The first Norman earl of Essex was John Sinclair, son of Eudo Dapifer, the lord of Colchester. His father dying in 1120, if no interruptions occurred, he would have had fifteen years of the hereditary dapiferships of England and Normandy under Henry I.
The Harleian MS., 154, is the authority for the creation of John as comes or count of Essex. Dugdale, who gets most of his facts from the Bodleian, Harleian, and Cottonian codices, missed this, and runs to the conclusion that Eudo's daughter Margaret was his sole child and heir. So far from that being the case, we know of a third, a William who, Madox, a most trustworthy and learned writer, says was crucified, or more likely cruciatus, tortured, before being killed. This occurred in the reign of William Rufus, 1087-1100; and it has been thought that it was the cause to Eudo his father of withdrawing, as much as his offices would allow, from the court of the king whom he had so successfully helped to the throne. If it was his son, as there does not seem reason to doubt, Eudo's position must have been somewhat parallel to Brutus with his sons. William was in conspiracy against Rufus.
In Collections for Hampshire, by D.Y., and edited by Richard Warner, there is further knowledge. William, earl of Ou, was accused by Geoffrey Baynard, of that Baynard's Castle near where the office of the Times, on the banks of the Thames, London, now is, that he was conspiring against the king, and offered his wager of battle on the point. William of Ou was worsted, and Rufus condemned him to be mutilated and have his eyes put out. His relation, William Dapifer, engaging in the same conspiracy, was hanged. D.Y. gives the reference for this, Annales Waver, apud Gale, vol. ii., p.140. Why death overtook the younger and not the other relation it is hard to see now. It was the conspiracy of 1095 by Mowbray, earl of Northumberland.
Brady says that Rufus had afterwards for his bitterest enemies Robert of Ou, as natural affection might well prompt; Stephen of Albemarle; Gerard of Gournay on the Epte, it is thought, also a relation of William Dapifer; Ralph of Conchis; Richard deCurcey; Walter Giffard; and Philip de Braiosa or Bruce, Agnes Sinclair's husband, the daughter of Walderne, earl of St.Clare. In this quarrel the name and its closest relations seem divided much, but Eudo kept loyal to his own king. The death of his son, already a man of position, if dapifer meant anything further than attachment to his father's title to him as heir presumptive, must have been the severest of blows to his father. He was the eldest son, and it is perhaps the best explanation of matters that, before 1095, the real cause of his father being so much at leisure, in his great fee of Colchester, was that William had assumed fully the hereditary duties of dapifer in his room. This would explain the special severity of his punishment, as being able to do most mischief, having most power.
Eudo at the time of the revolt must have been nearly sixty; and some years before, he might well have thought it time to retire for the religious life he loved so much. Madox says that this William, the son of Eudo, was the king's aunt's son. If this is true Eudo must have married, before he married his faithful Rose Clare, a daughter of Baldwin, earl of Flanders, sister to William the Conqueror's wife Matilda. Such connections are apt to make men conspirators, as subsequent English history illustrates only too well; but the evidence is not yet svifficient to reach conclusions as to this unfortunate William. If he was Eudo's son, as Madox says, he was certainly not a son of Rose Clare, for she had married at fourteen, only seven years previously. That his mother may have been one of the sisters or half-sisters of William the Conqueror is a possibility which could clear matters.
Eudo's son John, this first earl of Essex, must have been very much younger than William. He was a child of a few years in 1095, and there is no reason why it could not be supposed that he was not born then. We know from the MS. that he lived within the reign of Henry II, which began 1154. The signs are very apparent that he led a chequered life, though the materials to judge by are scanty. He must have lost the hereditary dapifership, in new legal and state arrangements of Henry I; and it is not unlikely that the division of offices which the increasing population and wealth of the country may have required, disgusted him altogether with dapifership. It is quite possible that his abilities may not have been equal to the position, no family having a continuous monopoly of talent. Certain it is that William Bigod, who was drowned in the White Ship, and Hugh Bigod were dapifers towards the end of the reign, as well as Fitz-Eustace and Robert Clare, “Fitz-Richard of Tunbridge”; and probably this was part of King Henry's business at dying Eudo Sinclair's bedside. That John took the estates and dapifership in Normandy may have been the case for some years after his father's death; but we know that his sister Margaret's rights gave them to her son Geffrey Mandeville, the third Norman earl of Essex, long before the date of John Sinclair the first earl's death.
