Wednesday, March 25, 2009

George Washington's Flemish Family

George Washington as painted by American artist Gilbert Stuart in 1799, shortly before George Washington's death.

Several of America’s Founding Fathers – such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1786) – were blessed with Flemish ancestry.[i] At least two of our American Presidents even had spouses of Flemish ancestry.[ii] George Washington (1732-1799), the embodiment of America’s struggle for independence and the first President of the United States, was equally blessed. Although he had no natural offspring he was not only born with Flemish DNA but his legacy includes Flemish descendants!

The Founding Father’s Flemish Fathers
Contemporaries of George Washington often described the Father of Our Country as ‘regal’ or ‘noble’. There was a quality to the man that some said was the result of breeding and others, simply heredity. Genealogists might in fact argue for the latter. In part this is because George Washington’s forefathers include the “Father” of a united Europe. More importantly here, George Washington could trace his ancestry to the “Father” of Flanders[iii].

One of the most prominent of George Washington’s antecedents is none other than the man variously known as Carlos Magnus, Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. The Frankish ruler Charlemagne (742 – 814) was the first after Rome fell in the year 476 to establish a united Europe. A committed Christian, he called his multicultural state the Holy Roman Empire. Today some politicians and pundits hearken back to that time as the precursor to the concept behind today’s European Union.


The Holy Roman Empire was, as a famous philosopher once put it, “neither, holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”[iv]. But it did endure in various manifestations for over 1,000 years. One of the many regions to splinter away in the chaos that followed Charlemagne’s death in 814 was the County of Flanders. The very first Count of Flanders, in effect the “Father” of Flanders, was Baldwin “Iron Arm” (830s – 879). It just so happens that the first Count of Flanders is also George Washington’s earliest Flemish ancestor. In a very real sense, then, the “father” of the Flemings fathered the father of the American people.

Baldwin I, First Count of Flanders

Washington’s Flemish ancestry passes unbroken through the Counts of Flanders to Mathilda of Brugge (1032-1083; daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders) whom William the Conqueror (1027-1087) reputedly dragged by her red hair to their wedding ceremony. Despite the rough handling the marriage was successful. Not only did William the Conqueror subdue Anglo-Saxon England – in large part thanks to the huge contingent of Flemish knights, who carried the field at Hastings for William and Mathilda – but for the next several centuries his progeny sat on many of Europe’s thrones.

The long line of George Washington’s Flemish-born family was temporarily interrupted with the historic leap across the Channel in 1066. However, Washington’s royal ancestral line continued unbroken for several hundred years after the Conqueror’s subjugation of the British Isles. Edward I, “Longshanks” (1239-1318) was George Washington’s last royal antecedent. From there Washington’s family tree slipped in the social register until stabilizing sometime in the late 15th century, just about the time of the English Reformation.

Sulgrave Manor, George Washington's ancestral home in Maldon, southeast England

Early on in their residence in England, the Wessingtons – as the Washington clan was first known, after changing their name from de Hertburne sometime after 1183 AD[v] – made their livelihood through raising sheep and the wool trade in the north of England. After several generations the family Anglicized their Saxon name to Washington and moved south and east, near the centers of wool and cloth production. By the early 1500s the Washingtons were comfortably settled in southeast England, in the town of Maldon.

Maldon itself had since at least the time of mass settlement in England of Flemish weavers by King Edward III in the 14th century, been a center for the wool and cloth trade.
[vi] Maldon is on the merchant trading route from London to Colchester, Ipswich, and Norwich. Norwich was, from the early 1500s until the late 1600s, England’s second largest city, and a center of textile production. Just as importantly, each of these places received substantial colonies of Flemings, the leaders in textile innovation. So much so that the prosperity of the region rose and fell with the presence of the Flemish weavers and cloth merchants in their midst.

The road from Maldon (lower left, just under the "E" in Essex) to the Flemish colony at Norwich (top center) through the Flemish colony at Colchester (mid picture) was a well-travelled route for Flemings, the Pilgrims and George Washington's ancestors.

