In the 1970s, genealogist Eve McLaughlin, working for retired Exeter solicitor Cyril Courtney Yeo, compiled a wide-ranging report on early Yeo history. Mr Yeo sent a copy of the report to Reg Walter, whose comments about McLaughlin’s work [note 1] included ‘her notes certainly convey a professional touch of realism and legal authority as regards tenure and ancient relationships between a wife and eldest son’.
The following transcription of McLaughlin’s report has been edited for ease of reading and one or two dates have been corrected. Her findings are perceptive and revealing; despite the time that has elapsed they merit careful consideration.
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The Yeo Family
On the level of minor gentry, at which the Yeos lived, there was a far greater possibility of movement around the county at least, and the country possibly, than with a family in poorer circumstances. Traditionally, the eldest son of this kind of family would inherit the major family estate – which would normally be entailed in the male line, to the eldest son and his male heirs lawful, and failing these, the second son and his lawful male heirs, and failing these the third son, and so on.
For the younger sons, their father would try to buy in some extra land, or find them a suitable heiress with her own land. If this was not possible, the younger sons would be apprenticed into a good trade, preferably in London or some other large city. The daughters would be married off as well as their father could arrange, and the key to a ‘good’ marriage was not the looks and abilities of the girl so much as the amount of dowry her father could give with her. The normal system was that the dowry would be used for the immediate purposes of the husband – possibly to pay his youthful debts – but that he would in due course purchase or settle on her and her own children an estate of at least equal value to the dowry. Normally, her father and brothers, or an uncle, would act as trustee of the settlement, to ensure that this happened, and to safeguard the interests of herself as a widow or of her infant children if she died first.
First, I looked for links with the Shebbear Yeo family, but it rapidly became apparent that the standard system had broken down, and the estate which passed down the elder line did not transfer to the younger branch when the descent of the eldest son failed. The reason was possibly the financial difficulties which affected so many families during the Civil War. Backing the wrong side resulted in heavy fines, and ruin for the family. The younger sons may have agreed to the breaking of an entail, in the interests of keeping the main part of the estate in being. Whatever happened, the junior lines of the Shebbear family moved away from the village and ceased to be landholders there.
One of the places where it seemed possible that a younger son would go was Exeter. This looked very promising. Joseph and Jane Yeo of Shebbear had a son named Humphrey. After the run of baptisms at Shebbear, there was a baptism of Mary, daughter of Joseph Yeo in 1669 at St Paul, Exeter. She died and there was a later baptism of Mary daughter of Joseph there in 1677. Then came what looked very promising indeed – merchant Humphrey Yeo baptised a son William Yeo in 1683 at Exeter All Hallows. Was he from a previous marriage of Humphrey Yeo of St Mabyn?
In Exeter, a whole group of affluent merchants named Yeo were found. One in particular, Richard Yeo, can be tied into a family of rich Yeos from Totnes. His father was William Yeo of Totnes, who was buried there in 1612, and had been able in his will to provide amply for his widow Agnes, four sons and sundry other relatives. The poor, for whom the averagely comfortable farmer would leave about £1, received £13 6s. 8d. and the reversion of certain goods after the death of the widow. Agnes was left a house to live in, with other lands to bring in an income, and the majority of the household goods for life. She had other property presumably settled on her at marriage or inherited after her husband’s death. The eldest son, William received the major estate, which did not have to be detailed. George and Richard,. the next two sons, got £100 immediately and the reversion of property after their mother’s death. George was evidently the family lawyer, for he got his father’s desk, all his law books, his book of precedents, his dictionary and a pile of parchment. Nicholas got only a share of the household goods and some tenements after his mother died, so he was probably still quite young.
The then only grandchild, Agnes, William Junior’s daughter, got 40 shillings, as did the testator’s sister, Thomasin Bartlett, wife of William, her son, Willlam, her daughter Elizabeth Bounde and another sister, Ann Russen’s children. The overseers were Will Bartlett and Agnes’s brother Richard Savery.
The origial will was among those destroyed in Exeter in 1942, but was abstracted and is preserved in the Oswyn Murray collection.
