The Armstrong Family and its Possible Flemish Origins

Morvern French
Friday 19 September 2014

This is the second in a series of postings focusing on Scottish families that may have Flemish roots. In this posting Bob Armstrong explores the possibility of a Flemish origin for the Armstrong family. He identifies a number of apparent links between Flanders, Cumberland, Lincolnshire and Scotland that give credence to a Flemish origin for the Armstrongs. Evidence from Y-DNA analysis is also brought to bear on the issue.

Settlement in England

While there is no firm genealogical evidence linking the Armstrong family to Flanders there are some close linkages with other families that do appear to have clear Flemish roots. The most compelling can be discerned in northern England, specifically the Cumbrian region.

The earliest known record of the Armstrong surname can be found in a Cumbrian charter of the 1220s.[1] The first bearer of the epithet was named Adam and he lived in Ousby, once known as Ulvesby, near Penrith. ‘Adam Armstrang de Ulvesby’ and his kinsmen were forest officials and clerks in the county. Adam held a moiety (half share) in the village, either due to his being a blood relation of Patrick de Ulvesby, a major figure in the region, or as part of a dowry.[2]

In King Henry III’s time, William de Ulfsby (Ulvesby) and William de Percy are recorded as holding over three hundred acres of land in Torpenhow, Cumberland.[3] However research suggests that they may be the same individual. In 1196, a son of Adam de Ulvesby was recorded paying taxes in Bamburgh, Northumberland, a county where the Percies were dominant.[1] The earliest Percies were said to be of Norman stock; however the male line died out in the 12th century. The surname was adopted by Josceline de Louvain, a Fleming, when he wed Agnes, Baroness Percy.[5]

Records show that several villages that lay within three miles of Ousby had Flemish connections. Kirkland and Skirwith were both held by the Fleming family, while in 1159, Peter de Brus of Skelton, Yorkshire possessed Edenhall.[6] A branch of the Setons, thought to be Flemings, obtained holdings in neighbouring Gamblesby and Blencarn. Patrick de Ulvesby also had an interest in the latter village.[7]

Two villages that lie less than a dozen miles to the south of Ousby are also of interest because of their Flemish connection: King’s Meaburn and Mauld’s Meaburn. The twin hamlets occupied an area known anciently as Medburn. Hugh and Maud de Morville once held the villages, but Hugh’s involvement in Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170 led to him losing them. Hugh’s sister wed William de Veteripont, whose surname had Flemish origins (see below).

Mauld’s Meaburn seems to have taken its name from Maulde, Flanders which was held by Gerbod de Maulde in the 1050s. Beryl Platts, an expert on Flemings in Britain, believes that Maude Moolte was in fact Maud de Maulde, a daughter of Gerbod the Fleming, who became 1st Earl of Chester circa 1070.[8] Maulde lies five miles south of Wattripont, Flanders, the latter being the probable pre-Norman source of the Veteripont surname.

In 1203 King John granted the sheriffwick of Westmorland to Robert de Veteripont in perpetuity.[9] Flemings appear to have dominated the office of sheriff in both Cumberland and Westmorland during the 13th century. John Armestrang obtained an exemption from being made sheriff of Westmorland in 1271.[10] Alan Armestrang stepped into the breach in 1289, followed by Gilbert de Brunnelvesheved in 1290, Thomas de Hellebek in 1291, and Thomas de Hollebek in 1293.[11]

Interestingly, there is a Hellebecq located six miles west of Enghien, Flanders (Enghien/Engayne is a surname that appears frequently in 12th century Cumbrian documents). There is also a Hollebeke some dozen miles north-west of Lille, and nine miles from Bailleul. A John de Bailol (sic) was appointed Sheriff of Cumberland in 1248, while a village called Holobec (now Holbeach) is mentioned in the Domesday Book, close to Moulton, Lincolnshire (see Box 1).

The above evidence points to a concentration of people of Flemish origin in parts of northern England, with the “Armstrongs” linked closely to them.

Box 1: A Lincolnshire Connection?

As noted above the first substantive mention of the name Armstrong was found in Cumbria. However, there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the ancestors of the first Armstrongs had settled in Lincolnshire, perhaps as early as the 11th century, and that they were again in the company of a number of other Flemish origin families.

