Flexney. By any other name….

 

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The surname Flexney has a long but fairly undistinguished history in the western part of the county of Oxford. The origin of the name has given rise to two conflicting opinions. The standard history of Oxfordshire surnames maintains that it originated from a lost place name in the county meaning a field where flax grows, citing ancient field names, whereas another line of thought holds that the field names come from the surname and not vice-versa. This second theory has the origin of the name being the village and manor of Fleckney in Leicestershire. Around 1190 both this manor and that of Stanton in Oxfordshire passed into the hands of Robert de Harcourt of Bosworth. The surname “de Fleckney” is certainly present in Robert’s Leicestershire holdings in the early 13th century, and in 1211 one of the tenants of his Oxfordshire manor (thereafter Stanton Harcourt) was one Stephen de Flexneia. It would seem quite likely that the sub-tenants of one estate might move with their lord to another of his holdings, especially younger sons who had little chance of advancement at home.

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St Michaels, Stanton Harcourt

In the Oxford Eyre Roll of 1261, which contained summaries of cases heard before circuit judges, the names Robert, John and Walter Flexney appear, and in 1273 a John de Flexneia held land and a mill at Standlake. By the following century one branch of the family had moved to the city of Oxford and were later to provide it with an MP, two mayors and several aldermen. These lines died out in the seventeenth century, but Flexneys remained in Stanton Harcourt and spread slowly into the surrounding areas only disappearing from the county around 1900.

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Ralph Flexney MP and Mayor of Oxford on four occasions

My grandmother was a Flexney and in my research of her family, who lived in Witney for over 150 years, I found it difficult to reach back any further than the early 18th century. This is due in part to the lack of records, for several of the parish registers are deficient, but also the inability to distinguish between holders of the same christian name. Looking further back into the 17th century I was also puzzled by the fact that many of the Flexneys bore the alias of Hicks (sometimes Hickes or Hix). It seems obvious to me that all these individuals must be connected in some way, and although proof will probably never be forthcoming, it has been possible to reconstruct some lines.

Alias (or alias dictus) is a latin term meaning simply also or “otherwise called”. It was far more common in the 16th and 17th centuries than in later periods and had no sinister implications. Aliases often arose through inheritance from a maternal ancestor or adoption, and second marriages where the children of one marriage used both their natural and step-fathers’ surnames. Its modern equivalent is the hyphenated double-barrelled surname. In documents and parish registers it is often shortened to “als”.It is often the case that one name was used alone and in many cases I have found only one use of the alias for an individual in records, but nevertheless it is possible to see a lineal descent connecting all the bearers of the alias.

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The first example of the Flexney alias so far found is a baptism at Stanton Harcourt on September 21st 1609 of a Maria, the daughter of William Flexeny alias Hixe, and the final one, in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, is the burial, again at Stanton, of a William Flexney alias Hicks on May 4th 1736. in between these events we can find eight individuals who are named with the alias in one form or another. In most cases the name Flexney comes first, but not always, and there are a few entries where Hicks alone is used and the identification fits a member of the Flexney family. All of these usages are in the Stanton/Standlake/Witney area with the exception of a Richard Hicks alias Flexney who lived in Cassington (between Witney and Oxford) and whose will was proved in 1645. The latter is particularly interesting as it gives a flavour of how loose the usage of the two names was. Richard starts his will as Richard Hicks alias Flexney but the first personal bequest is “to my sonne Edward Flexney alias Hicks” and later on he leaves ten shillings to “my daughter-in-law Eliz: Hicks”. Richard could not sign, but his mark is noted as “Richard Flexneys mark”.

