It never was, nor shall it ever be, easy to fish substantial facts from that muddy pool of French history when it was difficult to know which was the king and which was the noble. What records there were the English took in battle and destroyed. To risk already the saying that the Sinclairs were equivalent connetables in those times when lords did what was right in their own eyes, with little or no reference to the sham royalty always claiming allegiance so helplessly, would not be judicious. But it is right to say, at all events at this stage of search, that dim lines of evidence seem to point to their Frankish rather than Norse origin in the male line.
That they speedily recognised the advantage of marriage with the Neustrian dynasty founded by Rollo is pretty well established. There may be more French blood in them than was usual among the Normans of the eleventh century, and their intellectual characteristics do not much combat the idea. That they were strangers from Kent in England some time before the ninth century may also allow some Celtic blood. The prevailing theory of the extermination of the Celts by the Saxons has nowhere more absolute living contradiction than in the bodily frames and mental peculiarities of the genuine Kentishmen.
It is to be gathered from Holinshed's Chronicles that the mother of William Longsword, the second duke of Normandy, was probably a Sinclair [Poppa de Valois]. His wife, Sprota, daughter of the famous, and specially generous if we may trust Palgrave, Hubert, earl of Senlis, there can be even less doubt about. To none more than to this Hubert were both Rollo and his son indebted for high acceptance among the French nobility, the most exclusive and turbulent men then alive. Palgrave says that Popee, Rollo's Neustrian wife, was the half-sister of a Bernard, and that Bernard took heartily to Rollo and his family. He gives Dudon de Saint Quentin as his authority. Rollo's line, he thinks, would have failed but for this Frenchman, Bernard of Senlis, who, “trusted and worthy of Trust”, fought well for the strangers he so much loved. He had his reward too, becoming lord of Coucy, and always a prime counsellor in times of danger.
So many have claimed false relationship to the dynasty of William the Conqueror, that it is neither safe nor at all assuring to those who know the state of things, to make much of such historical notices. The insuperable difficulty, that the use of first names was then and long after all but universal, is at once trap for the unwary and open door for the impostors. The luck of assuming a surname early belongs more perhaps to the Sinclairs themselves than to most European families. They also have suffered extremely, and particularly in England, as will soon appear, by that peculiar pride in first name which was effective contemporaneously but disastrous for posterity. Who, for example, in his senses could contend about the rights of a Welsh genealogy ? And there were features in those Gilberts and Fitz-Gilberts, Odoes and sons of Odo, that make problems of early Norman descent even more inscrutable. The threads sometimes can be scientifically unravelled, and one bit of success in this way is worth thousands of attempts, not to say falsifications.
Glimpses from fixed facts can be had back into the comparative darkness of Duke Richard's reign, the grandson of Rollo. He was married to Gunnora, a princess of the Danish line, and her female relations are by marriage closely related to this and other English notable names. Indeed, the comparative equality then between princes and their nobility goes far to excuse, if not explain, the ties so often found to exist by the heralds, of undoubtedly obscure persons with the line of the Conqueror. Accumulation of record and history puts the Sinclair family within the ducal circle, and for centuries. The rest, as the Gauls say, goes without saying.
It is not overshooting the mark to hint that, in the tenth century, the Norse dukes had the better side of the bargain in the alliances by marriage. It was England that widened the distinction of royalty and nobility to what has since prevailed. Father Hay, the Augustine friar, who was son to the widow of the last Sinclair baron of Roslin, and who had full access to the charters in the castle, says that the wife of Walderne, earl of St.Clare, was daughter to Duke Richard of Normandy. The friar wrote about the end of the seventeenth century.
Alexander Nisbet, an Edinburgh antiquarian, writing in 1722, quotes Jacob van Bassan's M.S., a foreigner who lived long at Roslin Castle, to the effect that “Wolderne, Compte de St.Clare”, was married to Helena, daughter to the duke of Normandy. [The Duke's daughter Helena/Eleanor was married to Baldwin of Flanders]. William, his second son, who went to Scotland and became steward to Queen Margaret Atheling there, marrying, Agnes Dunbar, daughter of Patrick, first earl of March, he shows to have been cousin-german to William the Conqueror. Holinshed says that Duke Richard had no issue; but he means merely that he had no sons, the writer's purpose being dynastic. Even if he did state this with the full meaning, his authority is both weaker and later than that of the Roslin investigators, having access as they had to the carefully preserved documents of, as one writer has it, “the magnates of Scotland during the reigns up to the fourth James”.
