In Search of Our Family's Early Origins in Flanders
by B.R. van Wickevoort Crommelin
Anna Maria Wilhelmina Jacoba ("Ankie") Labouchere-Crommelin
Crommelin Crest and the Shield of Lissewege, village of the earliest known Crommelins
Most families have stories about their emergence from the obscurity of the past, and many family-stories are based on oral memories or they follow written myths which grew in the fog of a non-reflected tradition. Some "version of the family history is more romantic than factual and is the source for some of the 'myths' which survive in the subsequent accounts of the family," as Angélique Day mentioned in her edition of the documents of Marie Angélique de La Cherois from the 18th century Ireland.
When I read these reflections some 15 years ago, I remembered the stories about the origin and background of our family as told by my father (and grandfather). As I recall, there were three main stories - the oddest one mentioning a knight who excluded his returning lord from his own castle by closing the drawbridge! The second included a lamentation about the fate of a laundry woman in a medieval Belgium town, and the latest was the story of the French-Lily offered by the French King Henry IV on the occasion of the baptism of an ancestor. As the story goes, godmother of the great-great-grandfather was the sister of the King!
As a child I believed all these tales and was proud of our Huguenot origin. Understandably, these stories stayed in my head and I duly tried to obtain more information from all the relatives that I came across. I discussed these matters with Oom Willy Crommelin and Tante Ankie Labouchere-Crommelin on various occasions some years ago. She was also very busy in this pursuit and told me that she had managed to get some proof via the old archivist, Prof. E. Warlop. On our last meeting we decided to renew this lead, but unfortunately she had met with no further success.
I did more research on my own for many years in the hope of finding some new sources and to present some information which I obtained by studying existing published materials. I regret that I had limited time in which to further my own archive studies. Therefore this thesis should be regarded only as a first step in reconstructing our family's early history. As I said before, all these stories were in my head but, as a historian with growing doubts about their veracity, I decided to verify this information and their sources:
- First we have the account made by Jacob Crommelin, a man in his seventies in 1712, who collected a lot of the memories of his relatives including all the available data and information about the spread of the Crommelins up to his time. However he didn't mention the first Walter and the medieval times, undoubtedly because his information reached only to the 15th century, notably the flight of Armand Crommelin and his family from Courtrai (Kortrijk).
- In Scheffer's book, Genealogie van het Geslacht Crommelin we had for the first time some older references and leads for tracing this history back to the Middle Ages - information which will be discussed below. But how trustworthy is his book? References are not always given and sources were not always mentioned. In some cases Scheffer cited literature without exact regard to his own details. Therefore it may be that he at times mixed historical facts with his own suppositions. For example, he named Armand Crommelin's chateau at Ingelmunster, "Slot Ingelmunster", but any reference to the origin of this fact I could not verify. Furthermore, many relatives are mentioned for the nearby Kortrijk (Courtrai) but there is no evidence of connections to the Sires de Ingelmunster. In this instance also the named Jacob Crommelin cited only a "maison de campagne" near Courtrai ("ou il (sc. Armand) faisoit valoir des bien fonds considérables"), with considerable properties and servitors in the whole region. This information tallies with the economic sources of Ypres which confirm the origin of Pierre and Armand Crommelin for the town of Izeghem (also not far away from Courtrai), naming them as important linen-producers.
As progenitor, Scheffer quoted Walter (Gauthier) Crommelin for the year 1133 in a contract with one Robert, son of Hacket, castellan de Bruges. Scheffer cited some diplomatic sources, but some of later date such as the Histoire Généalogique des maisons de Guines. This work coming out in the 17th century was based on earlier medieval sources, but this author didn’t mention his reference to 'Walter'. So I asked myself, who was this 'Walter', and can we find any other information regarding this individual? For this we have to look for an early history of Flanders, especially of West-Flanders with its capital, Bruges. So when we inquire into the background of this cryptic mention of Walter Crommelin (which first of all has to be explained and proved by other sources), we must sift through a lot of scholarly works published in recent decades. The present thesis, therefore, is based primarily on literal studies, scholarly discussion and recent editions of medieval information. On-going archive researches, however, will likely uncover more new information in the future.
