Seier de Seton, founder and 1st of the family of Seton

In the history of France, it was very rare for anyone to be given a personal title. What happened was that a seigneurie (lordship) was raised to the rank of  barony, county etc. This meant that the seigneur, henceforth, had the right to use the corresponding  title.  If the land passed to someone else, by inheritance, gift or sale, the new owner took on the title. However, this is where the matter of nobility came in. Nobles were, more or less, exempt from paying  taxes,  - one of the major causes for the later French Revolution. Should the new owner of a piece of titled land be a commoner, he had to pay a special tax to his sovereign, until such time as he received Letters of Nobility or Letters of Acceptance. In the intervening period he was known  as  Seigneur de la baronnie de **.  Likewise the eldest son of Count Lambert de Lens in Flanders was known in our family's history as the Seigneur (Seier or Seher) de Lens or de Seton.

Like so many other pedigrees, the Norman origin offered for the Seton family is careless nonsense. The name was said to be made up from "the town of the Say". William de Say, son of the Conqueror’s companion of the same name, married a sister of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, and took the Mandeville arms of quartered gold and red. There is no possible connection with the Setons - except that William de Say was lord of Hamme, in West Flanders, probably through his Flemish wife, and his arms were in the tinctures of Boulogne.  As their own distinctive crescents show, Seier de Seton and his brother Walter sprang from a second son of the house of Boulogne. Known in their Flemish homeland as Seier and Walter de Lens, they were sons of Count Eustace’s second son, Count Lambert de Lens, whose daughter by a second marriage (to the sister of William the Conqueror) was the Countess Judith, mother of Scotland’s Queen Maud. Seier’s eldest son, Walter de Lens, or Walter the Fleming as he is described in Domesday, had his chief English home at Wahull (now called Odell) in Bedfordshire. On the Firth of Forth, as heir there of his father, Seier, he was called Dougall or "the dark stranger", a nickname which was also given to his own son Walter, and duly recorded by the family’s first official chronicler, Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, in 1554.

The family name stems from the small harbour village of Staithes, nine miles north of Whitby, which was in the 11th century called Seaton Staithes. It was an important place, private if not secret to its users, hidden in a cleft in the cliffs and extremely difficult of access. As the old name indicates, it was a stronghold for the Setons. Seaton Quay is at the safest point in the harbour, and Seaton Hall has stood for many centuries at the top of the cliff directly above it.  After Domesday but before the end of the 11th century the family name had been drawn inland, most portentously to Rutland, where at the new manor of Seaton the Lady Maud de Lens and her sister Alice were spending the betrothal period before their marriages. Maud’s Scottish son, Prince Henry, would pass the name to Seaton, Cumbria, where he established a cell of his abbey at Holmcultram. Earlier than either of these moves, it went to the Firth of Forth where Queen Maud’s premier Flemish relative, her uncle Seier "de Seton" built his great palace for the protection of herself and her heirs.

In both Scotland and Bedfordshire, and no doubt in the lost Yorkshire home of the family, Seier de Lens (or Seier de Seton) and his descendants kept as princely an establishment as they had enjoyed in Flanders – a fact attested by a curious documentary survival. As if he had been a king, Walter de Wahull had tenants-in-chief, each with his own tenants. The terms these courtiers enjoyed on his estates at Odell are known, and although the relevant Scottish documents have not survived, it is certain that the Seton tenants on the Firth of Forth had been given similar privileges. The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire records, not without astonishment, the fairy-tale rents paid by Walter’s knightly tenants in that county as "a rose, an arrow, a handful of rushes, capons, wax, a pair of gloves …" Lesser tenants paid more; the cottager William Prikeavant provided a hooded falcon, while Walter le Sergeaunt, keeper of the park at Odell Castle, held his cottage by the service of twelve arrows. At the neighbouring Little Odell Manor, whose Domesday tenant-in-chief was Walter’s great-uncle, Count Eustace II of Boulogne, the tenancies granted to Eustace’s own attendant knights were similar, "a garland of roses, a bundle of rushes, a cake of wax …"

Seier's father, Count Lambert of Lens, as we have seen, married Adele, sister of William the Conqueror, and died at the battle of Lille in 1055. This left Lens without a strong arm to defend it, and both Baldwin V of Flanders and Henry III, the Emperor, laid claim to what was constitutionally an appanage of Boulogne.  Count Eustace went to war to regain his late brother’s holding, and after intervention by Pope Victor II the comte of Lens was returned to him. But by then it must have become obvious to everybody that the territory could not be held by a minor; and if there had been any heirs of Lambert’s they were, for the time at least, disinherited.  This fact, that no one inherited from Lambert, seems to have confused historians on both sides of the Channel into thinking that he died childless. But not only did he have as heiress his infant, half-Norman daughter, Judith, but, as Flemish charters make plain, he also left two sons. He must, therefore, have been married and widowed before he wed Adele in 1054. Both boys were old enough to fight at Hastings – but perhaps only just. William Poitiers, in an enigmatic reference to a nephew of Eustace who was captured by the Normans in the abortive Boulonnais attack on Dover in 1067, speaks of the young man without naming him, as a “noble tyro”. What was the fate of this young captive is also not stated.