The theory that would best fit John's life is that, like Robert, duke of Normandy, and many another of the chief men of that time, he was carried away with the crusading enthusiasm. A John de St.Clare, knight-bachelor of France, appears in historic lists of crusaders, but the time is too indefinite to say that this was he. It would be quite against all that is known of the respect for relationship and hereditary law of Normans to suppose that his king did violence to his rights; and so inspired were many in warring against the infidel for the cross of Christ, that worldly duties and titles weighed nothing in the balance. The son of a father so devoted to the church's highest interests might well be expected to take the cross, and devote his whole life to that; though he never had the able and equally religious mother that it was fortune to have in Rose Clare. In any case he seems out of the political throng around the royalties, feminine or usurping, after Henry I; and if ever he returned to Colchester from the East, it must have been to die, and not to assert any rights, at the beginning of the reign of Henry II. It was not at all an uncommon thing among the Norman nobles then to retire in manhood, or even early life, to a monastery, and oftenest the one they themselves founded. Sir Richard Luci, chief justice of England, and the repeller of the invasion of the earl of Boulogne in Henry II's reign, is an example, with his abbey of Lesnes. All these things, however, being problematical must be left so. In such times of religious madness and political, not to say personal, ambitions, a thousand explanations could be suggested as to the short record that seems to have survived of John Sinclair, the first Norman earl of Essex.
Of him and his elder brother, as the last of Eudo's male line, it would be interesting to know much; but their stories are equally broken. Madox speaks of William, filius Eudonis, as paying 20/- to the king's treasury for recovery of some land from the earl of Brittany, and his account of him may have been taken from Stow's Annals, published in 1631.
‘In a councell holden at Salisbury, William de Owe was accused to the king of treason, who whiles hee provoked his accuser to fight with him in combate, by the king's commandment his eyes were plucked out … Many innocent men were also accused, of which number was William de Aluerie a man of goodly personage, godfather to the king, his auntes Sonne, and his sewar, yet the king commanded him to bee hanged: which William making his confession to Osmond, bishoppe of Salisbury, was first whipped throughout by all the churches of the cittie, who dealing his garments to the poore, went naked to hanging, bloodying his fiesh with often kneeling upon the stones: and at the place of execution, hee satisfied the bishop and people, saying, So GOD helpe my soule and deliver it from evil, as I am guiltlesse of the thing that I am accused of: and after the bishop had commended him to God, he was hanged’.
Stow calls it “Cruelty of Wm. Rufus” at the side of his text, and gives 1095 for date. Some of this cannot possibly apply to a son William of Eudo Dapifer, though the main facts may. He could not have been godfather to William Rufus, as both were of similar age; but even the “industrious” Stow may have nodded in his desire to give too many circumstances to this tale of all the chroniclers and historians. William Sinclair he probably was, and a man in his prime. It is possible that Madox may be right after all, though there might be sufficient satisfaction and to spare in accepting Eudo Dapifer as the husband of one wife, and that one such a treasure.
There is an explanation of Stow's account which would resolve all the difficulties, and give this turn also to Eudo's married life as with Rose only. The king's sister's son was Stephen, the usurper of the crown, and William Sinclair could quite well be his godfather, and the “man of goodly personage” also, who was sewar or high steward to Rufus. What Madox extracts of him in connection with the king is filius amitae illius, which is a phrase that occurs in ancient Latin more than once about Stephen. It is possible that extracts have been mixed when quoted, but nothing substantial can depend on such a chance.
The passage in the Annals, however, can bear without straining yet another interpretation, which will establish all that is required, making the facts consistent throughout. “Godfather to the king his aunte's sonne” is the archaic way of saying that William Dapifer was godfather to the son of the king's aunt. Rufus had such female relations, so that it is quite fair to accept this as the final version. One of the two sisters of the Conqueror was married to Walter de St.Valery, the other to an earl. Radulph de Diceto's chronicle seems one of the origins of these details, and after describing the punishment of William de Auco, or more usually, William of Ou, his words continue -
‘And his dapifer, William of Alderi, son of his aunt, the king ordered to be Hung’. The language in itself is as ambiguous as one of the Delphic oracles, since he also, so far as the words go, might be both dapifer and aunt's son to William, earl of Ou.
Alured of Beverley, after describing William, earl of Ou's punishment, continues, “Et dapiferum illius Willielmum filium amitae illius tradicionis conscium jussit rex suspendi”. This has the addition that the dapifer “knew of the treason”, and it goes also to show that he was the dapifer of the earl of Ou if it shows anything at all.
Some of the chroniclers copy predecessors wholesale. It is hardly likely that William of Ou's dapifer could be godfather to a king.
Blomfield in his History of Norfolk, in describing Grimston manor there, which belonged for many generations to the Sancto Claro family, Gereberd, John, and Guy being men of national importance in later centuries, speaks of Warin and Drogo, sons of William, the sewar, as holding it about 1100. The Montacutes, which is a local name only, had Drogoes, and the Warrens of Surrey were related consanguineously to Eudo's line; but it is difficult to tell where Blomfield got this knowledge, and neither is it also remarkable for its definiteness, however suggestive and confirmatory.
Both William Dapifer, who had what seems a martyrdom even if he had been undoubtedly guilty, and his brother John, earl of Essex, are shadowy, like so many past figures who may have been unusually substantial in their day. What is heroism itself without its poet or historian ? Where good men are numerous, the chances of immortality are not always the clearest, even for the able.
With their only sister, and the ultimate heir of their father Eudo, and of themselves, there is firm footing. Record is plentiful as to what things and persons affected her life and state.