Tristram Risdon

Tristram Risdon was the first son, and heir, of William Risdon, the third son of Giles the elder. We do not have a date of birth for him, only an approximate year: 1580. The lineage chart produced after the Heralds’ Visitation1 describes him as “the Antiquary”, which will be expanded upon below. We are told that he was born at a place called Winscot (alternatively, Winscott) in the parish of St Giles in the Wood, near Great Torrington, north Devon; but therein lies a conundrum, which is not simplified any by the complexities of family relationships. The lineage chart for the Risdon family shows his father living at Winscot, but with no indication as to when he might have taken up residence;2 William was born some time between 1531 and 1537, on the basis that the first son & heir, Thomas, was possibly born in 1530 (see the Thomas Risdon 1 page), and the fourth son, Philip, who also attended the Inner Temple (see the Notable Risdons page) is known to have been baptised on the 25th of August 1538. William married Joan (several variants; née Pollard) Barry, who was the relict (widow) of Michael Barry of Winscot, the last male heir, who died in 1570, so the marriage could have been any time after that: up until then, William might have been living at Babeleigh, but his father Giles’s family was huge, and William could have been living elsewhere in connection with his occupation, about which we have no information; but in theory, William could have taken up residence at Winscot with his new wife.

The only problem with that is that we are told that William’s first son and heir Tristram inherited Winscot by a somewhat circuitous route — not from his father — which again raises the question of when his father took up residence. It would be logical to assume though, that if William had no property of his own, whereas his new wife did, it would make sense for him to move in with her, so obviously Tristram did not inherit the property from his father, because it wasn’t his father’s to bequeath: confusingly though, title was not in possession of his wife either — it was in the hands of her daughter from Michael Barry, Thomazin(e), who died without issue from her marriage to John Tripconey of Gulvall in Cornwall, and for unknown reasons “devised” the estate to Tristram, her half-brother. We are told that Tristram did not complete his university education because his sister’s death required him to take charge of the estate, so this could have been around the year 1597, give or take a year or so; which does rather beg the question: why was this (i.e., taking on the estate) necessary, if his father was still alive (as he would be, for another 20 years or so) and living at the manor? Barring any schism between father & son, this does suggest perhaps an infirmity that prevented his father taking an active part in the management of the estate; Tristram also had a younger brother, John (no details) and a sister, Margaret, wife of William Eare of Westdowne [sic] (again, no details; West Down is just south of Ilfracombe, north Devon).

To return to the beginning of Tristram’s story, he received “a good school aducation at Great Torrington adjoining”,3 after which he entered Oxford, although there is some disagreement about which college; the introduction to the Survey of Devon, from which the previous quote comes (see note 3), states “either in Exeter College or Broad Gates Hall, now Pembroke College”, which is echoed by the 1896 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography,4 (although that uses the form Broadgates) but the Wikipedia page (which should always be treated with circumspection; see note 4) only states Broadgates. It would be persuasive to think of Tristram having attended Exeter College, especally as his uncle Edward had (see the Edward & John page for details) but, although the Register of Exeter College mentions him in the context of his Survey of Devon (page xlix), he is not shown as having attended there. However, he is mentioned in the History of Pembroke College5 on page 120 as being “a Broadgates man”; as for when he left the university, neither the man himself, via his various biographers, nor his half-sister, in the form of the date of her death, can help. The closest we come to a date of entry to Oxford is “about the latter end of the reign of Q. Elizabeth, of famous memory”:6 this would be around 1600 (Elizabeth died in 1603), making Tristram about 20 years of age, but it could have been earlier. This would make his sister Thomazine roughly 32 years of age at her death.7

He is reckoned to have become “a good scholar, and an accomplished person” (Prince), so one might think that being prevented from bringing his studies to a successful conclusion, however voluntarily, might have been somewhat galling for him, but this has to remain mere speculation. He returned to Winscot and set about his academic studies there and, again, whether his eventual purpose was clear to him from the outset is unlikely to ever be discovered — Prince describes his character in a noble light:

“Providence having thus settled him in the country, he resolved, that neither the business nor the pastimes thereof (the common practice and fault of many young gentelmen) should engross his time and pains; he knew better how to improve them (both to his credit and comfort) in his study; to wit, in an harmless conversation among the dead, the best instructors of the living: I mean good books, in which he greatly delighted; and a kind of natural genius leading him that way, he applyed himself (as what is most ornamental to a gentleman) to the study of history and antiquities; and especially those of his own country; for he could not but look upon it as a great indecorum, to be knowing and curious in the rarities which are found abroad, and a meer stranger in the things at home."

