John Lorimer Worden is famous for commanding the Monitor in the first ever battle between ironclad ships. He was born in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1818 and serving throughout the Civil War he gained promotion to Rear Admiral. Except for a most unfortunate piece of timing the Wordens would have been English barons or earls rather than the family of an American naval hero.

The Worden family’s own personal civil war was to be a catalyst for the great charter of liberties, Magna Carta in 1215. The Worden family, rightly proud of their hero, have undertaken DNA testing which reveals that John Worden had unusual DNA belonging to group J2b2. Wordens related to the Admiral originally came from Lancashire, England, the county that contains both Liverpool and Manchester. At the dawn of the thirteenth century the county of Lancashire was subject to the despotic Prince John.

Werdon was a low lying hill on the south bank of the River Ribble overlooking an important ford across the River Ribble near Preston, Lancashire. Recognising the strategic importance of this crossing, the Normans had built a castle, Penewerdant (High Werdant) by the time of Domesday Book 1086. This development was to the north of the original Saxon hamlet of Werdon. The settlement which developed around the castle became the centre of the medieval barony, the Honour of Penwortham. As owners of the castle, hill and surrounding settlements, the barons would eventually become de Werdant giving rise to the Worden surname. It has since drifted to a number of different forms including Werden, Worden, Warden, Wharton, Walker, Warren, Waring, Orpen and Waters.

The original Norman name of the Worden family was Bussel and because this sounded like bouget or bouz, the French for water-bottle, their heraldic shield portrayed three water-bottles. Baron Albert held land in Lancashire, Leicestershire and Suffolk and was obliged to provide the king with five fully equipped knights supported by attendants in time of war.

Albert lived until 1192 by which time Prince John was Lord of Lancashire. For an heir to inherit property a fee had to be paid to the king or in this case Prince John, which for land valued at five knights should have been just over £37. Prince John exacted the higher sum of £40. This inheritance tax seems to have been paid by Albert’s brother Geoffrey who held land at nearby Langton. Although he is usually recorded as Bussel he is sometimes called Geoffrey de Langeton, the earliest instance being 1178. It is unclear why Hugo the son of Albert failed to inherit. This might have been because of illegitimacy, estrangement from his father or he lacked the resources to pay. Whatever the reason once Geoffrey died, Hugo went to court and successfully claimed Penwortham. This was probably relatively easy because Geoffrey’s heir was a child Robert Bussel.

In 1199 King Richard the Lionheart died and his brother Prince John became king. In the following year Robert BusseI took the fateful step of seeking justice in the court. It was normal practice for people to pay the court’s costs by giving a sum such as £4 to expedite matters. This might of course be seen as a bribe to get the verdict you want. With John fresh on the throne, Robert Bussel offered £67 for his claim to Penwortham to be expedited; he later pledged a further £13. He was doubtless told he would have to pay this extraordinary sum to buy justice. To promise this huge amount he must have been confident that he would win. Robert claimed Hugo had only previously been successful in court because of false testimony by a witness.

King John immediately seized Penwortham Castle and all other property from Hugo pending the court reaching a verdict. The estates produced an income of just over £10 a year and John deducted a quarter of that for the Court. Far worse was to follow; John was developing the use of the courts to deprive people of their property and livelihood. Robert Bussel’s offer of the equivalent of 8 years income for a verdict against his cousin Hugo might have worked under King Richard. The Courts judgement was however a triumph for Hugo; he had his entitlement to Penwortham confirmed.

What came next must have sent shock waves through the North of England. Although Hugo was the victor the Judge declared his previous claim in court was tortuous and he was fined the fabulous sum of £267 of which £67 was to be paid immediately with £100 in each of the next two years. With the estates being worth just £10 a year this was a lifetimes income and impossible to pay. Hugo, in winning, had lost everything. He could only pay the first instalment and therefore King John held on to Penwortham Castle and everything else. This sum was of course quite distinct from the £80 that Robert Bussel was still obliged to pay for the pleasure of losing. If this could happen to the barons of Penwortham it could happen to anyone. All it needed was a legal challenge to your land and the state could use the court to fine you out of your possessions and livelihood.

In 1206 with the debt still over £200 the constable of Chester Castle, Roger de Lacy, stepped in, paying off the debt in exchange for ownership of the barony. King John got his ill-deserved money, De Lacy got Penwortham, and the Bussel name was on the fast track to disappearing. Hugo Bussel died childless not long afterwards with his heir being none other than his cousin Robert Bussel. Robert does seem to have some continuing property in Penwortham and probably continued living in the castle as De Lacy’s knight.

The first use of the name Worden is in 1246 recorded as Robert de Werden living at Werthen. This may be the defeated Robert but, if not it was one of his relatives. The expansion of the Bussel family despite diminishing finances must have encouraged the adoption of more distinctive names according to their remaining landholdings. Worden, Langton and Penwortham were being used by the family and possibly other locality names; Banks and Cartmell. We know that Robert had two other brothers Thomas and Henry but who was the head of which branch of the family cannot be unravelled with certainty.

Roger de Lacy the rescuer of the Wordens and Langtons was himself in a vulnerable position. He had adopted the De Lacy name in order to inherit the De Lacy lands from his grandmother. He would be in John’s hands if one of the original de Lacys went to court claiming his lands. Roger never faced such a challenge and died while his son John was still a minor. The young John De Lacy as he approached his twenty first birthday knew very well that King John would demand an impossible sum for his property. In 1213 inheriting Penwortham and the other de Lacy lands, he was required to come up with almost £5,000. King John held on to his castles to make sure he paid up. Not surprisingly de Lacy became a prominent figure in the ensuing struggle against the king.

De Lacy became one of the 25 barons empowered to enforce Magna Carta against the king and Robert de Worden/Langeton would have been with him at Runnymead when John was forced to seal Magna Carta. This is however not just a case of the plight of the Wordens influencing one of the 25 barons. John De Lacy belonged to a group of first cousins all displaying similar red and gold shields in a show of solidarity. They formed one of the most powerful groups at Runnymead with four more barons from the famous twenty five; de Mandeville Earl of Essex, de Vere Earl of Oxford, de Say and John Fitz Robert Lord of Warkworth.

There was however, one more person sporting a gold and red quartered shield at the sealing of Magna Carta which suggests he was related to De Lacy’s extended family. The final shield belonged to Archbishop Stephen Langton the author of Magna Carta. Although Stephen was from a different group of Anglo Norman Langtons; he must have known about the fate of the Penwortham Langtons and Wordens.

Magna Carta established the rule of law in England with principles of religious freedom, human rights and due process. It endured unchanged for centuries until governments began to erode it. We will celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta next year in 2015. King John’s family finally came to an ignominious end in 1485 with the slaying of Richard III, recently exhumed from beneath a Leicester car park.

The Wordens continued as minor property owners around Penwortham, but they never recovered their former estates or power. In time the family became merchants and traders. This severance from their hereditary land meant that with the opening up of New England they were free to take to the sea and gain prominence once more in a new land. King John had attempted to destroy the Wordens but with Magna Carta they just about destroyed King John. Long after the monarch’s family had fallen in the dust of history, the Worden’s were back in command. John Lorimer Worden, naval hero of the Civil War was fighting for freedom, civil rights and justice. The days of the ironclad knight had long gone when Admiral Worden led the world into the new era of the ironclad ship.

Copyright David Langton 03 May 2015 all rights reserved.