The Norfleets of MEDIEVAL England
by Phil Norfleet
My analysis of the information summarized in this essay has led me to conclude that the surname Norfleet first arose in Kent County, England and was derived from the name of the Manor and Parish of "Northfleet." I suspect that the first Norfleet immigrant to America, Thomas Northfleete, who settled in Virginia Colony about the year 1666, came from Northeast Kent in the vicinity of the towns of Faversham and Canterbury. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to conclusively identify the specific family or the exact place of origin in England.
The Ancient County of Kent in England
Before the nineteenth century, the primary administrative divisions of the County of Kent were the Lathes, which originally were provinces in the ancient Jutish Kingdom of Kent. The lathes were subdivided into Hundreds, which originally meant territorial groupings of approximately a hundred families. The Hundreds were, in turn, divided into parishes, the smallest unit of ecclesiastical and political administration.
The Parish and Vestry: From the sixteenth century to well into the nineteenth century, the parish was the basic unit of civil local government in England.  In the Middle Ages the manor had been the dominant organizing element of local political government, while the parish had been strictly a unit of local Church government. However, in the 1530s, after King Henry VIII had assumed the role of head of the Church of England, the parish governing body (the vestry) was given certain secular, political responsibilities. Over time, more and more responsibilities were added, until by the beginning of the seventeenth century the parish vestry had assumed tasks such as poor relief, local tax gathering, road maintenance, and regulation of privately owned land boundaries (processioning). These vestries were usually composed of twelve of the most important men of the parish, usually individuals who were members of the local gentry. Indeed, vestrymen were always referred to as "Gentleman of the Vestry."
Churchwardens: The senior members of the vestry were the churchwardens who were usually two in number and were elected on an annual basis. Their primary responsibilities included management of the parish accounts and the setting of church and other local tax rates.Churchwardens: The senior members of the vestry were the churchwardens who were usually two in number and were elected on an annual basis. Their primary responsibilities included management of the parish accounts and the setting of church and other local tax rates.
Parish Vicar: The parish vicar/rector was also given certain official responsibilities; in particular, he was charged with the keeping of parish registers re baptisms, marriages and burials. From 1598, he was required to send a copy of one years register entries to his bishop; this was usually done at Easter time.
The parish concept of local government, including the use of vestries and churchwardens, was imported into Colonial Virginia in the first half of the 17th century; this concept is further discussed in my essay on the Norfleets of Colonial Virginia and North Carolina.
Manor and Parish of Northfleet in Kent
Since Anglo-Saxon times, Northfleet had been both a manor and a parish. The Parish of Northfleet is part of the Lathe of Aylesford, and the Hundred of Toltingtrough. The parish is located on the south bank of the upper portion of the Thames estuary and derives its name from its one time location near a "fleet," which in Old English was spelled "fleot." The word meant an arm of the Thames which, in those early days, flowed from Northfleet southward towards the Parish and manor of Southfleet. The Parish of Northfleet has one of the earliest and most complete set of parish registers, having entries going back to the year 1539.
The manor of Northfleet in Kent is mentioned in Doomsday Book, (c. 1086 A. D.) where, in the Medieval Latin, the name was spelled "NORFLVET." King William I, who had conquered England for the Normans in 1066 A. D., had ordered the creation of this document. The book constituted a detailed and probably quite accurate inventory of the Kingdom. The nickname given this record occurred because the information it contained concerning the ownership/tenancy of property became so authoritative that there was no appeal from it, thus it was as certain as the coming of Doomsday! The English language transcription of the original Latin entry is as follows:
In the above entry, the Archbishop (of Canterbury) is said to "hold" the estate not own it; in those days only the King could own (hold title) to land. Others held their property as a tenant directly or indirectly from the King. The Archbishop is a tenant-in-chief meaning that he held the land directly from the King. A tenant-in-chief might grant an estate to a secondary tenant; however, in the case of Northfleet, the manor was kept in the hands of the Archbishop, i. e., "in demesne."