While this moral improvement was going on, he also embarked upon the process of marriage, and although it could reasonably be construed as churlish to speculate, it is interesting nevertheless to conjecture upon his motivation for so doing, as he seems more the cloistered type, albeit of a secular nature, more suited to an ascetic singular existence; that notwithstanding, perhaps the imperative to continue the family line was paramount, and he could genuinely have been a family man. A note of caution is sounded here by Goodwin (see note 4) when he says that “Risdon was apparently a puritan, somewhat inclined to preach and moralise, but his observations are nowhere obtrusive.” Unfortunately, Goodwin does not clarify there whether he means that this tendency was evident only in Tristram’s written output, or in his demeanour generally; also, Goodwin appears to be using the word puritan in an descriptive rather than a literal sense: whilst it is not impossible that Tristram could have been a staunch Protestant, in contrast to the Catholicism of many of the rest of the family, I think the clue is in the latter part of Goodwin’s assessment, that he reminded one of a Puritan, rather than actually being one.8 For a wife, he took Pasco, daughter of Thomas Chafe of Exeter,9 and they were married at St. Olave, Exeter, on the second of December, 1608. This is interesting because of the tangential connection to my own background, although so far, no direct ancestral link has been found. How they came to meet has to remain a matter for speculation: Exeter is no little distance from Winscot (about 50km in a direct line: probably at least half as much again allowing for the meandering of 17th century roads) and, although it is quite plausible that Tristram might have visited for the purposes of research (as, indeed, he did during the course of writing the Survey) or purchase of materials, the reason for a social introduction is somewhat harder to fathom.10

We are told that the Magnum Opus, for which Tristram is best remembered, commenced in 1605, although none of the sources seems able to offer any supporting evidence for that; even the Survey of Devon itself is surprisingly deficient in detail in this respect: neither the introduction to the 1811 version (written by the primary Editor, John Taylor, F.R.S., of Tavistock), nor the entry for Winscot makes any mention of this, and as for the impetus to create it, one can only guess. What is most likely is that he associated with other erudite gentlemen in the county; Goodwin (see note 4) asserts that Tristram “lived on intimate terms with his brother topographers”; and perhaps Prince is correct in his assessment, here above, that Tristram felt he could in some way validate his existence by improving on or, at the very least, supplement the hitherto available surveys of his home county and thereby pay homage to it. Unfortunately, the story from there on is something of a saga in its convolutions, although there is a relatively successful conclusion, albeit long after the progenitor had departed the scene. He was quite ready and willing to acknowledge the men who inspired him and provided some of his source material, although that does not seem to be in evidence in the Survey itself; most sources agree that he credited fellow antiquarians, Sir William Pole,11 his son Sir John,12 Nicholas Upton13 and Thomas Westcote.14 Wolffe (note 4 et seq) also suggests, quite plausibly, that Tristram might have been kept informed on topical matters by his first cousin Thomas Risdon Jnr, a JP from 1618 until his death in 1641.

As for the working method employed by Tristram, he definitely wanted to follow his own light, rather than those of his peers, although Wolffe gives him credit by saying that he “considered various possible methods of organizing [sic] his survey”: Pole senior divided his work according to the units of county government, and Westcote, in his 1630 work A View of Devonshire, followed the courses of the rivers of the county; instead, Tristram used the logical method of a sequential clockwise circuit from a (probably arbitrary, admittedly) fixed starting point, and here it seems sensible to let the man himself explain, as found on page 14 of the Survey:

“Now I have handled the general survey of the shire, I purpose to treat of the particular places, with their ancient and most eminent families; or any other memorable matter, that hath come within the compass of my knowledge, worthy the leaving to posterity; wherein many ways may be used: as by taking the tythings, or having the hundreds for my guide; by the archdeaconries as they are limited, or by the divisions, as they are favoured, or by the course of the rivers. But propounding herein an order to myself, I purpose my beginning in the east part of the county, and with the sun, to make my gradation into the south, holding course about by the river Tamer, to visit such places as are offered to be seen upon her banks. Lastly, to take notice of such remarkable things as the north parts afford.”