Through other available sources and material I discovered a famous piece of Medieval literature. Despite the loss of records suffered over many centuries, and especially the First World War, there remains a fascinating story from the Middle Ages nearly 900 years old, which in a flash helps raise our first known ancestor from obscurity. Apparently he was involved in a criminal plot and a tragic event in which, sad to say, he was not at all innocent. This was the notorious plot against the count of Flanders and his murder in 1127.
Walter Crommelin of Lissewege
and the Murder in the Chapel
The most important document is the diary of Galbert of Bruges, De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum. It is a famous epic about the heinous murder of the count of Flanders, Charles the Good (1127) by his own vassals and former slaves from the Erembald clan. Galbert of Bruges was notarius under the counts Robert II, Balduin VII, and Charles the Good (1119-1127), and later William Clito (1127-28) and Thierry of Alsace (1128-68). This story is of an astonishing quality and lets us see the events of 1127/28 as a turning-point in the political and social history of medieval Flanders.
This family of the Erembalds rose in the 11th century from slavish origin to the highest position at the court of the counts of Flanders and intermarried with many noble families in order to assure its position in the nobility of Flanders. When their non-noble origin was discovered, Charles planned to demote Bertulf and transfer the title of Provost to his own favourite. But the Erembalds reacted swiftly and murdered the count - right in front of the altar of St. Donatien at Bruges on March 2, 1127. They didn’t get away with it, however, because the entire nobility, as well as the burghers of Bruges and Gent, hunted down and killed most of the family.
The conspirators and their fates
Walter Crommelin, who lived in the nearby region of Bruges, had shared the ambitions of his father-in-law, Didier Hacket. Situated in Lissewege he probably had great estates in the coast-region, perhaps extending as far as Ostende and Groede. He and his son (or grandson?) were probably counted among the barons of Flanders and therefore present at the court of the successors of Charles the Good, the later Counts (e.g. Thierry and Philip d'Alsace), as later documents indicate. His nickname Crommelin (Crumbelin) probably indicated a deformation ('malformed man'), which became - as customary at that time - a surname assigned to his son (or grandson?). Walter was married to the daughter of the Erembald Didier (Desiderius) Haket (Hacket, Hackett), the brother of the ill-famed Provost of Bruges and former chancellor of Flanders (1091-1127). The latter was hanged on April 11, 1127 as were many members of the Erembald-Clan. Only Hackett survived because he fled to Lissewege and was hidden by his son-in-law.
Later Hackett was also implicated, but in the end it seems that he was restored to his former rights. As we can see by a lot of documents, he again became castellan of Bruges under count Thierry of Alsace, possibly in 1130-34 after the death of the new castellanus Gervaise de Praet (against whom Walter Crommelin had plotted with some of his followers). Walter Crommelin, Hackett’s son-in-law and knight of "Lissewege" who was not so innocent, and who had been playing "a waiting game", finally reappeared. With some other guilty knights, nobles and burgers, he shifted his allegience to the side of Thierry. He was also accused in an Inquest of aiding Hackett, charged with having helped Hackett escape and receiving part of the treasure. Then he reappeared in Bruges end-March 1128 in a trial during Thierry's accession - as a hereditary claimant to lay his hands on this "Erembaldic office" - but he failed to secure castellan-ship. He was implicated in the conspiracy having profited from the stolen comitial treasure. Later he probably was also restored to his rights while his wife retained ownership of the property. We also know that Thierry issued an amnesty.
Old map of the village of Lissewege
I. Walter Crommelin
- Gwalterus de Liswega is named as testis (= witness) in a document concerning the territories of Lissewege and Oostkerke by the count of Flanders, William of Normandy (1127/28). Walter is listed under the barones et principes Flandriae.
- Walterus Clomlyn as witness for the year 1130 given by count Thierry ‘of Alsace’ (1128 – 68) in a donation to S. Bartholomaei Abbatia Quercetana (= the Abbey of Eekhout) at Bruges.
