Origin of the Risdon Dynasty

I am indebted to several associates for the information on the earliest origins of the name, primarily Audrey Bartron (AB), and Peter William Risdon (PWR) of London, for a compendium of sources. The earliest origins of the family name Risdon are thought to be in Gloucestershire, in one or more of three villages in the Windrush valley about 25km to the east of Cheltenham; they are now known collectively as The Rissingtons, and they lie in a roughly north-south orientation, starting 4km south of Stow-on-the-Wold with Wyck, then Little, then Great Rissington.

At the time of the Domesday survey of England (1086), 20 years after the original conquest of the country by William the Bastard, the manor of Risendune (Little Rissington1) in Salmonsbury2 Hundred3, previously held by Siward4 was held by Robert de Oilgi5 (d’Oilly6/Doyley7). Risendune is probably a simple descriptive name for the location: Ransford (note 7) says that “[Rissington] is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words Hrisen and dune meaning brushwood on a hill”; local variants of the name were Risendone (Great Rissington) and Risedune (Wyck/Wick Rissington), as shown in the Domesday survey (note 1).

The two most significant questions one has to ask in any research of this nature is: who was the first to use the name, and when would that have been? The use of family names probably became the custom in England after the Norman conquest (this was only the latest of several prior conquests!); most likely for mundane, administrative reasons, where organisation (aka control) of a populace was considered necessary, and the common herd would have emulated the property-owners, either willingly (possibly to curry favour) or grudgingly, and consequently, the use of the French attributive ‘de’ is very common.

The earliest use of the modern form of the name appears to have been given by the Antiquary, Tristram Risdon (of whom more elsewhere); under Parkham8, in his Survey of the County of Devon:

Bablegh [sic; page 243] is the lands of the Risdons (that descended from Ralph Risdon [my emphasis], lord of the manor of Risdon, in Gloucestershire, in king Richard the first’s reign) which Robert de Oilgi held in William the conqueror’s reign, and hath been the dwelling of that name ever since Robert Risdon lived there in the third year of king Edward the first.

but this is debatable, because he appears to be the only authority so to do. Richard I reigned from 1189-1199, so a minimum of 123 years after the Norman conquest, or possibly 5 generations. AB cites a charter witnessed by, among others, Master Walter de Risendone, in 1220 at Osney Abbey, Oxford9; Brother Philip de Risendune was proctor of Osney Abbey, and a canon there, in 1251; and Richard de Risendune was a parishioner of St. Michael’s outside the walls of Oxford, in 1258, so it would appear that the attributive style of family name persisted for nearly 200 years after the conquest. The third year of Edward I would be 1274, so it is not at all implausible that Tristram Risdon is correct in his latter assertion, which could answer the second significant question above, to some degree of accuracy; there is still significant room for doubt, however: this is explored on the Bableigh|Parkham page.

There is, then, some confusion over the date of the first Risdon to live in Devon, as well as the location (note 8), but there is no reason why the property, of which the first Risdon was the tenant (and, in the process, ‘lord of the manor’), should not have been one of several, possessed by the same landowning Norman family. PWR says10 “Several sources show that Gloucestershire aristocracy held extensive lands in Devon … Perhaps a vacancy arose at Parkham because the manor holder died in the crusade.”11, but 1274 is nearly 80 years after the end of that crusade, which means that Robert Risdon was very possibly the first documented scion of this family to live in Devon, but probably not the first actual person bearing that family name. The other location mentioned in most of the sources, Okehampton, is not strictly accurate and, just to complicate matters, there are now 2 places named Risdon in the area; one is where AB says “Robert Risdon was residing … in 1350 [so possibly not the same Robert Risdon referred to by Tristram Risdon], a small place which is slightly north of Okehampton. The Farm is called Risdon Mill.” — it is 5km north of Okehampton, and just to confuse matters even further, there is a Risdon Farm12 just off the modern A3072, but it is not Risdon Mill (see below); about a kilometer down the road is another one, but it is now derelict13, so there was certainly an earlier farm bearing this name, but it is very unlikely to have been the original one, going by the mixture of materials used (and the photograph only shows a very small area, so gauging the size of the site is impossible): families can experience many changes of circumstances over a period of six hundred years, with associated expansions or contractions of property holdings; in between these two are the sprawling modern industrial premises now called Risdon Mill14; the other Risdon Farm is the location for a dog breeding business15, and it is 9km to the west.

The final question for this document is: did the adoption of the family name Risdon mean that the connection with the ancestral territory was broken, leaving no previous generations who might have used the earlier name convention behind? Unfortunately, none of the sources quoted is clear on this, but they all use the terms “Family moved from”, or “settled at”, so it would appear that this might be the case. The shortening of the name could have been purposive, as the acknowledgment of ‘a new beginning’; or, it could have been the result of the gradual degradation of the longer, attributive name by at least one branch of the family, which might have required a few generations to take effect. It seems very possible that from the time of the first relocation from Gloucestershire to Devon, there were either two separate Risdon families living at the two separate locations (or maybe even three), or up to three separate members of the same family, who produced offspring of their own, who moved to other locations in their areas and produced their own offspring. As mentioned above, the first documented Risdon in Devon is Robert Risdon of Parkham, but for want of any supporting details and for the purposes of the definition of ‘dynasty’, it is the Thomas Risdon who was living at Parkham in 1393, the first-named in the male line of the family trees produced from the Heralds’ Visitations (the lineage charts produced by J. L. Vivian, 1830-1896, are available online here), who must be considered the progenitor of the family. Again, it is only a lack of evidence to the contrary that brings me to this conclusion, but five generations of Risdons: Thomas, Geoffrey, Richard, John and Giles; lived at Parkham, but they could have started spreading out right from the very beginning with Thomas — the Heralds’ family trees only show the first son & male heir down to Giles, so there is always the possibility that a dispersal could have begun as early as the end of the 14th century. Nothing is known about all but the last named of these, Giles, who was the person to whom the Arms were awarded in 1564; perhaps, according to PWR, at the instigation of his son & heir Thomas, who will be the first of the Risdons worthy of note to be described in the Notable Risdons document.