The baptism of the children can be found in Totnes registers: William in 1583, George in 1534, Richard in 1586, Nicholas in 1587; also Robert in 1590, who evidently did not survive. The marriage to Agnes Savery is not there, but her family was a good one which maintained its position and shows up from time to time in law cases. Servington Savery (his name combining two minor gentry families) had a large estate in his day.
George Yeo, the second son, must have married fairly soon after his father’s death, to a Susan Tillard. Again, the marriage entry has gone, but he mentions her parents in his will (proved 1620). At the time, they had three small children, George (1615) William (1617) and Agnes (1620, shortly before her father’s death). Susan had the use of the property until her eldest son came of age and he was instructed not to disturb her in possession then even. Perhaps he was a rumbustious lad. Little William was left land in Dartington and his cousin William, son of George’s elder brother William, was given a third of a messuage in Totnes, presumably to round off what he inherited from his grandfather. The trustees for that were Mr Tillard and Robert Savery. Also mentioned were ‘my mother Mrs Agnes Yeo’, brother Nicholas, and brother William’s wife Katherine. Brother Richard who was by now doing well in Exeter, didn’t need a boost. George’s legal predilections were embodied in a gift of £10 to build a new prison in Totnes. No mention was made of the legal books. Susan would have them until young George was of an age to start litigation. In the event, George seems to have died young, since there is no further mention of him.
Agnes Yeo survived until 1645, in considerable affluence. Her will was proved in the prerogative court of Canterbury in May 1646.
She not only left £10 for the general poor, but £20 to apprentice poor boys to trades. She outlived both her elder sons (no obvious will for William) and left the goods her husband had intended for William to his son William junior. Grandson William had married a girl named Margaret, who was also left sliver, and a legacy of £20 was left to their ‘next child’ (I think that William married ‘Mrs Margaret Cussens’ at Exeter St Petrock in 1642). They had baptised another William (Agnes’s great grandson) in 1643 and, with the incentive bonus, George in 1646, who thus arrived not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but golden sovereigns. Agnes left a wedding ring and £20 to George’s widow Susan and £150 to her son William; his new wife was given a ring. ‘Cousin’ Anthony Downe, his wife Agnes and their son received a silver goblet, £20 and household goods. (This was, I think, George’s daughter Agnes born in 1620, who 1642 in Totnes married Anthony Downe, vicar of Northam; ‘cousin’ is any relationship other than father, mother, brother, sister or child of the testator.) Agnes’s granddaughter Agnes is never mentioned again, so probably died. No other children of William and Katherine are mentioned.
Richard, wealthy as he might be, and due to inherit property in Totnes under his father’s will after his mother’s death anyway, was given yet more. Agnes had recently bought a house outside the Westgate, near Lechwell Street (where the third of a house which George gave his nephew was). This house went to Richard, and his wife Elizabeth, and their children William, Agnes, Elizabeth and Susan were mentioned. Nicholas, the fourth son, got a little, so did his children (if any). I get the impression of a shadowy character who did not make much impact on his kinsfolk. He may have gone to Exeter too – there was a Nicholas of the right age – but out of sight did not mean out of mind for Richard, so it must be the personality of the two which decided the size of the handout.
Richard, her son, and William, the oldest grandson, were left as executors. So far, I have found no further reference to Yeos in Totnes – possibly all the property there was rented out, or even sold off, and the lucky owners moved to Exeter or elsewhere.
Richard Yeo had also first gone to Exeter, where he married Elizabeth Lant in St Petrock’s parish in 1627. His daughter Agnes was born there and baptised there in 1629. I cannot trace William and Elizabeth, but Susanna is probably the child baptised at St Kerrian’s, Exeter in 1637. There was also a Richard baptised there in 1640, who did not survive long.
Richard was a merchant in Exeter. His will was proved in London in 1656, but this was the practice at that date since all powers, including those of proving wills, had been removed from the bishops. His will expressed a wish to be buried in the parish church – not the cheaper churchyard, but he did not say which parish. He left 40 shillings each to the poor of Exeter and of Totnes. Not as generous as his parents!