Domesday gives a hint towards the identity of Lambert’s sons. In that book they are allotted just their Christian names, Walter and Seier, and it is obvious from the wording that Seier is absent. Wlater, “brother of Seier”, was still holding lands in 1086, but Seier’s possessions had been passed to his own elder son, another Walter, described in the documents as “Walter Flandrensis” – Walter the Fleming. He and his brother Hugh are given as tenants-in-chief of the vast string of Midlands manors already mentioned. It is also certain, though not established in any surviving portion of the Domesday, that they held substantial estates in the north. Seier, as we may glean from other sources, had gone to Scotland (perhaps on release from his capture at Dover) and been granted lands on the Firth of Forth by the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore.

To begin with, cross-Channel contacts of the Anglo-Boulonnais between their new homelands and their old were sustained as vigorously as were those of their ally between his English kingdom and his Norman dukedom. For a long time after 1066, Flemish charters show men known to have extensive holdings of English lands witnessing documents promulgated at the court of Flanders. Wkater and Hugh “de Lens” as they are called in these Flemish charters must have crossed and recrossed the Channel many times in support of their estates on each side of it. Numerous charters of the count of Flanders are signed by the both of them; sometimestheir place is filled by their cousin, Winemar le Fleming or Winemar de Lens, son of old Wlater. By 1126, signed by “Dominus Hugo de Lens, ingennus homo” gives to the Chapter at Soignies, where there was a memorial to their grandfather, Count Lambert, a half-share of the dime of Lens, for the soul of my brother Walter”. In future, charters requiring the witness of Lambert’s descendants in Flanders will be signed by Baldwin de Lens, Eustace de Lens, Godfrey de Lens, those heirs of Hugh who took the Boulonnais legacy instead of the English one.

King Henry’s wife, Matilda of Scotland, died in 1118, and three years later he reinforced the connection with his Flemish allies by taking as his second wife Count Eustace’s cousin Adela, daughter of Godfrey, Duke of Bas-Lorraine. Simon de Senlis was also dead (he had succumbed in about 1111, at the outset o a further trip to the Holy Land) and Maud, his widow, took as her second husband the brother-in-law of Count Eustace and King Henry, Malcolm Canmore’s youngest son, David, Earl of Cumbria. In 1124, on the death of his brother Alexander, David ascended the throne of Scotland as David I; so Maud of Lens, like her cousin Matilda of Boulogne, became a British queen.

A complete list of those who traveled north with Maud and her second husband is not quite within our grasp. But it would be broadly true to say that of the Flemish Boulonnais so protectingly established in the East Midlands, the exceptional families would would be those who did not send a son or a brother to accompany their Lady to her new home in Scotland. The intention, however David may have sweetened it with offers of land, was again protective.

We know that these people took with them the devices they had already brought in 1066 from the comtes of Flanders; and more than that, we can see with an astonishing clarity exactly how they used them. One, at least, of the emblems was already there. Seier de Lens, the young nephew of Count Eustace II who so mysteriously disappeared after the Dover raid of 1067, had been in Scotland since perhaps that date, as Seier de Seton, living in the fortress he had built himself on the Firth of Forth which would later be known as Seton Palace. Walter, his son and heir – Walter the Fleming – succeeded him there, as he did at Odell Castle, Bedfordshire; and there can be no doubt at all that his personal heraldic emblem, the triple crescents, gules and a field or, of a second son of the count of Boulogne, flew over both places.

Descendants of Seier’s younger son, Hugh, as well as those of his younger brother, Walter, also used the triple crescents; but being now outside the continental constraint of territorial tinctures, they each changed the colours. Hugh and his family wore the three red crescents on a silver field – a device which, incidentally, flew from the masts of the Boulogne navy in their home port of Huughescluis (so perhaps Hugh was their High Admiral). Old Walter’s grandson, Walter de Preston, took the black and gold colours of Flanders, and both crescents and tinctures survive in the arms of his descendant, the premier viscount of Ireland, Viscount Gormanston. Some of Hugh’s heirs acquired the surname of Legh (or Lea), and took the crescents with them when they moved into Cheshire; here the tinctures moved away from the old tradition into azure and sable.