- In a contract of 1133 between the count of Flanders, Thierry, on one side, and Robert, son of Hacket (of the Erembald Clan) and (his kin) Walterus Crommelin on the other side, concerning the restitution of the claims of the abbey St. Petri on the alluvial lands of Testrep and the tenth of the village of Groede. [The castellanum, Brugensis Haket, had illegally laid his hands on these new alluvial territories so as to occupy them. By this legal document he now had to resign and renounce these territories. This was also accepted by his son-in-law Walter Crommelin, and also by his other sons.] It seems this document was later manipulated in the 13th century to concoct an unrealistic law in the interest of the Abbey to legitimise their claims. Before the 14th century Ostende (Oostende, Oethende) was named 'te Strep' (Testreep) - a double village in which the western part was swept away by a storm in 1334.
- L’enquête sur les complices des meurtriers du comte:
"La femme Watier de Lisseweghe, fille le chastelain Haket... "
- This same person could be the one mentioned in a document issued by Thierry of Alsace, count of Flanders, concerning a tax reduction for the inhabitants of the marsh of Gistel (a place about 20 kilometres south-east of Bruges), "his testibus subtitulatis …Waltero Cravel … hoc factum est in camera Hacketti castellani …" .
II. Walter (Gualterus) [his son or grandson (?)]
- He was cited for the years 1160 – 68, and mentioned again in connection with a donation to Lissewege by Walterus Crumelin in 1183. But from now on we see that the nickname 'Crommelin' became his surname and this was applied to members of this family. How long they stayed at Lissewege we do not know. But some time later they must have left Lissewege and become citizens of Gent or/and Courtrai (Kortrijk) because the below-named 'Balduinus' is the first known Crommelin in Gent. Probably we have to interpret this convention of fixing surnames with a new policy of the Counts of Flanders, Thierry of Alsace (1128-68) and his son Philip (1157/67 - 91), to establish a new public peace after the turbulence of 1127/28 and to foster economic growth in the larger cities.
III. Other members of the Crommelin-family
Since the first half of the 13th century, we find further instances of the name at Gent, and following the revolt of 1302 they appear as assessors (Schepen) and members of the new Patrician class:
- At Gent (Ghent): Balduinus Crumbelin, mentioned in 1164, Egidius Crumbelin (ca. 1206 - 1250), Giselbertus and his daughter Maria for the year 1261 and Femie and Imzoete for the years 1288, 1330-31 and as Schepen Heinderic (Heyndric) Cromelin (Crommelinc) for the years 1303, 1308 and 1311.
- At Kortrijk (Courtrai) Zegher Crommelinck 1309 and as Schepen Wouter Crombelin (1316), Woutier (1319) and Watiers Crombelin (1321), Woutre or Wauter again appear as Schepen for the years 1326, 1329 and 1334. One wonders, however, are they all the same person?
Walter Crommelin seemed to be of noble origin or a member of the nobility. He is named as "miles magni generis et divitiarum plenus" and belonged to the 'barones et principes Flandriae' of William Clito, and about 1128 of the count Thierry of Alsace. This may confirm that Walter Crommelin and his descendants belonged to the Flemish nobility by:
Thus we may conclude his status of nobility if we consider freedom, nobility of birth, possession of landed property and a residence, all of which we can probably attribute to Walter.
- the attributes of wealth ('magni generi et divitiarum plenus'),
- as a prominent figure at the court
- his status as knight ('miles')
Warlop in his excellent study on the Flemish Nobility before 1300 distinguished nobility from knighthood as something transmitted by blood. But in the scientific discussion there originated problems with this distinction which was not always accepted, esp. for the 12th century as the boundaries were more fluid than previously supposed and as known in later times. Many arguments arose against Warlop's categories and theories and these were debated because there were knights in the 12th and 13th century who were never considered nobles. Furthermore, the consequences of the disgraceful fall of the Erembalds resulted in a closed noble-class in which, henceforth, one was considered a noble only if one's mother and father were noble, 'ortus ex nobilibus'.