According to Wolffe, “This method gave Risdon the freedom to describe parishes in the same order as he visited them, convincing one of his firsthand knowledge by adding enlivening details. His account is not overburdened with genealogy and so reads more like a travel book than those of his antiquarian contemporaries.”; however, where one critic praises, another can be sure to denigrate — Joyce Youings (note 11) says that: “Concerning his literary style, … although his general description has echoes of John Hooker’s15 writing, ‘The three hundred pages of topographical detail which follow make extremely tedious reading, unredeemed by [Thomas] Westcote’s style’.” Well, you can’t win ’em all! During the course of his peregrinations, between the years 1608 and 1628, Tristram also maintained a notebook, in foolscap size (which we would now consider to be stretching the definition of notebook somewhat), in which he accumulated the heraldic & genealogical data on the county aristocracy from the conquest to his time, and it included office-holders. Apparently, he started it in Latin, but reverted to English part-way through, “interspersing his text with his carefully drawn heraldic emblems and leaving spaces for later additions.” (Wolffe) Notwithstanding Youings’s assessment, no doubt this helped to streamline the Survey. The notebook was never completed during Tristram’s lifetime and left in manuscript with many empty pages, so it was possibly never intended for publication, but just used as an aide-memoire; although that does beg the question of why the various family coats of arms were included, and so meticulously drawn: whatever the reason, it was eventually published in 1897.16

The manuscript was deposited in the library of Exeter Cathedral, which is probably quite easily explained: there was an obvious connection to Exeter in Tristram’s father-in-law, Thomas Chafe (even if he had died before Tristram, which is highly likely), and the Cathedral was probably well known in the county as having a library stocked with all manner of erudite volumes. It is perhaps slightly surprising that it took two hundred and seventy years for it to be transcribed & published, but it is a tribute to that period of interest in antiquities that burgeoned at the end of the nineteenth century that this was facilitated. The two men who undertook this task were James Dallas, F.L.S., and Henry G. Porter;17 in truth, it is unlikely that this project would have been considered viable were it not for the existence of the Survey, to which this publication alludes on the title page. To return to the Survey, although it is generally reckoned that it was in a state that could be regarded as finished by about 1632, Tristram did not complete the task by publishing it before his death in 1640. There might be many reasons for this; it is known that there were several manuscript copies in circulation “among the gentlemen of the county”, but we do not know for sure if this was while Tristram was still alive (although that would seem a logical assumption);18 one source says that ten copies of the manuscript are known to survive.19 Unfortunately, the manuscript copies in circulation were not all identical, so it was inevitable that there would be disagreements about what constituted a ‘true’ edition: as ever, that would rely almost entirely upon the integrity of the person who was prepared to take the financial risk of publication.

The full original title of the Survey was The Chorographical20 Description, or Survey of the County of Devon, with the City and County of Exeter; containing Matter of History, Antiquity, Chronology, the Nature of the Country, Commodities and Government thereof; with sundry other Things worthy [of] observation. Collected by the Travail of T. Risdon, of Winscot, Gent., for the Love of his Country and Countrymen in that Province; the first person to undertake a publication in 1714 was one Edmund Curll,21 who is described variously, ranging from “noted” (Wikisource, no specific attribution), through “infamous” (Wikipedia, ditto) to “piratical”! (noted, at that: preface to Risdon’s Survey) This being the case, it is hardly surprising that the first edition he had printed was a very poor reproduction of the original.22 Luckily, just prior to publication, the Reverend John Prince (he of the Worthies) had access to a copy, and knowing the original, which he had had cause to consult frequently, remonstrated with Curll, and persuaded him to print the remainder of the manuscript, which he did in the form of a Continuation, which comprises nearly two-thirds of the whole work, set out “in two small octavo volumes” (Goodwin; note 4); unfortunately, however, this enhanced edition was very carelessly compiled, which travesty, and the concomitant detriment to the name & reputation of the author is acribed by the editors of the Survey entirely to the printer. Goodwin says that this volume was reissued in 1723, and that another publisher, Meres, also reissued it twice, in 1725 and 1733.

