Peculiar Tenure at Bicton

Trans. Devon. Assoc. vol. XIII, (1881) pp. 103-105.


P.O. Hutchinson

Prepared by Michael Steer

The report was read at the Association’s July 1881 Dawlish meeting. It relates to lands at Bicton initially granted by the Conqueror to one of his followers; William Portitor, his  jail-door keeper. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers. [The Latin sections of the text are not accurately transcribed, because of character problems.]

Soon after the Conquest, the king appointed one of his followers to the office of door-keeper to the jail for malefactors; and for this service the said door-keeper received a grant of the lands of Bicton, lying between Budleigh and Colyton Bawleigh, in the county of Devon. In the Exeter Domesday, f. 472, and in the printed edition at p. 437, we have Will'em  Portitor ht I. mañs q uocatr Bechatona q, teñ Ailf i  &c. This peculiar tenure of the lands at Bicton continued in a succession of great families during the long space of seven hundred years, and, according to Lysons, was only abolished so late as 1787. Hence arose the names Portitor, De Porta, De la Porte, and Janitor, which these keepers of the jail bore at different periods. The last time I was in Normandy, making researches, I came upon an original charter of John Janitor at the archives at St Lo, dating about the end of King John, by the names of the subscribers, or the beginning of Henry III. The seal still remained, though much defaced. It was circular, and bore the words - "Sigill Johannis Janitoris," but only the last word is plain. The device consists of a hand and arm upholding a key, or two large keys back to back, before some object - perhaps a tower, or the gate of the jail. (1) Some very strange and, at the same time, very false impressions respecting the place of this jail have long existed among our old and respectable writers. There is a tradition still lingering in the neighbourhood that at a remote period the jail of the county of Devon was situated first at Harpford (about ten miles east of Exeter), then at Bicton (the same distance south-east from the metropolis of the county), and finally at the city of Exeter itself. Both the Isaacks, in their Histories of Exeter, at page 110 in each History, have been misled by this popular but thoughtless belief. Westcote, page 239, says it was Henry I. who placed the jail at Bicton; whereas, what Henry I. did was to confirm to John Janitor the keeping of the gate of Exeter Castle and of the jail; that Joan, daughter and heir of the last of the Janitor blood, carried the manor of Bicton, with its mode of tenure, to Siccavilla, Sacheville, or Sackville, who removed the jail to Exeter. Lysons, Mag. Brit vi 47, writes: -  "The county jail, which was formerly at Bicton, under the superintendence of the lord of this manor, was for greater security removed to Exeter in 1518. It was not till 1787 that the Lord of Bicton was exonerated from the custody of the county jail." At page 256 he alludes to the tradition respecting Harpford. He says: -  “The ancient manor house [at Harpford, of which place he is now speaking], called Court Place, now a farm house, is the property of the Rev. Sydenham Peppin. There is a tradition, evidently groundless, that it was in ancient times the county gaol, before it was removed to Bicton." I know this farm house well. It lies between Harpford Church and the river Otter. In or about the year 1860 it was accidentally burnt down; but it has been rebuilt, and of course every feature is now modern. The Rev. Edmund Butcher, at the commencement of the present century, brought out the first Sidmouth Guide, under the title of The Beauties of Sidmouth Displayed; and, speaking of the adjoining parish of Harpford, he says: - “The jail was removed from thence to Bicton by the family of the Rolles, and thence to Exeter, where it now remains." All this is an absurd jumble. These are our Historians! They seem to have thought that because the lord of Bicton held that manor for the service of keeping the county jail, that the jail was necessarily at Bicton; whereas, in reality, it was never there at all. How it could ever have been placed at Harpford is still more unaccountable, and still more absurd. They seem all to have been content with a baseless tradition, and to have copied confidingly from one another. It is necessary, however, to hark back sometimes, and recur to the fountain head. The following is one of those fountain heads, and by referring to it we shall get correct information. I took it from the Hundred Rolls, temp. Edw. I., m. 9, dorsum, at that time preserved in the Chapter House at Westminster ; and it is expressly stated that the jail was at Exeter.

IT \l tra de Buketon debej teneri de • r • in siauntia p svic c^tod Gaolam Exon. t nuc in manu dni r • roe c 9 todie filii 1 hr Regin Le arbelestr • qui J inf* etatem. cui 9 c 9 todia ht Thom de pyn . a tpe q° fuit Escaetor • bienn elaps • sj nefciut q° Warent.

The next I took from the Testa de Neville, compiled in the reigns of Henry III. and Edward I., Vol. I., page 837. It is equally explicit respecting the nature of this ancient tenure, as also the place of the jail. It runs thus: -

w Joftes Janitor tenet Bukint cum ptin de dno Reg? p feriantiam cuftodiendi Januam Caft r Exon ^t gaiolam prifonu de dono • H.R. pW* anteceflbribj fuis p idem ferviciu.

The above ought to be enough to clear up every obscurity. The descent of the manor of Bicton from the conquest downwards may be briefly stated thus: -  Ailsius the Saxon had it before the Domesday survey. Afterwards the Janitors had it for several generations; then the family of Balistarius, or Le Arbalister, had it for at least five descents, until the heiress Joan (though it is not quite clear which family she was heiress of) carried it to Siccavilla, whose heiress carried it to Coppleston, who sold it to Robert Denis, whose heiress Anne carried it to Sir Henry Rolle of Stevenstone, from whom it descended to the late Lord Rolle. Since his lordship's death it has been held by trustees during Lady Rolle's life, for their relative the Hon. Mark [Trefusis] Rolle.             P. 0. Hutchinson.

References (1)    See also Journal Brit. Arch. Assoc for Sept, 1862, p. 257, for seal of Roger Janitor.