Mary Verney nee Blacknall
Mary Verney nee Blacknall
William Blacknall came to Abingdon in the mid-sixteenth century and made a fortune in local industries, operating corn and fulling mills, fisheries, and sailcloth manufacture, and buying up local properties including the site of the old abbey. By the time of his grandson John the industries had been disposed of and John was a significant landowner with properties in various parts of Berkshire and elsewhere. He and his wife both died in the plague of 1625, leaving two young daughters, one of whom died a year after her parents. The remaining girl, Mary, was now sole heiress, and was married at thirteen to Ralph Verney, heir to an estate centred on Middle Claydon in Buckinghamshire, who was two years older.
Claydon House in the 17th Century
Mary’s portrait by Van Dyck shows her as a very attractive young woman. The Verneys had a custom of keeping all their letters, and from these she appears as 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. The marriage proved a happy one. Mary and Ralph would have seven children, though only two of them would reach adulthood.
The Civil War was disastrous for the Verneys. Ralph’s father was killed early on, fighting for the king. There were serious financial difficulties as Claydon was in a zone of military activity and tenants could not or would not pay their rents. Debts mounted. Ralph sat in parliament as MP for Aylesbury, but gave no active support to the war effort. His position became increasingly difficult. In 1643 he ceased to attend and took his family into exile. They settled at Blois in France. He remained nominally a member of parliament until 1645 when he was formally dismissed.
Once he was no longer an MP, the parliamentary authorities could begin proceedings for the sequestration of his properties. He dared not return to defend them, for fear of arrest either for his political stance or his debts. Mary was sent back to England to oppose the sequestrations. This required careful negotiations, much bribery, and the fabrication of a totally false document. She had to forge the signatures. It was dangerous; the penalty for forgery was death. But the document passed inspection and in early 1648 the sequestrations were lifted.
Mary had been away from her husband for sixteen months during which time she had given birth to a child who did not survive. She returned to Blois, but soon after became ill and in 1650 she died at the age of thirty-four. Ralph, heartbroken, eventually returned to England, but never remarried.
The marriage of Mary Blacknall to Ralph Verney was important for our knowledge of the early history of Abingdon. In 1907 Sir Edmund Verney presented to the town a large collection of documents that had been in the Verney archives. These included some of the Blacknalls’ business papers, which are now in the town archives as the Verney Deeds, and financial records from the Abbey. He also gave the so-called Monks’ Map, dating from about 1550 and showing ownership and riparian rights in the Thames at that time. This is now in the Abingdon County Hall Museum.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2017
It was the marriage in 1629 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. Apart from its significance to the people involved, the marriage is of the utmost importance to Abingdon historians, for it was at just about the time it took place that the Verneys began their long tradition of preserving documents of all kinds. In 1907, Sir Edmund Verney gave to the Abingdon council a large mass of historical material of the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries relating to the town and the Abbey, although there is much more that concerns the town which remains at Middle Claydon. The archive of personal letters of the Verney family fills no fewer than sixty reels of microfilm, and to recover Mary Verney’s own story is a mammoth task requiring the detailed study of ten of these.
Fortunately, the letters have twice had such study: once in the late nineteenth century by Parthenope Lady Verney, aided when she became ill by her daughter-in-law Margaret Maria Lady Verney; and again in the twenty-first by Adrian Tinniswood. The work of Parthenope, (the sister, by the way, of Florence Nightingale) was complimented by perhaps the greatest of all historians of the seventeenth century, Samuel Gardiner, who provided a foreword to her two volumes, and Tinniswood is highly regarded as a historian and biographer. There is little difference between the two in the conclusions they reach from the letters, and this essay draws heavily on both of them.
Mary Blacknall was born on 14 February 1616. The Blacknalls originated in Wing, Buckinghamshire, but Mary’s great-grandfather, William, had settled in Abingdon about the middle of the sixteenth century and made his fortune as an entrepreneur. Starting with milling and fishing activities in Abingdon and Swallowfield, he became a significant landowner, and his son, also William, was able to marry into the Ayshcombes, a gentry family. The younger William extended the family’s holdings, buying estates and rentals in a wide area around Abingdon as opportunity offered. Mary’s father was John Blacknall, son of the younger William, and her mother a Blagrave of Bulmershe near Reading, of the highest level of Berkshire society. The Blagraves were an intellectual family; Mary’s mother, Jane, was niece to John Blagrave (c.1560-1611), mathematician and cartographer, and cousin to Joseph (1610-1682), astrologer, and to Daniel Blagrave (1603-c.1668), lawyer, politician, and regicide.
