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William de Hameville witnessed a charter granting fishing rights on the river Solway, in Dumfriesshire at Scotland's southwest border, sometime around William de Heneuile witnessed two other Dumf riesshire charters between and In , Walter de Hamule was granted lands in Lothian. Are these different men or the same one? De Hamule is probably another variant. All three names would have been pronounced "de Hameville" and are best transcribed that way. As for the inconsistency between Walter and William, given names were abbreviated in the shorthand script of ancient charters.

The next question, of course, is how "de Hameville" became "Hammill" as the generations passed. Pronunciation is one indication. In Ireland and Scotland, Hammill is pronounced Hommyl.


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A taxicab driver in Dublin laughed when I introduced myself as a Hammill, pronouncing the "a" as in "apple," the American way. These mentions suggest that de Hameville might have become Hammill over time in what was, after all, a very small and lightly populated country. If the first Hammill in Scotland was a knight by the name of William de Hameville and if the Hammills of Roughwood descended from him, then the surname is not Scots but Norman in origin. I was very surprised by this — actually, I resisted it. Those Normans were butchers.

Moreover, there is no bore like the one who boasts of Norman forebears, especially when the descent cannot be precisely documented. But in fact the association helps to predict the family's social milieu and its religious and political preferences across many generations.

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In no time at all, intermarriage with local families would have made the Hammills Norman in name but Scots in habit. Eventually de Hameville lost its identity and became just another of the enigmatic surnames one simply takes for granted. De Hameville became Hammill. Who would have thought? William de Hameville was a few generations away from the Norman named de Hameville who was discharged into England at the time of the Conquest in or who crossed the Channel to seek his fortune in the British Isles shortly afterward.

Scotland welcomed quite a number of these knights and their descendants in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, giving them grants of land, the right to a family crest or coat of arms, and other privileges in exchange for armed service along disputed borders and between feuding clans. With the passage of time, some of these knightly families became rich and influential.

Many more evolved or perhaps devolved into the minor gentry of rural districts. The Hammills were certainly among the latter. Still, as minor gentry they took their places in an emerging middle class, a tiny sliver of medieval society that acted as a kind of buffer between the great baronial families that controlled whole regions and the freemen and indentured peasants who far outnumbered everyone else.

The Hammills held onto that middle-class status with amazing tenacity. They hold it to the present day. Not much can be known about individual Hammills through the medieval period except what their status as knights can show. From an early date, the knightly class served their overlords not only as fighters but also as administrators, witnessing documents, sitting on juries, or providing service as ushers or stewards in great households.

Increasingly they served as tax collectors, bailiffs, and sheriffs, for as locals they were less likely to antagonize the populace than the "foreign" officers who were appointed by the king. The scattered mentions given earlier show Hammills in just these roles.

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William de Hameville witnessed charters around the turn of the thirteenth century. In , John Homel witnessed at an inquest at Irvine, a town not far from the parish of Beith. Andreas Homyl served as bailiff at Roxburgh in the fourteenth century. Another John Hommyl was master of the Latin grammar school at Aberdeen in Yet another was bailiff to Sir John Montgomery in All the while, de Hommyls were keeping up their charters for Roughwood. Such scraps of documentation fix the family securely in its position as minor gentry with administrative responsibilities in their communities.

They also make two other important connections. First is the frequency of the given name John among the Hammills. Together with Hugh and William, John persists as a favorite for six hundred years and more, up to the present day. Hugh and John tend to alternate as names for oldest sons. William is a choice for a younger son, as records from the seventeenth century onward make clear. William de Hameville of thirteenth-century Scotland — was he a younger son, just like the nineteenth-century William Hammill of Washington Territory in the American northwest?

I like to think he was. This mention is the first I know of between the Hammill and Montgomery families, but it is not the last. The two families were closely linked for centuries, in Scotland and then in Ireland later on. Had they been connected even earlier? Montgomery, like Hammill, is a Norman name. The Montgomeries achieved a much higher rank in the British social hierarchy than the Hammills ever did; they may have held that status in Normandy as well.

It is impossible to know. Still, the duchy of Normandy was sparsely populated, and its social groups clung together both by preference and by necessity.

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Maybe the two families knew nothing of each other before they lived in Scotland — and maybe they did. The Montgomeries held several estates in North Ayrshire. The one most often linked with the Hammills was Bradestane Broadstone , a property of about four hundred acres not far from Roughwood. Like every other landed family in Britain at the time, neither the Hammills nor the Montgomeries owned these properties outright. Rather, they were feudal tenants: they leased or "held" their lands from an overlord or the king, in turn subletting it to their own tenants, peasant farmers who paid their rent in grain or animals at first, and then, as time passed, in coin.

These peasant farmers were generally indentured to their masters in the early Middle Ages. They "belonged to the land," had virtually no civil rights, could not move without permission, and were protected only by certain vaguely defined customs under the common law. They made up the majority of British subjects for many centuries. Of somewhat higher status was the class of freemen, or yeoman farmers.

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They did have certain civil rights, and they leased their land for a term of years that varied from place to place and century to century, though it was often twenty-one or thirty-one years. When the term elapsed, the lessee could not assume that his lease would be renewed, even if he could pay the higher rent that was generally demanded when a new lease began.

Thus even a freeman's leasehold was not secure. But gentlemen's leases were "heritable. Moreover, these leases were written not for a term of years but on three lifetimes. The lease on three lives remained in force as long as one named person was still living, and rents could not be raised for that term. People named grandbabies in them, or magnates of the realm, assuming that the very young or the very rich would live longer than anyone else, and indeed these leases sometimes remained valid for sixty years or longer.

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They were the precursor of the ninety-nine-year commercial lease that is familiar today. Properties leased on three lives held the status of freeholds under the law. They represented estates of "dignity," and the gentlemen who held them were known as "heritors," "kindly tenants," or "tenants-in-chief" of the lord to whom they paid their rents. The "heritors" of Beith who refounded the bell at Auld Kirk in were the gentry of their neighborhood, and they were not too modest to say so.

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