Ranulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester and his brother William le Meschin were the sons of Ranulf de Briquessart and Matilda. Meschin simply means ‘younger’ so Ranulf the Younger was used to identify the son from the father. William ended up with the same name because he was very much his brother’s man.
Ranulf was given much of Cumberland by William the Conqueror. Cumberland was then divided into eleven baronies in an attempt to control the region. The Cumbrians took to their Lakeland hills and fought a guerrilla war against their invaders. This meant that the Normans could, initially at least, only secure the coastal and less mountainous regions. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s excellent book entitled The Shield Ring explores the history of the region and the role of Ranulf – she was not his greatest fan. There’s also a book entitled The Secret Valley which covers the same period and the battle of Rannerdale. The Scots took advantage of the ensuing difficulties to extend their boundaries south. It was no sinecure when Ranulf gave William the baronies of Copeland and Gilsland. The latter meant he was responsible for guarding the northern approaches to Carlisle. It proved a task too far. He built a castle at Egremont but lost Gilsland. He was compensated for the loss of Gilsland by Henry I with land in Allerdale. He also acquired land through his wife Cecily de Rumilly, Lady of Skipton.
As William acquired land he also founded religious houses including St Bee’s Priory in 1120 which was a daughter house of St Mary’s in York. It was founded after the sinking of the White Ship that saw Henry I’s only legitimate son drown on a journey between Normandy and England. Richard, Earl of Chester -William’s cousin- died in the same disaster. The charter for St Bees prays for the souls of the drowned men. In part he was demonstrating his religious belief and buying ‘time out’ from purgatory but he was also showing support for foundations who enjoyed the patronage of kings. Thurstan, who was the Archbishop of York would have welcomed an alliance with a strong northern magnate such as le Meschin so perhaps it is not surprising that he came in person to bless St Bees.
In addition to giving land and funding buildings William went on the First Crusade and was at the Siege of Nicaea.
William: soldier, invader, crusader, castle builder, monastery endower- call him what you will, died sometime between 1130 and 1135. He left a son called Ranulf but he died shortly after his father leaving the great estates that le Meschin had built to be divided between William’s three daughters.