John Blacknall lived in Abingdon as a gentleman of leisure while continuing to expand the family fortune. Unfortunately, he died in 1625 aged only forty-one; according to his friend, the local politician and historian Francis Little, his wife died at the very same moment. No doubt they were victims of the plague epidemic of that year. They left two daughters, Mary, then nine years old, and a younger girl, Jane, who died a year after her parents. Little described the orphaned Mary as ‘a very towardly and hopeful young gentlewoman’.
Mary was now sole heiress to a fortune of £16,000 and became a prize that local gentry families competed aggressively to win.
As owner of land held nominally from the Crown, Mary came under the control of the Court of Wards. The court would allot her to guardians who would have the right to the income from her properties until she was sixteen and also to arrange a marriage for her. The guardianship was thus valuable, and would be, in effect, auctioned with the proceeds going to the Crown. The heiress’s family could have priority in the auction. There were Blacknall cousins in Buckinghamshire and Reading, but they seem to have taken no interest in her fate. Various relatives on her mother’s side joined forces to keep her within the ambit of the family; they made a down payment to the Court of £1000. Mary went to live with an aunt and uncle, Anne and Richard Lybbe, at Hardwick House near Whitchurch. Anne Lybbe had been a sister of Mary’s mother, Jane Blagrave.
In law, girls could not contract a valid marriage while under the age of fourteen, but the Lybbes made all the arrangements for an immediate wedding with their son Anthony. Another uncle, Charles Wiseman of Steventon, objected. Wiseman was the husband of Mary, another of Jane’s sisters. He had been a business partner of John Blacknall, and was one of his executors. Since Mary had the same name as his wife, he was also probably her godfather. He appealed as a matter of urgency to the Court of Wards, which, faced with a split in her family, ruled that Mary was to be taken away from the Lybbes and given to an outsider, Sir John Denham, a senior judge, to be brought up unmarried in his family.
Rather than see this happen, Richard Lybbe arranged an informal auction. It was won by Sir Edmund Verney of Middle Claydon, Buckinghamshire, who paid the £1000 still owing to the Court and offered to indemnify the other relatives against any action of the judge. The Court accepted this. Once more, there was a condition that Mary should not be married until of mature age. Once more, it was ignored. In 1629, still only thirteen, she became the bride of Ralph Verney, son and heir of Sir Edmund, who was two years older. Discord continued among the relatives. Uncle Charles Wiseman and his wife approved the match but not the timing and were not invited to the wedding. Nor were the Lybbes, who were furious.
Mary had been lucky. The Court of Wards in her time had moved on from treating the children in its care as simple merchandise to be sold at the best price, and in this case acted with suitable humanity. The marriage was one that her parents might well have sought for her had they lived, and would prove remarkably happy.
Sir Edmund’s wife, Ralph’s mother, was a Denton of nearby Hillesden, and Verneys and Dentons were close. Mary now went to live with the Dentons until she was old enough for childbearing. An early pregnancy was necessary to confirm that the marriage had been consummated, and only when a child was born and survived could the Verneys be certain that her property would remain in their keeping. Mary moved to Middle Claydon in 1631, and her first child was born the next year. It lived only one day. Mary and Ralph would have seven children, though only two of them would reach adulthood.
Mary’s portrait by Van Dyck shows her as an 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 fitted in well with the Verney family – her husband had several siblings of about her age or younger – and became a great favourite with her father-in-law and the Dentons. They gave her the pet name of Mischief.
In normal times, she could have looked forward to a predictable life as the eventual mistress of Middle Claydon, producing the future heir, powerful in the family by her privileged access to its head, and supporting her husband in whatever ambitions he chose to nurture. But the times were not normal.
The political turmoil that preceded the Civil War was traumatic for the Verneys, as for others. Sir Edmund fought in the first of the king’s disastrous wars against the Scots, and only illness prevented him from serving in the second. From 1640, both Sir Edmund and Ralph sat in parliament, Sir Edmund for Wycombe and Ralph for Aylesbury. They lived in a family house in Covent Garden. Ralph was not an active member and there is no evidence that he ever spoke in a debate, but he followed the proceedings closely, breaking the house rules by taking notes so that he could consider the arguments at leisure. Significantly, he seems to have absented himself from the notorious Fast Sermons where, on the last Wednesday of each month, MPs were harangued by carefully chosen divines urging them in apocalyptic terms to holy war against the king. Instead, and also on each Sunday, he was taking notes at his local church in Covent Garden. The preacher there was James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, in exile because of the Irish revolt. Ussher was a Calvinist, as Ralph was, but a Royalist; and the evils of rebellion was a constant theme. The king knighted Ralph in 1641, but if he hoped for political support from him he failed to get it. Ralph was a ‘neuter’, unable to take a position on either side of the developing conflict.
