The Brooksby Family

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Before going on to those families which have members alive today, we will follow to Its extinction the eldest line of all, that of Robert (d. 1531) of Shoby. The various spellings of the name had in this branch settled for Brokesby, so this spelling will be used throughout this chapter.

When the word "extinction" is used of a family such as the Brokesbys, it must not be understood too literally. The eldest part of the family and its immediate cousinhood petered out in the female line, and the estates passed into other families, but there were many younger twigs of the family tree, the younger sons of younger sons, which did not share the immediate fate of Brokesby of Shoby In the complete and complex family trees from which the simplified ones in this book have been drawn, there are very many male names at all stages of the family which have not been accounted for.

One part, for instance, stemming from an Anthony who settled in Leicester as a joiner, probably died out in Lincolnshire as late as 1866, and even within the degrees of second and third cousinhood to Brokesby of Shoby the following names are queried for lack of further information: William (b. 1603), John (b. 1605), Richard (b. 1606), John (b. 1621), Matthew (b 1629), Thomas (b. 1632), Bartholomew (b. 1633), Robert (b. 1639), Thomas (b. 1645). Surely, one is tempted to say, some at least of these must have survived and carried on the name. It is probable that some of them did, for a while, but we have to remember that this family has been studied from both ends. If they have no modern descendants, It is a matter of academic interest whether a particular line survived into the eighteenth century or died out in the seventeenth.

Where such names may be important is, if it is discovered that assumptions about the source of surviving family groups are wrong. Family researchers have been warned to take nothing for granted, and it may be that future study will show some modern Brooksby family to have branched earlier off the parent stem than seems probable at present.

No amount of study, however, the reader may be assured, will provide a claim to the ancient Brokesby lands of Leicestershire. Those are gone beyond recall, with the end of the immediate family of Robert (d. 1531).

Robert had two sons, Anthony (d. 1552) and Richard (f. 1558), and they also had sons. If we take a period about thirty years after Robert's death, at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, we can see that they were faring very prosperously.

These were land-owning people, the dissolution of the religious foundations had brought a great quantity of property on to the market, and this had coincided with people having money to spare. The real-estate business was booming; great estates were built up, speculated in, changed hands, crashed. Tenants must often have felt insecure, not only by reason of rapidly changing landlords, but because much of this prosperity was built on the backs of sheep, and sheep, as was said on an earlier page, were a cause of depopulation. That wise man, Sir Thomas Moore, for all that he was Chancellor of England and therefore sat in the House of Lords on a symbolic woolsack, commented sadly: "Sheep have become so great devourers and so wild that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves."

In one year, 1564, we find that Robert (d. 1615) of Shoby bought the Manor of Ashby Magna with 3000 acres and all the houses and farms that went with it, and his brother Bartholomew bought Birstall with 1400 acres and two mills. Nothing remains of either manor house now, unless a high mud wall enclosing a farmyard at Ashby, and a magnificent cedar of Lebanon soaring above the suburban roofs at Birstall, are Brokesby relics. (One can never be absolutely certain which Bartholomew is which. There are certainly nine distinct holders of the name, possibly more.)

At the same time Richard had married into a fine estate in Nottinghamshire Humphrey was a fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford, and another Bartholomew was in London, where Brooksby Street, Islington, and Brooksby Walk, Hackney, commemorate the name and the family property.

At the same time there were Brokesbys, Brooksbys and Bruxbys flourishing in Sproxton, South Croxton, Tilton, Oakham, Leicester, Mountsorrel, Melton, Loughborough, Shepshed, Stapleford as well as parts of Nottinghamshire. Most of these were now plain tradesmen or yeomen, having given up any pretence to gentrydom or a coat of arms.

The elder branch at least were firm adherents of the Catholic faith, but this upset their fortunes very little. As long as they lived quietly on their estates the government turned a blind eye, hoping that Catholicism would die a natural and peaceful death with the death of the older generation. There were penal laws on the statute book, but in most places they were hardly enforced.

But the fifteen seventies and eighties changed all that. The priests came back to England in the wake of a papal encyclical excommunicating Queen Elizabeth, and the population polarised sharply. The legal penalties for failing to come to the parish church, for harbouring priests, for educating one's children in the faith, instead of being let slide, were extorted.

