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The Wyse document 1375.

The Wyse document 1375.

’… if anyone of the race of Adam should survive this plague I leave parchment and ink to complete my work.’ - Friar Clynn, 1349

Friar Clynn writing in 1349 in Kilkenny has passed down to us one of the most graphic descriptions in Europe of the Black Death. This plague cut short the lives of over a third of the population of Europe. It continued to wreak havoc right up into the middle of the 17th century though it never reappeared with the same ferocity as when it first appeared in 1349.

It is difficult to get an insight into just how a relatively ordinary family reacted to the plague and its sporadic reoccurrence in the decades after 1349. The remarkable survival of the 1375 manuscript now on display in the Medieval Museum at Waterford Treasures and originally from the archive of the Wyse family of Waterford is the only document in Ireland to cast light on the nature of family ties in a non-aristocratic family in the decades following the catastrophic upheaval of the Black Death.

This rare document lists the names of no less than twenty-seven male members of the Wyse family to whom the family land had to pass to before it could pass out of the male line and onto a female member. Why did the family draw up this document and why was it so important to keep it for such a long time?

The document was compiled because medieval society was completely male dominated. A female could only control land and other property if she was a widow and was administering it for her son who had yet to come of age. The role of women in society was very limited and generally speaking it could not be conceived that land or property could pass to them in their own right.

The fact that the documents lists no less than twenty-seven male members of the family shows that even some twenty-five years after the arrival of the plague in Waterford, its devastating power still struck terror into people forcing them to make provision for the future. Everyone was only too well aware of the devastating nature of the plague that was capable of carrying off whole households within a matter of days. No one would enter a plague-stricken house; in fact the victims became prisoners in their own homes until death finally carried them all off or until the plague had abated and by a miraculous deed some of the household survived.

It was clear to all who survived the Black Death that a man having three or four male heirs was not guaranteed a successor. This is why provision had to be made for the family land going to any one of his uncles, brothers, nephews or even second cousins provided that the inheritor was male.

This manuscript is remarkable because 14th century documents relating to the affairs of a relatively modest family such as the Wyses of Waterford simply did not survive. The turmoil of the wars of conquest and religion that devastated Ireland in the 17th century usually saw to that.

The document survived because as time passed it assumed a second purpose, that of providing a genealogical base-line record for the family. Genealogy was important in medieval society even for a family like the Wyses who were not aristocratic. Indeed drawing up a genealogy was a way of aping ones betters, the monarchy and the aristocracy, and thereby creating a status for the family. After a century or so the 1375 document had outlived its original purpose but its age ensured that it gained a new purpose as a genealogical record.

In the 1530s the genealogical importance of the document was not lost on William Wyse whose star and consequently that of his family was rising rapidly. It was only after acquiring the document at auction that the museum staff was treated to a wonderful surprise to see on its reverse that the Waterfordian William Wyse, the boyhood friend of King Henry VIII, had used the list of twenty-seven Wyse ancestors on the 1375 document to draw up on the back of the document his family tree.

In the hands of William Wyse the document now had a new lease of life. It gave him a family pedigree that went back to the late 13th century. This was important for a man who was now a confidante or at the very least an acquaintance of some of the most remarkable characters in 16th century Europe.

While Wyse was at the royal court he came to know many men and women of international importance, men like Thomas Moore the chancellor and scholar who later lost his head for refusing to accept the king’s religious reforms. He would also have known Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife and the daughter of the king of Spain. When Henry tried to divorce Catherine, her uncle the Holy Roman Emperor imprisoned the pope thereby ensuring that Henry VIII never got his divorce from Rome.

Wyse also knew Cardinal Woolsey who built the famous Hampton Court Palace which he lost when he failed to secure the divorce for the king. He would have known Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife and was very probably at court when she lost her head in 1536. We know that he knew well and wrote to Moore’s replacement Thomas Cromwell, the chief architect of the dissolution of the monasteries. Wyse would use this acquaintance to secure for himself all the lands and property of the dissolved Benedictine monastery in Waterford. Cromwell who secured the Wyse family’s prosperity for over four centuries would also become a victim of Henry’s axe man.

Moore, Woolsey and Cromwell had something in common with Wyse. They were not men of aristocratic or noble birth but men of ability and drive who used that ability to gain power and influence. William outlived his three famous contemporaries and when summoned to the royal court in 1543 it was not to fall victim to Henry’s executioner. Instead the aged king drew his sword to knight him thus making him the first former mayor of Waterford to receive the honour.

William’s descendants influenced Waterford society for almost four centuries, a remarkable achievement given the fact that they did not accept the religious reforms of Henry’s son Edward VI and daughter Elizabeth I.

The 1375 document is unique, a great treasure of medieval Ireland. It shows the triumph of hope over despair. It shows how in less than two centuries a family fearing extinction in 1375 rose to become the most influential family in Waterford. Such intimate insights into the history of Ireland’s oldest city are rare indeed.