To his wife, Elizabeth, he left the (silver) plate which he had already given her, or which she had been left by her own mother or a Susanna Lawdy. This reflects the fact that married women owned nothing – not even the clothes they stood up in – but all went to the husband. Elizabeth was also secure in the estate for her lifetime, and had some leasehold property, which was to pass to their only surviving son, William, on her death. The four children, William and his sisters Agnes, Elizabeth and Susanna shared two thirds of the household goods; Elizabeth got the rest.
Richard specified legacies to a Mrs Priscilia Jewell (40s.) and her son John, godson of Richard (£5) but these were to be paid ‘out of the money her husband, John Jewell, oweth me’. There were also gifts to his ‘kinsmen’ William Yeo of Plymouth and William Yeo ‘clerk’ (reverend) of Newton Abbot of £10 each, if they acted as overseers to the will.
Elizabeth, who was some 17 years younger than her husband, left a will proved in 1675. Her only named children were William, who got £50 and silver plate, and Elizabeth, who had married Bartholomew Anthony in 1657 and had at least four children: Bartholomew, Elizabeth, Thomas and Susanna, all of whom were given silver articles. Mrs Anthony was left executor. A ‘cousin’, William Yeo of Burrington was mentioned, as was Mr Mark Downe of Exeter (perhaps a son of Anthony and Agnes) and Priscilla Jewell, who also got £5, with no strings.
Probably the two William Yeos mentioned in Richard’s will are his two nephews, moved out of Totnes. Plymouth is an obvious attraction, even then a thriving sea port, though the parishes in which it lay were named after the older places of Stoke Damerel, St Budeaux and Charles. Burrington, where Elizabeth mentions a William Yeo, is in north Devon, near Chulmleigh. It shows how mobile this family were, compared with the average lower middle class family, who stayed put within a small area.
Another group in Exeter is revealed in the will of John Yeo in 1682, made when he was about to take a journey over the seas to trade. It was a risky business, travelling on those tiny ships, and the prudent man set his affairs in order first. John was probably still a young man, and unmarried, though he had intentions towards a Miss Mary Lindsay, gentlewoman. If he did not return, she was to receive a ring to the value of £5 – a valuable thing. But, he added, only if she was not married at the time. This guarded against his forgetting to change his will if he survived and nothing came of the match.
John left sums to his brothers George and Thomas, and his sister Joan, but the executor who got the bulk of the estate was his brother Robert Yeo, gent. John asked to be buried, not in Exeter, where he traded, but ‘in the parish church of Huish, beside my grandfather’.
This enabled me to identify the group as children of Leonard and Joan Yeo of Huish, where the family were very rich indeed. They were baptised as follows:
1. George on 9 October 1653 at Chittlehampton (20 shillings for a ring)
2. John on 20 September 1654 at Huish – died young
3. Leonard on 2 April 1656 at Huish – died young
4. Robert on 6 October 1657 at Huish – the executor and chief legatee
5. John on 24 March 1658/9 at Huish – the legatee
6. Joane on 18 March 1659/60 at Huish – 20 shillings for a ring and a dowry of £20
7. Elizabeth on 20 October 1661 at Huish – died young
8. Thomas on 14 June 1663 at Huish – 20 shillings for a ring.
Another William Yeo, a merchant of London, was so far divorced from his roots as to regard a ‘voyage into the West Countrie’ as the equivalent of taking ship. He made his will in 1647 ‘being short to take a journie into the West Countrie and considering the uncertainties of mans life and the dayly accidents that it is subject to and the controversie which may arise after my deathe concerning mine estate’.
William lived in Fulham, and had recently purchased Wansdowne House from Noadiah Rawline, a ‘mannor dwelling and mansion house, with stable, barnes, dovehouse, lands and tenements’. This is Wandon or Walhamdowne Manor, later Walham Green. He left a wife, Anne, and young children, John, William and Richard (who received £150 each at 21) and daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, who were to have dowries of £200 each – an interesting reversal of the usual amounts for sons and daughters. He left the manor and lands in care of his brother in law Thomas Tucker of London and his brother John Yeo of Exeter, both merchants, in case his wife died before the children were of age. His brothers Walter and John Yeo were left 20 shillings each and his ‘mother Somers’, his ‘brother and sister Tucker’, his ‘brother Alexander Somers and my sister his wife’ 20 shillings also. (The terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ were used loosely for in-laws, and it could be that Mrs Somers was his mother-in-law, and Alexander his brother-in-law, and Mrs Tucker either his own or his wife’s sister. On the other hand, his widowed mother might have married again, and Alexander might have been a half brother.)
