- Historic Sites
George Washington’s Great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Slept Here
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
In 1539 the former mayor of the town of Northampton, England, a prosperous wool merchant named Lawrence Washington (the great-great-great-greatgreat-grandfather of George Washington) settled north of Oxford in the hill country known as the Cotswolds. There he built a handsome stone cottage for himself and his large family which he called Sulgrave Manor.
In 1539 the former mayor of the town of Northampton, England, a prosperous wool merchant named Lawrence Washington (the great-great-great-greatgreat-grandfather of George Washington) settled north of Oxford in the hill country known as the Cotswolds. There he built a handsome stone cottage for himself and his large family which he called Sulgrave Manor. Part of a monastic estate confiscated by King Henry VIII when he broke with the Church of Rome five years earlier, it was situated in pleasant farm country where ancient lanes wandered for miles between wild rose hedges (which sometimes concealed highwaymen), and certain lonely barrows were reputed to be gathering places for local witches. This was a region where Nonconformist sects gained an early foothold, and the Puritanic tendencies of the natives were proverbial.
The two panels of heraldic stained glass which adorn the front and back covers of this issue were originally at Sulgrave Manor. This spring they were sold by their owner, British author Sacheverell Sitwell, to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, where they are now on permanent display. Of seven related panels, these are the only ones which have come to George Washington’s native country.
Both panels shown here were probably made in 1588, the year Queen Elizabeth’s Navy and the storms which Spaniards called “Protestant winds” destroyed the great Armada. The panels commemorate two marriages in the Washington family, one of them bearing the coat of arms of John Washington and Margaret Kytson, and the other, the arms of Margaret Butler and a second Lawrence Washington, the grandson of the builder of Sulgrave Manor.
The Washington coat of arms has a pattern of red and white bars and three five-pointed stars—or, in more heraldic language, “Argent, Two Bars Gules, in Chief Three Mullets of the Second.” Some historians have made the perhaps romantic assertion that these Washington arms were the original inspiration for the national flag of the United States which the Continental Congress adopted on June 14, 1777.
Apparently the Washington family fortune diminished in the years after the panels were made, for in 1610 Sulgrave Manor had to be sold. Almost fifty years later the first Washington arrived in the New World. In 1657—the last year of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship in England—George Washington’s greatgrandfather John sailed to Virginia as first mate and part owner of a trading ketch. When his ship was wrecked on a Rappahannock River shoal, John Washington elected to remain in America. The prospect of plentiful tobacco land was inviting; and, too, he must have been happy to settle beyond the stern reach of a Puritan-dominated England. For John Washington had seen his clergyman father ruined by the Puritans, who had branded him as a “common frequenter of ale houses” and ousted him from his parish.
As the Washington name became famous, Sulgrave Manor fell upon hard times. One wing was demolished in the eighteenth century; and when Washington Irving visited early in the 1850’$, he could report that “A part only of the manor house remained and was inhabited by a farmer.” While at Sulgrave, Irving also viewed some of the heraldic panels. “The Washington crest, in colored glass, was to be seen in a window of what was now the buttery,” he wrote. “A window on which the whole family arms was emblazoned had been removed to the residence of the actual proprietor of the manor.”
The latter were evidently the same panels which came into the hands of the Sitwell family when it purchased Sulgrave Manor at this time. Recently, Sacheverell Sitwell related that when his great-grandfather bought the house, he seemed to have some inkling of the potential historical value of the panels, for he had them removed from their place in the hall and enclosed in a wooden box.
This year two of the Washington panels were brought to America. Five more originals remain in England, and facsimiles of all seven may be seen in Sulgrave Manor, which was purchased in 1914 by the British Committee for the Celebration of 100 Years of Peace between Britain and America and restored to its original condition.