Medieval Times


Revised following a visit to Upton Castle 20th August 2011

Many families with old French names like to say: “We came over with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings”.  Unfortunately, only some 15 named individuals are known to have been at the battle, and Maliphants (or Malenfant to give the early spelling) weren’t one of them!

At a time when “John fitz John” was more common a name than “John Smith” or “John London”, Malenfant seems to have been one of the earliest surnames.  A tax roll of 1195 shows one Thomas Malenfant at Ambrieres in France, on the border between Normandy and Anjou.  There are many similar names from that era that you can still find in the phone book today – Maltravers, Mallalieu, Malpass, and conversely Beauchamp, Beaufort, Beaumont etc.  “Malenfant” can be translated as bad child or sickly child, but it’s too long ago to guess the name’s original significance.

The first record of a Malenfant in England is a Geoffrey Malenfant paying a fine in 1206 to the Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.  It is tempting to link the arrival of Malenfants in Wales as knights of the Earl of Pembroke to the appointment of Gilbert of Clare in Suffolk as Earl of Pembroke in 1138.  Gilbert’s son Richard “Strongbow” invaded Ireland in 1170, and we know there were subsequently Malenfants in Ireland, which could be another clue, but otherwise we have no idea exactly when Malenfants came to Wales.

The first Malenfant we hear of in Wales is Walter, who was killed fighting the Welsh outside Cilgerran in 1258.  The oldest parts of Upton Castle date from the thirteenth century, did Walter build them?  Based on the style of armour, and the crossed limbs of a crusader, the battered old effigy in the family chapel is likely to be an earlier lord, perhaps someone who responded to the Third Crusade preached throughout Wales by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1188.  The better preserved knightly effigy in the chapel is apparently in similar style to the tomb of the Black Prince, who died in 1376, so it is thought it represents William Malenfant who died in 1361 – though there is no inscription to confirm this.

The real problem with medieval family history is the lack of proper birth, marriage and death records until parish registers began to be kept in the 1560s.  Henry Owen’s “Old Pembroke Families” published in 1902 attempts to link known Malenfants in father / son relationships, but mostly these links can only be assumed based on an estimate of generation gaps.  

Henry Owen suggests Upton Castle went out of the family by marriage in the 1400s, by which time Sir Thomas Malenfant (buried in St Bartholomew the Less in London in 1438) had other properties in Glamorganshire.  These too passed from the family as shown by a document in Cardiff record office noting the dowry of Margaret Malenfant, widow of John who died c. 1490 and who appears to have been the last male Malenfant of the senior line.

There were other lines of Malenfants, notably around Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire, where there was a Henry Malenfant as early as 1313.  These Malenfants seem more involved in trade and the church than politics.  Is this why no Malenfant came forward to claim the Glamorganshire lands in 1490?  The Wars of the Roses were just ending then – Margaret’s dowry was approved by no less than Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and uncle of Henry VII – and so political danger may have been one of many reasons for keeping quiet.

Whichever way, most if not all modern Maliphants are descended from another Henry Malephant whose death in 1591 is recorded in the miraculously surviving parish register for St Ishmael, in the next parish to Kidwelly, the town where many Maliphants still live.

Andrew Maliphant
B.A. (Hons) Ancient & Medieval History
Birmingham University