My Family History Table of Contents

Chapter 11: English Penitone to American Pennington

Origins in England

The name Pennington comes from England. Surnames did not exist before the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. The population was so low that names of neighbors were not duplicated often enough to pose problems. With the conquest, surnames began to be taken by the nobility. By 1200 most families used two names, though the second name was not always hereditary. Like many other English names, Pennington started as a place name. It is a manor, parish and village in the old land of Cumbria, later called North Lancaster and now in the new county of Cumbria. The Cumbrians are of mixed Brigantes tribe of Celts and Viking ancestry, with a strong mixture of Saxon, Danish and Irish blood as well. The manor is exactly the same size as the parish which formerly belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Furness, and includes 4,160 acres or six and one-half square miles. The parish was the smallest in Lancashire. The village was composed of 50 houses and 284 people in the mid-nineteenth century, and is about the same size today. The name was spelled Pennegetun in the Domesday book of 1086 AD, the first census of England initiated by William the Conqueror, when all of England and Wales had only about one and a half million people. The name apparently arose either from the British word "pennig" (little hill) or from "pennaig" (prince) and the Saxon word "ton" (town). It may have also come from the Pennine Chain of mountains that run through northern England and Cumbria.

The oldest known Pennington was Gamel de Peninton or Penitone. The fact that he bore an Old Norse first name indicates Viking ancestry. He held the manor during the time of King Henry II, count of Anjou and a Plantagenet, who reigned from 1154 to 1189. The grass covered ruins of the original manor house and castle still stand, but in about 1242 the lord of the manor, Alan de Penitone, moved to Mulcaster, now Muncaster Castle at the mouth of the river Esk, some twenty miles to the west, near Ravenglass in the coastal area of the Lake District. The castle had been built in 1325 to guard the ancient trade routes going south from Carlisle, and to watch for invaders coming in from the Irish Sea. The lord of Muncaster was generally a knight until 1676 when he was made a Baronet. In 1783, his descendant was made a Baron.

Muncaster Castle, Cumbria, England

The oldest male Pennington given names are those of the lords of Pennington and Muncaster. Gamel's sons were Benedict and Meldred. Alan was lord in 1208, followed by Thomas (d. 1240), Gamel, and many Alans, Johns, and Williams. The various cadet (younger sons) branches in the area had such names as Allen, Christopher, Edward, George, Gilbert, Henry, Rowland, Thomas and William from 1500 through 1627. The female names from this period were Agnes, Alice, Allys, Catherine, Elizabeth, Isable, Mabell and Margaret. By 1250 the Pennington names were all in Norman form. In general, Old English (Saxon) and Cymric (Welsh or British) names were a minority in the population. It may well be that other inhabitants of the village of Pennington took the town name as a surname during the 1100's and 1200's, but since it was a very tiny village, it is very likely all were closely related anyway. Gamel de Peninton can with very great confidence be called an ancestor of all the Penningtons today. The descendants of Gamel spread throughout the entire Furness section of Lancashire from the seacoast to the tops of the highest of the Furness Fells, spread throughout the scenic Lakes district of old Cumberland and Westmoreland and spread across Morecombe Bay to Preston and to Wigan and Radcliffe in southern Lancashire between Liverpool and Manchester. They also spread south along the old Roman road Ermine Street, the site of which today is generally occupied by main highway A-1, into Yorkshire and on down south to London. The earliest Pennington we know to have reached London was Ralph, who died there in Shoreditch in 1444.

Tom the Fool

Pennington descendants still live in Muncaster Castle and they even have a website. 60,000 tourists visit it each year. The estate was originally 23,000 acres; today it is 1,800 acres. Reputedly it is one of the most haunted buildings in the United Kingdom. The most famous of ghosts is Tom Fool. Thomas Skelton was the "Fool" or Jester of Muncaster Castle and spent many hours of his time sitting under a chestnut tree just outside the castle. When travelers came by and asked the way to London by he would speak with them and decide whether or not he liked them. If he didn't he would send them in the direction of the marshlands and quicksands where they would meet their peril instead of over the ford. Thomas brutally murdered a carpenter (chopped off his head with an axe) to win favor with his master. It was from Thomas Skelton's behavior that the phrase "tom-foolery" originated. Supposedly, Tom Fool of Muncaster is also the model for the Fool in Shapekspeare's "King Lear".