Nisbet says of Henry of this line, that he “married to Florentia, daughter of the king of Denmark, with whom he got a great estate in Norway”; of his son William, that he “married the fair Egidia” Douglas, granddaughter of Robert II, king of Scotland; and that their son William was “the greatest subject by far of all others of his time”. He shows how they got the principality of Zetland and Orkney under the king of Norway, and the dukedom of Oldenburgh in Denmark. This nobleman's offices and titles, some one has said, would have “even pleased a Spaniard”.
Writing of the earl of Douglas and James II of Scotland, when Edward IV reigned over England, Rapin says of James,
‘At the same time he gave the administration of affairs to the earl of Orcades, mortal enemy of Douglas’. Tindal gives the note to this, “William Sinclare”. But northern history is full of their deeds. The records of such a public family are as trustworthy documents as history can have; and what is true of the relationship of the first William, son of Walderne, to the Conqueror, is applicable also to Richard and Britel, his brothers, who remained in England.
There is no necessity to plead the case, because affinity will appear, sufficient for the gravest purpose, incidentally, as the English fortunes are described. In a chapter of antecedents, likelihoods are nearly as appropriate as what can thus be proved by recognised evidence. To give breathing-room, it may be said that the element of uncertainty is continually present in all genealogical and historic details. After this, the closeness of grasp upon facts is the test of right science. Do we not need our theatrical fool to tell us with hidden wisdom, like the court one in the palaces of ancient kings, that it is a wise bird which knows its own father ? The scientific mind is inclined to be wise over and beyond what is written or really knowable, and the humanest spirits have to save souls alive from the valuable but mechanic machineries of partial truth. The wings of imagination must not be clipped too closely. The creature will die for want of the food to be picked only on the wing. To the present quest also this is pertinent.
Why should not the Clare of Rochester in the county of Kent, who became the famous St.Clare of the ninth century in his hermitage on the banks of the Epte in France, be the progenitor, or, at all events, the earliest relation on record, of all the Sinclairs ? One writer says that it was considered immoral for priests to be unmarried in those centuries, but even if that cannot be admitted, what is more likely than that this saint either had set up his hermitage, the remains of which still exist, and whose well yet gives, it is said, clearer sight to the eyes, on the estate and under the protection of a relation from England, or was himself the first French Sinclair, a monk on his own land ? Rice of Oxford University is the recent authority as to the birthplace of this martyred saint of France, but in the books of the saints he is by the Roman Catholics also accounted an Englishman. His martyrdom by two tools of a lady whose conduct needed and got his thorough criticism, is one of the events consecrated in religion. It is not at all unlikely that the neighbouring castle, then in 894 just taking the name of St.Cler, was the scene of this woman's evil doings. The experience of history shows that virulence and violence of the fiercest kinds have happened among blood relations, love and hate being equally capable of supreme excellence by reason of the narrowness of the sphere.
It cannot be asserted on such slight ground, that the lord of the castle and the monk of the neighbouring lowly hermitage were absolutely of one strain in blood. It is true there are additional probabilities pointing in this direction. The history of the great Clares of England, the first of whom came here in 1066 and the last of whom died on the battlefield of Bannockburn, the earl of Gloucester, is suggestive to the effect that they were somehow a branch of the French house of St.Clare. They gained their best importance on this side of the Channel; but before the death of the martyr the whole family were Clares, and in all probability political exiles from Kent, who found a home in France. The history of Richard Clare, son of Gilbert, the greatest warrior of William's army, will have proved and near relation to the Sinclairs, of a kind other than this legendary. It is noteworthy that he seemed to have a special and, as it would appear, traditional love for England. He exchanged his estate of Brionne, of which he was earl, acre by acre, for land around Tunbridge in Kent; and here he built his famous castle and home, and seemed as if to the manner born of the county. It is true he had many estates elsewhere, but he seems to have further satisfied his likings for England, by getting his property in Suffolk called Clare, from which to become the earl of Clare. It is not improbable that the castle of St.Cler on the Epte was first that of Clare, and that only after the saint became a saint did it and some members of the lineage become St.Clair.