Thanks to its prime location on the English coast facing Flanders and astride the highway between London and Colchester, Maldon became a strategic smuggling center in the wool and cloth trade. Judging from extant legal cases, some of Maldon’s English residents were engaged in these acts with the Flemish Protestant refugees. Frequently, Maldon smugglers acted as go-betweens for Flemish merchants resettled in southeast England on the one hand and Flanders itself on the other. Before he was apprehended in 1582, one particularly intrepid fellow – by the name of Thomas Clarke – conducted business with the Flemish weavers and merchants resident in Colchester and Sandwich – through his coastal Maldon residence.[vii] Clarke made frequent trips between Colchester (to the northeast of Maldon) and Sandwich (to the southeast) as well as Flanders (southeast across the North Sea).

The "Dutch Quarter" in Colchester where the Flemish colony lived and near where George Washington's prominent Merchant Adventurer ancestor, Thomas Washington, died as Flemish weavers gathered and settled.

By the time the Flemish Protestant weaver colonies were being settled in the surrounding towns of Sandwich and Colchester (in the 1560s), one of George Washington’s ancestors, Thomas Washington (1520-1583), had relocated to Antwerp. There, in fact, he became head of the largest company of English cloth and wool traders: the Merchant Adventurers. These are the same Merchant Adventurers that later financed the Pilgrim’s settlement at Plymouth. Later, in 1564, a row between the ruler of Flanders and Queen Elizabeth forced a move – just across the Scheldt from Antwerp to Middleburgh in Zeeland – to the future home of the founder of the Pilgrims’ sect, Robert Browne.

Thomas Washington eventually returned from Flanders to England and died in Colchester, a town whose business was closely tied to the Flemish weavers and the wool and cloth industries. Later generations of the Washington family remained sturdily woven into the fabric of East Anglian commercial life. Clearly they were also tied into the same Flemish Protestant textile workers whose settlement in England was to have such a large impact on England, New England, and by extension, America and the world.

While not the first Washington predecessor to reach these shores, George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, was the first of his surname to make his home and fortune here in the New World. In 1656 John Washington left the smuggling coves of Malden (variable spellings pepper the historical record), of Essex county in East Anglia – the hotbed of English nonconformity, Flemish immigration and religious dissent – as a ‘mariner’ on a trading ship for America.
[viii] He would remain in Virginia, give up the sea, and become a wealthy planter.

Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia home and the site of important developments of his Flemish American family.

Flemish Cultural Influences Around George Washington
George Washington’s everyday life was surrounded with non-linear reminders of his genetic heritage. It is unlikely that he thought in these terms, but certainly the cultural influences surrounding George Washington were subtle yet present. These included lasting testaments, and also, less obvious cultural inheritances.

America’s first president was, of course, a complete product of his day and time. This means that in his youth he considered himself a colonial subject of the British Crown and a member of the planter aristocracy. Still, when he was not engaged in politics or the plantation, the young, red-haired George Washington had one passion: he played cricket. Cricket, like golf, has long been considered a quintessential British pastime. Recent research, however, has shown that cricket was actually an import carried in the baggage so to speak of the Flemish weavers who flooded England in the late 16th century.[ix]

Socially there were a number of close friends and advisors who also carried Flemish DNA. Ben Franklin was one prominent colonial of recent and direct Flemish descent.[x] So was George Washington’s close friend and lawyer, John Mercer (1704-1768), a descendant of a Flemish cloth merchant family from Kent.[xi] Other lesser lights carrying Flemish blood orbited George Washington’s social set (usually as casual acquaintances and trusty aides). But those unintended intersections with others carrying Flemish DNA were most noticeable during the Revolutionary War (and are the subject for a future posting).

Flemish Bond

In the Virginia tidewater region there were further concrete examples of Flemish influence. Like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (1743-1826) and John Mercer’s plantation house, Washington’s Mt. Vernon home was constructed of brick in the Flemish bond style. This was a latticework of alternating brick layers common now throughout the U.S. but a great deal different than the traditional or ‘English’ bond bricklaying technique. The first appearance of this in England was shortly after the flood of Protestant Flemish refugees in the 1560s settled in coastal England. The Flemish pattern and craftsmanship associated with this style came to dominate East Anglia’s residential construction in the 1600s and of course followed the migration patterns of their descendants.[xii]

George and Martha Washington with their adopted children/grandchildren Eliza and George Washington Parke Custis

George Washington's Flemish Descendants
George Washington never had any natural offspring. The smallpox he picked up in the Barbadoes as a youth may have made him sterile. However, when he married the wealthy, young widow Martha Dandridge Parke Custis (1731-1802), George did gain two stepchildren, John Parke “Jacky” Custis (1754-1781) and Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis (but only “Jacky” lived to adulthood)
[xiii]. Jacky married Eleanor “Nelly” Calvert (1758-1811) in 1773 when she was just 16 years old[xiv]. Jacky’s and Nelly’s children became George Washington’s only descendants.

