The lives of yeoman farmers such as the Gorwyns probably changed relatively little between the 13th and 19th centuries. Thomas Westcote, writing in 1630 in his View of Devon, gives as good a description as any of the yeoman. He divided Devon society into four groups: the nobility and gentry; the yeomanry and husbandry; the merchants; and the day labourers or hirelings. He describes the yeomanry as:


 ‘freeholders, farmers, men employed in agriculture, tilling and manuring of land; in former times franklings; for they are free, by law, name and disposition’.


He adds that the yeoman:


speaketh to his servants as a prince to his subjects, in the plural number, we will do this, or let us do that; we will set forward such a business; as intending to participate with them (in some easy sort) in their labours, at least in direction thereof; and so is well assured to have it done to his liking’.


   As noted above, a characteristic of the Lambert-Gorwyn heartlands is that for most of the time there was no one big dominant big landlord in any of the parishes - unlike for instance neighbouring Dunsford dominated by the Fulfords (Spreyton was dominated by a single Lord of the Manor in medieval times, but by the 1600s the Manor had been fragmented). This was therefore perfect yeoman farmer territory, and it may have been the independence that could be enjoyed in a village like Cheriton Bishop that kept our ancestors there and allowed them to prosper.


   The impression from the records is that the 15th-17th century Gorwyns were good at adding to their estates and richer than many of their fellows, but always second to at least one big local landowner belonging to the genuine squirearchy (such as the Davys who owned Medland Manor in Cheriton Bishop and were the dominant family in the parish).   Below the squires but above the yeomen were the gentry, generally defined as those who never had to work with their hands on necessary as opposed to leisurely activities (although at harvest time no doubt even the gentry turned out into the fields to help save the corn). How far did our ancestors manage to bridge the gap between yeoman and ‘gentry’? There is no mention of any Gorwyns in Thomas Northcote’s 1630 list of Devon gentry, or in the list of  ‘principal Gentlemen’ prepared around the same time by Tristram Risdon for his Survey of Devon. However, it seems that at least some 16th and 17th century members of the family were considered gentry, like the Thomas Gorfen whose estate was subject to an inquisition post-mortem in 1524. In 1613 “John Gorwyn of Cheriton Bishop, Gentleman” was a witness in a court case 1, and the Cheriton Bishop parish register records the death in 1637 of ‘John Gorwyn senior, gent.’. The acquisition of Lambert with its manorial associations in particular may have encouraged family aspirations to a higher social status. In 1620 during their Visitation of Devon, however, the Heralds listed William Gorwyn of Lamford as one of those not given a coat of arms.  This does not necessarily mean that he was not considered grand enough; when the Heralds visit a county, lists are drawn up of likely candidates who are then invited to appear before the Heralds (so somebody obviously thought that the Gorwyns were grand enough to be candidates). If accepted as suitable to be armigerous, the person then had to pay the Heralds for a coat of arms. The Heralds were effectively running a business, as they still do today, and would rarely turn away those willing to pay. So William may simply not have turned up or not been prepared to pay for what he as an obstinate Devonian farmer may have considered a pointless frippery. The family coat of arms had to wait until 1945, when George Lambert was elevated to the peerage and the Heralds designed one for him.


   Probably some branches of the family remained or slipped back into being simple yeomen, including the debt-ridden 17th century Gorvens of Gorven. But by the second half of the 18th century both the Gorwyns of Bradleigh and the Lambert Gorwyns of Lambert appear to have been generally regarded as gentry - although well into the 19th century there were still occasional references to Lambert Gorwyns as “yeomen”, especially younger sons who had not inherited the main family farm. 


   Property represented the family’s wealth and no doubt a lot of energy went into amassing it. Wherever possible, members of the family would purchase the farms that they had on leasehold tenure. For instance, in the 18th century various members of the family were renting farms from the Fulfords of Great Fulford in Dunsford, who were substantial landowners in both Cheriton Bishop and Drewsteignton.  When the Fulfords needed to sell property in the 1760s and 1770s to meet their debts, our ancestors took the opportunity to purchase the freeholds of several of the farms that they were already renting. If they had the money, they would also build up their landholdings by buying the freehold or leasehold of any neighbouring farms that came on the market.


   A frequent reason for purchasing or renting a new farm was to provide for a younger son who would not inherit the main family property - the aim would always be to see that each son had a viable farm, and by the 1600s if not earlier it seems that the family usually had the money to do this. Both the leasehold of Medland and the freehold of Coxland, for instance, were acquired by Lambert Gorwyns in the 1800s to provide farms for younger sons. Wives could also bring property into the family; for example the marriage of John Lambert alias Gorwyn of Lambert into the rich landowning family of Cann in Spreyton in 1742 indirectly brought substantial lands in that parish to John’s family. So although the family did not stray far outside its 25 square-mile heartland, members of the family moved fairly frequently between farms and parishes.


   There was a general custom of primogeniture, whereby the eldest son inherited his father’s main farm (it was common to entail the main family property) This pattern did not always hold, however; sometimes farms would be purchased for the elder sons when they married, and the youngest son who stayed at home ended up by inheriting his parents’ farm. As for the daughters, they rarely inherited property unless the family had run out of sons. But care was taken to marry them into neighbouring yeoman farming families of similar status, able to provide them with a good jointure should they be widowed.


   When members of the family owned several farms, they would live in their main farm. The other farms would either be let, or farmed by their owner along with his main farm, with the farmhouses used to house farm labourers. Farming was labour intensive, and the members of the family farming the largest landholdings could have up to a dozen farm-workers, servants and apprentices, as well as at least one indoor domestic servant.


   The impression of the Gorwyns from the records is of people who were dutiful in playing their role as pillars of the local society. In 1660, Richard Gorven was one of the four ‘raters’ responsible for administering the poll tax collection. Gorwyns were frequently Overseers of the Poor (administering the Poor Laws) and churchwardens. Among the earliest recorded were John Gorwyn, churchwarden in Cheriton Bishop in 1701; and Richard Gorwyn in Drewsteignton in 1721; and Elizabeth Gorwyn of Honidown (Honeyford in Drewsteignton) was an Overseer in 1730/31.  Gorwyns also appear fairly frequently as collectors in the land tax records for the relevant parishes from 1780 onwards. And in 1780, when new trustees were needed for the Cheriton Bishop churchlands (the proceeds from which were used for charity), four of the six trustees appointed were members of the Gorwyn family. Local landowners often acted as trustees of marriage settlements and for widows and minors, an activity that must have taken up quite a lot of time on occasion, especially if there was litigation, and the Gorwyns also appear as trustees in a number of deeds and settlements.


      Devon was one of the areas where John Wesley had most success with his Methodist movement and it became one of the great chapel-going counties. But Cheriton Bishop was not a parish known for its dissenters and there seems no indication that the family generally were attracted by non-conformism. There are several Gorwyns on the lists of members of the established church drawn up in 1641, and the Gorwyns appear to have continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to use their local churches for their births, deaths and marriages – although some of the 20th century Hittisleigh branch were chapel-goers. Many members of the family may not have been particularly religious; but the Church had an all-pervading role in local life and landholding members of the parish could not avoid churchly duties.


1  Trowe v. Padds ?, National Archives ref: C21/T12/4.

GO TO NEXT CHAPTER                                                BACK TO LIST OF CONTENTS