British Origins of the Lawrences of Groton and Boston: Saying Goodbye to a Much Loved Myth

Prior to the 1630’s, we really know next to nothing about the Lawrence family’s actual origins in Great Britain.

The above statement is the bedrock truth on which I’m going to build the family history that follows. It’s a confession of ignorance. It’s not dramatic in any way and, for those who might care about such things – I am not one – it offers nothing in the way of prestige or bragging rights. But…it is good scholarship, and, having written it, I will sleep quite soundly at night.

For the last 150 years or so, there has been a fictitious tale circulating that our family’s first discernible ancestor was a humble Englishman, Robert Lawrence, who, in 1191 AD, as a reward for his services at the siege of Acre, was knighted by Richard the Lionheart (aka Richard I, aka Richard of Anjou). According to this story, Sir Robert Lawrence, after receiving his knighthood, returned home from war, and went on to become the progenitor of the Lawrences of Ashton Hall, and subsequently, the Lawrences of Wisset and Rumburgh, and, by the mid-17th century, the Lawrences of Watertown and Groton, Massachusetts.

The genealogical detective work that exposed this story as being at best unreliable and at worst a complete fabrication was performed in the early 1930s by the distinguished researcher G. Andrews Moriarty. Moriarty summarized his findings in an article appearing in The American Genealogist, titled “Pre-American Ancestries: V. The Lawrence Family of Groton and Boston, Massachusetts” [TAG 10 (Oct 1933): pp. 78 – 83)].

Unfortunately, despite Moriarty’s compelling and definitive debunking of the myth, the tale of Sir Robert Lawrence and the lineage that supposedly derives from him has been difficult to dispel.

The story appeared, in different versions, in several of the 19th century genealogies devoted to the Lawrence family. And the fact that these books are still widely available, whether as antique volumes, or reprints, or in e-book and .pdf formats, has meant that people new to family history research are constantly rediscovering them, and passing the story along, yet again, on their personal websites, through Facebook, etc.

In all candor, it’s an easy story to spread. Who could ever be fully immune to at least momentarily enjoying the idea of their ancestor being knighted by Richard the Lionheart for bravery during a Crusade? It’s romantic, and deeply, almost viscerally, appealing.

All the more reason, then, to quash it— or, if not quash it, then at least curb its spread.

To fail to do so, to allow it to continue to proliferate, would in my view cast the beginnings of doubt and uncertainty on the many verifiable, demonstrably true, utterly real instances of bravery and heroism and sacrifice on the part of people in our family: Samuel Lawrence, the Minuteman; Col. William Prescott, commander of American forces at Bunker Hill; Capt. John Linzee, R.N., who bombed Prescott’s men from the water; Lt. Col. Charles Redington Mudge, killed at Gettysburg; Capt.  Richard Lawrence, M.D., who served, at one point with a bag of plasma in one hand while firing a pistol in the other, in the Pacific in World War II. And so on. And so on. These men, their examples, deserve better.

To go back to my first sentence, the truest account of our family’s origins is probably a blank page. Perhaps someday researchers in the UK will learn more and write on that page. But for now it is enough to simply try and erase the falsehoods that were somewhat disingenuously scrawled there roughly a century and a half ago. The best way to do that is to get the word out about Moriarty’s article. Make it available for people to read, on their iPads and on their phones, and have at their recall during conversations with family over Thanksgiving dinner, or on a beach during a Fourth of July picnic.

To this end, and in response to my inquiry, the editor and publisher of The American Genealogist has very kindly allowed me to reproduce Moriarty’s article, here, in its entirety.

From this point forward, I will let the author make his case, in his own words…

_____________________________

from G. Andrews Moriarty, “Pre-American Ancestries: V. The Lawrence Family of Groton and Boston, Massachusetts,” The American Genealogist 10 (Oct 1933): pp. 78 – 83. Reproduced by permission of The American Genealogist.

THE LAWRENCE FAMILY OF GROTON AND BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

By G. ANDREWS MORIARTY, A.M., LL.B., F.S.A., of Bristol, R. I.

The New England of the middle of the last century strongly resembled, genealogically speaking, the England of Elizabeth. In each case there had been a great political and social revolution one or two generations before, which had swept away the old gentry and brought a swarm of novi homines to the front. No sooner had these new families become firmly established than they felt the need of bolstering up their recent prosperity with ancient pedigrees and in both cases obsequious genealogists were at hand to furnish them with a lofty lineage based upon imaginary proofs.

