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The People of the Rural Area.

A History of the Powis family.

By Mick Powis.


 People, who have a Powis as an ancestor, can claim documented descent from a Roman Emperor. The claim may not be correct, but it is documented.

We do not know exactly when our family took the surname Powis but we can make an educated guess. We know that people called Powis appear in parish records in the late 15th century, in the north of Shropshire. It seems very likely that the surname was first used when our ancestors moved to England from Wales. Surnames had been used in England from the 13th century; they were not used in Wales until the 17th. A family moving to England would need a surname, and could well have used the area they moved from as it.

Why Powis? There is more in this question than simple geography. Powis or Powys was an ancient Welsh kingdom. It is almost certain that people calling themselves this, would see it as a sign of some status. It would signify both ancestry and have some political significance. The title Powis or Powys had been used by other families claiming lordship over the ancient Welsh kingdom of Powys. Both before and after our family took the surname. While our family claim descent from the Princes of Powys, we are not direct claimants to the title. The present Lord Powis is a descendant of the Charlton and Herbert families, not related to us at all.

My research leads to the conclusion that everyone with the surname Powis (However spelled) is related. The earliest records of our family using the surname are from Cockshutt, near Oswestry in the north of Shropshire.

It is important to realise that Powis is not a typical Welsh surname. In fact it was almost certainly first used when our ancestors moved from near Meifod in present day Powys to North Shropshire. Most Welsh surnames only date from the 17th century and are almost always patronyms.  John ap Richard or Ellen ferch Richard, son and daughter of Richard could take the surname Richards or Pritchard (ap Richard). 'Powis' probably dates from the 15th Century and was first used after the family settled in Shropshire.

The 15th Century was a time of considerable political upheaval, which affected Wales more than most of the rest of Britain. From being the subject of some fairly vicious discrimination following the rebellion of Owain Glendwr in the early part of the century, by the end of the Century with the ascent of Henry Tudor to the English Throne, being Welsh, or more accurately claiming descent from the Welsh aristocracy, was a source of status and possible political influence.  Most of the powerful families, on both sides, in the War of the Roses were Marcher Lords, feudal aristocrats in the boarder land between England and Wales. Most had ancestral connections with the Royal houses of Wales. After all King Henry the Seventh, Henry Tudor claimed descent from not only the Princes of Gwynedd, but also the Princes of Powys. For a Welsh family on the make in England, being a Powis was a definite advantage.

There is a very personal example of this preserved as a snapshot into history, in the Oswestry Parish Register. In July 1564 John ap Dd als Powys buried XXII 'th daye. In other words on 22nd July 1564 John son of David, alias Powys was buried in Oswestry Parish Churchyard. The vicar, who obviously had a less than harmonious relationship, in life, with John Powys, was not letting an uppity Welshman go to his grave, above his station.

From the point of view of genealogical research it is very useful that one branch of the Powises, the Welsh family, on the make, did actually make it, to the English aristocracy. This branch of the family still exists; much of the information in this article is taken from excellent research by Martin Powys-Lybbe and from the web site of Timothy Powys-Lybbe. They are connected to the Cowper-Powyses, the famous authors. Briefly this is the story.

During the English Civil war Thomas Powys of Henley, near Ludlow, was a Royalist. A number of Shropshire Powises, like most of the gentry in the area, seem to have fought for the Royalists all through the Civil War. Some are known to have served at the siege of Brampton Bryan. Thomas got his reward in 1660 when Charles the Second was restored to the throne, a place in the English aristocracy. However, to take their place, they had to prove the family had noble blood. To do this they claimed descent from the Princes of Powys, hiring a Herald, a professional genealogist of the day, to research their ancestry. He tracked down a pedigree taken almost a hundred years before, in 1586, by the Herald Lewys Dwnn of Humfrid ap Owen ap Meredith, born about 1518, a distant cousin of Thomas Powys. He owned land at Main, near Meifod, land inherited from the time of Bleddyn, Prince of Powys. Much land however had been sold by his father and grandfather. In documents of the time he as described as 'gen, os'  (generous, nobly born).

He was a descendant of Iorwerth Goch or Edward the Red, the last Prince of Powys, who was a direct ancestor. Iorwerth was deposed in 1166, because of this, the next seven generations of our family, were titled barons of Main. The title was lost about 1400 as so much family land around Meifod was sold.