Thomas "Tom Fool" Skelton; Tom Fool's Tree at Muncaster Castle

The Luck of Muncaster

In 1464, during the War of the Roses, King Henry VI became lost after the Battle of Towton. Henry VI was the only son of Henry of Agincourt and Catherine of France and had been crowned King of England at the age of eight. By the time he had reached his early forties he had lost his throne to Edward IV. And had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Hexham. He managed to escape, and fled to the hills of the Lake District where he lived rough for about a year. He was found by a shepherd in a sorry state and taken to Muncaster Castle whereupon his true identity was discovered. Sir John Pennington, whose home Muncaster Castle was, gave Henry food and shelter for as long as he requested it. In gratitude, Henry gave Sir John a fragile Venetian glass cup called the "Luck of Muncaster" and said it was given to the family with a prayer that they might prosper as long as the glass remained unbroken. The glass mazer shaped drinking vessel is 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches in height; the glass has a greenish tint and the ornamentation is enamel and gold. Supposedly the glass cup had been blessed and rested in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Hanging in the bedroom used by King Henry is a painting of him kneeling before an altar with the glass bowl in his right hand.

Such importance was placed on the King's weighty words that it was promptly buried to await the advent of more peaceful days, and on it being unearthed the digger permitted the case containing the precious cup to fall, which so alarmed the members of the Pennington family that they could not summon up courage to open the box, and so it remained unopened for forty years, until a less timorous Pennington opened it to find the relic was intact.

Two images of The Luck of Mancaster

London and the Reformation

In 1526, Sir William Pennington of Muncaster (1486-1533) bought land near Chigwell in Essex, on the northeast side of what is now metropolitan London. His descendants spread throughout the London area north of the Thames, particularly near Henham. Some of his descendants, notably Thomas of Radcliffe, moved back to Lancashire. Most of them had typical Norman names such as John, Richard, Robert, Thomas and William. Such names were repeated over and over along with one Clement. Female names for this time and place were Alice, Anne, Dorothy, Elizabeth, Jane, Joane, Katherine, Mary, Maria, Margaret, Priscilla, Sara and Susanne. At about that time (1530) London had 60,000 people compared to three million people for all England and Wales. Only one out of ten Englishmen lived in towns.

There was a sudden change in style of names in the children of Robert and Judith (Shetterden) Pennington, grocer of London, married in 1581, grandson of Sir William. They gave their son, later Sir Isaac, fishmonger and Lord Mayor of London, who lived 1587-1661, the earliest clearly Old Testament name I have found other than his uncle Jacob. Two of Sir Isaac's sons Daniel and Isaac the Quaker had Old Testament names. Arthur had a British name, William a Norman name, Abigail and Judith were named for their mother and paternal grandmother, and the last child was named Bridget. Many lines of Penningtons in the United States continue to have this mixture of Old Testament and Norman names. The Old Testament names appear to be associated with the Protestant sects that were proliferating in the mid-1500's to 1600's. Martin Luther of Germany made his break with Roman Catholicism in 1517. Henry VIII began the Church of England in 1531. In 1560 the Geneva or "Breeches Bible" appeared. It was the first printed bible available to the masses. As a result, biblical names began to become widespread in England, particularly among the Puritans who refused to adhere to the liturgy, ceremonies and discipline of the established church.

By 1696, the population of greater London had risen to 530,000, almost ten times the 1530 figure, that of England and Wales to six million people, twice that of 1530, and one in four Englishmen lived in towns. Water power was the major source of energy other than human and animal power and heavy transportation was by ox-cart or ship. The canals were to come later. Steam power and railroads were a century away. Population pressure in England was heavy and the colonies were the place to expand. Colonists moved to the New World, rich ones paying their own way and poor ones or convicts by transportation. The mortality rate among early colonists was very high at first. Penningtons moved to the New World with the rest of England. We presently know of only thirty-one male Pennington immigrants between 1609 and 1776. There were surely others that have thus far gone unreported and may only be represented in early deeds or wills in the colonies.

Much of this information has been drawn from Pennington Pedigrees Volume 10-2, pages 1-12, Bob Sloan, October 1978. I am very thankful for the Pennington Research Association's hard work.