George Calvert, First Lord Baltimore

“Nelly” Calvert[xv], was also of noteworthy Flemish descent. Ms. Calvert’s ancestry was directly traceable to the Lords Baltimore who established and governed Maryland as the sole proprietary (owned by one man) English colony[xvi]. The Calverts' ancestors left Antwerp sometime in the 16th century, worked in the wool trade in England, and were possibly related to the famous Italian painter Denis Calvaert[xvii]. (The story of the Calverts and their Anglo-Flemish Catholic colony of Baltimore is a story for a later post.)

George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's adopted son

John Parke Custis was devoted to his step father. So much so that shortly before dying at the last major battle of the Revolutionary War – against the British, at Yorktown, in 1781 – he named his only son George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857). After John Parke Custis’ death, his wife, Nelly Calvert, and their children lived for two years at Mount Vernon with George and Martha Washington. Later, when Nelly remarried, the two children, George Washington Parke Custis (known as “Tub”) and Eliza Parke Custis, remained at Mt. Vernon, where they were legally adopted by George and Martha Washington. In short, George Washington’s only ‘son’, George Washington Parke “Tub” Custis, was the heir to two premier Flemish American genealogies.[xviii]

From left to right: (left) George Calvert, Flemish American descendant of George Calvert, First Lord Baltimore (Founder of Maryland), and uncle of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's adopted son and step-grandson; (center picture) Riversdale, the Maryland plantation home of Calvert's family; and (far right) Rosalie Stier Calvert - wealthy, aristrocratic Antwerpenaar, and Washington relative.

Flemish Relatives Around Washington’s Children
Growing up “Tub” and Eliza were especially close with their maternal uncle George Calvert (their mother Nelly’s younger brother) and his wife, Rosalie Stier Calvert. The closeness expressed itself in shared vacations, regular visits and correspondence, and even talk of moving abroad together (when Tub was 21). Eliza, who would only listen to George Calvert for advice, actually lived with the Calverts on and off for weeks at a time over several years.

This precedence of intimacy was established by George and Martha Washington even before George Calvert and Rosalie Stier married. George Calvert, a neighbor and regular visitor to Mt. Vernon, was smitten and ardently sought the approval of “Baron” Stier
[xix] for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Henri Joseph Stier, planning to return from exile in Maryland to his home in Napoleonic Antwerp, was uncertain that the match was ideal and sought to deflect George Calvert’s ardor.

Page from George Washington's diary, June 20, 1799 mentioning the honeymoon breakfast for the Calvert-Stier Flemish American couple.

Mr. Stier did, however, greatly admire George Washington. America’s First Couple leant their considerable personal authority as advocates of the union and guarantors for their adopted daughter-in-law’s brother. George Washington’s intercession with Henri Joseph Stier was successful. Shortly after the young couple were married in a small, private Catholic ceremony in June, 1799 and left to go on their honeymoon – to Mt. Vernon! George and Martha Washington had in fact both brokered the marriage and hosted the honeymoon of this Flemish American couple.[xx]

It was not only beauty, grace, land and wealth that made Ms. Stier an attractive catch. In an age when heritage counted for a great deal, Rosalie was a direct descendant of Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) through her maternal grandfather, Jean Egide Peters.
[xxi] However, the Stier family inherited more than the famous Master Painter’s DNA.

Castle Cleydael, near Antwerp, the home of Rosalie Stier

Partly through inheritance and partly through shrewd purchases, the Stier family while in America owned the largest collection of fine art in America. The collection – more than 60 original paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, David Teniers, and others – was widely hailed and recognized as the first and finest in the colonies. [xxii]

The multilingual, well-educated and wealthy in her own right socialite was at the end of the day a practical, hard-working Fleming. During her 25 years of marriage Rosalie Stier Calvert gave birth to 9 children, managed a plantation home, and oversaw extensive financial speculation on behalf of her father’s, brother’s, sister’s, and her own investments – profitably. Through all this Ms. Calvert somehow managed to maintain a heavy social calendar.

