and, rather that repeat the wording about the certificates, recorded the following:

P'r Cert: from Stanstede Abbey in com Hert.

Laurence Whittimor 63 Husbandman
Elizabeth Whittimor 57
Elizabeth Turner 26
Sara Elliott 6
Robert Day 30
Wm. Peacock 12

When the next party arrived the scribe abbreviated the heading to "Nazing in Essex" with no explicit reference to the certificate. Entries for later arrivals were even more abbreviated and did not get a separate heading. On April 6th another page was started and this only includes a list of names with no places. Having now got a full load of passengers the boat sailed to New England. It is clear that as the passenger list got longer the scribe took less and less care to record the existence of the certificate (perhaps to hide the fact that some did not have one) or to record where the certificate was drawn up. Of course the spelling of surnames and place names was erratic - as was normal at the time.

The "Hopewell" "Stanstede Abbey"  Reference

There is an immediate and obvious problem. It is clear that the people from "Stanstede Abbey" had a certificate from their "Minister and Justice of the Peace." There is no way that the Hertfordshire histories detailed above could have failed to record a church with a minister in place in 1635 so it is obvious that the place name as recorded on the list on the passenger list MUST be wrong.

What could have happened? One can never be certain but the scribe may not have been familiar with Hertfordshire towns and villages (or a Hertfordshire accent). In Hertfordshire there was a parish called Stanstead Abbots which had a minister called Robert Ballard. If "Stanstead Abbots" is said with minimal emphasis on the last syllable it would sound rather like "Stanstead Abbey." There are very many places in England ending in "Abbey" and few in "Abbots" so if the scribe drafting the list misheard he would be far more likely to write "Abbey".  There can be little doubt that the reference to "Stanstede Abbey" on the shipping list relates to the parish of Stanstead Abbots.

Modern References relating to The "Hopewell" & Stanstead Abbots

At the top of this page I mentioned a google search for "Stanstead Abbey" and at this stage it is appropriate to re-examine the findings in the light of what is known about the Hopewell.

A google search for "Stanstead Abbots" and Hopewell came up with two web pages which accurately linked passengers on the boat (Whittimor and Day). Another related to Astwood, which I consider is one of the people whose place of origin is not stated. There were also three references to Robert Titus which claimed he came from Stanstead Abbots when the list clearly states he was "Of St. Katherins." Which St Katherine's is not clear, as the dedication is common - and there were three churches of that name in the City of London - close to where the Hopewell was moored. No evidence is given to say why Stanstead Abbots in mentioned. There were a few other genealogy references with genuinely included the words "Stanstead Abbots" and "Hopewell" but which did not relate to the above passenger list. All the other references were irrelevant coincidences - such as those referring to a modern Hopewell School.

I then re-examined the over 200 references I had originally got from looking for "Stanstead Abbey." By deleting all those were quite obviously not relevant (for instance a mistyped version of a 21st century bus route) I ended up with 190 references all of which contained references to the "Hopewell", the year "1635" or the names of frequently mentioned passengers. I did not look at all 190 - but a sampling of the more readable ones suggest that the information they contained all came from the April 1635 Hopewell passenger list - although often the source was not stated. In fact no valid reference to a 20th century or earlier "Stanstead Abbey" was found on any Web Page that could not be linked to the Hopewell list.

A few of the entries, which basically were concerned with the passenger list, were clearly satisfactory, as they merely repeated what the list said without interpretation. Most of those which had used the information as part of a family reconstruction showed a very poor understanding of the source of the information - and how that information could be safely used. Not only had a very large number of people failed to realised that the reference to "Stanstede Abbey" on the list must be to Stanstead Abbots, but their web pages contained complete inventions  - for instance saying that an individual had been born or baptised at the Abbey. (The certificate only recorded where the adult's certificate came from - not the place of birth.) A very large number were linked to Robert Titus where the reference to Stanstead Abbey is clearly incorrect as the document indicates he came from somewhere else.  In at least one case the claim was made that the baptism of their ancestor was carried out by the bishop of Stanstead Abbey - when the list only said they came from "Stanstede Abbey".

17th Century Sources - John Taylor 1636

In 1636 John Taylor, "The Water Poet," wrote The Honorable and Memorable Foundations Erections Raisings and Ruins of divers Cities, Townes Castles and other pieces of Antiquitie within ten Shires and Counties of the Kingdome: Namely Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Middlesex, Hartfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The extract reprinted in the Middlesex & Hertfordshire Notes and Queries records "At Stansted Abby, John Giver"  [see The Taverns of Hertfordshire.]

So how reliable is it? The introduction to the reprinted extract says "... Amongst the hastily compiled pieces which Taylor published ..." and ends referring to the inns by saying "Many of them, no doubt, he had visited ..." The introduction also says that John Taylor was an impecunious writer so one must wonder if he could ever have afforded to travel to all the places mentioned. A sensible conclusion from reading the introduction is that his work was not always well drafted. Perhaps he picked up information by visiting some of the many inns near the River Thames which served as arrival and departure points for travellers coming to, and leaving, London. In such places the landlords would have frequently been asked to advise intending travellers as to where to stop on their journey - so they would need to be a fountain of knowledge of towns and inns on the routes starting at their establishment. All in all it seems far more likely that "Abby" is an error for "Abbots" than that it is evidence that a Stanstead Abbey existed.

