Life of George Washington

Washington-at-Dorchester-Heights-by-StuartLIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON






The Washington family is of an ancient English stock, the genealogy of
which has been traced up to the century immediately succeeding the
Conquest. At that time it was in possession of landed estates and manorial
privileges in the county of Durham, such as were enjoyed only by those, or
their descendants, who had come over from Normandy with the Conqueror, or
fought under his standard. When William the Conqueror laid waste the whole
country north of the Humber, in punishment of the insurrection of the
Northumbrians, he apportioned the estates among his followers, and advanced
Normans and other foreigners to the principal ecclesiastical dignities. One
of the most wealthy and important sees was that of Durham. Hither had been
transported the bones of St. Cuthbert from their original shrine at
Lindisfarne, when it was ravaged by the Danes. That saint, says Camden, was
esteemed by princes and gentry a titular saint against the Scots.
[Footnote: Camden, Brit. iv., 349.] His shrine, therefore, had been held in
peculiar reverence by the Saxons, and the see of Durham endowed with
extraordinary privileges.

William continued and increased those privileges. He needed a powerful
adherent on this frontier to keep the restless Northumbrians in order, and
check Scottish invasion; and no doubt considered an enlightened
ecclesiastic, appointed by the crown, a safer depositary of such power than
an hereditary noble.

Having placed a noble and learned native of Loraine in the diocese,
therefore, he erected it into a palatinate, over which the bishop, as Count
Palatine, had temporal, as well as spiritual jurisdiction. He built a
strong castle for his protection, and to serve as a barrier against the
Northern foe. He made him lord high-admiral of the sea and waters adjoining
his palatinate,–lord warden of the marches, and conservator of the league
between England and Scotland. Thenceforth, we are told, the prelates of
Durham owned no earthly superior within their diocese, but continued for
centuries to exercise every right attached to an independent sovereign.
[Footnote: Annals of Roger de Hovedon. Hutchinson’s Durham, vol. ii.
Collectanea Curiosa, vol. ii., p. 83.]

The bishop, as Count Palatine, lived in almost royal state and splendor. He
had his lay chancellor, chamberlains, secretaries, steward, treasurer,
master of the horse, and a host of minor officers. Still he was under
feudal obligations. All landed property in those warlike times, implied
military service. Bishops and abbots, equally with great barons who held
estates immediately of the crown, were obliged, when required, to furnish
the king with armed men in proportion to their domains; but they had their
feudatories under them to aid them in this service.

The princely prelate of Durham had his barons and knights, who held estates
of him on feudal tenure, and were bound to serve him in peace and war. They
sat occasionally in his councils, gave martial splendor to his court, and
were obliged to have horse and weapon ready for service, for they lived in
a belligerent neighborhood, disturbed occasionally by civil war, and often
by Scottish foray. When the banner of St. Cuthbert, the royal standard of
the province, was displayed, no armed feudatory of the bishop could refuse
to take the field. [Footnote: Robert de Graystanes, Ang. Sac., p. 746.]

Some of these prelates, in token of the warlike duties of their diocese,
engraved on their seals a knight on horseback armed at all points,
brandishing in one hand a sword, and holding forth in the other the arms of
the see. [Footnote: Camden, Brit. iv., 349.]

Among the knights who held estates in the palatinate on these warlike
conditions, was WILLIAM DE HERTBURN, the progenitor of the Washingtons.
His Norman name of William would seem to point out his national descent;
and the family long continued to have Norman names of baptism. The surname
of De Hertburn was taken from a village on the palatinate which he held of
the bishop in knight’s fee; probably the same now called Hartburn on the
banks of the Tees. It had become a custom among the Norman families of rank
about the time of the Conquest, to take surnames from their castles or
estates; it was not until some time afterwards that surnames became
generally assumed by the people. [Footnote: Lower on Surnames, vol. i., p.
43. Fuller says, that the custom of surnames was brought from France in
Edward the Confessor’s time, about fifty years before the Conquest; but did
not become universally settled until some hundred years afterwards. At
first they did not descend hereditarily on the family.–_Fuller, Church
History. Roll Battle Abbey._]

How or when the De Hertburns first acquired possession of their village is
not known. They may have been companions in arms with Robert de Brus (or
Bruce) a noble knight of Normandy, rewarded by William the Conqueror with
great possessions in the North, and among others, with the lordships of
Hert and Hertness in the county of Durham.

