29 September 2012

Sulgrave Manor and George Washington's ancestors

The family name of Washington/Wessington survived in Washington Village near Durham. As far back as  King Henry III's battles in 1264, Sir Walter de Wessington’s name was everywhere. This Sir Walter had three sons, Walter, William and John. All three went on to buy, inherit and develop prop­erty, and it was this generation of the family that first accepted the device of stars and stripes (heraldically 2 bars and 3 mullets), in 1346.

I mention this medieval history to show that the Wash­ingtons came from a long line of ennobled men who owned a great deal of real estate and a very substantial income.

 Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire. NB British and American flags

Washington Old Hall in Washington village had been the original family home of the Washingtons and was used by them until 1539. 1539 was the year in which Lawrence Washington (1500-83),  Mayor of Northampton and wealthy wool merchant, bought the Priory of St Andrew from the Crown, after Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. He turned it into Sulgrave Manor! Sulgrave Manor later became famous for having been the home of the ancestors of American first president, George Washington (1732-99).

The rather modest house of six rooms was built of local limestone, with a wide south frontage, a kitchen and buttery, a great hall and above it a Great Chamber and two smaller private chambers. For many visitors, the most interesting part is the The Great Hall with its stone floor and the massive Tudor fireplace. The guide pointed out a special cupboard allocated to salt, and carved with the initials of Lawrence Washington.

Far-flung foundation stones from the Tudor period suggest that the original dwelling was larger than the surviving house, but the rooms described here all survive and can be seen today.

Sulgrave Manor, Great Hall

Lawrence Wash­ington added an entrance porch to the house's south front some time after 1558. Over the doorway, the plaster royal arms and the letters ER, in honour of Henry VIII's daughter Queen Elizabeth I, can still be clearly seen. The doorway spandrels (the spaces between the rectangular boundary and the curved shape) were decorated with the Washington family arms: two bars and three mullets.

Of all of George Washington's ancestors, I am most fond of great-grandfather John Washington (1633-77). He was the first generation to make the dec­ision to emigrate to Virginia, in 1657! As a child John Washington had enrolled in the prestig­ious Chart­er­house School in London, with the written support of King Charles I. Young John's future looked rosy and very well connected. But the Civil War (1642–1651) int­er­­vened and life changed his life, as it did for many well-to-do, pro-royalist English families.

Once he was old enough to travel alone, John Washington spent time out of England, trading in Barbados and using the good connections of a relative there. The Washington family also had links, through marriage, to Sir Edwin Sandys who had led the Virginia Company during the important years of colonisation and trade. John Washington was a young man with a family name sadly identified with the Royalist cause. As he looked for a future, he decided his family connections in overseas trade, Virginia and tobacco looked appealing. 

In 1656 John Washington left England, becoming a master on The Sea Horse, one of many ships largely devoted to the growing tobacco trade. After the young man had been in Virginia for only 18 months, Washington married his new wife late in 1658. For a wedding present, the young couple received 700 handsome acres of land from the new father in law - but that is a story for another time.

Sulgrave Manor, kitchen

The Washingtons had owned Sulgrave Manor 1539-1659 (120 years), and from then on, this famous family no longer had any conn­ect­ion to it. In 1673 the Manor was sold again, this time to Rev Moses Hodges, whose son made alterations to the architecture, adding the north-east wing. The new wing was important because it contained the Great Kitchen and the Oak Parlour, on the ground floor, beneath two sleeping chambers. In fact we can say that each generation made its own changes and by the late C18th, the house had become a farm and part was demolished (except for the porch). The left half was not rebuilt until after WW1.

Sulgrave Manor was eventually restored in 1919 by Sir Reginald Blom­field and formally given to the USA in 1921 to celebrate the special relationship between Britain and the USA. In 1924, the National Society of Colonial Dames of America endowed the Manor House and financed another extension, the west wing, in 1929. The American and British flags still fly in front of the manor house today.

These days the manor offers 3 tours that start at noon (weekends only except for August), each lasting for 1.25 hours in the house. Then visitors are encouraged to stroll around the beautiful gardens, designed in the formal style by Sir Reginald Blomfield; to study of the George Washington Exhibition in the brewhouse; and to have afternoon tea in the buttery.

Sulgrave Manor, herb gardens

As the Washingtons bought Sulgrave Manor in 1539, the herb gardens have been filled with plants that were known in Tudor times. The gardeners have planted medicinal herbs, herbs used in cooking, and herbs sent back and forward between England and Virginia.


Deb said...

We visited Sulgrave and loved the Tudor feel to the house and gardens. But I wonder how many American tourists know about their heritage.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is fascinating to see the roots of American history. Even Americans not of British descent can understand and enjoy this as part of their heritage. The restoration looks beautiful; it is just too bad that more of Sulgrave Manor didn't survive intact.

Hels said...


the importance of the place to Americans was described in detail (see url below). The opening in 1921 must have been huge, with every American dignitary present and accounted for.

Hels said...


Spouse and I saw the house and garden looking terrific, but we also wonder what the estate might have looked like at its biggest and proudest. Perhaps that is the point; when the Washingtons owned it, it was a reasonably modest country home.

P. M. Doolan said...

I was in the dark regarding this subject until now. I had no idea that Washington's roots could be traced so far back. Amazing!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
We have not visited Sulgrave Manor and so have been most interested to read your account of its history, the Washingtons and the various alterations which have been made to the house.

It all exudes a feeling of well being and, a sensitivity to have planted the garden with herbs from the original Washington family days. It is details such as this which really do raise 'guardianship' of important buildings to a higher level.

Hels said...


Agreed. The house's connection with the Washington family was real, but it only accounted for 120 years of their history. So this post has tapped into just a small part of a long, rich and well documented family history.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

*nod* Guardianship of important buildings seemed to have been a hit and miss affair for most of modern history. How often do we hear of a) important places razed to the ground or b) important places slated for demolition and being saved only at the last moment.

So Sulgrave is well worth visiting!

Pet Stores Melbourne said...

It is nice to visit historical places like this.

Hels said...


It is indeed. I just wonder if every tourist in Northamptonshire knows about Sulgrave Manor. I think probably not.

Discover Britain said...

Befitting of the Great Hall at Sulgrave, two portraits of George Washington hang on the walls. One is a copy of a Wilson Peale portrait, with
George Washington dressed as a Redcoat. Visitors sometimes forget that, coming from a royalist family (his mother also came from British stock and had family living in England), George was a British soldier before becoming Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

On another wall hangs an original Gilbert Stewart portrait of George. Visitors are familiar with this portrait. It is used on the American dollar bill.

Discover Britain
Sept/Oct 2014