View towards the site of William Mostyn’s house and estate. But who did he buy it from?

Trying to establish the ownership history of a piece of land can often drag you into other areas, such as the equally convoluted worlds of genealogy and family history.

I’ve previously written about Plas Mostyn, once the largest house of the township of Brymbo, as well as about its owner William Mostyn, Archdeacon of Bangor and serial marrier of heiresses. I’ve also written about the house’s later history. Most of the credit has to be given to Alfred Palmer, who also related its history in his various books about Wrexham. Palmer states that Mostyn himself bought the estate from a man called William Santhey in about 1640: strangely, William Santhey crops up nowhere else that I can find, though he does have the surname of a landowning family who once lived in the Gresford area. Perhaps he existed, and like many once wealthy and substantial people has simply vanished from the records,  but perhaps not.

The one thing Palmer was unable to do was to find the estate in the 1620 survey of Norden, and thereby trace its earlier history. There is no mention of a Santhey – any Santhey – or of any parcels of land or messuages which give a clear match.

The answer, however, might be provided by the will of William Mostyn himself, details of which have been very kindly provided to me by another researcher. This mentions his two “tenements” in Brymbo, which are left to his son Roger; one is stated to have been bought from a “William Mathew”. The other was bought from a man with a name that looks not unlike “William Santhey”, but which in my interpretation of the orthography seems to be more obviously “William Sontley”. I do not know if Palmer got his information on “Santhey” from this will, and misread the name, or got “Santhey” from another source, but he is usually a careful researcher – if frustratingly vague as to his sources.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the correct name is “William Sontley”, rather than “Santhey”, and that Palmer somehow got it wrong, perhaps by misreading the will or seeing a poor transcript of it. Is there anyone called William Sontley in Brymbo in this general period?

Well, it turns out that there is. A deed in the Venables collection in the Shropshire archives, dated to the late 1640s, mentions a “William Sontley of Brymbo, gent” along with his wife Elizabeth “only daughter and heir of Robert Sontley of Brymbo gent. deceased”. This seems promising, although the deed itself refers to land in the Ruabon area. The Wrexham parish registers also note the marriage of a William Sontley and Elizabeth Sontley in November 1640, giving further evidence of their existence. But why, you may ask, is this William Sontley married to the daughter of someone else called Sontley? To try and answer, we need to look at what is known about the family as a whole.

The Sontleys (also variously spelt Sonlley and Sonlli, though I’ll stick with Sontley for consistency) were an old family who for several centuries were very influential in the area of Wrexham; like the Griffiths, they claimed descent from older Welsh nobility. They were a rather large family, too: the main branch owned the manors of Sontley, Burton Hall and Plas Uchaf, while another slightly less prestigious set of Sontleys, the descendants of a younger son of the family in the 1500s, had an estate at Frondeg in Esclusham. The most interesting member of the Frondeg family, Captain Roger Sontley, was to become a follower of Morgan Llwyd and in a break with the natural instincts of the Denbighshire squirearchy, was one of the area’s most ardent Parliamentary supporters in the Civil War; he crops up repeatedly in the records of the time. The Sontleys of Sontley, on the other hand, remained almost equally ardently Royalist. The difficulty lies in finding William amongst all these other family members, and why he might have been described as “of Brymbo”.

Luckily, a candidate can be identified amongst the less prominent members of the Sontley family. William Sontley – according to Harleian Ms. 4181, a book of pedigrees put together at the end of the 17th century by Hugh Thomas, where his name is spelt “Sonlli” – was the 4th son of Robert Sontley of Sontley, High Sheriff of Denbighshire in 1598 and 1611. He married, according to the manuscript, an unnamed daughter and heiress of another Robert Sontley, from the Frondeg branch of the family. I feel that this is almost certainly Elizabeth, the wife of the William Sontley of Brymbo mentioned in the 1640s deed, where she is specified as being the heiress of a “Robert Sontley”. This would neatly explain the rather tangled situation with the surnames: a younger son of the Sontley branch married a distant cousin and heiress from the Frondeg branch. But, in order to explain William’s later status “of Brymbo”, can the Frondeg Sontleys be shown to have also owned land in Brymbo?

Well, it may be that they can. The same manuscript states of the Frondeg Sontleys that in the 16th century one of their younger sons, Robert, married Anne, the daughter of Richard Vaughan ap Gruffudd of Brymbo: this could have brought them land in the township. Moreover, Norden, in 1620, records several parcels of freehold land in Brymbo owned by “Robert Soulley” (as the Archaeologia Cambrensis transcribes it) – in this case, 3 acres called “Tir Coch”, the Red Land – and a messuage and 9 acres by an “Elizabetha Soulley”. It seems reasonable to assume this is supposed to represent “Sontley”, or “Sonlley”. It’s not too far a stretch, in this case, to conclude that Mostyn bought part of his estate – and perhaps Plas Mostyn itself – from William Sontley, who had in turn obtained it from his cousins the Sontleys of Frondeg.

Of course like all ‘neat’ theoretical solutions, this one has its own problems – particularly in terms of identifying the estate in Norden’s survey, something Palmer was unable to do. For a start, there were also lands in Brymbo belonging to the senior branch of the family – the estate later known as Lodge, or the Lodge, as you’re likely to hear it called locally. In the 18th century it was called “Hill’s Land”, after John Hill, who married the heiress of the last of the Sontleys of Sontley. (In those times it was an empty place, writes Palmer, and “fairies were believed to dance there”: a world away from its subsequent history as a steelworking village that was later part-buried by the steelworks.) So, Norden’s “Robert Soulley” could just as easily be the man who in 1620 was head of the family’s senior branch, although this still leaves the possibility that “Elizabetha” was the heiress of Brymbo later married by William. More importantly, neither the Lodge (at around 45 acres) nor the Plas Mostyn estate (at over 150 acres, by the time of the 19th century) are a good match with the very small parcels of land recorded by Norden. Of course, Norden may not have recorded everything, and it seems certain that the Plas Mostyn estate grew over the years – William Mostyn himself bought at least one other tenement in Brymbo, from William Mathew. The situation is clarified, however, by a later part of William Mostyn’s will, which mentions specifically his lands bought from “William and Elizabeth Sontley” in “Pentre yr fron” (Pentre’r-fron is still the name of the hamlet between Plas Mostyn and the village of Coedpoeth). These parcels are listed as Tir coch, the “red land”, Tir tan y derlwyn, the “land under the oakwood”, and a couple of others. Checking back with Norden, we find these field-names used for the landholdings of Robert Sontley and Elizabeth Sontley in Brymbo. So, it seems that at least some of the Plas Mostyn estate can be found in 1620. Indeed perhaps it can be traced further: for the lands in Brymbo called tir coch, at least, are mentioned in a 1609 grant to Robert Sontley by Edward ap Richard Vaughan of Brymbo, a document which ended up in the Boderwyd estate records and which now resides in the NLW.

While all this is of limited interest, perhaps, it still demonstrates that establishing land ownership isn’t always a straighforward task – and that even the most careful of 19th century historians can’t always be trusted to get things right.