He also mentions a ‘sonne and daughter in law’, William and Ann Prewe, who were left 20 shillings. They are probably not his own daughter and her husband, but his stepchildren.
Despite the dangers of country travel, William survived and his will was not proved until 1660. I have not identified this group yet, beyond the fact that ‘William Yeo of Fulham’ was mentioned as ‘cousin’ in the will of Arthur Yeo of London in 1648. Arthur (died 1653) was a son of Thomas and Mary Yeo of Woolfardisworthy in north Devon. Arthur was another fourth son (like Richard of Exeter) who was sent to London to make his fortune.
Another London-proved will (with no identifiable link back to the West Country at this stage) is that of Wolstan Yeo, who died in 1673. He was a citizen and cooper of Southwark, married to Sarah, with whom he had children named Sarah (1663) and John (1666) who both died young. Sarah too had recently died, and was buried at St Benet Paul’s Wharf, which was the church nearest to the Customs Wharf, so much used by sailors and merchant venturers. When he made his will in November 1673, Wolstan wished to be buried beside her. His sister Mary had at that same church in 1664 married William Holbourne (referred to in the will as Holborough). They named their children Wolstan and Sarah, and the choice of names was rewarded by gifts of £30 to each child and £100 for their parents, plus bedding and clothing. The Holboroughs had evidently not prospered and Wolstan had lent them various sums, now forgiven them. There was a final debt recently incurred, for which he had taken their plated goods as security, and this was to be returned if William paid back the money. Mary Holborough was given some fancy clothing which had been Sarah’s: ‘her linnen, her sadd coloured sarge petticoat with gold and silver galloon, her silke scarfe and mantle, one pair of stockings’, William got a nice warm cloak, but the ‘best worsted camblett cloak, my best hatt and my black skyn wash leather gloves, went to his own brother, James Yeo.
James also got £50, and ‘uncle John Foster’ and the servants 10s. for mourning rings, but the bulk of the estate went to his brother William Yeo.
When what can be gleaned from the wills is exhausted, there is another source to try, which is usually profitable concerning a family at this level. Where there is money, there is litigation. Those who have none may grumble, but they don’t expect to gain by doing anything about it. Those who already have money can speculate the heavy lawyers’ fees to accumulate more – they hope. Therefore the records of civil cases are usually of great assistance in sorting out the tangled web of ancestry, and especially so over the difficult period of the seventeenth century, when so many registers are partly defective.
One splendid chancery case concerning the Yeos [C9/284/113 of 23 May 1701] involved a dispute over the estates of Leonard Yeo of (ultimately) Huish, which went rumbling on through the Chancery Courts for years, as the parties locked horns and found fault with each other. Not all the documents survive, including the original complaint – indeed, the various participants had probably forgotten what started it. From what does remain, it is possible to see that the basis of the case was that Leonard’s son Edmund thought the trustees of his father’s estate were giving favours to his sisters. The fact that two of the trustees, Arthur Arscott and Digory Penfound, were married respectively to those sisters, Ebbot and Arminell Yeo, probably means that he had truth on his side. These sisters were daughters of Leonard Yeo’s first wife Gartrude, who must have been an heiress with a good lawyer in the family, since she was allowed to make a sort of will leaving money to the two daughters. Married women normally had no possessions of their own, whatever their dowry at the time of marriage, but a father could specify that his daughter was allowed to dispose of a certain set sum of money – if this was tied up thoroughly before the marriage took place. Leonard had apparently not paid over the money to his daughters when their mother died, so the husbands had some reason to give priority where it would help their own cause. The Arscotts had two little daughters also entitled to a legacy, and these were paid up early in the trusteeship. Edmund Yeo pressed the claims of his own children, especially his daughter Mary, who was possibly about to marry. With a dowry, her prospects would be so much better. Edmund also had children named Paul, Gartrude, Elizabeth, Susan, Margaret and Ann – so a lot of dowries to find, against one dowry coming in. Edmund is referred to as the ‘son’ of Elizabeth Yeo, the second (or third) wife, though this could be stepson. If the two daughters of Gartrude were only his half sisters, the conflict would become more acid with good reason.
