My “Flemish” Ancestry, Part One

Morvern French
Friday 22 November 2013

This guest blog posting is the first of two that trace F. Lawrence Fleming’s personal search for his “Flemish” ancestry. His many years of genealogical research have led to the publication of three books. These are referenced at the end of the blog post. His focus is on the Fleming family itself and, taking this week and last week’s post together, he addresses one of the key issues identified in the posting of 8 November 2013 (“Flemish Rooted Names in Scotland: the Key Issues”). The issue is one of whether the name Fleming was so renowned in medieval times that new Flemish immigrants to Scotland would not typically adopt it. F. Lawrence Fleming believes that the name would not normally have been adopted. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the St. Andrews Institute of Scottish Historical Research.

It has been seven or eight years since I learned from my Aunt Enloa in Nebraska that the progenitor of my particular line of American Flemings was an Irishman who arrived in America as a British infantryman in 1774, but switched sides in 1776 and fought against the British for five years. Upon learning this, I made a resolution. I would trace this Irish family of mine back to ancient Flanders, even if it took me the rest of my life.

It didn’t take that long, fortunately. In fact, it was not difficult at all once I decided to work from the other end; that is, to go to the oldest historical documents first, look for mention of people who might have been members of my ancestral family by virtue of bearing the Fleming surname, and then work my way forward in time from father to son, in order to see if they had belonged to a single family.

The original Fleming family of the British Isles is evident in charters and exchequer records from as early as 1086. I am far from the first to have noticed this. The British historian J. Horace Round noticed it in the 1890s. In 1866, Sir Bernard Burke, in his book titled A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire, wrote about the Flemings of Slane in Ireland. To quote him: “Archembald, a nobleman of Flanders, accompanied William the Conqueror to England, and acquired the manor and lordship of Bratton, in Devonshire, with other manors in that county and Cornwall, which he held in 1087. His son, Stephen Fitz-Archembald, Lord of Bratton, paid a fine of ten silver marcs to the King for trespass in 1139 and in 1145, he witnessed the charter of Henry de Tracy to the abbey of Barnstaple by the name of Stephen of Flanders. In 1165, his son, Archmbald of Flanders, returned as possessor of the family estates that he held de veteri feoffamento (by virtue of ancient grant). He attended Henry II in his invasion of Ireland.”

Concerning the lineage of the Earls of Wigtown in Scotland, Sir Bernard wrote in the same book that the Earls of Wigtown and the Lords Fleming of Scotland had common origin with the Flemings of Slane. To quote him again: “Sir Malcolm Fleming was sheriff of Dumbarton in the reign of King Alexander III. He was great grandson of a distinguished Flemish leader, Baldwin Flandrensis, who had a grant of the lands of Biggar from King David I, and was sheriff of Lanark in the reigns of Malcolm IV and William the Lion. Baldwin was a younger son of Stephen Flandrensis, or Stephen of Flanders.”

I surmised that all the people I had found recorded by the Fleming surname in charters and rolls of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries could indeed have been from the same family. I was very satisfied with this hypothesis. In order to trace my own family back to the ancient county of Flanders, all I had to do was to determine from where Archembald, the nobleman of Flanders, had come – surely an easy enough task.

But, as it turns out, Archembald the Fleming had not come from Flanders, but from Rouen in Normandy. However, a certain entry in the single surviving exchequer roll from the reign of Henry I indicates that King Henry and his court considered Archembald and his descendants to be closely related to the castellans of Saint-Omer. Saint-Omer was once part of the county of Flanders and so I thought that I now knew as much of my paternal ancestry as I would ever know, and I was content. My ancestral road back to Adam and Eve comes to an end when it comes to the father of Archembald, who, by the way, was also named Archembald. No one knows who the father of the father of Archembald was. But what does that matter? The tenth century is more than far enough back in time. I’ve heard that most of us are descended from Charlemagne in one way or another. Why, then, go to the trouble of proving it? Besides, I had come to ancient Flanders, which was the goal of my original resolution.

F. Lawrence Fleming
November 2013

F. Lawrence Fleming’s account of his genealogical search is continued in a second posting next week.He is a genealogist, family historian and author.


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

F. Lawrence Fleming, A Genealogy of the Ancient Flemings, (Paragon Publish, 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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