English Background

(Written by C. Howard Shillington)

   Who were the Shillington's and where did the name originate? We know, of course, that those early Shillington pioneers coming to Canada in the early 1800s were from Ireland. Less well known is the fact Ireland had been home to them for less than two hundred years before this time.

   According to fragmentary history records, "The Shillington's had lived in Bedfordshire (England), and had a large estate which sometime during the fifteenth century, they lost it to the church." The same family record also stated that, " A Coat of Arms had been granted in Bedfordshire in 1504." With this information at hand our principal task in researching English history, has been to verify, insofar as possible, the authenticity of these records and to gain some understanding of the times and events from which our Shillington name and heritage has evolved.

   The Oxford Dictionary of the English Place Names, records Shillington, Bedfordshire (Scythingedune 1060th, Sethlindone D, Scetlingedon 1202P, Scythingas or Scillingas) and suggests that such place name may be derived from a tribal name. It suggests further that such name like many other Old English names, may have been Scandinavianized, that is, adopted by Scandinavian invaders of Britain and changed in form to Scandinavian habits of speech, Old English "sc" was difficult to pronounce and was changed to the easier "sh". (History records that part of Britain, including Bedfordshire, was overrun by the Danes in the 900'sA.D.). The author, P.H. Reaney states that many English place name ending in "ington" trace back to Old English "ingatum" and denote willages established by tribal communities. Our best evidence, therefore, is that Shillington was originally an old Anglo-Saxon village whose name had been changed during the tenure of the Danes.

   T he Domesday Book, which was completed in 1086 A.D. by King William, following the Norman conquest of Britain, was a remarkable document, in effect, a detailed survey concerning every manor:

how called, who holds it, how many hides, how many plows. how many men, how many villeins, how many cotters, how many sorts, how many freemen, how many sokemen. how much woods," how much meadow, how many pastures, how many mills, how manv …fishponds, how much worth. (Sources of English Constitutional History).

Included in this book is Shillington, shown along with the Manor of Shitlington and the church and Parish of the same name, as under the authority of the Bishop of Ramsay, as the Tenant-in-Chief or Overlord.

   Whether the village was part of the Manor is difficult to say. In Anglo-Saxon days the village was the agricultural centre and the lowest unit of local government. With the coming of the Normans (1066 A.D.) the greatest change was a new system of land-holding. Because the Norman system of feudalism was of a military nature, about 180 barons were given varying amounts of land on condition of training and supplying about 5,000 knights to serve the king in time of war. These land grants came to be known as Manors, from a French word for dwelling. However, a Manor was more than a house, it represented an estate, under a single Lord, and the services and rents that the peasants working the land, owed to the Lord of the Manor.

   In Norman England, some villages were split up into a number of Manors. In other cases, some Manors contained more than one village. In the case of Shillington, it appears in the Domesday Book, to be part of the Manor of Shitlington.

   In this feudal society, bishops and abbots played a double role and held large fields from the king and were also expected to provide a further 800 Knights for war services. This was probably the case with Shillington.

   Most inhabitants of the manor were called "Villeins", the family head of which, held a virgate of land in the open fields which could be passed from father to son. In return for such land a whole range of services was owed to his lord, in what came to be known as "tithing". In the centuries between the Domesday Book and the advent of the Black Death in 1348, the abbots and other great lords had ruled, without challenge of any kind, to their almost unlimited authority. However, in August 1348, the Black Death arrived and, with it's two recurrences in the ten years following, decimated almost half the population. It was largely as a result of this disaster and the resulting labor shortage, that the role of the villein came to acquire a new value and lead to the rise of a new middle class yoeman, with greatly increased land holdings and freedom from many of the commitments to their lords.

   In reference to the Shillington family surname, Kennett points out that, in the days of the Domesday Book, there were very few family surnames. Rather, these followed in the next two or three centuries thereafter as part of the growing acquisition by many villeins of lands and property and the adoption of surnames to add to the single christian name bestowed upon them at birth, by the church. With the rise in English trade and a growing number of specialized occupations, such names as Weaver, Taylor, Smith and others are cited as common surnames which developed at this time. In the case of the Shillington surname, that this derives from the place name is almost a certainty (Reaney records Shillington's as living in Bedfrdshire in the 15th century).