Towards the end of 1809 the historian Robert Surtees was horrified to find that Sir Thomas Conyers, 9th and last baronet of Horden, County Durham, was a pauper in Chester-le-Street Workhouse. The Conyers were an ancient family descending from Roger de Coigniers who came to England at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and included Barons and marriages into nobility in its history, and Sir Thomas descended from Richard Conyers, born c.1548, whose mother, Isabel Lumley, was the granddaughter of Elizabeth Plantagenet, believed to be an illegitimate daughter of King Edward IV.
Sir Thomas’s baronetcy had been created for his great-great-grandfather in 1628 by King Charles I. In 1685 Sir Thomas’s 1st cousin 2xremoved, Julia Conyers, had married Sir William Blackett, three years after Sir William had purchased the Sockburn estate from other descendants of the Conyers family whose male line had died out. According to legend Sockburn was the lair of the Sockburn Worm, a fearsome dragon slain by John Conyers in the 11th century, and the falchion (sword) he is said to have used was for many years held at Sockburn Hall. In 1947 it was donated by the Blackett family to Durham Cathedral and is presented to each new Bishop of Durham on his consecration. The Sockburn Worm is believed to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”.
At the time of Sir Thomas’s birth in 1731 his father, Sir Ralph Conyers, 5th Bt., a descendant of younger sons, had been in business as a glazier in Chester-le-Street but in the same year he inherited the baronetcy on the death of his cousin. On Sir Ralph’s death the title passed to his two elder sons successively, the first of whom died without issue. On the death of the second son the title passed to his son, George, who became the 8th baronet. Sir George Conyers managed to squander what was left of the family fortune and on his death without surviving issue around 1800 the title, but nothing else, passed to his uncle, the 3rd son of Sir Ralph, who became Sir Thomas Conyers, 9th Bt. There would not be a 10th.
The Conyers family were Roman Catholics (two of Sir Thomas’s third cousins were nuns) and for much of Sir Thomas’s life times would not have been easy. Restrictions on Catholics had been increased after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which replaced King James II with William and Mary, and following the Jacobite Risings of 1715 1 and 1745 anti-Catholic sentiment hardened. Sir John Conyers, 3rd Bt., was compelled to take the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper before witnesses in accordance with the custom of the Church of England in 1715 and 1717, and the births of Sir Thomas’s three daughters, born between 1756 and 1762 were not recorded in the baptismal registers of St. Mary & St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, until 1779, a year after sanctions against Catholics had been eased. How much, if at all, anti-Catholic measures contibuted to Sir Thomas’s descent into poverty is not known, though he had been unsuccessful in business and had subsequently spent some years at sea. He does, however, seem to have retained his bearing as a gentleman and is described as “gentleman” at his marriage in 1754 and as “esquire” in the baptismal entries of his daughters. According to Burke’s “Vicissitudes of Families” Robert Surtees called on him at the workhouse and, distressed at his plight, offered to raise an appeal to alleviate his circumstances. Sir Thomas replied: “I am no beggar, Sir; I won’t accept any such offers”. Of course Burke may have been employing some poetic licence, but what is known is that Sir Thomas overcame his initial reluctance and accepted the offer of help. Surtees was modestly successful in his appeal for funds and Sir Thomas was moved to more comfortable accomodation in a private house on 1 March 1810.
In a letter to the “Gentleman’s Magazine” dated 17 April 1810 Surtees reported the sad news that two days previously Sir Thomas had “expired, without pain, and without a sigh.” He added:
“In him (the last male heir of a long line of ancestry, whose origin may be traced to a period of high and romantic antiquity) the name and title expires, and the blood of Conyers must hereafter flow undistinguished in the channels of humble and laborious life. Sir Thomas left three daughters, married in very inferior situations…A time may yet come, perchance, when a descendant of one of these simple artisans may arise, not unworthy of the Conyers’ ancient renown.”
Two centuries later his wish would be fulfilled, and to a vastly greater extent than he could possibly have imagined. On 29 April 2011 Catherine Elizabeth Middleton 2, the 6xgreat-granddaughter (through her mother’s line) of Jane Conyers, eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Conyers, married Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and 2nd in line to the throne after his father, the Prince of Wales. On 22 July 2013 their son, Prince George Alexander Louis was born, surely “not unworthy of the Conyers’ ancient renown”!
1 When Prince George eventually becomes King George VII (or King George VIII if his grandfather, Prince Charles, decides to adopt “George” as his regnal name) he may find it amusing that in 1715 his 2nd cousin 11xremoved, Sir William Blackett, 2nd Bt., the nephew of Sir John Conyers, 3rd Bt., was on the run and in hiding from the forces of his predecessor, King George I, following the Jacobite Rising of that year. For a fuller account of how Sir William Blackett became caught up in the 1715 Jacobite Rising please see A History of the Blacketts pp. 63-71.
2 The name “Blackett” may not be completely unfamiliar to the Duchess of Cambridge. From 1996 to 2000 she was a student at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. The college observatory is named after another former student, Sir Basil Blackett (please see A History of the Blacketts pp. 120-121), a second cousin 6xremoved of Sir William Blackett, 1st Bt.