Life of George Washington

But though the name of De Wessyngton no longer figured on the chivalrous
roll of the palatinate, it continued for a time to flourish in the
cloisters. In the year 1416, John de Wessyngton was elected prior of the
Benedictine convent, attached to the cathedral. The monks of this convent
had been licensed by Pope Gregory VII. to perform the solemn duties of the
cathedral in place of secular clergy, and William the Conqueror had
ordained that the priors of Durham should enjoy all the liberties,
dignities and honors of abbots; should hold their lands and churches in
their own hands and free disposition, and have the abbot’s seat on the left
side of the choir–thus taking rank of every one but the bishop. [Footnote:
Dugdale Monasticon Anglicanum. T. i., p. 231. London ed. 1846.]

In the course of three centuries and upwards, which had since elapsed,
these honors and privileges had been subject to repeated dispute and
encroachment, and the prior had nearly been elbowed out of the abbot’s
chair by the archdeacon. John de Wessyngton was not a man to submit tamely
to such infringements of his rights. He forthwith set himself up as the
champion of his priory, and in a learned tract, _de Juribus et
Possessionibus Ecclesiae Dunelm_, established the validity of the long
controverted claims, and fixed himself firmly in the abbot’s chair. His
success in this controversy gained him much renown among his brethren of
the cowl, and in 1426 he presided at the general chapter of the order of
St. Benedict, held at Northampton.

The stout prior of Durham had other disputes with the bishop and the
secular clergy touching his ecclesiastical functions, in which he was
equally victorious, and several tracts remain in manuscript in the dean and
chapter’s library; weapons hung up in the church armory as memorials of his
polemical battles.

Finally, after fighting divers good fights for the honor of his priory, and
filling the abbot’s chair for thirty years, he died, to use an ancient
phrase, “in all the odor of sanctity,” in 1446, and was buried like a
soldier on his battle-field, at the door of the north aisle of his church,
near to the altar of St. Benedict. On his tombstone was an inscription in
brass, now unfortunately obliterated, which may have set forth the valiant
deeds of this Washington of the cloisters. [Footnote: Hutchinson’s Durham,
vol. ii., passim.]

By this time the primitive stock of the De Wessyngtons had separated into
divers branches, holding estates in various parts of England; some
distinguishing themselves in the learned professions, others receiving
knighthood for public services. Their names are to be found honorably
recorded in county histories, or engraved on monuments in time-worn
churches and cathedrals, those garnering places of English worthies. By
degrees the seignorial sign of _de_ disappeared from before the family
surname, which also varied from Wessyngton to Wassington, Wasshington, and
finally, to Washington. [Footnote: “The de came to be omitted,” says an old
treatise, “when Englishmen and English manners began to prevail upon the
recovery of lost credit.”–_Restitution of decayed intelligence in
antiquities._ Lond. 1634.

About the time of Henry VI., says another treatise, the de or d’ was
generally dropped from surnames, when the title of _armiger_,
_esquier_, amongst the heads of families, and _generosus_, or
_gentylman_, among younger sons was substituted.–_Lower on
Surnames_, vol i.] A parish in the county of Durham bears the name as
last written, and in this probably the ancient manor of Wessyngton was
situated. There is another parish of the name in the county of Sussex.

The branch of the family to which our Washington immediately belongs sprang
from Laurence Washington, Esquire, of Gray’s Inn, son of John Washington,
of Warton in Lancashire. This Laurence Washington was for some time mayor
of Northampton, and on the dissolution of the priories by Henry VIII. he
received, in 1538, a grant of the manor of Sulgrave, in Northamptonshire,
with other lands in the vicinity, all confiscated property formerly
belonging to the monastery of St. Andrew’s.

Sulgrave remained in the family until 1620, and was commonly called
“Washington’s manor.” [Footnote: The manor of Garsdon in Wiltshire has been
mentioned as the homestead of the ancestors of our Washington. This is a
mistake. It was the residence of Sir Laurence Washington, second son of the
above-mentioned grantee of Sulgrave. Elizabeth, granddaughter of this Sir
Laurence, married Robert Shirley, Earl Ferrers and Viscount of Tamworth.
Washington became a baptismal name among the Shirleys–several of the Earls
Ferrers have borne it.