His perplexity was magnified when the war started and his father left to join the king. Sir Edmund became the king’s standard bearer, and died fighting at Edgehill in October 1642. In spite of his loss and of the displeasure of his family, most of whom were Royalists, Ralph continued as a Member of Parliament, though increasingly disaffected with the course of events. In the following year, his always rather rigid conscience was stretched to its limit. All members were expected to swear to the Solemn League and Covenant, an agreement that would give the Scots a voice in English affairs. We do not know what Ralph’s particular objections were, but they were probably religious. The Covenant seemed to accept the conversion of the Anglican church to Scottish Presbyterianism. He could not bring himself to take the oath, and his position became untenable. In December 1643, with papers in the name of Mr and Mrs Smith, he and Mary went into exile. They took two of their children, Edmund (Mun), aged six, and Margaret, four. The youngest, Jack, just two, was left behind at Claydon in the care of a nurse and his doting young aunts.
They went first to Rotterdam, then on to Rouen, and finally in 1645 settled in Blois, a small town on the Loire about a hundred miles south-west of Paris. They were able to live in reasonable comfort, but the Verney family suffered from the absence of its head, and the Claydon estate from that of its owner. Sir Edmund had left the estate heavily but not hopelessly indebted. Now, under war conditions and with Buckinghamshire a zone of military operations, rents became hard or impossible to collect and payments from investments ceased. Debts accumulated, and junior members of the family were no longer getting the moneys due to them from defined items of estate income. Ralph had three younger sisters of marriageable age, and the portions that should have been available to get them husbands of suitable status and character were now reduced or doubtful. In Ralph’s absence it was his younger brothers who conducted the negotiations, and Mary’s new brothers-in-law were respectively, in Tinniswood’s words, a wife beater, a jailed debtor and a drunkard.
The period that would define Mary’s life and ensure her honoured place in the history of the Verney family began in 1645. Ralph was formally ejected from membership of the House of Commons, ending the various immunities that this had provided. These included immunity from being imprisoned for debt. Although Ralph had taken extreme care to avoid any overt royalism, the Claydon estate was sequestrated by the parliamentary authorities in Buckinghamshire in September or October 1646. This meant that they would take the income until he agreed to ‘compound’ for it. Compounding would require him to appear before a tribunal at Goldsmiths’ Hall that would fix a fine according to his perceived degree of disaffection. Had he done so, he would probably have got away with a relatively small penalty, but he could not. Firstly, he would have to take the oath that he had gone into exile for refusing, and secondly, he might be arrested and imprisoned for his debts at any time while in England.
Others were in a like position, and word had got round that the parliamentary committees were often 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. It was by no means the sort of thing she had been trained for. It was also expensive, and money was short; she had only one servant, and they moved from lodgings to cheaper lodgings. There was much travelling on horseback; she could not afford the coach hire that would have been normal for someone of her social status. She found Claydon in a sad state from the depredations of the soldiery and years of neglect, and the family in turmoil. 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 great grief. The daughter she had left in Blois died at about the same time.
Mary and Ralph missed each other terribly. They wrote to each other by every post – at least once a week, often more. Mary’s letters show a degree of literacy rare among women at the time; they are long, legible, and logically arranged. Ralph’s are even longer, very closely written and harder to read. Mary kept Ralph abreast of her activities, and received in return a continuous stream of advice and instructions, not always totally practical. Of the two, it was Ralph who was under the greater strain. Mary, for all her difficulties, had work to do and, apart from some ominous periods of illness, was continuously active. She also had the constant help and support of Ralph’s uncle, the physician Dr William Denton, ’Uncle Doctor’, who neglected his own affairs in pursuit of hers and Ralph’s. Ralph could only sit idle, isolated at Blois, waiting for and writing letters. He brooded, lapsing occasionally into unreality and fantastical plans. 
Ralph had in 1643 made two deeds of trust giving first call on the profits of the estate to its creditors. This kept the money out of the hands of the Buckinghamshire commissioners. But the second deed would run out in November 1647. He told Mary to forge a third deed, copying his own signature and adding those of witnesses from among his acquaintances who were now either dead or in exile.
Did he know what he was doing? Sequestration committees were not places for tender consciences; bribery and corruption was normal practice. But forgery was not; it was a serious criminal offence, and Mary was risking a death sentence. Fortunately, the false document passed scrutiny.
In fact, the power of decision on the Verney case lay elsewhere. Ralph had never really supported the Royalists. By 1647, enthusiasm for the Scots alliance had cooled, and his refusal to accept the Covenant might seem prescient rather than treasonable. His sole act of opposition to the parliamentary side had been absenting himself from the House of Commons. The Commons regarded absence as evidence of disaffection; the Lords did not. Mary’s petition to the Commons was that the case should be referred to a central sequestration committee which included members of both houses. The problem was getting it heard.
