A brief and incomplete history of the House of Curwen

The Curwens, previously the Culwens, or De Culwens, are one of the oldest families in England. They were the Lords of the Manor of Workington on the west coast of Cumbria in Cumberland, England at the mouth of the River Derwent. Cumberland is on the border of Scotland, and the estate at Workington and the family figure prominently in the history of both countries.

At the time of the Norman conquest, Cumberland was under Scottish control and when William Rufus reclaimed it the ancient pre-Norman aristocracy survived largely intact. The Curwens are descended in the male line from Orme, son of Ketel, son of 'Elftred the Englishman' who must have been born in the middle of the eleventh century. The family owned extensive estates in west Cumberland and were related to the royal families of England and Scotland and the Earls of Northumberland and Galloway. Orme married Gunilda, a daughter of Cospatric, the last English Earl of Northumbria. Gostpatic was descended on his mothers side from Ethelred and Alfred the Great and the royal line of Wessex and he was also a nephew of the King Duncan who was slain by MacBeth.

At that time the distinction between Scots and English was slight and the family, like the Bruces and the Baliols, held lands in both countries and their names appear on both English and Scottish charters. Patric the son of Thomas adapted the surname Culwen which has remained the family name ever since.

The Curwen family motto, "Si je n'estoy" ("If I had not been there"), is said to come from the words of Sir Gilbert II de Culwen, whose late arrival with fresh troops recruited from his estates turned the course of the Battle of Falkirk during the Scottish Wars of Independence, giving King Edward the victory. It has been suggested that Gilbert waited until he knew who looked like winning before joining battle, because he had family supporting both sides in the conflict. It was at this battle that William Wallace was defeated and subsequently executed. It forms the storyline of the Hollywood film Braveheart.

During the Hundred Years' War with France, the Curwen family under Sir Gilbert fought alongside King Edward III of England in his attempt to seize the French throne after the death of Charles IV. He is believed to have died in 1403 from the black death, which also killed his first son, Sir William, who inherited his title.

At least one member of the Curwen family fought with Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The roll mentions a John Werkyngton, a very unusual spelling that matched with '...the manor of Werkyngton, co. Cumberland...' written in King Henry's Patent Rolls in 1405. John may have been a younger Curwen son, a cousin or a man of standing from the community. In 1428, Henry VI granted Sir Christopher II de Curwen the estates of Cany and Canyell in Normandy, France as a reward for "good service" but in 1429, he returned to northern England to fight an invasion by the Scots. In 1442, he oversaw the truce between Henry VI of England and King James II of Scotland. The lands in Normandy were lost to the French in 1450. Sir Christopher and his wife, Elizabeth Huddleston, are buried inside St Michael's Church, under a heavily carved tombstone bearing their effigies.

Sir Thomas IV Curwen married Agnes, daughter of Sir Walter Strickland and great-granddaughter of Anne Parr, and thus "The royal blood of the Plantagenets came to the Curwen house..." according to the book Papers and Pedigrees by William Jackson (1892).

During the Wars of the Roses, the Curwens provided support to both sides. Sir Thomas II was commissioned by King Edward to mobilize his forces to resist the rebellion of Richard, Duke of York. During the Wars the throne changed hands between the two houses and most able-bodied men, especially in the north of England, would have been forced into the conflict. King Edward IV of England of the House of York, later granted honours to the Curwen family, in acknowledgement of "great and gratuitous service". The war ended with the victory of the Lancastrians who founded the House of Tudor, which subsequently reigned over England and Wales for 118 years.

After the defeat of her forces to Elizabeth I of England at the Battle of Langside, Mary, Queen of Scots, crossed the Solway Firth disguised as a commoner and landed at Workington. She spent her first night in England as an honoured guest of the Curwen family at Workington Hall. On 18 May 1568, Mary was escorted to Carlisle Castle after spending a day at Cockermouth. She was 25 years old.

Reverend John Curwen (1816–1880), an English Congregationalist minister, founded the Tonic sol-fa system of music education, a method of musical nomenclature that utilizes the first letter of each of the solmization tones (do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti), and a rhythmic system to aid in sight reading of the stave with its lines and spaces. Hen felt the need for a simple way of teaching how to sing by note through his experiences among Sunday school teachers. Stemming from his religious and social beliefs, Curwen thought that music should be easily accessible to all classes and ages of people. Two examples of the system at work can be seen in the musical, The Sound of Music and in the hand gestures used by Truffaut in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Lake District and the Lancashire History Quarterly.

All content copyright 2010 by Colin Curwen. All Rights Reserved.