Thomas Powys added his own genealogy to that of Humfrid ap Owen. His great great grandfather was an Iohannes or John Powys who was born in Meifod, Wales. He later moved to Cockshutt, Shropshire. There is a reference to him dated about 1475. He is said to have married a Miss Wycherley, and have had four children. Lewis, Edward, James and Morris.

James Powys was the ancestor of Thomas Powys. It seems he had two sons William and Humphrey. He moved to Ludlow from Cockshutts and may have worked as a tanner.

 William Powys 1493 to 1577 was the grandfather of Thomas. He lived in Ludlow, Shropshire and was a wealthy farmer. He became a bailiff of Ludlow. He had several children in two marriages, including Thomas (of Snitton), the father of Thomas Powys (of Henley), the man who made it into the aristocracy.

Thomas (of Snitton) 1556 to 1639, became very wealthy. He bought a large estate at Snitton near Aston Carbonell in Shropshire. He was able to send his son Thomas to university.

Thomas Powys (of Henley) 1617 to 1671 went to Balliol College, Oxford. He was granted a coat of arms and a place in the aristocracy in 1664, basically for services to the Royalist cause. He bought a large manor house, Henley Hall at Henley near Ludlow. He was a Sergeant at Law, basically a barrister. He had a number of children the best-known or notorious being Sir Littleton Powys 1647 to 1731 and Sir Thomas Powys 1648 to 1719.

Both Sir Littleton and Sir Thomas became judges. Littleton was famous only for his dullness. Thomas achieved notoriety by never allowing justice to get in the way of political expediency. Thomas Powys was a Tory, in those days, a supporter of the rights of the King against parliament. King James the Second made him Attorney General of England, in 1687. He conducted on the Kings behalf the prosecution of the 'Seven Bishops'.  These clerics including the Archbishop of Canterbury were charged with sedition. Despite the efforts of Thomas they were found 'not guilty'. This very unpopular trial was a major factor in the deposition of King James and the installation of William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Unpopular for many years with the new King, Thomas, who frankly was a bit of a crawler, regained favour and became Tory MP for Ludlow from 1701 to 1713, when he was once again made a judge.

 Though there may be doubt about the accuracy of the genealogy provided by Thomas Powys, it is a paradox that the pedigree from Humfrid ap Owen to Iorwerth Goch is almost certainly correct. The Welsh took great pride in their ancestry, and in such a small nation (there were at the most a few hundred thousand people in Wales in the Middle Ages) genealogies were very accurate.

The title Prince of Powys died out soon after Iorwerth. His nephew Owen ap Griffith, known as Owain Cyfeiliog deposed him. He was succeeded by Owen ap Gwenwynwyn. In 1240, his son Griffith ap Gwenwynwyn accepted an English barony, giving up the title prince of Powys forever. He took the title 'De la Pole' from his castle at Welshpool, now known as Powys Castle.

The rest of the family tree of the Princes of Powys takes us back literally to the Dark Ages.  The dynasty goes back to about 584 AD, to Cadell, Prince of Powys and Lord of Chester.

The history of the Princes is quite well documented, but makes complicated reading. The title passes mainly through the male line, but occasionally the female. The story of the Princes is dominated by war, against the English, other Welsh princes and, certainly not least, against relatives, other claimants for the throne.

The Princes of Powys had a fortress at Mathrafal, about two-miles west of Meifod, for several hundred years. The ditch and bank fortifications on the site, by the River Vyrnwy, can still be seen. Many of the princes were buried at the Church of Saint Tysilio and Saint Mary at Meifod, which dates from 550 AD.

Some two-miles east of Meifod are two farms called Upper and Lower Main. Humfrid ap Owen owned them, the last direct descendent of the Princes to own property there.

There is an early surviving monument to the princes, near Llangollen. This is known as the pillar of Eliseg. It was erected about 854 AD by Cyngen ap Cadell, the last King of Powys, to commemorate Eliseg his great grandfather. Eliseg lived about 776 AD. The inscription on the pillar gives the Powys genealogy. It reads:


+ Concenn son of Cadell, Cadell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guaillauc.


+ And so Concenn, great- grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.


+ That is the Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys, out of the inheritance of the Angles with his sword of fire.


+ Whosoever repeats the writing let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.


+ This is the Concenn who captured with his hand eleven hundred acres, which used to belong to the Kingdom of Powys.


The next two lines were illegible.


+ Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Servira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the King, who killed the King of the Romans.


