Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents' Day at Sulgrave Manor

Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home of the Washington family, in Northamptonshire, between Banbury and Northampton.

In 1529, twenty-nine year old Lawrence Washington left the employ of Sir William Parr to set himself up in the wool trade in Northamptonshire. By 1532, he had done well enough as a wool merchant to become Mayor of Northampton. Six years later, King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including the Cluniac Priory of St. Andrew in Northampton. The priory's lands were sold off, including Sulgrave Manor, which Lawrence Washington purchased from the King. Soon after, Washington built himself a sturdy manor house on his new property, using Cotswold stone.

The Washington Coat of Arms above the porch of Sulgrave Manor.

Above the porch, Washington displayed his family's coat of arms: three sharp, star-shaped spurs and two horizontal red stripes, representing rivers of blood. These arms were conferred upon a Washington ancestor who fought in the Battle of Crécy with King Edward III in 1346. One popular theory is that the American Stars and Stripes are derived from the Washington coat of arms (it's interesting to think of the stripes on the American flag as rivers of blood). Also above the porch are the arms of the wool merchants guild and the royal coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth, with the initials "ER," for Elizabeth Regina.

The Church of St. James the Less, Sulgrave, Northamptonshire. The date above the door of the porch is 1564.

The Washingtons continued to prosper at Sulgrave Manor for the next century. As a wealthy wool merchant, Lawrence Washington was a member of the minor gentry. His house was ample, but certainly not grand. He undoubtedly had a hand in building the local Church of St. James the Less (1564), which contains brasses of Lawrence, his wife, and eleven children (unfortunately, the church was closed for asbestos removal when we visited). Unfortunately, the family suffered a reversal of fortune in the 1640s, when England fell into Civil War. The Washingtons were Royalists, and fought with the forces of King Charles I at the Battle of Copredy Bridge in 1644. As part of that campaign, a small skirmish took place at Sulgrave Manor, and shot and cannon balls have been found on the site. As a Royalist and clergyman of the Church of England, Lawrence Washington's great-grandson, Rev. Lawrence Washington, lost his position and much of his wealth.

The "Bicentennial Washington," by Avard Fairbanks, commissioned by George Washington University in 1976. Click on photo to enlarge and read the plaque.

In 1656, Rev. Lawrence Washington's son, John Washington, emigrated to America and settled in Virginia. John was the great-grandfather of George Washington (link: family tree of the Washingtons in Virginia from John to George). Meanwhile, the Washingtons' ancestral home in Sulgrave slowly decayed until just before World War I, when a joint British and American commission was formed to commemorate a century of peace between the two nations. It happened that at the same time, Sulgrave Manor was up for sale for £8,000. A subscription raised money to purchase and restore the house, which opened to the public in 1921. Sulgrave Manor is, in fact, the only property in the world jointly owned by Great Britain and the United States. Among the Washington artifacts on display at Sulgrave Manor are Washington's saddle bags, his liquor chest, a lock of his hair, his velvet coat, a handle from his coffin, and a piece of the elm tree under which he resigned his commission!

Sulgrave Manor, like most historical properties in England, is usually open only from April through October, but on Presidents' Day each February the house is opened and American citizens are admitted free. The website said to bring identification, and although we did bring along our passports, we were admitted on the strength of our accents alone. We went on the tour of the house with a group of young servicemen from a U.S. military post near Gloucester. In the parking lot, there were several cars with steering wheels on the left (i.e., the American side).

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