The Revolution of 1776 had made a pretty clean sweep of the Colonial aristocracy of Massachusetts. Only a handful of the leading families of 18th century Boston survived that overturn and the names that were once great in Provincial Boston must now be sought in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The place of the old gentry was taken by pushing and enterprising men, who, swarming into Boston from the neighboring country towns after the Revolution, prospered greatly and founded new families, which by the forties of the last century found themselves well established and began to look about them for a descent worthy of their new importance. Just as the new rich of Elizabeth’s reign, the Spencers, Berties, Russells and Fieldings had their Cooke and Dethick, so the new gentility of Boston had their Horatio Somerby. Mr. Somerby was a Newburyport lawyer, who, about 1840, went to England to reside and supported himself by supplying pedigrees to the newly rich of his native Commonwealth. Most of his productions are fearfully and wonderfully concocted but, in justice to his memory, I must state that some of his pedigrees which I have examined have been carefully and accurately compiled upon authentic record evidence. Hence I have been forced to the conclusion that Mr. Somerby gave his clients exactly what they wanted. If they wished a true, if somewhat undistinguished, pedigree, they got it; on the other hand, if they wanted a splendid but fictitious descent, unsupported by facts or record evidence, they got it also.

Among the pedigrees compiled by Mr. Somerby was one of the Lawrence family, which had recently become prominent in Boston, made for Hon. Abbot Lawrence, a leading citizen of Boston and at one time the American Minister near the Court of St. James. Mr. Lawrence, together with his brother, Amos, had come from the little Massachusetts hill town of Groton to Boston early in the last century. By their ability and energy the two brothers had raised themselves to a foremost place in that city. Their emigrant ancestor, John Lawrence, a house carpenter, settled in Watertown in 1635. In 1660 he went, with other artisans and farmers from that place, to settle Groton, where he died a respected member of society in 1667. His son, Nathaniel, became a man of some consequence in that remote and humble rural settlement. He was a deacon of the local church, lieutenant of the local company and a fairly large landowner in a community where land was to be had for the asking. In [1694,] he removed with his family for safety from the frontier town of Groton to Charlestown End (Stoneham) and he died a highly respected citizen, in 1724, at the house of his youngest son, John Lawrence. This John Lawrence, who was a blacksmith, lived in Lexington, Mass., but his posterity returned to Groton, where they were prosperous and respected farmers and the leading men in the rural community in which they lived. From John’s youngest son, Amos, descended the two brothers, Abbot and Amos, whose posterity have attained great eminence in the political, professional, commercial and industrial life of Massachusetts.

Such, in brief, is the highly respectable history of the family since its arrival in America nearly three hundred years ago, and with it the family was quite content until the Hon. Abbot Lawrence, about the middle of the last century, thirsting for trans-Atlantic glories, commissioned Mr. Somerby to search out the English ancestry of the first John of Watertown. This was done and in due course a wonderous pedigree appeared deducing the descent from “Sir Robert” Lawrence of Ashton Hall in Lancashire, who in 1191 was knighted by Richard of Anjou for his good services at Acre and given arms, viz. “Silver a cross raguly gules.” In this pedigree John Lawrence, the Watertown house carpenter, appears as seventeenth in descent from the “Crusader.” This pedigree was printed in tabular form in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, volume X, at page 302. It was also set forth in “The Family of John Lawrence” by the Rev. John Lawrence, Boston, 1869, and in the second edition of Bond’s Watertown. As no pedigree is stronger than its weakest link, I propose to examine it carefully and in such examination we shall find that, like all Gaul, it is divided into three parts. The first part relates to the establishing of the parentage of the emigrant John Lawrence of Watertown. The second has to do with the descent of the Lawrences of Wisset and Rumburgh, co. Suffolk, from the Lawrences of Ashton Hall. The third concerns the descent of the Lawrences of Ashton from the crusader, “Sir Robert.”

Mr. Somerby identified John, the emigrant of 1635, with John, son of Henry and Mary Lawrence, baptized at Wisset, co. Suffolk. on 8 Oct. 1609, and the Genealogy further states that the will of Henry’s father, a certain John Lawrence of Wisset, dated 2 June 1606, “refers to him (i.e. Henry) as having removed from Wisset to New England, and settled in Charlestown. “As New England was not settled until many years later, it is a little difficult to understand how a Suffolk man, making his will in 1606, could refer to a son living in Charlestown in New England, which was not founded until 1629, but in genealogy of this sort such little things do not matter.

Now it is true that there was a Henry Lawrence, a fisherman, at Charlestown as early as 1635, who died before 1646, leaving a son John Lawrence and a widow Christian. This John Lawrence, whose wife was named Susanna, was a totally different person from the John Lawrence of Watertown and Groton, as anyone may see by referring to that excellent book, Wyman’s “Genealogies and Estates of Charlestown.” This John of Charlestown died in the Spring of 1672 and on 18 June 1672 administration of his estate was granted to his widow Susanna who, on 15 August 1676, remarried at Charlestown Thomas Tarball, late of Groton, who had removed, with other Groton men, to Charlestown at the time of Philip’s War. The widow Susanna Tarball died at Charlestown on 5 Jan. 1690/1 aged 65 years. She left by her first husband, John Lawrence, the following children: Susanna, Mary, Sarah, Hannah, Abigail John and probably David and William (this last later of Providence, R. I.). All of these persons are well known and their history may be found in the records of Middlesex county, Massachusetts.