The result of the battle was that every payment or collection of money made by the trustees had to be written down and submitted to the court. And Edmund was liable to challenge anything, which involved nonsense like a tailor being cross-examined about whether he had indeed supplied mourning clothes for the funeral of Leonard Yeo in 1624, ten years later. Edmund raised hell because when the trustees paid out the legacies owed under Gartrude’s will to their wives and daughters they did not include the sums as receipts to the estate. He did not seem to grasp that Arthur Arscott, trustee, was not the same man as Arthur Arscott, husband and father. Leonard actually seems to have died at North Petherwin, and he owned cattle there which were sold after his death. Edmund hauled the purchasers up to state that they really had bought the animals.
The accounts were very involved, since the first few years were spent in paying off mortgages and settling old debts. Among these were a large debt of Leonard Yeo’s widow Elizabeth to Sir Warwick Hele, and another on behalf of Edmund Yeo himself, possibly to settle a debt owed by his son Paul, which was borrowed from one of the other trustees, John Yeo, and paid back by him apparently out of funds due to Edmund from the estate. Edmund was annoyed at this, but it took time to object, since the debt was paid back in 1626 and the fuss not made until 1631. Elizabeth Yeo was paid the tithes accruing from the parish of Egloskerry, which she had as part of her jointure, but there was some argument about 25 shillings paid to Mr Jolle, the curate of Egloskerry, and to Mr Downe, the vicar of Stratton.
There are many more cases in which a Yeo was involved, and they could all be worth investigation, since they fill in the details of life as it was, apart from the bare entries in the parish registers. The relationships can be proved from these cases, and in the absence of wills they might be the only proof of some family connections. The fact that there are so many entries in Chancery cases is a tribute to the litigious nature of the Yeos, rather than their good sense, since only the legal profession really profited from the wrangling over debts long gone and the cost of candles and mourning garments.
The key case, however, is one brought by Humphrey Yeo of Week St Mary in 1704. All that survives is his own statement of the case again one Benjamin Jolla, in which Humphrey figures as ‘your Orator’. He states that his grandfather John Yeo, gentleman of Launcells, was a man possessed in his lifetime of many estates in Devon and Cornwall, to the signifcant tax value of £50 a year. In particular, he owned two houses called Teryes and Maresfield in Bridgerule, Cornwall, and a house named Tredonn in Hollacombe in Devon. By a treaty of marriage between John and his intended wife Frances Holman, these were conveyed to him for life, then to Frances for life as her jointure, then to their eldest son and his male heirs, failing whom their second son and his male heirs, and so on.
John and Frances, grandparents of the orator, had died long ago, and the property passed to their eldest son, Humphrey, who had recently died. Humphrey was the father of the orator, who expected to succeed him in the property, but found that when he went to take possession, a Benjamin Jolla was there. He had entered into a combination with persons unknown to claim that Humphrey senior had sold him the property in his lifetime by cutting Humphrey junior out of the succession, suffering a recovery to be made in his lifetime. Jolla held the deeds of the place, including the marriage settlement, and claimed there never was such a document and he was going to burn it. The witnesses to the original grant were all dead or in remote places, and Humphrey junior could not bring their testimony to help him.
What happened is that Humphrey senior had sold the property in his lifetime, reserving occupation while he lived (presumably). He had done this by a ‘recovery’. Land came from the King, theory said, so no one could just sell it on open market. Therefore anyone wishing to sell made a bargain, then allowed the would be buyer to summon him to court, claim that the property belonged to him (the buyer) all the time. The seller would deny this and he would bring a witness, Richard Roe, or John Doe, to prove it. Next day, Richard Roe, being fictitious, did not turn up, so the case was judged to have gone against the seller. The money, still then in the hands of third parties, was handed over and the ‘recovery’ was complete. Humphrey senior presumably needs the money, so the property is sold.