In the time of King Edward the Confessor (the predecessor of William I), the manor had been taxed at the rate of six sulungs, but was currently being taxed at the reduced rate of five sulungs. The sulung was a unit of taxation unique to Kent; elsewhere it was called a "hide" or "carucate." The term means an amount of land that can be worked by one plough-team composed of eight oxen, probably about 160 acres. The assessed value of the estate had actually increased from £10 to £27 during this period. In spite of the fact that the assessed value of the estate had increased since King Edwards time, Northfleet was now being taxed at the reduced rate of only five sulungs. This probably indicates that Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, a close friend of King William, was receiving the reduced rate as a royal favor.
The total amount of arable land was estimated to be sufficient to keep fourteen plough teams at work but the estate was not being fully cultivated as there are only twelve teams in actual use. Two teams are owned (in demesne) by the Archbishop. The profits of the mill amount to 10 shillings a year; the rent paid for woodland used as a pasture for pigs is twenty hogs per year. The overall value of the estate had been increasing rapidly since the accession of King William, but the local peasants (36 villeins) are paying the Archbishop rents and services worth more than the assessed value of the land (£27), which in total are estimated to be worth £37.10 per year. 
The manor of Northfleet continued to be in the "demesne" of the Archbishop of Canterbury until the 29th year of King Henry VIII, when it was conveyed back to the King by Archbishop Cranmer and later sold to private individuals. It should be noted that many of the Norfleets mentioned in the English records, during the Middle Ages, show a close connection with the See of Canterbury.
Saint Boltoph's Parish Church
Today, the modern town of Northfleet is an industrial area near Greater Metropolitan London, adjoining Gravesend on its western side, with Swanscombe and Southfleet lying to the east. Since the early Twentieth Century, the primary industry has been the production of cement. In April 1995, I visited Northfleet and found it to be rather unimposing, just a working class district located near the cement factories. However, the ancient Parish Church,Saint Boltoph's (see above photograph) is very picturesque. The church is located near a craggy chalk cliff, overlooking a wooded quarry. This church is basically a fourteenth century structure, with some evidence of much earlier Saxon masonry. The restored stained glass windows reflect typical Kentish geometrical tracery and the chancel screen dates to 1313.
Norfleet Migration along Watling Street
In Roman and Medieval times, the town of Canterbury was the point of convergence for the roads from the ancient Kentish, cross-channel ports of Lympne, Dover and Richbourgh. From Canterbury, there was a main Roman road, famous throughout the Middle Ages, which ran through Rochester, passing just on the southern side of both the medieval manor and the village of Northfleet, on its way to London. In the Middle Ages this road was still the principal thoroughfare in Kent and since Saxon times had been known as "Watling Street."  I believe that the migration of the original Norfleet family(s) out of the parish was primarily along this road both to the east and the west. This migration probably commenced during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries and these people, after their departure, became known as the people "from" (in both Latin and French the corresponding preposition is "de") Northfleet, the term becoming a hereditary surname by the end of the Fourteenth Century. This hyperlinked map shows a view of Watling Street in northeast Kent during the late Middle Ages.
