The English Home of the Washingtons

George Washington (1732 – 1799) by Gilbert Stuart, 1797


The following article was published in May 1888 in the Second Volume of the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend.  It tells the story of the origins of the family of George Washington, 1st President of the United States.  Most people know there is a link between Washington, Tyne & Wear and the founding father of the USA but it’s interesting to read about the detail.  I’ve visited Washington Old Hall ( numerous times but I didn’t realise how far back the lineage goes.  Hope you enjoy this one.

Washington Old Hall

Nations, like individuals, look back to the home of their origin. The Englishman of today peers out of his cloudland, and over the Northern Sea, in search of the shores whence his forefathers came in quest of fortune; and the American of the nineteenth century sends his thoughts out of the New World to the Old, or comes by screw and cabin across the Atlantic, to find, if he may, his ancestral halls. Behind every human heart is the early home of which the poet sings:

In every clime, the magnet of the soul.

Touched by remembrance, trembles to that pole.


An evidence of this common feeling of our nature occurred some years ago, in the form of an illustrated paper on the “English Home of the Washingtons,” published in Harpers Magazine, The author began with the remark, “Perhaps no place in the ‘old country’ is calculated to be of more interest to Americans than the parish of Brington in Northamptonshire, its old church containing, as it does, memorials the most curious and suggestive of the Washington ancestry; while at Althorp House and the village of Little Brington there are mementoes of the same family no less interesting.”

The church has its inscribed monuments of the Washingtons, and their names are written in the parish register. It is recorded of “Mr. Lawrance Washington,” by the parochial penman, that he was “buried the 15th day of December, 1616”; and in the pavement of the chancel lies a stone slab bearing the inscription: —

Here lieth the body of Lavrence Washington, sonne

and heire of Robert Washington, of Sovlgrave, in the

countie of Northampton, Esquier, who married Margaret,

the eldest daughter of William Butler, of Tees, in the

countie of Sussexe, Esquier, who had issue by her 8 sonns

and 9 daughters; which Lavrence deceased the 13 of De-

cember, A. Dni. 1616.

Those that by chance or choyce of this hath sight,

Know life to death resigns as daye to night;

But as the sonns retorne revives the day.

So Christ shall as, though turnde to dust and clay.

Beneath the inscription are the arms of Lawrence Washington, impaled with those of his wife; and near his memorial, but in the nave, is the brass of his brother Robert, with a family shield “bearing the blazon. Argent, two bars gules, in chief three mullets.” “This Lawrence Washington,” observed the visitor from afar, “was the lineal ancestor, presumably the great-great-grandfather, of George Washington, the first President of the United States.”

The Rev. J. N. Simpkinson, some time rector of Brington, has a theory, we are told, with reference to the settlement of this branch of the Washington family in North Hants, which is a little plausible. He says: — “In the reign of Henry VIII., Lawrence Washington, of Warton in Lancashire, left his native village and settled eventually in the town of Northampton, where he soon obtained the influence and position which an active and acute mind is sure to achieve in times of social and political change. He was a member of the Society of Gray’s Inn, having been there brought up to the profession of the law. It is probable that at the instance of his uncle Kitson” (connected with the Spencer family by the marriage of a daughter), “a merchant of London, he turned his attention to the wool trade, which was rapidly rising to importance in the Midland Counties; and he soon raised himself to such consideration and influence that in 1532 he was elected Mayor.” “The ancestors of these Washingtons were people of position in Lancashire, where they possessed property, and were, it is conjectured by Irving and Sparks, an offshoot of the Washington family of the county of Durham, which became extinct there about the beginning of the fifteenth century.”

One other quotation from the American magazine has reference to the arms of the family, foreshadowing the famous Stars and Stripes of the great Republic of the West. Much doubt there cannot be — if doubt at all — “that the arms of the family, as emblazoned on the tomb-slabs in Brington Church (in the language of heraldry. Argent, two bars gules, in chief three mullets of the second) suggested the Stars and Stripes of the American flag.” “Edmondsley ‘Heraldry’ gives the following as one of the varieties of the armorial bearings of the Washingtons: — ‘In Buckinghaaishire, Kent, Warwickshire, and Northamptonshire, Argent, two bars gules, in chief three mullets of the second: crest, a raven, with wings indorsed proper, issuing out of a ducal coronet, or.’ This was the variety used by General Washington, and is still to be seen attached to the commissions of some of the earlier officers of the Army of Independence. Can any one reasonably doubt that these insignia suggested the Stars and Stripes and the spread eagle of the national ensign, and that those on whom it devolved to choose the national emblem paid a well-merited compliment to the father of their country by adopting the arms and crest of the family?”