The writer of these pages visited Sulgrave a few years since. It was in a
quiet rural neighborhood, where the farm-houses were quaint and antiquated.
A part only of the manor house remained, and was inhabited by a farmer. The
Washington crest, in colored glass, was to be seen in a window of what was
now the buttery. A window on which the whole family arms was emblazoned had
been removed to the residence of the actual proprietor of the manor.
Another relic of the ancient manor of the Washingtons was a rookery in a
venerable grove hard by. The rooks, those stanch adherents to old family
abodes, still hovered and cawed about their hereditary nests. In the
pavement of the parish church we were shown a stone slab bearing effigies
on plates of brass of Laurence Wasshington, gent., and Anne his wife, and
their four sons and eleven daughters. The inscription in black letter was
dated 1564.]

One of the direct descendants of the grantee of Sulgrave was Sir William
Washington, of Packington, in the county of Kent. He married a sister of
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the unfortunate favorite of Charles I.
This may have attached the Sulgrave Washingtons to the Stuart dynasty, to
which they adhered loyally and generously throughout all its vicissitudes.
One of the family, Lieutenant Colonel James Washington, took up arms in the
cause of king Charles, and lost his life at the siege of Pontefract castle.
Another of the Sulgrave line, Sir Henry Washington, son and heir of Sir
William, before mentioned, exhibited in the civil wars the old chivalrous
spirit of the knights of the palatinate. He served under prince Rupert at
the storming of Bristol, in 1643, and when the assailants were beaten off
at every point, he broke in with a handful of infantry at a weak part of
the wall, made room for the horse to follow, and opened a path to victory.
[Footnote: Clarendon, Book vii.]

He distinguished himself still more in 1646, when elevated to the command
of Worcester, the governor having been captured by the enemy. It was a time
of confusion and dismay. The king had fled from Oxford in disguise and gone
to the parliamentary camp at Newark. The royal cause was desperate. In this
crisis Sir Henry received a letter from Fairfax, who, with his victorious
army, was at Haddington, demanding the surrender of Worcester. The
following was Colonel Washington’s reply:


It is acknowledged by your books and by report of your own quarter, that
the king is in some of your armies. That granted, it may be easy for you to
procure his Majesty’s commands for the disposal of this garrison. Till then
I shall make good the trust reposed in me. As for conditions, if I shall be
necessitated, I shall make the best I can. The worst I know and fear not;
if I had, the profession of a soldier had not been begun, nor so long
continued by your Excellency’s humble servant,

HENRY WASHINGTON. [Footnote: Greene’s Antiquities of Worcester, p. 273.]

In a few days Colonel Whalley invested the city with five thousand troops.
Sir Henry dispatched messenger after messenger in quest of the king to know
his pleasure. None of them returned. A female emissary was equally
unavailing. Week after week elapsed, until nearly three months had expired.
Provisions began to fail. The city was in confusion. The troops grew
insubordinate. Yet Sir Henry persisted in the defence. General Fairfax,
with 1,500 horse and foot, was daily expected. There was not powder enough
for an hour’s contest should the city be stormed. Still Sir Henry “awaited
his Majesty’s commands.”

At length news arrived that the king had issued an order for the surrender
of all towns, castles, and forts. A printed copy of the order was shown to
Sir Henry, and on the faith of that document he capitulated (19th July,
1646) on honorable terms, won by his fortitude and perseverance. Those who
believe in hereditary virtues may see foreshadowed in the conduct of this
Washington of Worcester, the magnanimous constancy of purpose, the
disposition to “hope against hope,” which bore our Washington triumphantly
through the darkest days of our revolution.

We have little note of the Sulgrave branch of the family after the death of
Charles I. and the exile of his successor. England, during the
protectorate, became an uncomfortable residence to such as had signalized
themselves as adherents to the house of Stuart. In 1655, an attempt at a
general insurrection drew on them the vengeance of Cromwell. Many of their
party who had no share in the conspiracy, yet sought refuge in other lands,
where they might live free from molestation. This may have been the case
with two brothers, John and Andrew Washington, great-grandsons of the
grantee of Sulgrave, and uncles of Sir Henry, the gallant defender of
Worcester. John had for some time resided at South Cave, in the East Riding
of Yorkshire; [Footnote: South Cave is near the Humber. “In the vicinity is
Cave Castle, an embattled edifice. It has a noble collection of paintings,
including a portrait of General Washington, whose ancestors possessed a
portion of the estate.”–_Lewes, Topog. Dict._ vol. i., p. 530.] but
now emigrated with his brother to Virginia; which colony, from its
allegiance to the exiled monarch and the Anglican Church had become a
favorite resort of the Cavaliers. The brothers arrived in Virginia in 1657,
and purchased lands in Westmoreland County, on the northern neck, between
the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. John married a Miss Anne Pope, of the
same county, and took up his residence on Bridges Creek, near where it
falls into the Potomac. He became an extensive planter, and, in process of
time, a magistrate and member of the House of Burgesses. Having a spark of
the old military fire of the family, we find him, as Colonel Washington,
leading the Virginia forces, in co-operation with those of Maryland,
against a band of Seneca Indians, who were ravaging the settlements along
the Potomac. In honor of his public services and private virtues the parish
in which he resided was called after him, and still bears the name of
Washington. He lies buried in a vault on Bridges Creek, which, for
generations, was the family place of sepulture.

