Levett

Levett is an Anglo-Norman territorial surname deriving from the village of Livet-en-Ouche, now Jonquerets-de-Livet, in Eure, Normandy. Ancestors of the earliest Levett family in England, the de Livets were lords of the village of Livet, and undertenants of the de Ferrers, among the most powerful of William the Conqueror's Norman lords.

One branch of the de Livet family came to England during the Norman Conquest, nearly a thousand years ago, and were prominent first in Leicestershire, and later in Derbyshire, Cheshire, Ireland and Sussex, where they held many manors, including the lordship of Firle. The name Livet (first recorded as Lived in the 11th century), of Gaulish etymology, may mean a "place where yew-trees grow". Like many Normans, the family's origins are probably partly Scandinavian.

The year of the family's arrival in England is uncertain. But the family name appears in the records of William the Conqueror. The first family member in England, Roger de Livet, appears in Domesday as a tenant of the Norman magnate Henry de Ferrers. de Livet held land in Leicestershire, and was, along with Ferrers, a benefactor of Tutbury Priory. By about 1270, when the Dering Roll was crafted to display the coats of arms of 324 of England's most powerful lords, the coat of arms of Robert Livet, Knight, was among them.

Ancient English deeds subsequently refer to many lands across Sussex as 'Levetts,' indicating family possession of broad swaths of Sussex countryside. Among the family's holdings was the manor of Catsfield Levett, today known simply as Catsfield, located a scant three miles (5 km) from the battlefield where Duke William of Normandy ('William the Bastard,' as he was dubbed) thrashed the English forces to become King.

Like most medieval Norman families, the Levetts depended on the web of feudal hierarchy. They held their lands as overlords in return for knight's service (commonly called Knight's fees). As their feudal overlords thrived, so did they; conversely, their fate was tied to the unpredictable fortunes of those same overlords.

The Levetts and their descendants eventually held land in Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, Worcestershire, Suffolk, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Kent, Bedfordshire and later in Staffordshire. The Anglicisation of this Norman French surname took many forms, including Levett, Levet, Lyvet, Levytt, Livett, Delivett, Levete, Leavett, Leavitt, Lovett and others.

Levett family members were early knights and Crusaders — many members of both English and French branches of the family were Knights Hospitallers — and they occupied a place in the English landed gentry for centuries. Unlike the French branch of the family, no members of the English branch were ennobled, although they intermarried with nobility and served as courtiers. The Levett name was joined with such well-known English clans as the Byrons, the Darwins, the Ashley-Coopers, the Hulses, the Bagots, the Prinseps, the Ansons, the Feildings, the Holdsworths, the Reresbys, the Breretons, the Suttons, the Kennedys, the Cullums, the Gargraves, the Gresleys, the Legges and others.

But the most common choice of professions among Levett men down the ages was the Anglican clergy – although one combined the ministry with the secular in an unusual way. Rev. William Levett of Buxted, East Sussex, inherited the iron foundries built by his brother John in the 16th century. Rather than sell them, Parson Levett became the first to cast iron cannon in England, served as 'Chief Gunstonemaker' to the King, and laid the foundation for an English industry.

A branch of the Levett family still occupies Milford Hall, a family home in Staffordshire, England, where Richard Byrd Levett Haszard, a Levett descendant, recently served as High Sheriff of Staffordshire. Members of the family formerly occupied Wychnor Park (or Hall) and Packington Hall, two country mansions in the same county, where English artist James Ward painted three Levett children playing in 1811. Ultimately, the two distant branches of the Levett family of Sussex, living nearby each other in Staffordshire, intermarried. Another branch of the Milford Hall Levetts occupy the family residence The Hall, Angle, Pembrokeshire, Wales, although the name is now Mirehouse because of an inheritance.

As with many families of Anglo-Norman extraction, some branches thrived, while others fell on hard times. The vicissitudes of character — and the collapsing feudal order — played havoc with the fortunes of some family members. The lordship of Firle, East Sussex, for instance, longtime seat of the family, passed from family control in 1440 on the indebtedness of then-lord Thomas Levett. The bankrupt Levett also forfeited his inherited lordship of Catsfield, East Sussex.

Similarly, in 1620 John Levett of Sedlescombe, Sussex, Gentleman, sold his half-interest in Bodiam Castle, as well as inherited family lands called Northlands, Parklands, Eastlands and Grovelands, as well as properties across Sussex and Kent, including in Bodiam, Ewhurst, Salehurst, Battle, Wartling, Penhurst, Newfield and Catsfield, Sussex, as well as Hawkhurst, Kent, to Sir Thomas Dyke for £1,000, from whom the properties subsequently passed to the Earl of Thanet. The distress sale left Levett's descendants listed as simple yeomen, instead of the knights, esquires and gentlemen of previous generations.