It was not until 1772 that William Chapple of Exeter decided that the work deserved a faithful reproduction from the original, and issued proposals for a new edition, but his intention to also include a continuation into his own time only succeeded in ensuring that it was not complete by the time of his death in 1781; it was published in that truncated form four years later, however. The final, and widely available edition, (described as “excellent” by Goodwin; Wolffe [note 4] somewhat damns it with faint praise by describing it as “a more accurate version”) was published in 1811, using the version of the MS that was considered to be the most correct, that belonging to John Coles, Esq., of Stonehouse (now part of Plymouth, Devon), although the editors23 are at pains to point out “With respect to the Additions, which form a considerable part of this volume, … the Editors are aware that they are in many instances deficient; They are, however, drawn up from the best authorities to which they could have recourse; and any errors or omissions which may be discovered, will, it is hoped, be attributed, not to negligence, but to the impossibility of procuring information from those who possess the means, without the disposition to communicate it.” There is one other aspect of the book which raises it above the level of a mere travelogue or dry catalogue of data: following on from Goodwin’s observation that Tristram was “apparently a puritan”, he points out that: “In Risdon we are told for the first time the old Devonshire stories of Elflida and Ethelwold, of Childe the Hunter, Budockside and his daughter, and the Tiverton Fire.”24

That would appear to draw a line under Tristram’s masterwork, but Youings felt compelled to inject a note of circumspection into this; in connection with an observation on one of the Wikipedia pages, that no work has been done to compare the various manuscript and print versions (undoubtedly not an easy task), she comments “that until this is done it will remain unknown exactly what Risdon himself wrote.” If true, this implies that there is not an extant version whose provenance can be authentically traced to Tristram’s family, which is unfortunate. This latter comment brings me neatly to the final section of this page: namely, the certainly not trivial matter of Tristram’s own family, given that, as observed above, he was not, as might otherwise be thought, a cloistered, bookish academic, whose work was his life (although it must have occupied the greatest part of his time). His wife Pasco (or Pascha) was able to produce four sons: Giles, 1608-1644, John (no dates), William (1622-1701) and Tristram, buried 9th of October 1622, and three daughters: Jane (no dates), Joane (baptised the 30th of November 1612) and Margaret (buried the 26th of August 1636). Unfortunately (from somewhat mercenary motives, admittedly), none of these was able to produce a male heir who could retain title to the property, Winscot (although as we have seen, property could be inherited through the distaff side, even then), notwithstanding Tristram’s granddaughter Mary, from his son William, marrying four times, but only producing one daughter who died aged only four; so title to the property descended from Tristram’s daughter Joan.

For the details of this descent, I have the Additions to Risdon’s Survey, probably in the person of John Taylor (see note 23), to thank. Joan married James Hearle, of Tawstock, Devon, by whom she had a daughter, Joan (1640-1709?), who was married to Edward Lovett of Tawstock (1627-1702), and had issue one son, Robert, and two daughters. Robert Lovett died unmarried in 1710. His sister Penelope married Sir Henry Northcote, Bart., and died in October 1731, leaving issue one son, Henry, who succeeded to the Baronetcy on the death of his father. He married Bridget Maria Stafford, daughter of Hugh Stafford, of Upton Pyne, Devon, and had issue several sons, the eldest of whom, Sir Stafford Northcote, married Catherine Bradford, by whom he had issue Sir Stafford Henry Northcote, Bart. of Pynes [sic], who was the owner of the estate of Winscot in 1811. Apparently, at some time subsequent to that, it was sold to the Hon. Mark Rolle (ref. Kelly’s Directory of Devon, 1902). According to the Wikipedia page for St. Giles in the Wood,25 the present large farmhouse at Winscott Barton is bult on the site of the mansion house belonging to Tristram Risdon, who calls it both a mansion and a manor; unfortunately, the page does not say when the present farmhouse was built.26

Somewhat surprisingly, although he is buried either in the church of St. Giles or the graveyeard, there is no monument or inscription to Tristram in the church, but there are memorials to other members of his family, and there is a photo (in the public domain) on the aforementioned Wikipedia page showing the Risdon Mural Monument, surmounted by the Risdon arms (on the left) impaling the arms of Mary Isack, who was the wife of Tristram’s son William. Of peripheral interest, finally, might be that Tristram’s uncle Pollard, given name unknown, was Gentleman Usher to Queen Elizabeth I, so he would have been one of the circle polulated by the Risdons who passed through the Inner Temple (see the Notable Risdons page); he also performed this function for Elizabeth’s successor James I, and married a sister of Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, who was known as Bess of Hardwick. Pollard’s daughters from this marriage were Maids of Honour to Elizabeth I.