Sunburst and Seton Castle, New Mexico

Where better to start the Saga of the Seton family than in the mists of time? And what better place for a historian to get lost than in the mists? As in introduction to the mists, try Wikipedia and other on-line sources where the first two centuries of Seton family misinformation has made its way into the contemporary record. It is axiomatic that the mistakes published by an early historian tend to get repeated by later historians until accepted as fact, citing each earlier incorrect historian.

The Big Three

The first attempt at writing Seton family history came from the scholar and poet-satirist Sir Richard Maitland (1496-1586). His mother, Margaret Seton (1476-1535) was the daughter of one George Seton (1449-1508). Maitland compiled a history of his mother’s family, researching between 1550 and 1565. His History of the House of Seyton to the Year 1559, is impressive, but also wrong in a few places.

Monsignor Robert Seton (1839-1927) updated Maitland’s work in the 1899 An Old Family or The Setons of Scotland and America. The Monsignor repeated some of Maitland’s mistakes creating a tangle that continues to plague early Seton history accounts to this day. He is important because Ernest Thompson Seton learned a good deal about his family from the Monsignor’s book. I gave an account of the Seton family based on ETS’s understanding in my 2010 book. Both Richard Maitland and Robert Seton confused the English and Scottish branches of the family, a tradition that I carried on as well!

Finally, we come to the no-nonsense, rather dour military surgeon and veteran of British wars in Pakistan, Sir Bruce Gordon Seton (1868-1932) and his manuscript, “The House of Seton, A Study of Lost Causes,” published around seven years after his death. This Seton returned to what original sources he could find, attempting to untangle the accomplishments of two Seton families: the ancestors of the Scottish and English branches. He will be our primary guide to this look into the Medieval Setons.

King For A Day And Beyond

The Seton family moved to Scotland in the twelfth century because a century earlier William the Bastard developed a genuine fondness for Matilda of Flanders.

William, Duke of Normandy decided to give himself a promotion, starting the process of becoming King of England in 1066 and becoming known to history as William the Conqueror. (Presumably the defeated Saxons continued to prefer the earlier name).

Matilda, also without surname, proved an ideal and trustworthy partner for William both before and after their official marriage. The daughter of the King of France, she must have been raised with an understanding of power for she played an important part in the events leading up to the invasion of England. Afterwards, she acted as a kind of co-ruler since the couple now controlled properties on both sides of the Channel. William needed a partner not only to manage his real estate holdings, but also for finding the war equipment and the warriors needed to hold onto his growing empire. Matilda proved essential in both regards. There simply were not enough Norman knights to manage it all by themselves.

Nights in Flemish Satin

There were, however, unemployed and ambitious Flemish knights ready to fill the remaining warrior positions; Matilda apparently happy to find them something to do. Many of them settled in England, somewhat later in Scotland. By sometime in the thirteenth century, the two most powerful Scots families—Balliol and Bruce—are thought to have included Flemish ancestry in their linage, mixed with Anglo-Norman. (Add to the Flemish line, perhaps at a somewhat later date, Clan Cameron as well.)

The exact timing of all this is not entirely certain, but the Flemish gradually mixed with the native Scots creating a cultural hybrid that became its own distinctive entity by the time of William Wallace at the end of the thirteenth century. Dinner table conversation could have been held in the then-current versions of Scots, English, French, and Dutch, with Latin thrown in for the more educated and Gaelic for visiting Highlands cousins.

(Ethnicity seems to have been a more fluid concept then than now—Flanders seems to have referred to people of that particular region regardless of their genetic ancestry. Flemish immigration to Scotland after 1066 became an important part of that country’s heritage, continuing over several centuries.) 

King David Canmore of the Scots

One of the greatest kings of Medieval Britain, David I (c.1082-1153), like other royals of his time, had cross-border roots, in his case, both in England and Scotland. A shrewd political operator, he negotiated the rough political shoals of his time by shifting his allegiances and alliances on a regular basis, increasing Scotland’s power along the way. His personal acquisitions included Northumberland and part of Lothian, that is, geographic areas bordering England. David’s wife, Maud, is thought to have had some degree of Flemish ancestry, although like David, probably having grown up in Anglo-Norman society.

Sixty-some years after the Battle of Hastings, descendants of the first Flemish knights, living in England, came to reside in the Scottish Lowlands or remained just across the border in England.

One family, although rather indirectly, given the complexity of relationships and hazy data from the past nine hundred years, became the first “Setons.” Unwelcome in England, warrior knights of Flemish ancestry moved to a welcoming Scotland under David I. This would prove disastrous for the English as the lords of London spent six centuries fighting these Flemish knights turned Scots.

The Dark Stranger

Since the Flemish had not then begun to take surnames, given names associated with place names became identifiers. (Call me, in twelfth century fashion: “David of Taos.”) Various languages were in use at that time when spelling had not yet settled in as a more or less agreed upon habit. From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries we find mention of Setun, Seyton, Seytoun, de Say, Settone, Seetun, Seaton, and de Seton before settling into the more familiar form from Scotland we now know.

Out of this came the myth of the Dark Stranger, the first Seton, a foreign knight come to take over an estate in East Lothian. There was a first male “Seton,” but he was no stranger, being not less than third generation on the island, marrying into an ancient Scottish family, and forming a Scot-Flemish alliance that would prove enduring from before the time to Robert I in the early 1300s to Mary Queen of Scots in the 1560s, to a final defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.


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