All this is professedly imaginative. The return to somewhat steadier ground is agreeable. Moulins, the Norman historian, says that the Bretons had possession of the ashes of Saint Clare during Rollo's earlier visits to France. He had been the bishop of Nantes, and this explains why the Bretons were so privileged. On one of these terrible comings of the Norse pirates they carried his remains inland for safety to Bourges. There is mention also of similar dealings with the relics of a Saint Maur. These things might show that the two families, the Sinclairs and the Seymours, were of the country, and not new importations from Scandinavia under the banners of Rollo. The Clares and the Maurs were not likely to have been confined to these two priests. Bernard of Senlis has been already noted, as the shrewd welcomer of the Norse Rollo to his native land; and that he was a St.Clare is also a problem amid the general obscurity.
In 912 Charles, king of France, met the Norse prince on the banks of the Epte, near St.Clare Castle, who then got installed in his dukedom of Normandy or Neustria by that remarkable proxy homage which sent Charles on his back in a double sense. “Ne si, bi Got”, cried Rollo to the demand of his personal submission. The French kings were long accustomed to ducal home insolence, and this king kept his temper as only sad experience can teach. That at that meeting Sinclairs were fully represented, and perhaps on both sides, could hardly but be. It was not for nothing that the place had so thoroughly fixed and then historic a name. If it is admissible to draw geographical conclusions at all into history and genealogy, this place may be used to the extent of suggesting that it took its name, as is usual, from its proprietors; and that, if so, they were not novi homines, but old patricians of the Gallic land.
Between this period and the conquest of England many changes must have been with the family. Walderne, the earl of St.Clare, resided, not at the castle whence his name and title came, but at the castle of St.Lo in the Cotentin, when Duke William got his and his sons' services in 1066; and for generations that must have been the chief home. The commune of St.Clair there is proof modern of this. Border troubles were continually prevalent near Rouen; but it is very probable that as Caen, Bayeux, and St.Lo became the more recognised centres of Norman policy and civilisation, the reason of the new home was to have the benefit of the presence of what was best in the dukedom. It is very plain, but quite substantial, politics, that absence from court is not good for the most legitimate of ambitions. Duke William was of Lower Normandy by birth, breeding, and heart.
The castle of St.Lo, Palgrave says, was built in the time of Charlemagne against the Danes. It became municipal, the town growing around it gradually, and taking its name. There is no evidence to show how early the Sinclairs had it in possession. Sir Andrew Malet, one of our ambassadors to European countries of this century, and an authority on Norman questions, said that the site of the castle was observable in his time, and that the English Sinclairs were of that stock. The aid to their prince was collected at St.Lo, and it is to this quarter of the Cotentin that it must be looked, for the right information as to the kind of men its culture made them, before the settlements were made in their new, or, it may be, former or first land.
The earl of Rye and his family were offshoots from St.Lo; and there are indications of yet other branches, which played considerable part in the Norman period of English history. The earls of Senlis, for example, with their previous strong ducal ties, by marriage and political valuable mutual aid, seem somewhat apart from the Conqueror's doings till the latter period of his reign; and their interests being within purely French territory at Senlis, it may be guessed that they had lost sight of Normandy for, as they no doubt judged, the wider field of the politics which had Paris for centre. When the western expedition drew the eyes of all Europe upon this island, the Sinclairs of Senlis freshened their memories, and came to their great relation fortune-hunting, and with much success. But these Sinclair earls of Senlis may have been the successors merely of the Bernard of Neustrian early history.
The mythological period, with families as with nations, being indication rather than any realised fact, cannot bear too much handling. Mythology, all the same, has its own particular charm; and it undoubtedly carries its very valuable offering of truth to the eyes and hearts which know its right worthy message.