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Wynford Eagle

The End of the Sydenham Dynasty

In 1661 at the age of 21 William Sydenham inherited from his grandfather the Manor House and estate at Wynford Eagle, which had been the family home since the middle of the 16th century when Thomas Sydenham came from Somerset; it proved to be a poisoned chalice and led to William ending his days in Dorchester prison.

In 1662, a year after inheriting the family home, William Sydenham married Martha Michel from nearby Kingston Russell and the couple had two sons and two daughters, though both boys died at quite a young age. In 1699 a distant relation, Ann, came to live at the Manor House and was employed as a companion to Martha Sydenham and at some time she married Martha’s brother.

For a time William’s father enjoyed positions under Cromwell earning a salary of £1,000 a year. William himself achieved high office as Squire of the Body to William III, but this may not have been enough to compensate for money spent by the family advancing parliament’s cause during the Civil War. For whatever reason, it is clear that by the middle of the eighth decade of the 17th century William Sydenham’s finances were in a parlous state and he needed to find a remedy. By 1690 he had mortgaged the Manor House and most of the estate.

It is likely William discussed his plight with family members and they would certainly have included male members of his wife’s family: one of her sisters was married to Henry Bromfield who was the major mortgagee of the estate and two other mortgagees were named Michel.

In 1700 William decided the answer was a public lottery with the Manor House being the main prize. It seems William had concluded he would not be able to hold-on to the house and estate and was looking for a way to secure his old age.

The lottery appears to have been properly organised and supervised and was held at Mercer’s Hall in London. Interestingly, one of the Trustees was Robert Michel. Two hundred thousand five shilling tickets were available for purchase and if all were sold £50,000 would have been raised. After overheads of about £4,000 and over 13,000 prizes with a total value of about £20,000 William Sydenham would be left with about £26,000.

But everything was not as it should be. On a strictly administrative level William Sydenham should have deposited the deeds of the property and land with the Trustees prior to the sale of the lottery tickets. It appears he didn’t do this, which raises the question: why didn’t the Trustees insist on having the deeds? Furthermore it seems he failed to disclose that the property was heavily mortgaged but as a member of the Michel family was one of the Trustees surely they would have known the property was mortgaged.

All this could be put down to slack administration but when we learn that Martha Sydenham’s companion, Ann, won the main prize – the Manor House – at odds of 200,000 to 1 we have to wonder if there was more than a little dishonesty on the part of someone else as well as Sydenham.

Reports at the time suggest that William Sydenham had arranged for Ann to win the Manor House and then return it to him for a cash reward. But how would William have been able to ensure who the winner would be without some help from those administering and overseeing the lottery? Evidently it seems Ann refused to hand the property back to him. Ann, at sometime, married a member of the Michel family but it isn’t clear if the marriage happened before or after the lottery (we are still searching for the marriage record).

Sydenham set out to defraud the public in an attempt to save himself from financial ruin and his family’s name; that much is clear but it is difficult to see how he could have done this on his own. At every turn in this sorry saga the name Michel crops up and one has to wonder if while William Sydenham was busy defrauding the public some members of the Michel family were equally busy plotting his downfall.

Five years after the lottery he still hadn’t handed over the deeds to the Manor House and it was for this that he was sent to prison where he died in 1709. As the apparent beneficiaries of his actions his two daughters were also locked-up.

Dr. Thomas Sydenham MA, MB – the English Hippocrates

Thomas Sydenham was one of the three foremost Dorset men of medicine (the others were Francis Glisson and Frederick Treves,) but of the 17th century, when scientific and medical knowledge was in its infancy and riddled with superstition. Of his earliest years next to nothing is known, other than that he was born at Wynford Eagle in 1624, the eighth in a family of ten children.

While still in his teens he entered Magdalen Hall in Oxford where at 18 he matriculated as a Fellow Commoner. When Magdalen later merged with Hertford College, Sydenham underwent another two years of uninterrupted studies. But the Principal was a leader of the Puritan Party at Oxford and through his indoctrination Thomas joined the movement.

As the Sydenhams were a military family, Thomas left Oxford in 1642 to fight on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War, in the ranks of which two of his brothers also served, but who were killed in action. Thomas himself was once wounded, while on another occasion he was falsely given up for dead.

He was able to return to Oxford in 1647, where he had the good fortune of an introduction to Dr Thomas Coxe, then treating his brother, and it was as a consequence of this chance meeting that Sydenham was persuaded to take up medicine. He became a Fellow Commoner at Wadham College and in 1648 was created Bachelor of Medicine. However, this BM was granted by the then Chancellor, the Earl of Pembroke, without a degree in the arts first having been taken. Sydenham then later took his MA, but when hostilities broke out again in 1648 he returned to army service for a time as a Captain.

Home again after the war, Thomas married Mary Gee at Wynford Eagle and following his resignation from an All Souls Fellowship, was free to pursue a double career in medicine and politics. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter Richard Cromwell’s Parliament as MP for Weymouth he made his home and set up his practice at Westminster. Sydenham attended lectures at Montpelier, the chief seat of Hippocratism and there learnt the cooling method for fevers, but met difficulties in 1653 when he attempted to enter the Royal College of Physicians, due to an absence of degree documentation. However upon the intervention of Robert Boyle over the admission enpasse, he passed three exams and was then registered MA and MB at Oxford.