Which arms of America, let us add, by one of the strange vicissitudes of history, were forecasted in imagery from the cloisters of Durham Cathedral! For the “Washington” of the Bishopric — the plot of ground so called in the union of Chester-le-Street — is the English home of the family that first appears in our island with this heraldic distinction.

Surtees, the historian of the Palatinate, describes the little colony, in 1820, as “a scattered village, on irregular broken ground.” A railway runs by the side of it in modern days; and is it not, moreover, within a mile or two of that classic hill on the Wear which marks the scene of the ancient legend of the Lambton Worm? At the time of the “Boldon Buke” (1138), the “Domesday” of the patrimony of the Bishopric, William de Hertburne held Washington, save the church and its lands, in exchange for Hertburne (or Hartburn), now a township in the parish of Stockton-on-Tees. He rendered £4 to the Bishop, and went in the great chase with a couple of greyhounds. When a common aid was required, he was also to bear his part in the assessment; but it was not to exceed a single mark.

The great chase of the Prince Bishop was an affair of no mean moment; for we read, as to Aucklandshire, that at the hunts all the villans found, for each oxgang, one rope, and made his lordship’s hall in the forest (of the length of forty feet and of the breadth within the posts of sixteen feet), with a buttery and hatch, and a chamber, and a chapel forty feet long and fifteen broad, with a fence round the lodges. They had of charity two shillings; and on the Bishop’s departure a whole tun of beer, or a half one, if it should remain; and they guarded the aeries of hawks which were in the district of Ralph the Crafty, and made eighteen booths at the fairs of St. Cuthbert. All the villans, moreover, and farmers, attended the roe-hunts at the summons of the Bishop, and also took part in the work of the mills of Aucklandshire.

Such is a glimpse, afforded us by the Boldon Book, of the life of the Bishopric in the days when the knightly William held Washington, or “Wessyngton,” in exchange for Hartburn.

“It seems probable,” Surtees remarks “that either William de Hertburne, or his immediate descendants, assumed the local name; for William de Wessington occurs as a witness to charters of Bishop Robert de Stichell (1260-74) and de Insula (1274-83). William de Wessyngton, chivaler, had license to settle the manor on himself, his wife Katharine, and his own right heirs, in 1350, and died in 1367 seized of the whole manor and vill by the above-mentioned free rent of £4, leaving William his son and heir, who held by the same tenure under Bishop Hatfield’s survey (1380).” But, “before 1400 the direct male line expired in another William. Arms, Arg. two bars and three mullets in chief grules.” “It is possible,” adds the county historian, “that from cadets of this ancient house descended the Washingtons of Adwicke-le-Street, co. York, whose pedigree appears in Dugdale, 1666, and those of Leicestershire, ancestors of the American patriot, Greorge Washington,”

In the century of the Boldon Book, and some fifty years before it was compiled, there were flourishing in the diocese of Durham the Amundevilles, probably of the same family with William de Hertburne, their arms being similar. Of John de Amundeville there is mention in the time of Henry I.; and with another John this noble house decays in the reign of the second Edward. Amundeville, or Mundeville — “Coatham Mundeville” — is in the parish of Haughton-le-Skerne, where Adam de Selby was holding to farm the demesne in the days of Bishop Pudsey, with the condition of finding at Darlington a litter for his lordship on his journeys.

It is probable — (may we not say certain?) — that the Norman settlers, Amundevilles, Hartburnes, and Washingtons, brought over the waves their Stars and Bars? Adventuring in the train of Norman William for the conquest of England, they won rich lands for themselves and those that came after them, successors of theirs carrying across a broader ocean than that of their forefathers the cognizance that was to float over land and sea on the banner of the American Republic!

One of Pudsey’s successors. Bishop James, became, in process of time, lord of the manor of Washington. In 1617, when the Stuart King was in Durham on the occasion of his visit to his native land of Scotland, the Bishop was in the Royal train; and on the crown of Elvet Bridge a city apprentice recited a doggerel poem in which the author had a gird at his lordship; for the prelate was no favourite with the citizens, having run counter to their municipal advancement, and also to their endeavours after representation in Parliament:

Yet what our Royal James did grant herein,

William our Bishop hath repugnant been.