It should be noted that Hertfordshire Inns & Public Houses states that John Giver was a possible keeper of the Red Lion wine tavern at Stansted Abbotts in 1633 but gives no source. As their bibliography mentions John Taylor's publication in 1633 I assume the 1633 is a misprint, or there were two published versions of his list.

Conclusions

There is overwhelming evidence that there was no such place as Stanstead Abbey - and the two 17th century documents which name such a place were created under circumstances where confusion between "Stanstead Abbey" and "Stanstead Abbots" was very likely. An online search found 2 web pages which used the information accurately as part of a family tree. At the same time about 200 web pages contained wrong or misleading information - an error rate of 99% !!! There may be many other copies of the incorrect information on submitted family trees, and other sources

In researching your family tree you should note the words of the poem at the head of this page. Saying something 3 times - or 200 times, does not make it true. If the information comes from a single source the truth, or otherwise depends on how reliable the source was when it was written, and the accuracy of any subsequent copying (perhaps by hand many years ago), transcription, indexing and interpretation.

Much of the family tree information currently on the internet has been assembled without proper checks and safeguards, often by people who are only collecting as many names as possible with minimal effort. Other people's family trees should be considered as potentially unreliable - particularly if the primary sources (i.e. the original contemporary sources) are not identified. The fact that the family tree is well presented, or has been entered onto the IGI is no evidence that it is correct.

Remember: It is important to understand each source - how, where, why and when it was written  - to judge the potential accuracy of the document. Simply "ripping out" the reference to someone whose name means he might be your ancestor from a document, index or published family tree and ignoring the context is a recipe for error.

July 2011

Brian Chelton (brokenclaypot @t yahoo.com) of Eagleville, Pennsylvania, US, writes: I found in my family history a document [The Titus Family in America, by Rev Anson Titus, 1881] that I was looking for your advice on.  It notes a St. Catherine's Parish, near Stansted Abbots (not abbey), Hertfordshire, thirty mile north of London.  I noticed that there is a St. Catherine's parish in Sacombe which appears to only be a couple miles from Stansted Abbot and appears to have had a church located there since approx 1000.  Is it possible this is the place referenced? 

My reading is that the association of Robert Titus with Stanstead Abbots is not justified in any competent reading of the Hopewell document, and how the Rev. Anson Titus got such obviously incorrect information is unknown. He refers to the document in the Public Records Office in London [now National Archives] and when he quotes from it correctly later in the document he makes no mention of Stanstead Abbots.

The entry as written could, in theory, refer to any "St Katherine's" anywhere in England. However as the Hopewell was loading in London there is one St Katherine's that would have been very well known to the clerk who was making the list. It is not clear which wharf the Hopewell was loading at but it might even have been moored at St Katherine's Dock, near the Tower of London (see St Katherines Dock). A recent transcription of passenger lists, including the Hopewell, has interpreted the entry on the list as St Katherine, London, while I would only say this association is extremely likely, but not certain. Definitely there is nothing in the list to associate Robert Titus to Hertfordshire and any search should concentrate on London records.


Afterthought in January 2013

The topic was re-googled and came up with a few other references in recently digitised books of UK origin which are obviously errors in the original texts.

The Monthly Magazine and British Register, Volume 9, recording news in 1800. says: HERTFORDSHIRE. Died.] At Stansted Abbey, Mrs. Fielde, wife of the Rev, Thomas Fielde, vicar of that place. Thomas Fielde was the vicar of Stanstead Abbots from 1796 until 1847.

The Index of Ducatus Lancastriae, published in 1827, lists Stansted Abbey - but the text referred to is of Stansted Abbot, Hertfordshire.

The Peak Guide, of 1830, writing about the seventh Earl of Rutland, records that His wife was Frances, daughter of Sir Edward Cary, ... and widow of Ralph Baesh, of Stansted Abbey, Herefordshire, esq. ... A detailed pedigree is given by Cussans on the Stanstead Abbots pages.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, published in 2006, in discussing Keats records: One of Keat's breakthrough poems in 1819, "The Eve of St. Agnes," interestingly marks his return to the very first verse form in which he was struck by indirect intensity as a reader and in which he first composed as a poet the rhymed, eight-line Spencerian stanza. Occasioned by a chilly January encounter with the medieval monumentality of Stansted Abbey, and written under the double emotional charge of the recent death of his brother Tom ... ...  In fact Keats was actually impressed by the chapel at Stansted Park, on the Sussex/Hampshire border.

I also tried the British Newspaper Archive and, bearing in mind the vast size of the archive and how often mistakes are made by reporters writing down what they hear in court, etc., I was surprised to find no references to "Stansted Abbey" and only one in the Chelmsford Chronicle of 1880, concerning a dispute in which a John Salmon "became possessed of a small cottage at Stanstead Abbey, in Hertfordshire." In comparison there were the following numbers of references to:

Stanstead Abbot(s): 591

Stanstead Abbott(s):  819

Stansted Abbot(s): 142

Stansted Abbott(s): 72

I was very surprised as in less than 0.1% of the cases the "Abbot" was mis-recorded "Abbey". I therefore decided to look at another large data base and no one in England was recorded as being born in Stanste(a)d Abbey in the 1851-1891 censuses, and only two people were recorded as being born there (neither living in Hertfordshire) in the 1901 census.

So since my original search in 2008 some more UK references have emerged in digitised books - and a simple investigation of the "new" references supports the idea that all references to Stanste(a)d Abbey arise from errors.

March 2008   Page created - but due to error not accessible
November 2009   Error corrected
January 2013   Google revisited.