Early in his practice Sydenham became pre-occupied with research into finding a cure for gout, a condition in which he had personal as well as professional interest since he was himself a sufferer. When the Plaque struck London in 1665 he moved his family to the country, an action which drew down upon him the approbation of the medical establishment, though he soon returned alone to fight the pestilence. Thus Sydenham showed his more typical humanitarianism and benevolence to his poor patients. He was a physician of noble sincerity. He once allowed one patient the use of one of his own horses when he believed the man would benefit from some riding exercise.

About this time Sydenham published his first book, a Latin treatise on fevers. He was noted for specialising in contagions, but also worked on the applications of quinine and a cooling method for treating smallpox. He was in no small measure responsible for exorcising from contemporary medical practice much of the superstition and quackery, which then encumbered it and was sceptical about the common practice of bleeding for most ailments.

Furthermore, Sydenham insisted that disease symptoms should be observed with great care if a correct diagnosis was to be made. It was this professionalism which gained him a great reputation at home and abroad. He would never prescribe generally accepted medicines or treatments unless they were tried and trusted remedies proved to be effective. With calm logic he advocated the study of symptoms, working with, not against, the natural order, rest, patience, courage, fresh air in the sick room and the use of common sense in applying medical knowledge.

Sydenham’s success caused his rivals to belittle his methods, when it was really theirs, not his, which were inferior. As, ironically, the Sydenham approach was readily sought after by medical men abroad, he was not unduly fazed by criticism. Hi logic furthermore won him the admiration of the Dorset surgeon Frederick Treves, who in support wrote “..he threw aside the jargon and ridiculous traditions with which medicine was then hampered and applied it to common sense.”

It was not until 1676 that Thomas Sydenham became Doctor of Medicine at Cambridge – 28 years after his BA was obtained, and it is thought that the delay was due to his pre-occupation with his practice. But the doctor had little regard for academic honours. His early abortive attempt to gain admission to the CoP as a Fellow was probably due to some internal wrangling, though this is disputed. Sydenham, nevertheless, continued to be held in high esteem.

Thomas Sydenham published five works, all of them a priceless contribution to medicine. He died at his Pall Mall home in 1689, the consequence of a severe attack of gout.

The Sydenham Family at Wynford Eagle

Around 1550 Thomas Sydenham uprooted his family from the small Somerset village of Stogumber tucked away in a valley between the Quantock and Brendon Hills in the west of that county and came to Wynford Eagle, where he took up residence in the Manor House. There is evidence that members of the Sydenham family were already in the area. Nowadays known as Manor Farm this charming old house with its interesting old chimneys, gables and mullions, not to mention the large stone eagle that adorns the impressive west façade, the emblem of the Norman, Lord Gilbert de Aquila, was rebuilt in 1630 by William Sydenham and has been weathered by the sun and winds of centuries.

On January 8th 1569/60 Thomas married his second wife Jane Ryves at Wynford Eagle. For a century and a half Thomas’s descendants prospered here holding firm when Civil War shattered the peace and tranquillity of this small parish; the war saw the loss of a mother and a son but the family survived to see quieter times again.

William Sydenham was born in 1593 and inherited from his grandfather, his own father having died when he was only one year-old. William was a rich man who married well. On the 4th of November 1611 at Wynford Eagle he was joined together in holy matrimony with Mary, the daughter of Sir John Jeffrey, Knight of Catheston Manor. Sir John’s tomb with his effigy is in the north wall of the chancel in the church of St. Candida and Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canconicorum.

Here at Wynford Eagle the couple’s early years together would have been a happy time. William and Mary had ten children; two sons were destined to become famous in their individual fields. Even to this quiet backwater tragedy and sorrow dared to come when father and sons William, Thomas, Francis and John took up arms for Parliament in the Civil War.

Their father was taken prisoner at Exeter when that town fell to the Royalists on 4 September 1643 and in August of the following year their mother Mary was murdered on the doorstep of the Manor House by Royalist troops.

Church records for the period are incomplete and some have deteriorated to a point where it is difficult to read them, nevertheless it is possible to gather information about some of the events in the lives of members of the family.

The eldest boy William was baptised at Wynford Eagle on the 8th of April 1615 and he married Grace Trenchard of Warmwell in 1637. He was a parliamentarian army officer and by April 1644 had achieved the rank of Colonel. On 17th of June 1644 the Earl of Essex appointed him Governor of Weymouth. He was appointed Lord Sydenham under the protectorate and on the restoration of the Long Parliament he became a member of the committee of safety and the council of state. He died in July 1661 and was buried at Wynford Eagle; his widow died a few days later.

On the 30th November 1644 at Poole Major Francis Sydenham spotted the man thought responsible for killing his mother, a Major Williams. Determined to revenge his mother’s slaying he with sixty of his soldiers charged at the Royalists and beat them back all the way to Dorchester where he singled out Williams, shot him and trampled him under his horse. Francis Sydenham died in February 1645 defending Weymouth. It is thought his brother Thomas may have been wounded during the skirmishes that followed the Royalist take over of the town.