But on the other hand, the old nobility couldn't secure this exclusivity because nobles gradually began to marry non-nobles, especially the daughters of rich patrician families. A process of generating a new noble class in the prosperous towns coincides with a decline of the old class. Also, since 1170 the counts were able to force old-landowners to become their vassals and fief-holders. This new group later became a nobility by ennoblement or letters of patent.
The relationship of the counts and the nobility in the time of Walter can only be interpreted in the context of a changing social world which is too complex to discuss. Difficult problems also arise from the sources, for example the ambiguous term 'miles', and the 'milites' and 'nobiles' as two main groups of nobility mentioned by Galbert. But there were also the 'ministeriales' (knights), called 'milites' with basic service-functions and who became the new nobility (as the Erembalds were), and latterly the same term was applied to soldiers of lower rank. If we consider all this in the face of changing social conditions, we must presume that birth, not service and freedom, was the only true hallmark of a noble person.
So we have to separate Walter from the 'ministeriales' and he must therefore have belonged to the 'old nobility'. We don't know his ancestors (probably from the house of Lissewege) and what happened further in his case, especially after the murder (mentioned above), and the restitution of his rights. But the known descendants reveal that they held all the attributes of their noble status, (e.g. by the competence of donation and the right to appear at the court). For this reason a second Walter Crommelin (see above) was mentioned as Baron of Thierry. But what happened with their nobility in later times, we don't know.
At the very least, Walter's son would have encountered problems because his mother with her origin in the Erembald-clan was non-noble, a criterion which became more and more important until the middle of the 12th century when these distinctions became more political. It seems that the descendants of Walter Crommelin left Lissewege after two or three generations, losing their noble status in the process, and then employed their nick-name 'Crommelin' as a surname when they settled in Gent and Courtrai (Kortrijk). Here they became influential in a relatively short time, so we find members of them in the new patrician class after the turbulence of 1303.
The Sires of Lissewege
- If we consider this status of Walter and his sons, we almost may conclude that there was some relation with the well known family of Lambert of Lissewege because in this time the toponym must not have been a surname.
- The village and territory of Lissewege (Lisvega, possibly the house of Liso) is situated halfway between Zeebrugge and Bruges, a region with Celtic origin and a Friesian Saxon population. In the middle ages it was a prosperous town and became one of the greatest and most populated cities of Flanders in the 13th and 14th centuries. The place was well known for its linen industry. Later it may have been home to some 20,000 drapers.
- Since the beginnings of the 13th century there existed a manor or a residence house near the entrance of Lissewege named Upperhof which was often cited in the contemporary charts and documents. A print from 1632 shows a great donjon [round tower] with ditches and a little belfry. The castle of the noble family of Lissewege was destroyed in 1838 - as many medieval buildings were at this time.
The Donjon fortress (round tower) at Lissewege
- It could be that the family of Lissewege took at the end of the 14th century the surname de Deckere.
- Ter Doest is a wealthy Cistercians abbey about a mile south of Lissewege. The thirteenth century barn of the abbey survived to modern times.
Thirteenth century barn at Ter Doest Abbey that still exists today
- Gwalterus de Liswega is named as 'testis' [witness] in a document concerning the territories of Lissewege and Oostkerke by the count of Flanders, William of Normandy (1127/28), as mentioned by Galbert, and he is also mentioned by his nickname, Walter Crommelin (of Lissewege).
Other members of the family of the Sires de Lisseweghe
who are probably related to Walter Crommelin of Lissewege
- For the year 1106 we hear that Lambert de Lisseweghe was first founder of the abbey of Thosan (Ter Doest), given a chapel with territory to the Benedictines of the French St. Riquier of Ponthieu. And for the same year the erection of a chapel at Lisvega or Lissewege was documented.
- before 1117 Dodinus, praeco of Lissewege in a donation to the abbey St. André-les-Bruges for the territory of Benceburg or Bencebruc.
- Herbrandus of Lissewege in the letters of count Thierry of Alsace for the abbey of Afflighem.
