My “Flemish” Ancestry, Part Two

 

This guest blog posting is the second of two that trace F. Lawrence Fleming’s personal search for his “Flemish” ancestry. In this posting he explains why he believes that the name “Fleming” would not normally have been adopted by newly arriving immigrants to Scotland from Flanders. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the St. Andrews Institute of Scottish Historical Research.

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If you type “Fleming+surname” into your search engine, this is more or less what you obtain as a result: “Fleming is the surname that was adopted by various immigrants to the Britain from Flanders during the twelfth century”. You’ll find that there is little variation from one website to another. The Flemings—that is, those whom I call members of the Fleming family—are generally described simply as Flemings; that is, people from Flanders. Supposedly, Fleming was nothing more than a convenient surname for descendants of Flemings, like Smith was a convenient surname for descendants of blacksmiths.

Medieval records show, however, that Fleming (that is, le Flemeng, le Flamang, le Flemanc, and all the other spelling permutations in Norman French) was the surname adopted by the grandsons of Archembald the Fleming, almost certainly as a perpetual tribute to their grandfather who had been a companion of the Conqueror. We know exactly who these grandsons were, specifically:

  • Erkenbald (Archembald) le Fleming who can be traced to Devonshire, Cornwall, and Ireland (where he went with Henry II);
  • Robert, who also went to Ireland with Henry II;
  • Baldwin, who went to Scotland in 1147 or 1148;
  • William le Fleming, son of John, in Wales, and;
  • William, Michael, and Reiner le Fleming who were found in Cumbria and Hampshire.

It has been said, however, that this historic Fleming family was only one of several immigrant families from Flanders in the 12th century that had taken the name “Fleming”. So, what of these other families, who, although unrelated to the well-known Fleming family, had nonetheless assumed the Fleming surname? Have these other Flemings ever really existed? As far as I have been able to discover, there is no historical record of them.

Genealogical websites are not generally known for conducting any groundbreaking research. The information you can get from such sites has usually been uncritically extracted from the genealogical literature of the nineteenth century. In the case of these Flemish immigrants purportedly taking the name Fleming, the information undoubtedly comes from a book entitled Caledonia, Or an Account, Historical and Topographic, of North Britain, from the Most Ancient to the Present Times, by George Chalmers. On page 600 of the first volume, published in 1807, one can read: “The Scots Flemings descended from natives of Flanders, the most enterprising merchants of their time, who in the 12th century emigrated first to England, whence being banished they removed to Scotland. Several of this name are witnesses to charters of Malcolm the Fourth, William the Lion, and the three Alexanders. Baldwin, a distinguished Flemish leader, settled with his followers at Biggar in Lanarkshire under a grant of David the First.” Here again we have mention of Baldwin, who in reality had never set foot in Flanders, although he undoubtedly was a Fleming; that is, a member of the Fleming family of Devonshire and Cornwall.

The account Chalmers gives is correct insofar as many immigrants from the Low Countries did come to England in the early twelfth century. The tradition is that this wave of emigration was prompted by a combination of natural catastrophes and overpopulation. Reportedly, a series of violent storms hit the coasts of northern Europe in 1108 and again in 1112, and Flanders was devastated.[[1]]

The more or less forced settlement of Pembrokeshire in Wales by Flemish immigrants during the reign of Henry I is well documented. And it is also true that Henry II banished many of the Flemings who had supported Stephen of Blois during the Anarchy. Without a doubt, some of these exiles ended up in Scotland. The question is: did any of these exiles or their descendants ever adopt Fleming as a surname? The answer would have to be: no, they did not. That surname was already taken, and by a wealthy and politically influential family, the Flemings. Chalmers wrote that several of this name were witnesses to charters of Malcolm IV, William the Lion, and Alexander I, II, and III, and this is true, but what he didn’t realize is that all these witnesses were members of the same family, the Flemings.

But what of the Flemish weavers and the religiously persecuted Flemish that came to Scotland in the late 16th Century and early 17th Century?  Is it not possible that some of these would have taken on the name Fleming?  I believe that the name Fleming would still have been one of considerable renown at that point in history.  So while it is just possible that an immigrant might adopt the name Fleming at that point in history I think it would have been most unlikely.  I have found no evidence to support the adoption scenario during this phase of history.

Despite my insistence that the Flemings of the Britain were essentially a single extended family during the Middle Ages, I concede that in later times there have been wholly unrelated families that have taken the Fleming surname, notably in the United States.  According to the United States census from the year 2000, 85,112 individuals in the United States had the name Fleming; of these, 18,918 were Afro-Americans.  This was the result, no doubt, of slaves adopting the surname of their master.  This is obviously a special case.

The point I want to make is this: I do not believe that Fleming is a name that was taken by Flemings coming to the Britain from Flanders—save one, of course, but he was not from Flanders. In the court of Duke William of Normandy, Archembald was called “the Fleming” because his father had come from Flanders.

 

F. Lawrence Fleming

November 2013

F. Lawrence Fleming is a genealogist, family historian and author

 

References

[1] Samuel Lewis. A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Vol 11. (1833)

F. Lawrence Fleming. A Genealogical History of the Barons Slane.  Paragon Publishing. (2008)

F. Lawrence Fleming. A Genealogy of the Ancient Flemings.  Paragon Publishing. (2010)

F. Lawrence Fleming. The Ancestry of the Earl of Wigton and other essays relating to the family history of the Flemings. Paragon Publishing (2011)

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