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Fay Sampson’s Family History

This site is a work-in-progress. There is a massive amount to cover. I have included both male and female lines, and some go back 30 generations. Keep coming back for more.
I have numbered the generations working backwards from my own as (1)



Witheridge is an ancient village in upland country midway between Tiverton and South Molton. It was the earliest settlement in the district and gave its name to the administrative area of Witheridge Hundred.Its name means ‘Wethers’ Ridge’, evidence of sheep farming country. Once there was extensive moorland around it.

The sixteenth century records show people in Witheridge called both Downe and Downey. These may be separate surnames, or the latter more likely arises from giving more emphasis to the final ‘e’ of Downe. We cannot be sure whether the same person can appear under either spelling.

In the 1524 Lay Subsidy Rolls for Wetherugge Parish we find John Doune and Thomas Doune, both rated for goods at G3. This was deemed to be the capital value of their goods and tax was levied at 6d in the £. £3 was a modest sum, but they were not amongst the poorest.[1]

John, and perhaps Thomas, would have witnessed the upheavals of the Reformation. One consequence of this was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, including those in the Witheridge area, and the sale of their assets,.

The Dissolution brought one bonus to Witheridge. In the late 1530s priory, abbey and monastery property was sold off. It is known that the “five bells of Barnstaple” were bought  by a John Stephens of Witheridge. It has been suggested that the religious house for Cluniac monks was the source of these bells. John Stephens paid over the going rate for them, so it is unlikely that they were a speculation. The probability is that he gave them to the church at Witheridge; indeed the church certainly had five bells by 1552.[2]

St John the Baptist, Witheridge [3]

Nor did the violence of the Prayer Book Rebellion leave the village unscathed. ‘John Stephens was a man of strong traditional views, for in 1549 he took up arms for the old Catholic religion as part of the Prayer Book Rebellion, which began in Sampford Courtenay. John was “killed in the Rebellyon Time”. Probably at the Clist Heath Battle near Exeter in the August of that year, when the rebellion was crushed.

The 1543 Lay Subsidy Roll for ‘Wetheringe Parish’ lists: Robert Down, John Downe de …, Hugh Downe, and another John Downe.[4]

In 1545 we find the first incidence of the name ‘Downhay’. John Downe was assessed at £6, Robert Downe at £4, Hugh Downe at £2 and Thomas Downhay at £1. The highest rated man in the parish was worth £9, so John Downe was among the better off and Thomas Downhay one of the poorest.[5]

Of these, Thomas Downhay is the most likely ancestor of our Downey line.

The Book of Witheridge lists some of the findings of the Court of Lancaster held in Witheridge. It is uncertain why the Duchy of Lancaster had an interest in Witheridge, but it held courts there, in addition to the manor and hundred courts, from 1396-1624. The authors of the book add a note about the Downey family.

1555:  Wutherygge Turn of our Lord the King and our Lady the Queen of the Duchy of Lancaster held there the 15th day of October the year above name. The tithing man [the head of the borough] came and presented all things well… The free tenants came there and presented all things well.[The free tenants paid rent only and were not liable for other services. Among the 15 names listed are several familiar even in 2003: Gibbings, Vicary, Ware, Jordan, Hodge, Mogridge, Symons, Downey and Hooper.][6]

We can assume that the free tenant was a farmer. He may have been the Thomas Downhay of 1545.

A Thomas Downey, either that earlier one or the next generation, was in trouble with the court six years later. 1561: The bailiff came there and presented that Ralph Hernaman, Richard Forde and Thomas Downey tapped cider by false measure. They are in mercy. [They were guilty and fined 2d. each.][7]

At the end of this decade, in 1569, a Muster Roll was drawn up for the whole country. Devon has one of the most complete lists surviving. Every ‘able man’ fit for fighting, between 16-60, was recorded, with his responsibility for providing weapons, armour and service.

The Muster Roll for Witheridge gives the names of the richer inhabitants with their particular requirements to supply arms. In addition to these, “The Inhabitants not particularlie chardged by the statute are acessed to fynde etc. 2 corslets, 2 pikes, 2 calivers, 2 murrions.” A caliver was a light musket or harquebus. A murrion was a steel cap with a central ridge and a narrow brim. It was worn by pikemen and harquebusiers.

Among those listed were the archer, Thomas Downe, and the pikeman, Walter Downhaye.[8] Assuming that these are different surnames, then Walter was probably the son of the Thomas Downey recorded earlier.

In the Subsidy of 1581 only one Downe appears. Thomas Downe was assessed for land at L1, representing a yearly income of £1, though the figures bear little relation to people’s real wealth. The highest by far was John Hayes, gent, at L20. There was one parishioner at L3, two at L2 and fourteen men and one woman at L1. The rest are assessed for goods. Thomas Downe was probably a farmer. He would have paid 4/- in tax.[9]

He was probably the archer of 1569. What is not clear is whether he was also from the Downey family of free tenants named in 1555, or whether this is a different surname.

Though assessments for land were as low as £1, when it came to goods, only those worth £3 or more were rated. There may have been unrecorded Downeys at this low end of the economic scale.

When the Witheridge parish registers begin in the 1580s, both Downes and Downeys are well established in the parish. They are probably versions of the same surname. The earliest entry for either surname is the burial of Thomas Downe on 29 Oct 1587. This is probably the landowning Thomas of 1581, and perhaps also the archer of 1569. Margarett Downe, widow, buried in 1588, is likely to be his wife.

He may be the same as Thomas Downey and the father of Walter.

St John the Baptist, Witheridge is unusual in having a carved stone pulpit.








Carved pulpit [10]                                                                                                                               15th century font  where our  ancestors were baptised.[11] 


[1] T.L. Stoate, ed.,Devon Lay Subsidy Rolls 1524-1527, (www.thebookshop.org.uk)
[2] Peter and Freda Tout and John Usmar, The Book of Witheridge: A Parish Through the Centuries, (Halsgrove, 2003), p.21.
[3] eHive. https://images.ehive.com/accounts/4597/objects/images/evmpr8_3nnb_l.jpg
[4] Tout and Usmar, p.22.
[5] T.L. Stoate, ed.,Devon Lay Subsidy Rolls 1543-145, (www.thebookshop.org.uk)
[6] Tout and Usmar
[7] Tout and Usmar
[8] T.L. Stoate and A.J. Howard, ed., The Devon Muster Roll for 1569, (www.thebookshop.org.uk)
[9] T.L. Stoate, ed., Devon Taxes 1581-1660, (www.thebookshop.org.uk)
[10] https://www.britainexpress.com/images/attractions/editor/Witheridge-5631.jpg
[11] https://www.britainexpress.com/images/attractions/editor3/Witheridge-5626.jpg




Sampson Tree