- 1197 a dedication to the Abbey Ter Doest' 27 mesures des terres' (from latin mensura) by Adelise, daughter of Erembald de Lisseweghe, 'dit Scoutete', at Bruges and in a second charter a ratification by Gérard, Provost of Bruges and chancellor of Flanders. The term 'scoutetus' or 'scultetus' ['scutum' means 'shield' in Latin, 'scutage' = shield money] probably alludes to the comitial office.
- 1213 Lambert, 'chevalier de Lisseweghe, avait cedé aux religieux à Ter Doest la terre appelée Memberg.' We know the existence of some members of this family up to the 16th century.
The historical context and the counts of Flanders
- 879 invasion of the Vikings; 892 first mention of a 'castrum' [little castle] in Bruges, ca. 900 Bruges a 'vicus', ca. 1000 it had a 'portus'.
- In the tenth century Bruges was the main capital of Flanders. The 'castrum' (castle) of Bruges was erected by count Balduin V (1035-67) east of the marketplace (cf. the modern name burg with the representative buildings of the count, the Steen and the Loove with other buildings). At the northern end of the place we find the castle-church St. Donatien [archaeological research from the second half of the 9th century]. An octagon, St. Donatian was part of the castle-church in the second half of the 9th century where in 1127 count Charles was murdered. Since 1089 the Provost was also the chancellor who placed the count's seal on documents. The main administrative services, however, were performed by the chamberlain.
- Since Robert I, "The Friesian", (1071 - 93) until the crisis of 1127, Flanders was a place of extreme violence particularly in the west where some important domains of the counts were situated. This also could have been the reason why the Erembalds grew so strong.
- Thierry's reign was marked by a growing prosperity in Flanders and the strength of the central administration helped by the privileges enjoyed by the counts. In Flanders the cities developed more than in other parts of Europe under their own municipal government.
Barons at the Court of Flanders
We have only some scanty information from the 12th and 13th century and we don't know exactly where members of the Crommelin family participated in the crusades, but the rate of participation in the crusades by the Flemish nobility was high, as were their casualties. I mentioned in another article that the Merlettes were awarded to wounded and distinguished soldiers of these expeditions. In Nicosia on Cyprus I saw a lot of Flemish graves of this era. This may explain the similarity of the Crommelin Crest with the Chevron of Lissewege, but we are not sure, as you will find these heraldic elements also in other places of this region and used by other noble families as well.
The counts of Flanders took a great deal with them on the crusades, and so Robert II (1093-1111) participated with a great army on the first crusade in September/October 1096. For this reason he was later named as "of Jerusalem". Charles the Good was proposed as King of Jerusalem after Balduin II was captured near Edessa by the Saracens in 1123 and he was also offered the title of emperor, but he refused these honors.
Later we have four expeditions by Thierry of Alsace to Jerusalem, 1138-39, 1147-49, 1157-59 and 1164-66, in 1156 supported by the regency of his son Philip (1157/67 - 91). This was also a question of prestige initiated by the propaganda of count Robert the Friesian in 1086 and 1090. The involvement of Flanders became more serious with the marriage of Sybilla, daughter of count Fulco V of Anjou, the King of Jerusalem, while Thierry's son, Philip, went on crusade in 1173, 1177 and 1189.
The Counts were also involved in the latent French-Norman conflict and therefore needed many knights to further their own interests. The main policy by Robert was first to help the English King Henry I in re-conquering Normandy from the King's older brother, Robert Curthose, (in alliances of 1103 and 1110) but later (after the occupation of Normandy by Henry I), he and the later Counts sympathised with the French Kings (e.g. Louis VI). Thierry, meanwhile, preferred neutrality in the Anglo-French-conflict but many Flemish were involved, e.g. in the English civil-war.
