FERRERS, the name of a great Norman-English feudal house, derived from Ferrières-St-Hilaire, to the south of Bernay, in Normandy. Its ancestor Walkelin was slain in a feud during the Conqueror's minority, leaving a son Henry, who took part in the Conquest. At the time of the Domesday survey his fief extended into fourteen counties, but the great bulk of it was in Derbyshire and Leicestershire, especially the former. He himself occurs in Worcestershire as one of the royal commissioners for the survey. He established his chief seat at Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire, on the Derbyshire border, and founded there a Cluniac priory. As was the usual practice with the great Norman houses, his eldest son succeeded to Ferrières, and, according to Stapleton, he was ancestor of the Oakham house of Ferrers, whose memory is preserved by the horseshoes hanging in the hall of their castle. Robert, a younger son of Henry, inherited his vast English fief, and, for his services at the battle of the Standard (1138), was created earl of Derby by Stephen. He appears to have died a year after.
Both the title and the arms of the earls have been the subject of much discussion, and they seem to have been styled indifferently earls of Derby or Nottingham (both counties then forming one shrievalty) or of Tutbury, or simply (de) Ferrers. Robert, the 2nd earl, who founded Merevale Abbey, was father of William, the 3rd earl, who began the opposition of his house to the crown by joining in the great revolt of 1173, when he fortified his castles of Tutbury and Duffield and plundered Nottingham, which was held for the king. On his subsequent submission his castles were razed. Dying at the siege of Acre, 1190, he was succeeded by his son William, who attacked Nottingham on Richard's behalf in 1194, but whom King John favoured and confirmed in the earldom of Derby, 1199. A claim that he was heir to the honour of Peveral of Nottingham, which has puzzled genealogists, was compromised with the king, whom the earl thenceforth stoutly supported, being with him at his death and witnessing his will, with his brother-in-law the earl of Chester, and with William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, whose daughter married his son. With them also he acted in securing the succession of the young Henry, joining in the siege of Mountsorrel and the battle of Lincoln. But he was one of those great nobles who looked with jealousy on the rising power of the king's favourites. In 1227 he was one of the earls who rose against him on behalf of his brother Richard and made him restore the forest charters, and in 1237 he was one of the three counsellors forced on the king by the barons. His influence had by this time been further increased by the death, in 1232, of the earl of Chester, whose sister, his wife, inherited a vast estate between the Ribble and the Mersey. On his death in 1247, his son William succeeded as 5th earl, and inherited through his wife her share of the great possessions of the Marshals, earls of Pembroke. By his second wife, a daughter of the earl of Winchester, he was father of Robert, 6th and last earl. Succeeding as a minor in 1254, Robert had been secured by the king, as early as 1249, as a husband for his wife's niece, Marie, daughter of Hugh, count of Angoulême, but, in spite of this, he joined the opposition in 1263 and distinguished himself by his violence. He was one of the five earls summoned to Simon de Montfort's parliament, though, on taking the earl of Gloucester's part, he was arrested by Simon. In spite of this he was compelled on the king's triumph to forfeit his castles and seven years' revenues. In 1266 he broke out again in revolt on his own estates in Derbyshire, but was utterly defeated at Chesterfield by Henry "of Almain," deprived of his earldom and lands and imprisoned. Eventually, in 1269, he agreed to pay £50,000 for restoration, and to pledge all his lands save Chartley and Holbrook for its payment. As he was not able to find the money, the lands passed to the king's son, Edmund, to whom they had been granted on his forfeiture.
The earl's son John succeeded to Chartley, a Staffordshire estate long famous for the wild cattle in its chase, and was summoned as a baron in 1299, though he had joined the baronial opposition in 1297. On the death, in 1450, of the last Ferrers lord of Chartley, the barony passed with his daughter to the Devereux family and then to the Shirleys, one of whom was created Earl Ferrers in 1711. The barony has been in abeyance since 1855.
The line of Ferrers of Groby was founded by William, younger brother of the last earl, who inherited from his mother Margaret de Quinci her estate of Groby in Leicestershire, and some Ferrers manors from his father. His son was summoned as a baron in 1300, but on the death of his descendant, William, Lord Ferrers of Groby, in 1445, the barony passed with his granddaughter to the Grey family and was forfeited with the dukedom of Suffolk in 1554. A younger son of William, the last lord, married the heiress of Tamworth Castle, and his line was seated at Tamworth till 1680, when an heiress carried it to a son of the first Earl Ferrers. From Sir Henry, a younger son of the first Ferrers of Tamworth, descended Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton, seated there in the male line till towards the end of the 19th century. The line of Ferrers of Wemme was founded by a younger son of Lord Ferrers of Chartley, who married the heiress of Wemme, Co. Salop, and was summoned as a baron in her right; but it ended with their son. There are doubtless male descendants of this great Norman house still in existence.
Higham Ferrers, Northants, and Woodham Ferrers, Essex, take their names from this family. It has been alleged that they bore horseshoes for their arms in allusion to Ferrières (i.e. ironworks); but when and why they were added to their coat is a moot point.
See Dugdale's Baronage; J.R. Planché's The Conqueror and his Companions; G.E. C(okayne)'s Complete Peerage; Chronicles and Memorials (Rolls Series); T. Stapleton's Rotuli Scaccarii Normannie.
(J. H. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)