In 1577 the Bishop of Lincoln wrote to the Privy Council: 'In Leicestershire there is a gentleman called Mr. Brooksby who a long time hath not come to his parish church nor received the sacraments' - in spite of the fact that as the chief landowner he was the patron of the living and appointed the parson.

Door at Priory Farm, ShobyQuite possibly Robert (d. 1615) had his own private chapel and a plain-clothes priest in his great house at Shoby. This is now a farm, but an outhouse still standing with broken gothic windows is referred to as "the chapel". However, as the house is called "Shoby Priory" when we know it to have been nothing of the kind, perhaps not too much reliance should be placed on that. It must have been a fine house in its day; hearth tax was paid on 21 chimneys In 1664. One large chimney, the oriel window of the great hall, a fine staircase, and an elegant doorway in a garden wall remain to remind us of grander days.

The refusal of such people as Robert Brokesby and his family to go to church means that they do not figure in the parish registers. If it were not for the family tree in the Leicestershire Visitation we should have very little information about this family. They would have been baptised in secret. when a Catholic priest was available, and probably married in the same way. Owning several estates and a house in London must have made it very much easier for them than for poor people to dodge discovery: they spent only part of their time in any one place, and it may well be that at different times some of them went abroad to get their children educated In the Low Countries, or to join up with fellow Catholics in exile.

Robert's son Edward was perhaps the most politically involved, although his father was taken into protective custody during the Armada invasion scare, which shows that he was thought to be potentially dangerous. Edward married Ellen Vaux of Harrowden, a member of a highly political Catholic family. When in 1580 the first Jesuits arrived in England, Edward was one of a group of young activists. He lived at Green Street, East Ham, and kept a secret printing press in his house, from which Catholic literature was distributed. He died in 1584, still in his twenties, and his wife moved to a house called White Webbs in Enfield Chase, a Jesuit stronghold.

In 1603 Bartholomew Brokesby (probably the brother of ROBERT, not the cousin), was Involved in the Bye Plot "to seize the person of the monarch and his family, to alter the religion, raise rebellion, subvert the estate and procure invasion by strangers". He was tried, and got off lightly, being banished instead of executed like some of his fellow conspirators. A year later he was applying for a pardon, and presumably got it, since he seems to have died in Leicestershire.

Strangely enough, none of this seems to have much disturbed the family's prosperity, or perhaps their hundreds of acres of sheep-rearing land raked in the profits fast enough to deal easily with the crippling fines which they must have had to pay for non-conformity, Even when Bartholomew had his lands confiscated he managed by some sleight of hand to have the ownership transferred to a friend, who returned it all conveniently when the fuss had died down.

GrimstonBartholomew's son Gregory (d. 1635) inherited apparently without trouble, and became Sheriff of Leicester shire in 1632. In 1638 Francis Englefield, who by marriage had inherited the main Brooksby lands, owned a very substantial fortune 'being seized in fee simple of the manor or lordship of Sholby, Co. Leicester, and of the manors of Much Ashby, Saxelby, and Grimston, and several other manors, farms and lands in co. Leicester and other counties, worth in the whole £4000 by the year at least, and goods, chattels, jewels, etc., worth £10,000.

It was not their Catholicism that brought the house of Brokesby of Shoby to an end, but a series of untimely deaths. Old Robert died in 1615, having passed his ninetieth year. He had outlived both his sons, Edward and Francis, and Edward's son William, who left two daughters only. A month before he died, Robert safeguarded the property, as well as he could, by marrying his thirteen-year-old great-granddaughter Winifred Brokesby to the sixteen-year-old Francis Englefield.

Winifred lived and died at Shoby, but her son, who had other properties, sold the place. Her cousin Gregory of Birstall died in 1653, leaving also two daughters. The Melton and Stapleford people went to London and died out there. In the Wreake Valley at least the Brooksby family went into dramatic decline. When the Hearth Tax returns were made in 1664, there were only eleven Brooksby households in the whole of Leicestershire, and only one of these made any pretence to the status of gentlemen. This was the Stoke Golding family, of whom we treat in Chapter Four, but there was also a prosperous yeoman family in the Mountsorrel area, which is the subject of the next chapter.

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Last updated $Date: 2005/02/10 $ by Richard Brooksby.