If the property was entailed, the seller should have obtained the signed agreement of his next male heir (preferably the next two). If the heir was under age, then he should have agreed to bar the entail when he was of age (commonly called ‘docking the tail’). The sale had obviously come as a shock to young Humphrey, and he could have some hope of voiding it if he was able to produce the original marriage settlement, but without it he was in difficulty. The alternative was to produce witnesses who had signed the original settlement – usually his and her relatives, and several of them. But young Humphrey was right that the witnesses were likely to be dead. The marriage of John Yeo and Frances Holman took place at Poundstock in 1616. The son Humphrey was their eldest (surviving) son, and this probably means that he was born by about 1620. Few would remember even when Humphrey had sold the houses, and none the original agreement. The generations must be very ‘long’ indeed. Humphrey senior would have been ready to marry in the 1640s – but there was a war on then, and a lot of family arrangements were disrupted. If he married late, in the late 1650s, then his eldest son, the orator, would be born in about 1660, so his marriage in 1685 would be plausible. What we have here is evidence of a Humphrey to Humphrey descent, in a gentry family (Humphrey describes himself as a gentleman as well as his father and grandfather). There is also evidence of a decline in financial status – selling entailed land held under a marriage settlement was a desperate move and to do it without even telling the heir was something no gentleman would do unless he was desperate. Young Humphrey would undoubtedly be set to marry an heiress if he could, to recoup the family fortunes. However, there seems to be no evidence that Jane Hambly was wealthy; Humphrey had gone a long way and not snared the major fortune needed. She was in the right general class, though, and the first child was baptised in St Mabyn, her home, so it was possibly during this long absence that the father sold the jointure property. The couple came back to the home area soon after – the next child is Giles, ‘son of Humphrey and Jane Yoe’, baptised at Week St Mary on 9 October 1689. Perhaps they didn’t stay there – a Richard Yeo baptised a child in Week St Mary in 1716, so he was presumably born in about 1690, and could be the next child. Humphrey was back in Week St Mary when he brought the case in 1704. Unless we postulate several Humphrey Yeos, with a wife Jane, at the same time, this must be the same man.
There are no further documents in the Humphrey case. I am not surprised, since in the absence of the marriage settlement or witnesses to its existence and terms, Master Jolla had Humphrey on toast. The result was presumably a loss of income, less estate than expected, possible debts incurred by the father, or legacies due to younger brothers and sisters – and the expenses of the abortive legal case.
Some of the distances involved in this are much greater than could be expected in a normal labouring or lower middle class family. Yeoman farmers tended to move further, because they had carts and money, but they were still circumscribed by the circle drawn round their nearest market town – the elder sons stayed put on the farm they were due to inherit, the younger ones might raise the money for a farm ten or fifteen miles away, or marry the daughter of another farmer they met at market, especially if she were due to inherit the farm (gentry families travelled further, though with similar motives). Farmers’ sons were apprenticed to local tradesmen, or into the market town; gentlemen’s younger sons were apprenticed to a merchant or major tradesman in a large town or in London. We have seen in the wills of the Yeo family how the younger sons went Exeter or London, and also to scattered places far from home, on marriage.
It was the objective of a gentleman to marry off his children successfully, which meant to rich people’s children. The daughters were given handsome dowries, to that end, and the sons were expected to marry girls with similar provision. The idea of marriage for love was not considered – and marriage to a poor girl for love was out of the question. Gentry sons made their way round the country, meeting their own kind at hunts, assemblies and on visits to country houses. There were networks of relatives or military friends around the country, and the married spent their time making matches for the single.
Only by assembling a full collection of the minor gentry of Devon and Cornwall, and working out cross-relationships, would it be possible to guess how Humphrey Yeo, from somewhere in north Devon near the Cornish border, met Jane Hamley, from some miles further south, but there is a reasonable connection by a road to within a few miles of St Mabyn.
