Washington and the Spencers, a Tale Through the Centuries

At Althorp there stands a chest that provides a palpable link between the lives of historic individuals across centuries and seas. I remember first encountering the story of the  Althorp chest and the ancestors of George Washington four years ago, and being struck by the fact that there are pieces of furniture in use today that have survived for not only hundreds of years, but which have connections to individuals who have shaped countries.

I have reproduced the story of the Althorp chest in its entirety below from original research.

In the main passage of the private wing of Althorp stands the Washington Chest, a piece of oak furniture which the local priest, in 1877, authenticated as having belonged to the Washingtons before emigration to America. This is the story of the history behind the chest and the Washington family.

Sir Robert, the 1st Lord Spencer, Baron of Wormleighton, was said to have had more money than anyone else in the kingdom, except James 1st, his monarch. His reputation for generosity was equally impressive.

Perhaps he will be longest remembered for his sponsorship of two of his kinsmen, the great-great-great-grandfather and great-great-great uncle of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Years of research and volumes of findings have traced the lineage of George Washington to his death in 1799, childless at the age of 67. Yet it wasn’t until relatively recently that the Brington village connection came to light and then was authenticated.

The patriach of the early Washingtons in Northamptonshire was Lawrence Washington, Mayor of Northampton in 1532 and 1545 and, through his mother’s brother, first cousin to Katherine Kitson, wife of Sir John Spencer. On his death in 1583, his son Robert Washington inherited Sulgrave and former church lands deeded to the family at the time of Henry VIII.We are told, cryptically and inexplicably, that he also inherited “some pecuniary embarrassments.” One source simply states:“The family was passing under something of a cloud.”

One notable consequence of these financial tribulations was the exodus from Sulgrave to the Bringtons of Lawrence Washington, first-born of Robert, and his next younger brother Robert. Why the Bringtons? The answer, simply: the Spencer connection. In fact, not only were they third cousins, but the 1st Lord Spencer and brothers Lawrence & Robert were all born within two years of each other. Sir Robert sired seven children in ten years of marriage; Lawrence Washington was the father of 17 children in 28 years.Thus, they were very close in age and had hosts of young children about them. Politically, the two families were staunch Royalists; commercially, their common interests were sheep raising and wool production. One source unequivocally avers: “It was almost certainly the friendship of the Spencers of Althorp… and the ready help received from them that took the Washingtons to Brington.”

Thus, in 1599 Robert Washington with his wife Elizabeth Chishull arrive in the Bringtons – perhaps to Great Brington, to live at least for a time in a thatched cottage, still standing today. Robert, who was provided by his cousin with 60 acres to farm and a windmill to run, headed the list of Spencer tenants on the court rolls from 1599 to 1622. By 1601 he was a churchwarden and signed the inventory of Spencer goods; in 1606 he was prominently included along with his wife and two manservants in the “new” church roll and seating plan.

Somewhat of a puzzle is Lawrence, Robert’s older sibling. Perhaps seeing his brother generously looked after by their kinsman, he too, decided – or was involved – to follow suit. In any event, he, his wife Margaret Butler, and his large family were provided a newly-constructed stone farmhouse in Little Brington, and he was thought to have held the position of land agent for the Spencers.The date was probably 1606, for a stone tablet was placed over the door of his house which proclaimed,“The Lord Giveth, the Lord Taketh Away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. Constructa 1606.”

Possibly this refers to the decline of the Washington fortunes in general, but more probably to the death of Gregory, a son of Lawrence’s, in that year. Yet, in 1610 he and his family moved to Wicken, another more commodious Spencer manor. By 1613 it is thought that Robert Washington may have lived in “the Washington House” in Little Brington with at least one of his brother’s daughters whom he and his wife, childless, had adopted.

In 1616, perhaps on a visit to Althorp or Brington, Lawrence died and was buried under a stone slab in the chancel of Brington Church. Six years later Robert and his wife died just nine days apart on 10 and 19 March, 1622 respectively, “after they lived happily together many yeares in this parish” and were buried beneath small brass plates in the chancel aisle.

It was only five years later that their benefactor Sir Robert died, a widower for 30 years, and was buried in the magnificent tomb which he had built some 28 years earlier – a tomb which he and his cousins would have seen each time they attended Brington Church. Separated by just an ornament spiked railing, this tomb is within feet of that of Lawrence’s modest gravestone which, ironically, is closer to the altar.

On three different surfaces in the church – a stone slab, a brass marker, and a wooden bench end – the Washington coat of arms, three stars on a crest with stripes beneath, is decisively displayed and leaves little doubt as to the derivation of the stars and stripes of the flag of the United States of America. To continue to trace the Washington line directly we must catalogue Lawrence’s fifth son, the Reverend Lawrence whose oldest son (later) John Washington emigrated to Virginia in 1656 just three years after his father’s death. Still of Royalist sympathies like his father, John left England during Cromwell’s rule. Once safely in America, he fathered Captain Lawrence who in turned sired Captain Augustine. The latter was the father of George Washington.

One rather more grandiose sentiment perhaps sums up this brief chapter in the story of Brington Church: “It may be that the influence of Sir Robert Spencer’s character helped to form that love of rectitude which the Washingtons carried across the ocean as the greatest asset in the foundations of a great people.”

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