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"This is a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention," George Washington wrote to Sir Isaac Heard in May 1792. The subject was genealogy. Sir Isaac was the Garter Principal King of Arms, or chief herald of the College of Arms in London, who had written to Washington for information about the President's ancestry.1 The most that Washington could tell Sir Isaac was that according to family tradition the Washingtons originated "in one of the Northern Counties of England."
In Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, England, there is a medieval stained glass window bearing the coat of arms of the Washington family. The window was probably dedicated to John Wessington, a fifteenth-century prior of Durham and a collateral ancestor of George Washington.2 The Wessyngtons, or Washingtons, had been a prominent family in the county of Durham, England, since the twelfth century when William de Hertburn settled at Wessyngton on the River Wear and took the name de Wessyington based on the name of the location.3
In the early fourteenth century a descendant of William de Wessyngton, Robert de Washington, settled a branch of the family in the vicinity of Warton, Lancashire. In 1529, Lawrence Washington, a descendant of Robert, moved from Warton to Northamptonshire where he became a prosperous wool merchant. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Washington acquired the Manor of Sulgrave from the Priory of St. Andrew in Northampton, and began to build a new manor house on the property. Sulgrave Manor was completed in around 1560 and remained in the Washington family until 1610.4
Lawrence Washington's great grandson, also named Lawrence, was born at Sulgrave Manor in 1604. He earned his degree from Brasenose College, Oxford in 1623, and in 1633 became the rector of Purleigh, Essex, where his son John was born around 1634. When the English Civil War broke out a decade later, Rev. Lawrence Washington was removed from his living in Purleigh because of his Royalist sympathies. Other members of the Washington family were also prominent Royalists, including Lawrence's nephew Colonel Henry Washington who unsuccessfully defended Worcester against Parliamentary forces in 1646.5 Rev. Lawrence Washington died in poverty in 1654, and in 1656 his son John Washington (c. 1634-1677) emigrated to Virginia.
John Washington married Anne Pope, the daughter of a prominent Virginia plantation owner Colonel Nathaniel Pope who gave the couple a parcel of land on Mattox Creek as a wedding gift. John Washington became a successful planter in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and as a colonel in Virginia militia. His son Lawrence Washington (1659-1698) trained as a lawyer in England and eventually inherited his father's estates on Mattox Creek and Little Hunting Creek, the latter of which later became Mount Vernon.6 Lawrence Washington's second son Augustine (1694-1743) inherited a share of his father's estates. Augustine was a successful tobacco planter, and served as both a county sheriff and justice of the peace. He was the father of four children with his first wife Jane, and of six children with his second wife Mary. The eldest of his children with Mary Ball Washington was George Washington.
Rob Hardy, Ph.D.
1. See Donald N. Moran, "George Washington and Genealogy."; "George Washington to Sir Isaac Heard, 2 May 1792," The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931).
2. For more on the Washington Window at Selby Abbey, see the Selby Abbey website.
3. The ancestral seat of the Washington family in Washington, Tyne and Wear, Washington Old Hall, is currently owned by the National Trust. William came originally from Hertburn, Sunderland.
4. Sulgrave Manor, jointly owned by Great Britain and the United States, is located near Banbury. View the locale's website. On the Washingtons of Sulgrave, see S.H. Lee Washington, "New Light on George Washington's Ancestors: The Washingtons of Sulgrave and Brington," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 46 (1938): 201-203. For the Washingtons of Warton, Lancashire, see T. Pape, Warton and George Washington's Ancestors. See also "Oxford and the Washingtons," William and Mary Quarterly 23 (1943): 206-208; and Albert Bushnell Hart, "The English Ancestry of George Washington," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 63 (1929-1930): 3-16.
5. The Writings of George Washington. Vol 1., ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: American Stationers' Company, 1837): 501.
6. On Rev. Lawrence Washington and his son John, see Martin H. Quitt, "The English Cleric and the Virginia Adventurer: The Washingtons, Father and Son," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97 (1989): 163-184.