The estate continued in the family. His grandson Augustine, the father of
our Washington, was born there in 1694. He was twice married; first (April
20th, 1715), to Jane, daughter of Caleb Butler, Esq., of Westmoreland
County, by whom he had four children, of whom only two, Lawrence and
Augustine, survived the years of childhood; their mother died November
24th, 1728, and was buried in the family vault.

On the 6th of March, 1730, he married in second nuptials, Mary, the
daughter of Colonel Ball, a young and beautiful girl, said to be the belle
of the Northern Neck. By her he had four sons, George, Samuel, John
Augustine, and Charles; and two daughters, Elizabeth, or Betty, as she was
commonly called, and Mildred, who died in infancy.

George, the eldest, the subject of this biography, was born on the 22d of
February (11th, O. S.), 1732, in the homestead on Bridges Creek. This house
commanded a view over many miles of the Potomac, and the opposite shore of
Maryland. It had probably been purchased with the property, and was one of
the primitive farm-houses of Virginia. The roof was steep, and sloped down
into low projecting eaves. It had four rooms on the ground floor, and
others in the attic, and an immense chimney at each end. Not a vestige of
it remains. Two or three decayed fig trees, with shrubs and vines, linger
about the place, and here and there a flower grown wild serves “to mark
where a garden has been.” Such at least, was the case a few years since;
but these may have likewise passed away. A stone [Footnote: Placed there by
George W. P. Custis, Esq.] marks the site of the house, and an inscription
denotes its being the birthplace of Washington.

We have entered with some minuteness into this genealogical detail; tracing
the family step by step through the pages of historical documents for
upwards of six centuries; and we have been tempted to do so by the
documentary proofs it gives of the lineal and enduring worth of the race.
We have shown that, for many generations, and through a variety of eventful
scenes, it has maintained an equality of fortune and respectability, and
whenever brought to the test has acquitted itself with honor and loyalty.
Hereditary rank may be an illusion; but hereditary virtue gives a patent of
innate nobleness beyond all the blazonry of the Herald’s College.



Not long after the birth of George, his father removed to an estate in
Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg. The house was similar in style to
the one at Bridges Creek, and stood on a rising ground overlooking a meadow
which bordered the Rappahannock. This was the home of George’s boyhood; the
meadow was his play-ground, and the scene of his early athletic sports; but
this home, like that in which he was born, has disappeared; the site is
only to be traced by fragments of bricks, china, and earthenware.

In those days the means of instruction in Virginia were limited, and it was
the custom among the wealthy planters to send their sons to England to
complete their education. This was done by Augustine Washington with his
eldest son Lawrence, then about fifteen years of age, and whom he no doubt
considered the future head of the family. George was yet in early
childhood: as his intellect dawned he received the rudiments of education
in the best establishment for the purpose that the neighborhood afforded.
It was what was called, in popular parlance, an “old field school-house;”
humble enough in its pretensions, and kept by one of his father’s tenants
named Hobby, who moreover was sexton of the parish. The instruction doled
out by him must have been of the simplest kind, reading, writing, and
ciphering, perhaps; but George had the benefit of mental and moral culture
at home, from an excellent father.

Several traditional anecdotes have been given to the world, somewhat prolix
and trite, but illustrative of the familiar and practical manner in which
Augustine Washington, in the daily intercourse of domestic life, impressed
the ductile mind of his child with high maxims of religion and virtue, and
imbued him with a spirit of justice and generosity, and above all a
scrupulous love of truth.

When George was about seven or eight years old his brother Lawrence
returned from England, a well-educated and accomplished youth. There was a
difference of fourteen years in their ages, which may have been one cause
of the strong attachment which took place between them. Lawrence looked
down with a protecting eye upon the boy whose dawning intelligence and
perfect rectitude won his regard; while George looked up to his manly and
cultivated brother as a model in mind and manners. We call particular
attention to this brotherly interchange of affection, from the influence it
had on all the future career of the subject of this memoir.

«- Previous | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 | View All | Next -»

Be the first to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.