Other ancestral lands passed from the family with the marriage of Levett heiresses. Those inheriting from the Levetts included the Eversfields, the Gildredges, the Chaloners, the Ashburnhams, the Hulses and other prominent Sussex, Kent and Yorkshire families.

Other Levetts fell on hard times as the family's fortunes sometimes dwindled, or were carried into other clans. John Levett, a guard on the London to Brighton coach, was convicted of petty theft and transported to Australia in the nineteenth century. English records reveal Levetts embroiled in bastardy cases or relegated to poorhouses. As with Thomas Hardy's hapless d'Urbervilles, noble Norman lineage was no guarantor of rectitude, ability or fate.

Some Levetts moved abroad in search of opportunity. A Levett relation, a British clerk in India, was friend to Rudyard Kipling and a minor Victorian novelist. Another was an English factor living in Livorno, Italy, shuttling back and forth to Constantinople for the Levant Company. (Francis Levett later moved to British East Florida, became a planter and ultimately failed; his son Francis Jr. returned to America, where he became the first to grow Sea Island cotton.)

The Levett family became part of the British Empire's expanding grasp. Sir Richard Levett was one of the first Governors of the Bank of England, a member of the original London East India Company and the Lord Mayor of London in 1699. He resided at his estate at Kew, later sold to the Royal Family. In the eighteenth century, John Levett, born in Turkey to an English merchant father and brother of planter Francis, became alderman and Mayor of Calcutta, India.

Among the earliest English explorers of North America was Captain Christopher Levett, granted some 6,000 acres (24 km2) by the King to found the third English colony. The settlement failed. Capt. Levett died on a return voyage to England in 1630 after conferring with John Winthrop.

Over the generations, Levett descendants spanned the social ranks: one family relation, an English clergyman who served as chaplain to the House of Commons, is memorialized in Westminster Abbey where he dropped dead reading the Ninth Commandment; another family ancestor was among the founders of an Oxford University college; another, an assistant pantry steward aboard an ocean liner, perished when the RMS Titanic sank; a fourth, a simple Suffolk butcher, emerged as leader of populist Kett's Rebellion in the sixteenth century. Another descendant, a Yorkshire knight and Speaker of the House of Commons, became one of the country's most powerful men, celebrated by Shakespeare. The family dynasty he built imploded when his son was hanged at York for murder, and his brother gambled away his legacy, dying in a London flophouse.

One family member was an unschooled Yorkshireman who, having worked as a Parisian waiter, then trained as an apothecary. Robert Levet returned to England, where he treated denizens of London's seedier neighbourhoods. Having married an apparent grifter and prostitute, Levet was taken in by the poet Samuel Johnson, who eulogized him as "officious, innocent, sincere, Of every friendless name the friend." While Samuel Johnson adopted one Levet as boarder, he was apologizing to another better-placed Levett who held the mortgage on Johnson's mother's home in Lichfield.

In a few cases Levetts were forced by religious belief to flee England for the colonies. Among these were John Leavitt and Thomas Leavitt, early English Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts and New Hampshire, respectively, whose names first appear in seventeenth-century New England records as Levet or Levett. John Leavitt was a tailor; Thomas a simple farmer. No paternal family relationship existed between the two men, and their exact connection to the original family in England remains uncertain.

Today there are many Levetts living outside England, including in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland, where the first 'de Livet' ventured in the thirteenth century as part of the Norman invasion, becoming one of Dublin's earliest mayors. The spelling of the name varies from place to place.

Members of the original de Livet family continue to reside in France. The Normandy branch traces its descent to Jean de Livet, chevalier and banneret in 1216 to King Philip II of France, builder of the first Louvre fortress in Paris. Chevalier Thomas de Livet, noted Crusader and son of Jean, was knighted by King Philip II's successor, King Louis IX of France, in 1258. The de Livet family of Normandy bore as their coat of arms since medieval times three gold mullets on an azure field.

The de Livet family was among the ancient noble families of France, or noblesse d'épée. (The French revolution stripped the hereditary French nobility of its feudal privileges.) Following the French revolution, several members of the de Livet family were made Knights (Chevaliers) of the Légion d'honneur.

The English branch of the de Livet (Levett) family claims descent from Jean de Livet, seigneur of Livet (now Jonquerets-de-Livet) in 1040, prior to the Norman Conquest.

Read more about Levett:  People, Places Named After The Family, Places Associated With The Levett Family, Further Reading, Trivia

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