Norfleets Mentioned in Medieval English Records
I have located a total of eighteen references to people with the Norfleet surname in the Medieval English records. Many of these medieval Norfleet references are associated with the conferment of holy orders. Such ordinations were an Episcopal prerogative and were almost always recorded in the Bishop's Register or Itinerary. For information purposes, the following holy orders or degrees of ordination were in common use during the Middle Ages:
The following list summarizes, in chronological order, the eighteen known references to people with the Norfleet surname during the Middle Ages:
1. 10 May 1268: Writ of liberate "to brother John de Northflet, almoner of Christchurch, Canterbury, 6£. 16s. 6d. for corn taken when the king was last at Stratford by Henry de Burne, then undersheriff of Kent, as certified by inquisition." [Calendar of the Liberate Rolls, Henry III, Volume VI, Page 31]
2. 08 October 1269: Death of Richard de Northflete of Wouburne, Buckinghamshire County, is noted. [Rotuli Ricardi Gravesend, Diocesis Lincolniensis, Page 244]
3. 1275: Thomas de Norflete mentioned as a Canon of Lincoln Cathedral. [Rotili Ricardi Gravesend, Diocesis Lincolniensis, Page xxxvii]
4. 13 March 1276/1277: Thomas de Northflete receives the Prebend of Luddington, Lincoln County from Richard Gravesend, Bishop of Lincoln. A "Prebend" is a Medieval Church term for a specific endowment, which supported a member of the clerical staff, who was appointed by the diocesan bishop and was known as a prebendary. [Rotuli Ricardi Gravesend, Diocesis Lincolniensis, Page 209]
5. 1283: Ordination of Thomas de Northflete as Acolyte, at Sevenoaks, Kent County by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury. [The Register of John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-1292, Volume I, Page 2]
6. 1288: Ordination of Richard de Northflete as Sub-Deacon, at the Priory and Convent of Cruceroyse, Croydon, Surrey County by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury. [The Register of John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-1292, Volume II, Page 15]
7. 1289: Ordination of Richard de Northflete as Deacon, at the Priory and Convent of Cruceroyse, Croydon, Surrey County by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury. [The Register of John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-1292, Volume II, Page 20]
8. 1290: Ordination of Richard de Northflete as Priest and placement at the Priory and Convent of Bello, Teynham, Kent County by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury. [Register of John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-1292, Volume II, Page 24]
9. 23 September 1301: Ordination of William de Northflete and his brother, Hugo de Northflete, as Acolytes, at the Parish Church of Wye, Kent County by Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. [Registrum Roberti Winchelsey, Archiepiscopi Cantuariensis, 1294-1313, Page 949]
10. 1307: Mention is made of Brother Hugo de Northflete as one of the Administrators of the Archbishopry of Canterbury. [Registrum Roberti Winchelsey, Archiepiscopi Cantuariensis, 1294-1313, Page 1175]
11. 1314: Award of Master of Arts Degree to John de Northflete by Merton College, Oxford University. [A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A. D. 1500, Volume II, Page 1271]
12. 12 July 1316: "Presentation of Master John de Northflete as Rector to the Church of All Saints, Oxford, in the Diocese of Lincoln, in the King's gift by reason of the voidance of the Priory of Saint Frideswide, Oxford." [The Calendar of the Patent Rolls, Edward II, A. D. 1313-1317, Page 508]
13. 06 July 1317: "To John de Northflete, M. A., of the Diocese of Rochester, like reservation of a benefice in the gift of the Abbot and Convent of Waledon. Concurrent mandate to the Bishop of Rochester, the Chancellor of London, and Master Richard Abel, Canon of Lichfield." Decree issued via papal letter of John XXII, from Avignon, France. [Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Papal Letters, Volume II, A. D. 1305-1342, Page 162]
14. 1317: Will of Master Thomas de Northflete, Canon of Saint Paul's Cathedral, London is proven in the Court of Husting, London. [The original will is on file at the Guildhall Library, London, see below for more information]
15. 20 October 1319: "Presentation of John de Northflet to the Church of Amyngton, Oxfordshire County, in the Diocese of Lincoln, void and in the King's gift by reason of his custody of the land and heir of Andrew de Sakeville, tenant in chief." [Calendar of the Patent Rolls, Edward II, A. D. 1317-1321, Volume III, Page 395]
16. 27 July 1334: Master John de Northflete is appointed Rector of Grafton Parish Church, in Northamptonshire County. [A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A. D. 1500, Volume II, Page 1271]
17. 11 March 1398/1399: Robert Northflete is identified as a pledge of prosecution (bail bondsman?) in a complaint in the Sheriff's Court, London during the tenure of Richard Whityngton as Lord Mayor of London. [Calendar of Select Pleas and Memoranda of the City of London, A. D. 1381-1412, Pages 251-253]
18. 18 November 1399: Robert Northflete, a confessed felon, is pardoned by King Henry IV. [The Calendar of the Patent Rolls, Henry IV, A. D. 1399-1401, Volume I, Page 107]
John de Northflete of Oxford University
Merton College, Oxford
Of all the people identified in the above list, John de Northflete is worthy of special attention. He was a Master of Merton College, Oxford, and was in his prime during the early years of the fourteenth century (see references 11, 12 ,13, 15 and 16 of the above list). In those days, Merton was the largest and most prestigious "secular college" (meaning a college not associated with a religious order such as the Dominicans or the Franciscans) at Oxford. Master John was at Merton during what has been called the "Great Mertonian Period", when the College housed many great men of exceptional intellectual ability such as Thomas de Wilton, John Dumbleton and Richard Swyneshed. In addition, John de Northflete was a contemporary of the great Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham (of "Ockham's Razor" fame) who was at Oxford circa 1307-1320.