King and Bishop came into angry collision. So roughly and roundly was the Count Palatine scolded by his sovereign on the 8th of May, in his own Castle of Durham, “that he retired to Auckland, and died of a violent fit of stone and stranguary, brought on by perfect vexation, three days afterwards.”

Washington remained behind in the Bishop’s family — its parish church having a large south porch, the burial place of the lords of the manor, adorned with the arms of the see and of James. “The whole roof was panelled in compartments with arms and a profusion of gold stars, which made it resemble a sort of Camera Stellata; all the performances of Mrs. Dorothy James, in the good days when widows and spinsters worked the family arms on chair covers, and occasionally changed their hand from decorating the great hall with King Alexander’s triumph, or the history of David and Goliath, to illustrating the family pedigree in needlework.”

But clouds come over the fairest skies; and “Dorothy James’s starry heaven,” as Surtees commemorates with his characteristic humour, “is now covered by a Via Lactea of whitewash.”

Those who are so inclined may now turn to the lives of George Washington by Jared Sparks and Washington Irving, the latter of whom was marked out at the font as a biographer of the general. The first chapter of Irving’s book of 1855 is devoted to the “Genealogy of the Washington family,” at the head of which is placed “William de Hertburn, the progenitor of the Washingtons,” and the line is traced down its course, passing Prior Wessyngton, who in 1446 “was buried like a soldier on his battlefield, at the door of the north aisle of his church, near the altar of St. Benedict.” Worthy of grateful remembrance is John Washington, Prior of Durham, “of whose compilations relative to the see, and the order professed by its monks,” says the late Rev. Dr. Raine, in his “Saint Cuthbert” (1828), “I have so frequently availed myself. Diligently and lovingly “he wrote on the subject of his church.” He “did more.” Great and liberal services he rendered it in a variety of ways over a long course of years, and his name is honourably written in its annals. Incidentally we learn that in the time of Prior Washington the cathedral of Durham had a dock; for there was then expended 71s. 11d. for the construction of a window juxta horologium. The edifice had also the instrumental music which is now so common in our churches, £26 13s. 4d. having been paid for “the making of divers pairs (sets) of organs.”

Passing from the Prior to the President, whose blood “came in with the Conqueror,” there are in the “Archaeologia Aeliana” (ii., 120, 1857), among the Transactions of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, letters which connect the general with the county of Durham after the War of Independence. They were read before the members in 1857 by Mr. W. H. D. Longstaffe, the historian of Darlington, and annotated for the archives. To one of them, written by Sarah Addison to her brother, Washington Smirk, in 1836, is appended a copy of the register of their parents’ marriage at Washington in 1780:— “Edward Smirk and Hannah Washington, both of this parish, married, by banns duly published, on the 22nd day of May, 1780, by me, E. Wilson, rector.”

Of the remaining letters, seven in number, one was written by General Washington, April 6, 1787, at Mount Vernon, and concerns the estate of Colonel Thomas Colville, under whose will he was executor. Two others, bsistling with italics, and having a touch of small capitals, are from the pen of Sir William Appleby, “one of the Peg Nicholson knights” of English history.” He describes Washington as “the modern Fabius, in war as well as executorships,” and is as peppery as he is prejudiced and unjust.

In a note to the letter of General Washington, the editor says: “It is evident from the sequel that Colonel Colville was nearly related to the Colvilles of White House, near Gateshead,” purchased by Edward, son of Adam Colville, of Boldon, Gent. Edward Colville, Butcher and Hoastman of Newcastle, died in 1750, aged 105. Twice married, he had sons and daughters. His son John, baptized in 1708, resided at White House. One of his sisters, Camilla, baptized in 1698, married Charles Bennet, Viscount Ossulston, who succeeded his sire as Earl of Tankerville.

4 thoughts on “The English Home of the Washingtons

  1. I’ve discovered that George Washington is related to my late grandmother Madge Lee Stepp who married Dillingham. Actually, it’s 1 of George Washington’s brothers that is the actual blood relationship. it’s believed that my grandmother was Washington’s 9th cousin – 7 Xs removed however, i don’t know how to do genealogy.and don’t have the funds to hire a genealogist! Is there any help for me? I’ve had genealogy proof of this before but have misplaced it. Can someone kindly help that knows how to do genealogy (for free) b/c I don’t know how?


    1. Check Wikitree for George Washington and trace his brothers’ lines and see if you find names that are familiar and connected to your own. You can also check the book, “The Washingtons: Volume 8 – Generations Twelve to Fifteen of the Presidential Branch (The Washingtons: A Family History)” if your ancestors’ names are there.


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