Thomas was baptised at Wynford Eagle on the 10th of September 1624 and in the little parish church of St.Lawrence  in 1655 he married Mary Gee. Thomas had been at Magdalen Hall in Oxford and returned there in1647 following the end of the first Civil War. In 1651 military service again required him to leave Oxford. He became famous in the field of medicine. He died on the 29th of December 1689 at his home in Pall Mall, London. (We will shortly be publishing a biographical piece about his life and career.)

John was a Lieutenant in the Parliamentary Army but we have found little more about him other than documents suggesting he may have pursued a career in medicine and travelled abroad.

After the Royalist stronghold at Sherborne was taken by Cromwell and Fairfax there was less fighting in Dorset. The first Civil War ended in June 1646.

Elizabeth Sydenham, a daughter of William Sydenham Senior, married Roger Sydenham of Skillgate, Somerset in 1642 and her sister, Martha married William Lawrence Snr of Wraxall, Somerset in 1649.

Another sister, Marey, married Richard Lee of Winsdale in Hampshire. They had a daughter Mary who was well known as an intellectual feminist and poet. She was born in 1656 and she married Sir George Chudleigh of Ashton, Devon. Her five year-old brother died when she was eleven and a baby sister died when she, Mary, was sixteen. Her younger brother by twenty years died when he was twenty five in 1701.

The Manor House at Wynford Eagle was inherited by Colonel William Sydenham’s son William and in 1662 he married Martha Michel of Kingston Russell and they had two sons and two daughters. The financial cost of fighting the Civil War had taken a toll on the family fortunes and by the mid 1680’s William was borrowing against the family home and estates and the reputation of a great family was on the verge of being ruined. William devised a plan, perhaps better described as a fiddle or what today we would call a scam, involving a lottery where the Manor House and estate was the prize.

The story of this prominent family ended in more than tears: the family name disgraced, the house and estate lost, and William Sydenham in Dorchester prison where he remained until his death in 1709.

We will tell the full story of the “Sydenham fraud” in a separate article.

Wynford Eagle

You might think this quiet backwater close to Maiden Newton hardly cries out for our attention; after all its population amounts to just sixty souls (2001 census). Yet we have four articles featuring the parish and the cause of all the interest is one family who came here from Somerset in the middle of the 16th century.

The Sydenham family moved into the Manor House, a charming residence with interesting old chimneys, gables and mullions topped off by a large stone eagle, the emblem of the Norman Lord, Gilbert de Aquila, that adorns its impressive west façade.

Before their arrival though, there is evidence here of early settlement with Round Barrows and some remains from the Roman era. Of particular interest a tessellated pavement was discovered near the old Manor house and in 1935 half of this pavement was uncovered again when it was noted it had guilloche borders, foliage, and a dolphin.

Recorded as Wenfrot in Domesday Book and down through the centuries as Winfrot Gileberti de Aquila, Wynford Aquile and, in 1288, as Wynfrod Egle. Wynford is from a Celtic name for a tributary of the River Frome translating to white or bright stream. Eagle is a reference to the medieval family of Gilbert del Egla; he came from L’Aigle in France.

The parish church dedicated to St. Lawrence stands alone near the site of an earlier church. Built in 1842 by G & H Osborn its plain minimalist style is saved by the 15th century chancel arch from the earlier building. By the west porch is a late 15th century tympanum displaying an eagle (or wyverns) with inscriptions: Mahald de l’egele’ a reference to Mathilda Eagle and Alvi me feci a reference to the sculptor Alvi who produced it. The church was formerly a chapelry of Toller Fratrum and was later annexed to it as a perpetual curacy.

In the churchyard most of the memorials are to recent inhabitants of the parish and surprisingly there is no mention of the Sydenham family whose relatively brief sojourn here makes for compelling reading. A father and sons fought for Cromwell, revenged their mother’s murder by a Royalist officer and in quieter times provided the father of British medicine; but at the turn of the 17th to 18th century a scandalous lottery scam brought the family only ruin and disgrace.

The estate was later purchased by another Somerset family, the Bests, for whom the baronetcy of Wynford was established in 1829.

Note: Elsewhere in this category you will find the story of this prominent family, a biographical piece about the most famous son, and an article about the scandalous events leading to the family’s demise.

Wynford Eagle Village

Wynford Eagle Village. Photo by Chris Downer (for more information about the photographer click on the photo.)

Wynford Eagle Village. Photo by Chris Downer (for more information about the photographer click on the photo.)

Wynford Eagle – St. Lawrence Church

The Church of St. Lawrence at Wynford Eagle. Photo by Chris Downer (for more information about the photographer click on photo.)

The Church of St. Lawrence at Wynford Eagle. Photo by Chris Downer (for more information about the photographer click on photo.)

Wynford Eagle – Manor House

The Manor House at Wynford Eagle home of the Sydenham Family. Photo by Mike Searle. For information about the photographer click on the photo.)

The Manor House at Wynford Eagle home of the Sydenham Family. Photo by Mike Searle. For information about the photographer click on the photo.)