We lack any register entries for the baptism of Humphrey son of John in or about 1620. Possibly it was in a register that no longer survives. We also lack a baptism for Humphrey son of Humphrey in about 1660. However, there is a baptism in 1655 in Exeter of an Elizabeth daughter of Humphrey, which might belong, and nearer to home a couple of baptisms of children of Humphrey and Anne in North Tamerton – Charles in 1664 and Anne in 1667 – which could be younger children of the same father.
The grandfather of Humphrey the orator was ‘of Lancells’ when he died, but not necessarily for all his life. The registers of the village date from 1708, but there are earlier transcripts for some years. John may have moved round his ‘divers properties in Devon and Cornwall’ during his productive years. There is the marriage of a Henry Yeo to Marian Trim in 1659 at Launcells, which could be of one of his sons. Henry produced William there in 1667 and he married Mary Callaway in 1695. Possibly the Ann Yeo who married John Calacott in 1690 was William’s sister, or even Humphrey senior’s daughter.
The origin of the name Yeo – according to peerage authorities, quoting one of the family (unnamed) – was the estate of Tre-Yeo in Launcells. The family were reckoned to be comfortably off from at least the time of King John, and the seal of their fortune was the marriage, possibly in the reign of Edward III, of a Yeo to the heiress of Heanton Sackville. The senior line, which inherited Heanton, ended with an heiress, Mary Yeo, who married Henry Rolle and their descendants owned Heanton, and later married an eventual heiress of Lord Clinton, so that one Rolle inherited that peerage, but this line ended with an heiress again, who carried the title to the Trefusis family.
Mary Yeo, the heiress, was great-granddaughter of a Robert Yeo who married Alice, daughter of Humphrey Walrond. The only son mentioned is the heir William Yeo, but they should also have had a Humphrey. The junior line of the family was the Leonard Yeo line of North Petherwin and Huish (close to Heanton). It was Robert’s brother Nicholas who married Arminel Corbet, bringing that forename into the family.
The name Humphrey in the Shebbear line is clear enough from parish registers, but it also occurs in this group at – for want of a closer location – Lancells. John of Launcells married at Poundstock in 1616, and might have been the son of Humphrey of Shebbear, who had children from 1591. However, their John seems to date from 1613, unless he is the son of a son named Humphrey.
John Yeo might be the John who figures in the case of Leonard Yeo as trustee. His precise relationship is unclear, but he was appointed because he was the executor of William Yeo, who had been involved in previous transactions with Leonard, and might have been his brother. If John Yeo (grandfather of Humphrey) married at about 25, he was born in about 1590, and would be 34 when Leonard died – a mature age considering the short life expectation of the time. Further work on other depositions may throw more light – some are only partially surviving and undated on the sections which we possess. If we can find any sets of evidence, these may give ages and relationships of the parties. What is mostly there is sheets of wild accusations and meticulous accounts, so far.
The coats of arms used by various members of the Yeo family are emblazoned slightly differently, but this could be explained by deficiencies in the artistry of the men who drew or carved them. The basic arms were argent, a chevron between three (something) sable. The something is usually a bird – drake, gannet, solan goose, martlet, turkey cook, swan, teal – but once a ‘garb’ or sheaf of corn, which suggests that either the artist was worse than usual, or the stone was very worn. As the family were comfortably off in several lines, the difference might have been by choice – some added ‘plates’ or circles as well.
There may be other wills in the Prerogative court, or other early copies of the missing Devon wills, which will tie up loose ends in conjunction with more depositions. The difficult part is to prove the link between Humphrey in Week St Mary and Humphrey in Northam. The feeling is right – the family had suffered a financial setback, they would be living more simply from then on. Probably some document will record the move to Northam – from which the tie-up to Littleham is established.
One thing is hopeful – a family that has pursued a ruinous course of litigation for many years is unlikely to give it up completely without a last flourish – and that may be the last straw as far as finances are concerned. Hence perhaps the move.
1. Handwritten letter to Sheila Yeo, 20 May 1994.