It is possible that George Washington Parke Custis – as well as the Calvert-Stier children – picked up some Flemish words and customs. Rosalie was trilingual (Flemish, French and English) just like many Flemings today. Her extant correspondence is sprinkled with uniquely Flemish terms (“we have to make a spaarpot in order to cross the ocean”)
[xxiv]. So, like today’s children of Flemish expatriates in America, while outwardly assimilated as Americans, they may have retained trace elements of their Flemish heritage.

Rosalie Calvert shared other traditional Flemish cultural legacies with the two adopted children of George and Martha Washington. Rosalie often cooked special dishes - such as Flemish sugar carrots and Brussels sprouts - for her extended Washington-related family. In fact, it may also very well be the case that Mrs. Calvert is responsible for importing the first Brussels sprouts to America.
[xxv] The Flemish cultural contributions extended to clothing. The Calverts' indentured servants and slaves were sometimes put to work making Flemish lace which Mrs. Calvert then sold. Rosalie took this industriousness to extraordinary levels – even so far as to attempt to import merino sheep for their wool.[xxvi]

At the end of all of this it is unfortunate that there is no hint that George Washington was even dimly aware of the Flemish DNA he had inherited. Certainly those around him never remarked or commented about his ancestral Flemish ties and his diary recorded no genealogical passion. This may reflect the traditional Flemish desire to blend in. After all, assimilation into America’s ‘melting pot’ of peoples and cultures has also been the mark of becoming an American. In the end then, it may be in this very act of accomodating to those around him and assimilation into the broader stream of peoples where it is fairly said that George Washington, the Father of the American people, was a son of Flanders.