The first actual mention we find of the family is in the Bolden Book, a
record of all the lands appertaining to the diocese in 1183. In this it is
stated that William de Hertburn had exchanged his village of Hertburn for
the manor and village of Wessyngton, likewise in the diocese; paying the
bishop a quitrent of four pounds, and engaging to attend him with two
greyhounds in grand hunts, and to furnish a man at arms whenever military
aid should be required of the palatinate. [Footnote: THE BOLDEN BOOK. As
this ancient document gives the first trace of the Washington family, it
merits especial mention. In 1183, a survey was made by order of Bishop de
Pusaz of all the lands of the see held in demesne, or by tenants in
villanage. The record was entered in a book called the Bolden Buke; the
parish of Bolden occurring first in alphabetical arrangement. The document
commences in the following manner: Incipit liber qui vocatur Bolden Book.
Anno Dominice Incarnationis, 1183, &c.

The following is the memorandum in question:–

Willus de Herteburn habet Wessyngton (excepta ecclesia et terra ecclesie
partinen) ad excamb. pro villa de Herteburn quam pro hac quietam clamavit:
Et reddit 4 L. Et vadit in _magna caza_ cum 2 Leporar. Et quando
commune auxilium venerit debet dare 1 Militem ad plus de auxilio,
&c.–_Collectanea Curiosa_, vol. ii., p. 89.

The Bolden Buke is a small folio, deposited in the office of the bishop’s
auditor, at Durham.]

The family changed its surname with its estate, and thenceforward assumed
that of DE WESSYNGTON. [Footnote: The name is probably of Saxon origin. It
existed in England prior to the Conquest. The village of Wassengtone is
mentioned in a Saxon charter as granted by king Edgar in 973 to Thorney
Abbey.–_Collectanea Topographica_, iv., 55.] The condition of
military service attached to its manor will be found to have been often
exacted, nor was the service in the grand hunt an idle form. Hunting came
next to war in those days, as the occupation of the nobility and gentry.
The clergy engaged in it equally with the laity. The hunting establishment
of the Bishop of Durham was on a princely scale. He had his forests, chases
and parks, with their train of foresters, rangers, and park keepers. A
grand hunt was a splendid pageant in which all his barons and knights
attended him with horse and hound. The stipulations with the Seignior of
Wessyngton show how strictly the rights of the chase were defined. All the
game taken by him in going to the forest belonged to the bishop; all taken
on returning belonged to himself. [Footnote: Hutchinson’s Durham vol. ii.,
p. 489.]

Hugh de Pusaz (or De Pudsay) during whose episcopate we meet with this
first trace of the De Wessyngtons, was a nephew of king Stephen, and a
prelate of great pretensions; fond of appearing with a train of
ecclesiastics and an armed retinue. When Richard Coeur de Lion put every
thing at pawn and sale to raise funds for a crusade to the Holy Land, the
bishop resolved to accompany him. More wealthy than his sovereign, he made
magnificent preparations. Besides ships to convey his troops and retinue,
he had a sumptuous galley for himself, fitted up with a throne or episcopal
chair of silver, and all the household, and even culinary, utensils, were
of the same costly material. In a word, had not the prelate been induced to
stay at home, and aid the king with his treasures, by being made one of the
regents of the kingdom, and Earl of Northumberland for life, the De
Wessyngtons might have followed the banner of St. Cuthbert to the Holy

Nearly seventy years afterwards we find the family still retaining its
manorial estate in the palatinate. The names of Bondo de Wessyngton and
William his son appear on charters of land, granted in 1257 to religious
houses. Soon after occurred the wars of the barons, in which the throne of
Henry III was shaken by the De Mountforts. The chivalry of the palatinate
rallied under the royal standard. On the list of loyal knights who fought
for their sovereign in the disastrous battle of Lewes (1264), in which the
king was taken prisoner, we find the name of William Weshington, of
Weshington. [Footnote: This list of knights was inserted in the Bolden Book
as an additional entry. It is cited at full length by Hutchinson.–_Hist.
Durham_, vol. i., p. 220.]

During the splendid pontificate of Anthony Beke (or Beak), the knights of
the palatinate had continually to be in the saddle, or buckled in armor.
The prelate was so impatient of rest that he never took more than one
sleep, saying it was unbecoming a man to turn from one side to another in
bed. He was perpetually, when within his diocese, either riding from one
manor to another, or hunting and hawking. Twice he assisted Edward I. with
all his force in invading Scotland. In the progress northward with the
king, the bishop led the van, marching a day in advance of the main body,
with a mercenary force, paid by himself, of one thousand foot and five
hundred horse. Besides these he had his feudatories of the palatinate; six
bannerets and one hundred and sixty knights, not one of whom, says an old
poem, but surpassed Arthur himself, though endowed with the charmed gifts
of Merlin. [Footnote:
Onques Artous pour touz ces charmes,
Si beau prisent ne ot de Merlyn.
SIEGE OF KARLAVEROCK; _an old Poem in Norman French._] We presume the
De Wessyngtons were among those preux chevaliers, as the banner of St.
Cuthbert had been taken from its shrine on the occasion, and of course all
the armed force of the diocese was bound to follow. It was borne in front
of the army by a monk of Durham. There were many rich caparisons, says the
old poem, many beautiful pennons, fluttering from lances, and much neighing
of steeds. The hills and valleys were covered with sumpter horses and
waggons laden with tents and provisions. The Bishop of Durham in his
warlike state appeared, we are told, more like a powerful prince, than a
priest or prelate. [Footnote: Robert de Graystanes, Ang. Sac., p. 746,
cited by Hutchinson, vol. i. p. 239.]