In his own right, John de Northflete, must have been considered to be of some consequence himself, as he obtained the recognition of Pope John XXII, by being provided with a papal benefice in 1317. A year earlier, in 1316, King Edward II had appointed Master John as Rector of the Church of All Saints, Oxford, in the Diocese of Lincoln. In 1317, the King presented him with the Church of Amyngton, Oxfordshire County, in the Diocese of Lincoln. In October, 1319, King Edward II Presented John de Northflet with the rectorship of the Church of Amyngton, Oxfordshire County, which was also located in the Diocese of Lincoln. Finally, towards the end of his life, Master John was appointed Rector of the Grafton Parish Church, in Northamptonshire County in July 1334. He served there until his death in January 1335.
Robert Northflete – A Lucky Felon!
Another medieval Norfleet worthy of special attention, for less honorable reasons than John de Northflete, was Robert Northflete, a confessed felon, cited at reference numbers 17 and 18 above. A translation, from the original Latin, of his crimes is found in the published version of the Calendar of the Patent Rolls (Volume 1, page 107) and is given here as follows:
Robert Northflete was a very lucky fellow. His crime, being a felony, was punishable by death in those days. However, his crime was committed during the last year of Richard II, the last Plantagenet king of England. Within a few months, Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV, a member of the House of Lancaster. One of the first things King Henry IV did, upon coming to power, was to pardon the prisoners of the prior monarch!
Will of Master Thomas de Northflete
Prior to the Court of Probate Act in 1857, virtually all English wills were proven in ecclesiastical courts. One exception was the secular Court of Husting in London, which is the oldest court of record in London and was the court of probate with respect to goods and property lying within the City of London in the later Middle Ages. However, for most wills made subsequent to 1500, the Archdeaconry Courts exercised the probate responsibility. Even so, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was considered to be the foremost court of probate in England and Wales and was frequently utilized by the higher social classes. It, also, was the only court, which could prove wills made by persons dying in the colonies or at sea who left estates in England. For this reason, the wills probated by the PCC are the ones most often searched by Americans looking for colonial ancestors who died leaving estates in England.
To date only three (3) wills associated with the Norfleets have been found in England; one of these wills dates back to the Middle Ages and was were probated in the Court of Husting in London. The genealogical information contained in this will is summarized as follows:
Court of Husting, London: The will of Master Thomas de Northflete, Canon of Saint Paul's Cathedral, London was proved in 1317 in the Court of Husting, London. His will provided for the following: "To Cristina le Minour his tenement in the Parish of All Hallows de Berkynacherche for life; remainder to the Dean and Chapter of Saint Paul's to commemorate his obituary."  All Hallows de Berkynacherche is now known as the Parish of All Hallows Barking (by the Tower) and is located in the old City of London. This man was one of the secular canons at St. Pauls at the beginning of the 14th Century. The original of the will is kept at the Guildhall Library, London under reference number MS 25,271/19. 
1. Kate Tiller, English Local History An Introduction (1992), pages 118-120.
2. Frank W. Jessup, Kent History Illustrated (1973), page 26.
3. William Page, Editor, Victoria History of the County of Kent (1932), Vol. 3, page 134.
4. The quotation is from the Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, Part I, A. D. 1258-1358, page 274.
5. I last examined this document in April 1995. The seal has deteriorated from the last time I had previously examined it, in the 1980s. It is now fragmented with about 1/3 of the seal being entirely absent. The existing portion is in two fragments, one fragment is completely detached from the will. The seal appears to be in no way unusual, just a standard seal ordinarily used by members of the Cathedral staff to authenticate documents.