Mary Verney nee Blacknall
Mary Verney nee Blacknall
It was the marriage of Mary Blacknall to Ralph Verney that started the long association of the town of Abingdon with the gentry family of Verney of Middle Claydon, Buckinghamshire. Fortunately for us, the Verneys had a custom of keeping all their letters, and these have been the material for a recent history of the family by Adrian Tinniswood on which this article is based.
Mary Blacknall was born in 1616. Her great-grandfather, William Blacknall, had made his fortune in mid-sixteenth century Abingdon. His grandson, Mary’s father John, was able to live as a gentleman of leisure owning land in various parts of Berkshire and neighbouring counties. His property included the Abbey site in Abingdon which William had acquired in 1553. Both John Blacknall and his wife died in the plague of 1625, and Mary’s only sister followed them a year later. Mary, ten years old and sole heiress to a fortune of £16,000, now became a prize that local gentry families competed aggressively to win.
The Court of Wards was supposed to look after her interests, but was a notoriously corrupt organisation where profitable wardships were sold or granted in exchange for bribes. Mary was fortunate in that a maternal uncle, Charles Wiseman of Steventon, took an interest in her welfare and was able to prevent an extremely premature and probably unsuitable marriage. After complex financial transactions, she was put into the hands of Sir Edmund Verney on condition that she should not be married until of mature age. The condition was ignored, and at thirteen she found herself the bride of Sir Edmund’s son and heir, Ralph, who was fifteen. The marriage proved a remarkably happy one.
Mary’s portrait by Van Dyck shows her as a very attractive young woman. From her letters, she was warm, humorous, intelligent, and strong-willed, a good foil for her husband who was serious to the point of pomposity. She became a great favourite especially with the older men of the family, who gave her the pet name of Mischief. Mary and Ralph would have seven children, though only two of them would reach adulthood.
Claydon House in the 17th Century
The Civil War was disastrous for the Verneys. The political opinions of Sir Edmund and his son were rather on the side of Parliament, but traditional loyalties could not be set aside. Sir Edmund became the king’s standard bearer, and died fighting at Edgehill in October 1642. Ralph then became head of the Verney clan. Under war conditions, with Claydon in an area of military activity, he found himself in serious financial embarrassment. He continued as a member of Parliament, but in 1643 baulked at signing the Solemn League and Covenant, an agreement that would give the Scots a voice in English affairs, especially religious ones. This made his position untenable. At the end of the year, with papers in the name of Mr Smith, he took his family into exile.
They went first to Rotterdam, then on to Rouen, and finally in 1645 settled in Blois. They were able to live in reasonable comfort, while debts accumulated in England. But the Claydon estate was threatened with sequestration and a personal appearance became essential. Ralph could not return; if he were not arrested for his political stance, he would inevitably be imprisoned for his debts. Others were in a like position, and word had got round that the feared Goldsmiths’ Hall Committee, which dealt with sequestrations, was more courteous towards women appellants than to men. ‘The gentry are sequestered all, our wives you find at Goldsmiths Hall’ ran the popular jingle. In November 1646, Mary sailed for England.
It was a challenge. She would have to lobby and negotiate, renew old friendships and make new ones with people of influence, socialise, wine and dine, call in favours and credits while leaving debts unpaid. She found Claydon in a sad state from the depredations of the soldiery and years of neglect, and had to impose settlement on conflicts that had arisen among junior members of the family. These were the functions of a head of family, not natural to a woman at this time. To make matters worse, soon after her arrival in England, she discovered that she was pregnant. The child was born in June 1647 but died in September to her grief. One of the children she had left in Blois died at about the same time. But she had a mission to fulfil.
Goldsmiths’ Hall was not a place for tender consciences. Getting the Verney case reheard required bribery and corruption; ensuring it went the right way meant that documents had to be forged. Bribery was normal practice at the time, but forgery was not; it was a serious criminal offence, and Mary was risking a death sentence. Fortunately, the false documents passed scrutiny and in January 1648 the sequestration was lifted. With rents coming in again, a start could be made at repairing the family fortunes. Mary’s return to France was delayed by illness, but she and her husband were reunited in April, after sixteen months apart.
It should have been the beginning of the end of their troubles, but fate decided otherwise. Soon after her return, Mary began to suffer from what seems to have been a progressive heart malfunction. She grew steadily weaker and died two years later, aged thirty-four. Ralph returned to England in 1652, but never remarried.
The marriage of Mary Blacknall into the Verney family and the care taken by the Verneys to preserve documents has proved important for our knowledge of the economic affairs of Abingdon before and during its early years as a borough. The Verney Deeds collection in the town’s archives comprises a large number of the Blacknalls’ business papers. These as well as a number of important financial documents from the time of the Abbey had accompanied Mary to Claydon and were returned by Sir Edmund Verney about 1907.
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