At the surrender of the crown of Scotland by John Baliol, which ended this
invasion, the bishop negotiated on the part of England. As a trophy of the
event, the chair of Schone used on the inauguration of the Scottish
monarchs, and containing the stone on which Jacob dreamed, the palladium of
Scotland, was transferred to England and deposited in Westminster Abbey.
[Footnote: An extract from an inedited poem, cited by Nicolas in his
translation of the Siege of Carlavarock, gives a striking picture of the
palatinate in these days of its pride and splendor:–

There valour bowed before the rood and book,
And kneeling knighthood served a prelate lord,
Yet little deigned he on such train to look,
Or glance of ruth or pity to afford.

There time has heard the peal rung out at night,
Has seen from every tower the cressets stream,
When the red bale fire on yon western height
Had roused the warder from his fitful dream.

Has seen old Durham’s lion banner float
O’er the proud bulwark, that, with giant pride
And feet deep plunged amidst the circling moat,
The efforts of the roving Scot defied.]

In the reign of Edward III. we find the De Wessyngtons still mingling in
chivalrous scenes. The name of Sir Stephen de Wessyngton appears on a list
of knights (nobles chevaliers) who were to tilt at a tournament at
Dunstable in 1334. He bore for his device a golden rose on an azure field.
[Footnote: Collect. Topog. et Genealog. T. iv., p. 395.]

He was soon called to exercise his arms on a sterner field. In 1346, Edward
and his son, the Black Prince, being absent with the armies in France, king
David of Scotland invaded Northumberland with a powerful army. Queen
Philippa, who had remained in England as regent, immediately took the
field, calling the northern prelates and nobles to join her standard. They
all hastened to obey. Among the prelates was Hatfield, the Bishop of
Durham. The sacred banner of St. Cuthbert was again displayed, and the
chivalry of the palatinate assisted at the famous battle of Nevil’s cross,
near Durham, in which the Scottish army was defeated and king David taken

Queen Philippa hastened with a victorious train to cross the sea at Dover,
and join king Edward in his camp before Calais. The prelate of Durham
accompanied her. His military train consisted of three bannerets,
forty-eight knights, one hundred and sixty-four esquires, and eighty
archers, on horseback. [Footnote: Collier’s Eccles. Hist., Book VI., Cent.
XIV.] They all arrived to witness the surrender of Calais, (1346) on which
occasion queen Philippa distinguished herself by her noble interference in
saving the lives of its patriot citizens.

Such were the warlike and stately scenes in which the De Wessyngtons were
called to mingle by their feudal duties as knights of the palatinate. A few
years after the last event (1350), William, at that time lord of the manor
of Wessyngton, had license to settle it and the village upon himself, his
wife, and “his own right heirs.” He died in 1367, and his son and heir,
William, succeeded to the estate. The latter is mentioned under the name of
Sir William de Weschington, as one of the knights who sat in the privy
council of the county during the episcopate of John Fordham. [Footnote:
Hutchinson, vol. ii.] During this time the whole force of the palatinate
was roused to pursue a foray of Scots, under Sir William Douglas, who,
having ravaged the country, were returning laden with spoil. It was a fruit
of the feud between the Douglases and the Percys. The marauders were
overtaken by Hotspur Percy, and then took place the battle of Otterbourne,
in which Percy was taken prisoner and Douglas slain. [Footnote:
Theare the Dowglas lost his life,
And the Percye was led away.
FORDUN. _Quoted by Surtee’s Hist. Durham_, vol i.]

For upwards of two hundred years the De Wessyngtons had now sat in the
councils of the palatinate; had mingled with horse and hound in the stately
hunts of its prelates, and followed the banner of St. Cuthbert to the
field; but Sir William, just mentioned, was the last of the family that
rendered this feudal service. He was the last male of the line to which the
inheritance of the manor, by the license granted to his father, was
confined. It passed away from the De Wessyngtons, after his death, by the
marriage of his only daughter and heir, Dionisia, with Sir William Temple
of Studley. By the year 1400 it had become the property of the Blaykestons.
[Footnote: Hutchinson’s Durham, vol. ii., p. 489.]

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