It was Uncle Doctor who discovered the key to success. A bribe of £40 paid indirectly to William Lenthall, speaker of the Commons, ensured that the petition would be on the programme. There was the danger of rejection, but on the day chosen it chanced that the Goldsmiths’ Hall chairman came in to the Commons with a long agenda of his own to be considered. Fearing the loss of time that might result from Mary’s petition being discussed, he agreed with the member who was to move it to slip it in among his own routine matters, and the referral was passed almost on the nod.
There followed a period of especially active lobbying, with Uncle Doctor and his long-suffering wife hosting regular dinners for members of the sequestration committee. On 5 January 1648, the committee, after a lengthy debate, agreed by a majority vote that the sequestration should be lifted. Mary and the Dentons gave a big party for their supporters.
Mary’s return to France was delayed by the need to raise money to settle immediate debts and then by another illness, but she and her husband were reunited in April 1648 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 was devastated. He returned to England in 1652 and lived another forty-four years, but never remarried.
Their two surviving sons were Edmund (Mun) (1656-1688) and John (or Jack) (1640-1717). Mun became almost a caricature of a rural squire; very fat, somewhat eccentric, and a great begetter of bastards. Neither he nor his legitimate offspring outlived Ralph, so the inheritor was Jack, who had gone out to make his fortune in Aleppo and then returned to a successful career in London as a Levant trader.
Mary Verney in her sadly short lifetime successfully took on the active role that had been relinquished by her over-scrupulous husband, and did so without ever arousing his resentment. In her appearances in the masculine world of tribunals and committees, she never departed from the manner conventionally expected of females and yet succeeded in her aim. When her husband shrank from the prospect of a debtors’ prison, she was ready to risk a death sentence for forgery. No doubt her genetic endowment helped; her Blacknall forebears would easily have coped with the self-important Buckinghamshire sequestrators, and there were serious intellectuals among her maternal Blagrave clan. Seen through her letters and her achievement, she appears today as a wholly admirable character.
Mary Verney’s signature (from the earliest printing of Lady Verney’s 'Memoirs', 1892).
Note on sources: The Verney archive is kept at Claydon House, but the original letters are not normally made available to researchers in the interest of their preservation. Adrian Tinniswood used a set of microfilms made in 1961 of which there are copies at the British Library, at the Bodleian, and at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury. They are of poor quality and hard to use. There is no way of referencing the position of individual items, which are placed only very roughly in date order. References in the present work are therefore to citations of letters in the publications by Lady Verney and by Tinniswood, except for the one instance where there is no such citation.
Thanks are due to Sue Baxter, archivist at Claydon, for help and advice and for comments on an early draft.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2017
 Lady Frances Parthenope Verney and Lady Margaret Maria Verney, Memoirs of the Verney family, (2nd ed, 1904); Adrian Tinniswood, The Verneys (2007). Lady Parthenope was stepmother to Sir Edmund Hope Verney, husband of Lady Margaret Maria.
 ‘The Blacknall family’, http://www.abingdon.gov.uk/history/people/blacknall-family (accessed 6 March 2017).
 Harry Rylands (ed), The Four Visitations of Berkshire Vol II (Harleian Society, 1908), pp 70-2; David Nash Ford, ‘The Blagrave Family’ http://www.berkshirehistory.com/gentry/blagrave.html (accessed 8 January 2017); see also The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography under individual names.
 ‘The Blacknall family’, http://www.abingdon.gov.uk/history/people/blacknall-family (accessed 6 March 2017).
 C D Cobham (ed), A Monument of Christian Munificence (1873), p. 85
 Joel Hurstfield, The Queen’s Wards (1958), p. 137
 H E Bell, An Introduction to the history of the Court of Wards and Liveries (1953), pp 117, 137.
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, pp 57-60; Verney, Memoirs, pp. 72-4.
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 83
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p.64
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 161; Verney, Memoirs, p. 202
 Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Fast Sermons of the Long Parliament’, in Hugh Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967), pp. 294-344.
 Bodleian, Claydon House Letters (microfilms), Ms 1244 (Reel 1).
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 163
 John Gauden, Certain Scruples and Doubts about taking the Solemn League and Covenant (1643); S R Gardiner, The Great Civil War (1893 edition), Vol ii p. 194; vol iii p. 204.
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, pp 183-201; Verney, Memoirs, p. 305
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, pp 205-7;
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 235
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 225; Verney, Memoirs, pp. 328-9.
 Verney, Memoirs, p. 342,
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, pp 228-9
 Verney, Memoirs, pp. 373-5.
 Verney, Memoirs, pp. 359, 381.
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 268. Verney, Memoirs, pp. 327, 397.
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, Chapter 11, passim
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 247
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, p. 251; Verney, Memoirs, p. 386; Gardiner, Civil War vol iv pp 70-7
 Tinniswood, The Verneys, pp.263-70; Verney, Memoirs, p. 351.
 Tinniswood, The Verneys Part III, passim.