gray castle beside river by Mathias Reding on

Historians fantasize about getting their favorite characters from history into a room where they (the historians) can discuss with the characters (now dead people) what really happened way back when. Here are four of mine:

Sir Bruce Gordon gives a compelling account of Seton family history in The House of Seton (1939). Beryl Platts gives a compelling account of Seton family history in her book, Scottish Hazard Volume I (1985). In places they draw upon the same sources. But they tell such different stories that they might be talking about different families that happen to share the same name. Perhaps they are. Otherwise, I can make no sense of the contradictions at all.


The problem may come from having conflated Scottish Setons with English Setons. Almost certainly, Robert Seton in his book (1899) seems to have done just that, calling upon Richard Maitland (1559) who caused all this confusion to begin with. Platts also favors Maitland, while Gordon criticizes the old gentleman mightily.

If Maitland/Seton/Platts are correct, then the Seton’s have roots going back to Charlemagne, thence to Flanders and then England and Scotland. If Gordon is correct, then some nameless knights from Flanders came to England and then onto Scotland.

Since back in the old days unrelated people could have taken the name of the place they hailed from, unrelated families might end up with the same surname. Yet, the timing of the Seton entry into Scotland is more or less agreed upon. And very importantly, the Flemish heraldic emblem of the Seton family—three gold crescents upon a field of red—is agreed upon. Also: Seton’s arrive in England after 1066 (Battle of Hastings) and very likely before the Domesday Book (population survey) of 1086.

Since I have no way of bringing together my four authors, I take a guess based on nothing more than my need to get onto other subjects: the people who became Seton had a common origin in Flanders. Once in England, different branches developed along what is now the Scottish-English border, one mostly based to the north, another to the south.

If that is true, then Maitland/Seton/Platts/Gordon might all prove correct. All it would take for one Seton ancestor to have escaped from the surviving records sending the different branches on different trajectories.

Scenario I: Gordon

“The ultimate source of the family is lost in obscurity,” according to Bruce Gordon. He and the others agree that Setons came from Flanders to England one or more generations following the Conquest of 1066. They lived first in Northhamptonshire. Family members moved onto Yorkshire, Cumbria, and ultimately to Scotland until all of those places potentially supported persons of the Seton name. Surnames did not exist during the early part of this period but numerous placenames of Seton (and its variations) are found in northern England showing the gradual expansion of the family.

The Seton’s held properties on either side of what is now the Scottish-English border. That border moved from time to time. Northumberland, now a County in England belonged to Scotland during the time of David I. (Another English County, Cumberland, also on the border, also then belonged the Scots.) The 11th and 12th century Scots thus owed allegiance to the King of Scotland or the King of England, switching from one to the other depending on whomever happened to be most threatening at a given time. Border families such as the Bruces are a good example; it is expedient to give homage to whoever is holding a sword at your throat at a given moment.

The patrilineal Flemish Setons who became Scots appeared in Lothian (south of the Firth of Forth, an estuary of the North Sea) in the records of the 12th century during the reign of King David I (c. 1082—1153). The use of “Seton” as a place name in East Lothian shows up “between 1152 and 1178.” In Scotland, the family, Gordon tells us, had matrilineal roots in East Lothian with a 10th century family known to history as “Dunbar,” named for a geologic feature of that area.

Any Alexander You Choose 

One of them, a granddaughter of Aethelred II (“the Unready,” a Saxon king of the late 900s and early 1000s), Gunnilda, married “Orm, son of Ketel.” By him, she had a son, Alexander, and a grandson known as Alexander de Seton. (There would be many Alexander Setons of uncertain birth dates.) Not mentioned by Gordon: Flemish knights generally only married into their own Flemish kind. But maybe a Seton could marry a Celtic royal? Or did Gunnilda see herself as a Saxon? (The Saxon King Aethelred II married the daughter of the Duke of Normandy in 1001, giving William the Conqueror a claim on the English throne 65 years later.)

Further complicating matters: It could be that Flemish knights of unknown linage may have moved to Lothian, and taken the name of an existing place as their name: Thus, So-and-So (a person) of Seton (a place) became a Mr. Seton either related to or not related to the English Setons.

Best guess: “Alexander de Settone” definitely shows up in the Scottish records during the reign of David I. That is, he is a candidate for being the grandson of Gunnilda and Orm. He seems to have been the proprietor of the “Seton, Winton and Winchburgh” land, but no paperwork survives showing the when or the how. David I invited in knights of Flemish heritage who had been brought up in the Saxon-Norman culture (England) before (some of them) becoming unwelcome in their original British home. OR: Maybe this Alexander was from Northumberland (a Scottish possession). Alexander may not have had much connection with the English; he just transferred to a new job farther north.

However this may be, he also appears in the records as “Alexander de Setun” in 1144 and as Alexander Setone in 1150, and finally again in 1153. He had a son (or nephew?), Philip, who appears in estate records as early as 1177. Philip died sometime after 1185; his son, another Alexander (the second), lived from 1214 to 1249 during the reign of William the Lion.

What’s In A Name

Possible family line: Alexander de Settone I, son of Gospatrick, grandson of Orm of Commerton (Cumbria). Next: Philip de Settone (succeeded to the lands of Seton and Winton between 1177 and 1185. Next: Sir Alexander de Settone II, shown by confirmation of his estates in 1195.

Wildcard: Maitland provides a different chronology with different names; a convention followed by Seton and Platts. Gordon documents his genealogy with actual records. Maitland’s sources are wobbly; Platts follows Maitland apparently without consulting the records used by Gordon.

By around 1200 the Normans are beginning to use surnames. The Flemish, sometimes. The Normans perhaps have not yet developed family coats-of-arms, while the Flemish have used them to identify their family heritage since long before the Conquest.

Welcome to 1200 c.e.! Next up: Beryl Platts and an entirely different story.

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