+ Conmarch painted this writing at the request of King Concenn.


+ The blessing of the Lord on Concenn and upon his entire household and upon all the region of Powys until the day of doom.


There is little doubt that the Powis Dynasty goes back to Cadell, before that we are in the realm of legend. Though some recent research into the real history of King Arthur, using Welsh language chronicles, rather than English or French mediaeval accounts, does lend some credence to some of them.

The Princes of Powys claimed descent from Vortigern, the Romano-British warlord.

Vortigerns main claim to fame was inviting the Saxon mercenaries Hengist and Horsa, to defend Britain against Irish invaders. They then rebelled, paving the way for the English invasion of Britain. Hardly the most far sighted of decisions, as the Princes of Powys spent the next few hundred years fighting the English.

Vortigern married Servira the daughter of Magnus Maximus, Emperor of Rome, died 388 AD. He is the Macsen Wledig of Welsh legend, the story is told in the 'Mabinogion'. The Princes of Powis were descendants of Vortigern and Servira.

The name for the region of Powys, probably also dates from the Romans. The most likely root is from the Latin 'Pagi', through 'Pagenses' to 'Pouis'. The root 'Pagi' or 'Pagus', is the derivation of the word 'Pagan'. Which originally meant the people of a rural area, rather than the followers of a non-Christian religion. Powys probably got its name from its relation to the Roman settlement of Wroxeter, the rural areas to the west being known as 'Pagi'. Rural districts of local government, rather than the 'Civitas' of Wroxeter.

Strictly speaking only the Powys-Lybbe family can trace their ancestry to Rome. The majority of people claiming Powis ancestry can probably only trace their line back to the English Civil War. Most seem to be descended from coal miners in the Wellington area of Shropshire.

Powises fist appear in the Wellington Parish register in 1652. By the early 18th Century there were several related families, working as coal miners in the Shropshire Coalfield between Wellington and the River Severn.  The social forces that propelled the Powys-Lybbe family into the service of the state had the opposite effect on the Powis family of Wellington. In 17th century parish records male Powises are often given the title 'Mr' meaning they were regarded as gentlemen. By the early 18th century, a number were recorded as paupers. We do not know the individual details of what happened, but know that the individuals were living in times of massive change. In 1709 Abraham Darby had developed the process of iron smelting using coke. The Severn George became the cradle of the Industrial revolution.

The family grew in the Shropshire Coalfield during the 18th Century, most of them working in the coalmines. By the early 19th Century many of them had migrated to English Black Country. Though others moved to work as coal miners in North Staffordshire or South Wales. Because of their rather unimaginative pattern of giving their children Christian names, it is often difficult to work out precise lines of descent; though there is no doubt all Wellington Powises are part of a single extended family. Prior to 1750 there are very few Christian names, and cousins born within a short time of each other, were often given the same name. This means we are often unable to identify who is the father of a particular individual, but can be certain about the grandfather. This changes to some extent after 1750 with the rise of Methodism in the coalfield, as we have many more Christian names, including some obscure biblical ones.

However, there is a gap in the genealogy of the Powises of Wellington. How did they get there, are they related to the Powys family of Cockshutt and Ludlow?

Fortunately there are some clues. Like Thomas Powys (of Henley), we have to rely on a man called Humphry. This man, probably, our first recorded ancestor was born in the mid 16th century. We have parish records and his will. The parish register of Uffingham, Shropshire shows that a Houmfey Powes married Joane Longnor on the 28th June 1597. He may have been the same Humffrey Powes who married Mary Hussey, at Saint Alkmunds, Shrewsbury on 5th December 1582. We know he died about 26th March 1615, and is buried at Upton Magna, Shropshire. In his will he is described as a gentleman. He lived at Preston Boats, on the River Severn just outside Shrewsbury. He left property worth 72 Pounds, 11 Shillings and 6 Pence, to his wife Joane and son Richard. We know he had another son Edward and probably a daughter Susanne.

It may be possible to connect this Humphrey Powis with John Powys of Cockshutt. He had four sons. The Powys Lybbe family is descended from James, via his son William. He also is known to have had a son Humphrey. We have no more details of him.

It seems more likely that the Upton Magna branch of the Powis family are descended from Edward. He is known to have had two sons Humphrey and John. Edward held land from Lord De Strange, at Cockshutt and Crollesmere, Shropshire. We have a record of Humphrey appearing in Court in 1535. He complained to the Star Chamber that a number of named men burst into his house, beat him up and robbed him.

