Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Washington’s Tenuous US Links (NZ310566)

© Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The town of Washington enjoys an elevated status in the annals of history for obvious and very well known reasons: its ‘Old Hall’ is the ancestral home of George Washington, a rather important eighteenth century American. But even the most devoted local would be forced to admit that their town’s claim to fame is a tenuous one.

The ancestry of America’s first president does indeed stretch back to Washington Old Hall – or at least to the building which formerly occupied the site. But the big ‘clincher’ for most interested parties – including the many visiting American tourists – is, of course, the name. There’s no denying, however, that the gap between the last of the family to bear the name who lived at the hall and the birth of George himself is a very large one indeed.

It is with one William de Hertburne – a direct forebear of George – that the story begins. William it was who moved from Hartburn, near Stockton, to the area then known as ‘Wessyngtonlands’ in the twelfth century when he rented lands there from the Bishop of Durham. He then changed his name to William de Wessyngton, which in time came to be spelt ‘Washington’.

The Washington family line of the future president seems quite quickly to have angled off elsewhere. In 1367 they migrated, first, to Lancashire; then Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, from 1539. The family subsequently made its home in Essex, then Yorkshire, and finally, in 1656, they emigrated to the American colonies.

So, as far as I can tell, the last direct male ancestor of George Washington’s to live in the town in Co.Durham that bears his name did so in the fourteenth century – and George wasn’t born until 1732. Though other branches of the family hung on in the North-East, the hall/estate passed through several hands before being sold back to the Bishop of Durham in 1613, and thereafter rebuilt on its original foundations.

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