[i] For Ben Franklin’s Flemish ancestry, please see my February 22, 2009 posting: . For the other Founding Fathers I intend to tackle those half dozen or so individuals in a future blog posting.
[ii] More on “Flemish First Ladies” in future postings to this blog.
[iii] See for the thread that connects Washington back to Charlemagne.
[iv] The quote is « Ce corps qui s'appelait et qui s'appelle encore le saint empire romain n'était en aucune manière ni saint, ni romain, ni empire ». Translated as : “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations, Chapter 70 (1756).
[v] H. Clifford Smith, Sulgrave Manor and the Washingtons, (London, 1933), pp.46-49 sourced at . This is a solid anecdotal history of the Washington Clan. For a look at the northern ancestral home of the de Hertburn/Wessington/Washington clan please see
[vi] Nigel Heard, Wool: East Anglia’s Golden Fleece, (Lavenham: Terence Dalton, 1970), p.54
[vii] Marcel Backhouse, The Flemish and Walloon Communities at Sandwich During the Reign of Elizabeth I (1561-1603), (Brussel: Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren en Schone Kunsten van Belgie, 1995), p.108.
[viii] Interestingly, Washington’s earliest American ancestor was not descended from the above lineage. Rather, he was a French Huguenot named Nicholas Marthiau, who arrived in Virginia sometime before 1623, as a Protestant refugee who had for a time lived in England. One hundred and sixty years later (1781) General Washington would accept the surrender of Lord Cornwallis after the battle of Yorktown (the battle that ended the Revolutionary War), on the first plot of land his forefather Marthiau purchased.
[ix] See Chris Mason, March 2, 2009 “Cricket Was Invented in Belgium”
[x] See my previous posting on this blog at for the Flemish origins of Benjamin Franklin. Future posts will reveal other prominent colonial Americans with Flemish origins.
[xi] See . Note that the definition of ‘mercer’ is cloth merchant (see ). One of John Mercer’s sons (James) was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a nephew (George Mason) was George Washington’s close friend, a “Founding Father”, and a co-author with James Madison of the Bill of Rights ( See also
[xii] For a discussion of the extensive influences on architecture, construction, and the English landscape, see Christopher Hanson-Smith, The Flemish Bond: East Anglia & The Netherlands – Close & Ancient Neighbors, (Diss, Norfolk: Groundnut Publishing, 2004). On the merits of “Flemish Bond” brickwork relative to “English Bond”, see pp. 16-17.
[xiii] “Patsy” died of an epileptic seizure at the age of 17 and was buried on Mt. Vernon in 1773. See for more family details.
[xiv] Nelly and her brother George Calvert were two of the thirteen children of cousins Benedict Swingate Calvert (1724-1788) – grandson of King George I and illegitimate son of the Fifth Lord Baltimore – and Elizabeth Calvert (1730-1798), who was the daughter of Maryland Governor Charles Calvert. For the family tree see Margaret Law Callcott, Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Roslaie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 376.
[xv] The family name Calvert/Calvaert may be an Anglicized derivation of the Flemish name “Caluwaert”. See “Calvaert, Denis” entry in the Winkler Prins Encyclopedie van Vlaanderen, (Brussell: Elsevier Sequia, 1973), Volume 2, p.92.
[xvi] The first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert (1580-1632), had risen from humble beginnings to become, through the patronage of Robert Cecil (son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the architect and advocate of the vast, state-sponsored Flemish colonies sprinkled across southeast England under Elizabeth I’s reign) a member of the Privy Council (England’s select advisory body of a half-dozen Peers of the Realm). George Calvert as early as 1607 been an active investor in the Virginia Company (which established Jamestown that same year and later negotiated with the Pilgrim’s who ultimately headed to Massachusetts). George Calvert’s conversion to Catholicism – in a country that celebrated anti-Catholicism, outlawed Catholics until the 19th century and whose Head of State was also the Head of the (Anglican) Church – provided an impetus to establish a colony where freedom of religion for all truly existed (despite textbook propaganda, it certainly did not exist in the theocratic New England colonies, nor in Virginia).
[xvii] See
[xviii] George Washington Parke Custis’ only child to survive to adulthood was Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808-1873). Mary would inherit her father’s cherished estate of Arlington upon his death. Mary married her cousin Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), who of course became the leading general of the Confederacy. Their home, technically inherited by their son George Washington Custis Lee (1832-1913), eventually became Arlington National Cemetery.
[xix] Henri Joseph Stier was often referred to as “the Baron Stier” but only his brothers were nobility. The online summary of Rosalie Stiers Calvert can be found at The only substantive information on this Flemish family in English is in Margaret Law Callcott, Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Roslaie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991). The reference to the “barons” is on p.393n74.
[xx] ibid, pp.17-20.
[xxi] ibid, p.2. Peter Paul Ruben’s family story is a classic tale of Flemish Calvinists turned Catholic but seldom told. Ruben’s father Jan, fled Antwerp for Cologne with other Calvinists and became financial advisor and imprisoned lover of William of Orange’s wife (Ann of Cleves). Following his death, his Flemish wife and young son (Peter Paul Rubens) returned to Antwerp and Catholicism. For Ruben’s collection .Interestingly, Ruben’s most prominent disciple, Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), joined many other Antwerpenaars in England, where he became court painter to Charles I (1600 -1643) and was “the dominant influence on English painting for the next 150 years”.
[xxii] See Margaret Law Callcott, Mistress of Riversdale, op.cit., p. 226, List 333n3; 395-397. The reference to “unheard of in the United States” is on p. 296.
[xxiii] Rosalie Stier traveled in elite circles: several members of the Stier family were well known to Napoleon Bonaparte and to the Duke of Wellington; the French foreign minister Talleyrand was a dinner guest (and tried to sell them real estate); they frequently dined with the French, British, Prussian and Dutch ambassadors and the capitol’s “best people”. Rosalie was close friends with President Monroe’s wife and their circle included the Secretary of State who would personally carry letters between Riversdale, the Calvert’s plantation, and the rest of the family back in Antwerp! They attended Francis Scott Key’s wedding, received regular personal financial advice from Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin, were neighbors of nation’s most prominent doctor, Benjamin Rush (and even sold him tulips), hosted Vice President Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson (whom they hated), Secretary of War Knox (for whom Ft. Knox is named after), Cazenove (head of the Holland Land Company), personally close to the Carroll family (Catholics who signed the Declaration of Independence and a son of whom was the first American Archbishop), and almost every distinguished person whose physical path carried them through the capitol.
[xxiv] Margaret Law Callcott, Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Roslaie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp.81-82.
[xxv] ibid, p. 299.
[xxvi] ibid, p. 206.

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