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Tracing back my line of the Flexney family, I am fairly confident (despite one or two strong probabilities which cannot be certain) in reaching a John Flexney who would have been born around 1665/70. He first appears in the documents relating to his obtaining a marriage licence for his wedding to Ann Tarry in 1694 at Cogges parish church. His name is given as John Flexney and he is described as a carrier of Curbridge in the parish of Witney. In the register of St Marys, Witney three baptisms are recorded for John son of John Flexyn of Curbridge (1695), Elizabeth daughter of John Flexyn (1699) and Anne, daughter of John Flexyn als. Hicks (1702). This appears to be the same family, and at some time before 1719 it seems that John left the Anglican Communion and joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers. His name first appears in that year as a member of the Monthly Meeting as Jno. Flexny call’d Hix (see illustration above). The Quakers were more straightforward in their speech and mistrusted the use of latin. John appears in the Quaker records again when his son John was married in 1723 and he and his wife Ann both sign as witnesses with the name Flexney. He may however, be the John Hicks who features in Quaker accounts being paid for the hire of a horse and horseshoes. Despite his Quaker connections it seems that John was buried at St Marys in 1726, and Ann followed him in 1730. Their son John only ever seems to have used Flexney as a surname and the alias ended with his father.

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Signature of John Flexney on his marriage licence affidavit 1694

Further back from John we cannot go with certainty as there are no relevant baptisms in parishes where Flexneys still remained. However, several parishes registers for this period are lost and by using wills and following the alias it may be possible to link John to a Humphrey Flexney who died in February 1689 (Old style – we would call this February 1690). In his will Humphrey calls himself a husbandman which is a person farming land he held leasehold. He lived in Brighthampton, which although very close to Standlake, is actually in the parish of Bampton. The parish of Bampton was unusual in having three vicars and several small chapels as well as the mother church in Bampton itself. One of these chapels was at Shifford a tiny hamlet south of Brighthampton and the registers prior to 1726 are missing. It seems though that Brighthampton people used this as their parish church (Stanlake church was closer but in a separate parish) and Humphrey is recorded as the Churchwarden there in 1641. However he and his wife Eleanor had their children baptised at Standlake and this is where we see the use of the alias. Their eldest son, Thomas was baptised in 1641 as the son of Humphrey Hix; the second son, John was baptised in 1643 and the surname then was Hix alias Flexney. At the baptism of their later children only the surname Flexney is given. There are no further entries for the family in Standlake, although we know Humphrey and Eleanor had at least one further child, Alice who is named in her father’s will. It is likely that Humphrey and Eleanor, and any of their children who died young were buried at Shifford.

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Shifford Chapel in the 19th century. It had been ruinous and rebuilt in the late 18th 

Humphrey’s will gives us a little detail concerning his descendants and he leaves bequests to his daughter, Alice and her daughter, Amy as well as to his four other grandchildren: John and Elizabeth the children of his son John, and John and Humphrey the sons of his son William. I can find no record of any of these baptisms and so assume they were at Shifford as well. Humphrey’s son William died intestate in 1700 and no record of his burial can be found either. I think it is very likely that the John Flexney who married Ann Tarry in 1694 was one of the two grandsons of Humphrey to bear that name, but we shall probably never know which one. Curbridge, where John the carrier was first mentioned is only a little to the north-west of Brighthampton.

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Humphrey would have been born around 1615 and it is frustrating that the Stanton Harcourt registers are missing for the periods 1586-1601 and 1612-1654, as I think it is most likely that Humphrey was born there. There were several Flexney families in the village at the time with at least two of them linked with the Hicks alias. One fact we may be able to deduce though is his mother’s name. In 1629 Humphrey Tanner of Brighthampton made his will and after bequests to his daughters Mary and Margaret, their husbands and children, he leaves the residue of his estate to his daughter Joahne (Joan) Flaxen (spelt Flexney in the probate). He also makes bequests to Humphrey, Joan and Margaret Flaxen who, although not specified, are surely the children of Joan. No Flexney husband is named and so is presumably already deceased. One assumes Joan would have passed on the estate to her son at a later date and this would explain how the Flexney family arrived in the parish of Standlake. However there is no clue as yet as to the origin of the Hicks alias.