 Though both of these Humphries are probably too early to be Humphrey of Upton Magna. It is likely one could be his father. The pattern of similar Christian names makes it likely that a Humphrey son of Edward would name his son Edward, and Edward in turn name his son Humphrey.

We know quite a lot about one of the sons of Humphrey Powes of Upton Magna. Richard married a Mary Reynolds, at Withington, Shropshire, on 1st May 1632. Prior to this he was married to Elizabeth. We have no record of the marriage. There were five children, all christened at Upton Magna, Shropshire. Humphrey Powesse on the 26th December 1616. Edward Powesse on the 12th November 1618. Mary Powesse on the 18th April 1621. Susanna Powesse on the 25th April 1623 and Richard Powesse on the 24th April 1625.

We do not have a will for Richard however, at his death about 8th July 1664, an inventory of his goods was made. He was described as a 'Gent' in it. He left goods to the value of 60 Pounds 16 Shillings and 8 Pence, so was comfortable rather than rich. Most of the goods were household equipment; there were no trade goods, though there was brewing equipment. He owned two houses one at Downton Shropshire, near Upton Magna, and importantly, one at Aston, Shropshire, only a few miles away from the Shropshire Coalfield. He was buried at Upton Magna.

His son Edward Powis was married to Mary. We have no record of the marriage. He had three children, all christened at Upton Magna. Humphey Powes on 19th December 1643. Richard Powis on 2nd April 1647 and Josua Powes buried at Berrington, Shropshire on the 2nd April 1653. Edward lived at Betton Strange Shropshire. In the 1672 hearth tax, a duty on chimneys he paid eight shillings for four hearths so was a man of substance. He was described as Mr Edward Powes in the parish register so was regarded as a gentleman.

Another probable son Richard gives us some important information. We have records of the christening of the children of Richard and Mary Powis. Josua and Samuell Powis were christened at Saint Chad's Shrewsbury on the 19th June 1651. The next five children were christened at Wellington, making them very likely ancestors of the Powises of the Shropshire Coalfield. Richard Powis on the 6th December 1654. Thomas Powis on the 18th March 1655. John Powis on the 10th August 1658. Charles and Elizabeth Powes on the 13th May 1660. This is an important clue. While we know very little of the life of Richard Powis, we are aware of his politics. Neither Charles nor Elizabeth was a usual Powis name. Almost certainly the reason they were so named was a political gesture. On the 25th May 1660 King Charles the Second was restored to the throne of England. Richard Powis was a Royalist; he probably served in he Royalist forces during the Civil War. Richard was described in the Wellington Parish register as 'Mr Richard Powis' so was regarded as a gentleman.

Our last clue comes from another Richard Powis, probably the son of Richard and Mary christened on the 6th December 1654. He married Anne Wilkes at Church Aston, Shropshire, on the 26th April 1685 they had at least eleven children, christened at Pitchford, Wellington and Buildwas, Shropshire. One of them was named Littleton. He was buried on 12th March 1698. Richard Powis must have been aware, that Littleton was the name of the judge from the aristocratic Ludlow branch of the family. Even though they must have been second or third cousins by this time, this seems to confirm there were still some family connections, and links the Powises, coal miners from Wellington to an Emperor of Rome.

To conclude I will speculate on the likely history of the family. During or just after the War of the Roses, descendants of the extended family of the Barons of Main moved from around Meifod to North Shropshire. They moved as family land was sold, and probably took the surname 'Powis' to indicate ancestry and status. After a generation or two based in the Cockshutt area, part of the extended family moved to the main towns in Shropshire, Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Family connections remained and many fought as Royalists in the Civil War. Members of the Ludlow branch joined the aristocracy, while those based around Shrewsbury, and Upton Magna, moved to the coalfields around Wellington, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. After about 150 years their descendants had moved to the coalmines of Staffordshire and South Wales. The majority of Powises are probably descended from them. There are probably descendants of Powises in every country of the English-speaking world. Tracing our ancestry to the Roman Empire may be something to be proud of. However the miners of the Shropshire Coalfield were the pioneers of the industrial revolution, and central to the development of the World as it is today. Anyone, who visits the Ironbridge World Heritage Centre, can say with certainty that people called Powis, dug the coal, to smelt the iron that built the Ironbridge.



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