For various reasons there must have been closer ties between the court and his knights and Robert II had to organise the government of Flanders when his father, Robert I, was absent on pilgrimage in the years 1086-89. After his return in the spring of 1100, Robert II shared the plans of a monastery reform and church-reorganisation as initiated by his wife Clementia of Burgundy (the sister of the later pope Calixtus II) as given in the Cluniac rule. So Robert named the Provost of S. Donatien Robert, son of Erembald of Veurne, as chancellor ca. 1087. This was the elder brother of Didier (Desiderius) Haket, the father-in-law of Walter Crommelin. Under his rule we have the foundation of the famous monastery Ter Doest by Lambert of Lissewege in 1106/7 as a Cistercian establishment. There were strong ties to Lissewege because the waterway was used by the abbey of Ter Doest at this time. At this time we also have the devastation of the whole region by a great flood in 1134. Also the coast region of Flanders was changed by the great flood which created the Zwin.
The Erembald Clan
Erembald had murdered his lord, Baltrand (Boldran) the castellan of Bruges, who was a noble and lived in the "Oudland" north of Bruges. He took his wealth, office (ca. 1067- ca. 1089) and married his widow Dedda (Duva), maybe the adulteress. This story, however, may well be based on a popular legend which had their origin in suppositions of his criminal background. Duva was probably the daughter of Robert, castellan of Bruges ca. 1046 and of noble birth. Erembald, after whom the clan of his five sons by Duva was named, was considered a 'nobilis' through his marriage with Duva. Therefore the clan could penetrate the Flemish nobility. He died ca. 1089. The clan usurped the comitial position (castellanum = châtelenie) at Bruges, the influential administrative and dominal residence of the counts of Flanders where, since 1089, we have a chancellery with the seal. But in the first place it was the seat of the treasury.
After 1089 Bertulf († April 11, 1127 at Ypres), son of Erembald from the Veurne region, was the Provost of St. Donatien's Church at Bruges. He had been chancellor of Flanders and thus chief financial officer of the count's domain. The provost Bertulf as castellan of Bruges concentrated here - since 1091 - the power of the Erembald-Clan. This position - originally a fief - became in practice a hereditary office within the family, and from this basis Bertulf developed his own network through an intermarriage-policy that created bonds with the Flemish nobility. By controlling the countial revenues, the clan expanded its influence and became a dangerous threat to the Count, but Bertulf's arrogance and excesses created an opposition which took place after the murder of Charles the Good.
The clan was of non-noble origin, being ministeriales ('serf-knights') from the Verne region, but this origin was discovered in 1126/27 and Charles the Good tried to demote them to their former position by transferring the office of Provost to another court favourite. This was the reason for their outrage and rebellion which resulted in the murder of the Count at St. Donatien on March 2, 1127.
A terrible reaction followed immediately by the nobility and the burgers of Bruges, and the murderers were hunted down, convicted, and executed by hanging under the direction of William of Ypres, a pretender to the crown of Flanders. So the Erembalds never fully attained their ambition of sharing in noble circles. Their incredible ascent from 'unfree status' was in the end checked by the old nobility by birth. But descendants of Haket (this name was also used as a surname) probably survived, as the mentioned Adelise, daughter of Erembald de Lisseweghe, dit Scoutete, indicates. Whether these persons were also close relatives of Walter Crommelin of Lissewege (e.g. as great-grandchildren named after the old Erembald), we cannot confirm.
To sum up, we can peer through the dust of centuries to find a tale that has a solid historical background, but certain details remain matters of conjecture. If we take seriously some of the dates given regarding Walter Crommelin and the first Erembald, we can include in our purview of our ancestors a period of some 900 years:
- Provided we trace the first chapter of our origin to Lambert of Lissewege and the year 1106 which saw the founding of the Abbey Ter Doest. (Assuming also that we can connect Walter Crommelin with this noble family of the lords of Lissewege.) If this origin isn't true, then the first believable date for the Crommelin-family history must be the year 1127 with Walter Crommelin.
- In the female line we can go back further into the Erembald-Clan by his wife, the daughter of Haket. We can seize upon the year 1067 when Erembald is mentioned for the first time as Castellan of Bruges (till 1089). His wife Dedda (Duva) may have been probably the daughter of Robert, the Castellan of Bruges (named in ca. 1046).