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Blackburn: A Medieval Family of York

 
Russell Eckhart
July 31 2009 14:15

Nicholas Blackburn, the subject of this essay, is the earliest progenitor of this family researched by me.  I do believe that researching further back in the Blackburn line would not be too difficult since this was a somewhat prominent family. 

The following  shows how the Blackburns are related to the Cordells:  Alice Blackburn, daughter of Nicholas, had Margaret Bolton;  Margaret had Nicholas Gascoigne;  Nicholas had Henry Gascoigne;  Francis had Henry Gascoigne;  Henry had Thomas Gascoigne;  Thomas had Alice Gascoigne;  Alice had Elizabeth Taylor;  Elizabeth had Isaac Basye;  Isaac had William Basye;  William had Catherine Basye;  Catherine had Alexander Cordell;  Alexander had George Sanford Cordell;  George Sanford had William Madison Cordell;  William Madison had Nellie Hester Cordell Eckhart, my paternal grandmother.

Nicholas Blackburn lived in York.  York is an ancient city, located in the northeast of England,  originally founded by the Romans when they occupied the British Isles.   The greater political designation is Yorkshire, or what we would call a county.  In an earlier essay, I recalled the relationship between the Gascoigne family of York and the Cordell family.  Since both the Gascoignes and the Blackburns were from York, it is only natural that they intermarried.

Nicholas was born in the village of Richmond, North Yorkshire, in 1360.   Edward III was king.   Nicholas married Margaret Ormeshed, also from an old Richmond family.  Their children were Nicholas, Jr., John, Isabelle and Alice.  Alice married John Bolton and their daughter, Margaret,  married into the Gascoigne family.

Sometime in the late 14th century (late 1300's), Nicholas and his family migrated to the city of York.  He soon became a well respected and pious member of York society.

It is thought that Nicholas was a prosperous businessman even before he left Richmond for York since he left legacies to the poor and to the church in Richmond.  His commercial endeavors involved primarily the export of wool, sheepskins and cloth.  This is not unusual because York was a major manufacturing center of wool and cloth material during the late middle ages.  He also traded in imports of various kinds including iron.  When the business opportunity presented itself, he supplied food to frontier forts and even to the King's household.  He seemed to be an astute businessman and availed himself of any opportunity to turn a profit.  During the reign of King Henry V (1413-1422), records indicate that Nicholas made several loans to the King.  This was not an uncommon practice amongst the leading merchants and was considered part of the cost of doing business with His Majesty.

Nicholas and Margaret Blackburn became members of the Corpus Christi Guild at York in 1414.  This was an influential group run by the local clergy and was social as well as religious in nature.  Other members of the guild included the city's leading churchmen, prominent citizens and country gentry.  From my research, the guild sounds like the 15th century's answer to our present day country club.  In his will, Nicholas left 15 pounds to the guild;  a large sum in those days.

In 1406, King Henry IV appointed Nicholas the King's Admiral of the North.  He was frequently given other royal commissions often regarding investigations of commercial activities in the city of York.  I don't know what the King's Admiral of the North actually did, but this indicates that Nicholas was well known and respected by the monarchy.  In 1412 he became Lord Mayor of York.

On February 2, 1432, Nicholas and Margaret each established a chantry at St. Anne's chapel in Fossgate, a neighborhood in York.  A chantry can either be a tiny chapel within a chapel or church, or can be a mass sung by the chantry priest of the chapel or church.  The sung (or chanted) masses would celebrate those individuals who had left bequests and gifts to the church.  It was believed this would help assure the decedent's eternal life.  Just like the indulgences of the middle ages, a major reason for Luther's Protestant Reformation, if one paid enough money to the Church, one was assured a place in heaven.  However, I write this not to judge, since the Church was the center of medieval western civilization, and I am sure my Blackburn ancestors gave to the Church with purity of heart.

St. Anne's chapel where Nicholas and Margaret established their chantries was run by Dominican friars to whom the Blackburns made significant donations.  The Blackburn chantries were still being observed at St. Anne's as late as 1534, 102 years after their deaths.  However, shortly thereafter, all chantries were discontinued probably as a result of King Henry VIII's initiative to reform the Roman Catholic church into his Church of England.

Nicholas and his family lived in North Street in York.  I have copies of their wills and especially Margaret's indicates they led a privileged life.  She left gifts of silver table ware, bowls and dishes, fine table linens imported from Flanders, bed furnishings and linens (at a time when the poor slept on straw on the floor) and imported wall hangings (tapestries).  These are all indicators of great wealth during the middle ages.  She willed monetary bequests of over 500 pounds which I have learned was level of wealth held by few widows of the time.

The Blackburn's parish church, All Saints,  was also in North Street.  However, the Blackburns asked to be buried in the cathedral.  Their request was granted.  They endowed All Saints with two stained glass windows which still exist (see accompanying pictures).  They are known as the Blackburn window and the Corporal Acts of Mercy window.  Nicholas and Margaret are depicted in the Blackburn window.

Nicholas died in York in 1432 during the reign of King Henry VI.  Margaret followed him a few years later in April of 1435.

We have an Australian silky terrier (looks like a Yorkshire terrier, but a tad larger) whose name is Nickie.  He is named after Nicholas Blackburn.  When we first got Nickie, I had just begun researching the Blackburn family and I was so impressed by my ancestor, Nicholas, that I thought it would be a good name for a dog!

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