John Lawrence of Watertown and Groton, on the other hand had a first wife Elizabeth and married secondly at Charlestown 2 Nov. 1664, Susanna Batchelder, by whom he had two daughters. He died testate at Groton on 11 July 1667. He had issue John, Nathaniel (ancestor of the Boston family), Joseph, Jonathan, Mary, Peleg, Enoch, Samuel, Isaac, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Abigail and Susanna; a fruitful and Puritanical array. There was also at Groton, a Phoebe Lawrence, who on 24: 10: 1675 had issue a natural son, Eliezer. Who she was, I have not been able to ascertain.

These facts conclusively shew that John Lawrence of Watertown and Groton and John, son of Henry Lawrence of Charlestown, were entirely different persons and hence we get no help here to shew that John of Watertown was the son of Henry Lawrence of Wisset.

In the second edition of Bond’s Watertown, where the Lawrence pedigree is printed, it is stated, without more, that Robert Lawrence, who is a known son of Henry Lawrence of Wisset mentions in a deposition his brother ‘‘John in New England.” Such a statement, without reference as to where the above deposition is to be found and without any further information, is, of course, without any probative value. As all the information regarding the English ancestry of the Groton Lawrences is derived from Mr. Somerby’s researches, I have searched his original notes upon the Lawrence family, deposited, with his other papers, in the library of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, for this deposition without success. I would like further to point out that even if such a deposition actually exists more evidence would be necessary to shew that it actually referred to John of Watertown.

As the case stands we have only Mr. Somerby’s word that there was such a deposition and when we consider that a great many of the pedigrees constructed by him are either unprovable or have been actually disproved, such a statement, without more, has no probative value. Accordingly the only verdict that can be rendered, as regards the parentage of John Lawrence of Watertown, is the Scotch one of “not proven,” and, while it is most probable that John Lawrence was a Suffolk man, as the name is quite common in that county, it seems unlikely that he belonged to the Wisset and Rumburgh family, whose social status was considerably higher than that of the Watertown settler.

We now turn to the pedigree of the Wisset and Rumburgh family, which can be traced back for a number of generations in Rumburgh to a certain Thomas Lawrence of Rumburgh, whose will was dated 17 July 1471. The pedigree, without giving any proof, states that he was the son of a certain John Lawrence, who is said to have died in Suffolk in 1461, and that he in turn was the son of Nicholas Lawrence of Agercroft, a cadet of the Lawrences of Ashton Hall in Lancashire. This is probably based upon some Tudor compilation and its value can be estimated by the statement that Nicholas Lawrence, who lived in the first half of the fifteenth century had a grandson, who died in 1601! Lancashire is a long way from Suffolk and better proof than the unsupported statement of some Tudor pedigree maker is necessary to connect the two families. The late William Whitmore, Esq., of Boston in a carefully compiled article in the Herald and Genealogist shewed that the descent of the Suffolk family from Nicholas of Agercroft was totally unproved.

We now reach the last lap of this preposterous pedigree, i.e., the descent of the Lawrences of Ashton Hall from the companion in arms of the Lion Hearted Richard. The public records, calendars and abstracts of which for this early period are now in print, are strangely silent regarding this family until the middle of the fourteenth century, when the name begins to occur in connection with Ashton (cf. Victoria County History of Lancashire under Ashton). As to the valiant “Sir Robert,” he was so shy and modest as to his exploits against the accursed Paynim that he does not make his existence known until some three hundred years later in the spacious days of the Tudors, about the time when such heroes of the preceding centuries begin to come to life. I have long sought the origin of “Sir Robert” and his immediate successors and I have, at last, found it, as I believe, in a pedigree compiled by Garter Wriothesley (died 1534) for his kinsmen the Dorset Lawrences, whom he foisted onto the Ashton Hall family; since that time, “ Sir Robert, “ like his comrade in arms, “Sir Miles Carrington,” the mythical ancestor of the Smith‑Carringtons, has been sounding his fame loud and long both here and in England. (This pedigree will be found in Hutchill’s Dorset.)

To sum up. There is no evidence that the Lawrences were at Ashton Hall prior to the middle of the fourteenth century; there is no evidence that the Suffolk family of the name derive from the Lancashire family; and finally there is no evidence that John Lawrence, son of Henry of Wisset, is identical with John Lawrence, the early settler of Watertown and Groton. The name is derived from that of a well‑known mediaeval saint, and at the period when surnames were assumed, many persons not necessarily related but connected with one or another of the numerous religious establishments dedicated to that Saint, assumed the name.

The writer of this monograph is actuated by no desire to cast reflections upon the distinguished Boston family of the name but, as he descends from two of the children of Deacon Nathaniel Lawrence of Groton, his investigations were undertaken solely with reference to his own ancestry, and this paper is the result of his belief that the true facts about pedigrees should be made known in the interest of sound genealogical studies.

FURTHER READING:

 

Some images of Ashton Hall in art…

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ashtonhall

 

Ashton-Hall

 

 

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