There was a history of Flemish movement from Lincolnshire to Cumberland during William Rufus’ reign (1087 – 1100). Professor Richard Sharpe, in his 2005 ‘Norman Rule in Cumbria’ lecture, believes that settlers from Spalding, Lincolnshire were among those sent by Rufus to colonise Carlisle (the Spalding surname is also thought to have Flemish roots).[12] Sharpe’s mention of Spalding is of interest to Armstrong researchers as it sits three miles from Moulton. Sir Thomas de Multon was a powerful Lincolnshire landowner who took his surname from the town. He became chief forester of Cumberland. The Armstrongs were employed in administering forest affairs in the county’s Inglewood Forest, so had close contact with the Multons. It is possible the Armstrongs were part of the Multons’ entourage when they departed from Lincolnshire.

A number of Flemings seem to have occupied the post of chief forester of Cumberland. Robert d’Estriviers and Randulph Engayne were two early holders. Estriviers appears to have been originally derived from Trivieres near Mons, Flanders, while the Engaynes may have originated in Enghien, fifteen miles north of Trivieres. The Morvilles, who reputedly came from near St. Omer in Flanders, held the office before it passed to the Multons.[13]

The Lincolnshire Multons’ close neighbours, Fulk and Lambert de Oiri of Whaplode, are mentioned in the Praestita Rolls as members of King John’s large Flemish contingent that campaigned in Ireland in 1210.[14] Lambert de Oiri was a parcener (joint heir) of Thomas de Multon in the Spalding area.

In the 14th century, Armstrongs inhabited Corby Glen, fifteen miles west of Spalding. A piece written in 1927 by Lincolnshire historian Arthur Abbott claimed the Armstrongs hailed from Tweeddale.[15] Lincoln was one of the few towns allowed to control the wool trade – a business traditionally dominated by Flemings. Bytham Castle, situated four miles south of Corby Glen, was held by Drogo de Beuvriere in 1086. Drogo was a Fleming, thought to have hailed from Labeauvriere, twenty miles west of Lille.[16] His surname is said to have evolved into Briwere or Brewer in later years.

The Armstrongs in Scotland

The first Armstrong recorded in Scotland is William Armstrang, in 1328 a burgess of Berwick, then part of Scotland.[17] The Armstrong surname can also be found in a 1376 document concerning one Alyxandir Armystrand of Mangerton in Roxburghshire.[18] The chronicler Froissart mentioned a knight by the name of Sir John Armstrong fighting for Douglas and the Scots at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.[19] In 1398 Alexandir Geffry and Davy Armstrang were named as ‘borrowis’ (pledges) for the Earl of Douglas.[20]

The most eminent Armstrong recorded in Scotland during the 14th century was Gilbert, canon of Aberdeen in 1343.[21] In 1363 he was given letters of safe conduct in order to study at Oxford University.[22] He also served as Steward to King David II, and was an ambassador of some renown.[23]

Gilbert Armstrong was a provost in the diocese of St Andrews, Fife, between 1362 and 1373. The bishop of St. Andrews during that period was William de Landallis. Saint-Brice-de-Landelles, Normandy is sometimes cited as the origin of the bishop’s surname. However Landelies near Trivieres, Flanders may be an earlier candidate, particularly as several figures of authority in St Andrews were of Flemish stock.

Elsewhere, a Freskums de Landeles of Roxburgh was named in the Ragman Roll.[24] Freskin is thought to have been a Flemish Christian name: the ‘kin’ suffix reputedly first appeared in late 12th century Flanders. A Robert de Landeles witnessed the document that saw Torpenhow, Cumberland, being willed to Robert de Stuteville – land which later passed to the Ulvesby/Percy family.[25]

The Armstrongs of the 16th and 17th centuries had a less savoury reputation than that of their ancestors. The practice of reiving (plundering goods and livestock) led to the clan’s power reaching its zenith in the 1520s. Countless documents are available naming many of the most notorious Armstrong border reivers and their kin. They also, however, built numerous peel towers in Dumfriesshire and Roxburghshire, an activity that supports the notion of the Armstrongs having Flemish blood in them as the Flemings were renowned castle builders.[26]

Heraldic evidence is also suggestive of an Armstrong-Flemish link. Two of the earliest memorials erected in honour of the 16th century Armstrong lairds of Mangerton and nearby Whithaugh, Roxburghshire, feature a chevron and three fusils.[27] Later Armstrong graves bore an embowed (bent) arm, or three embowed arms. Some branches of the Leith clan, believed by Platts to be of Flemish stock, had almost identical coats of arms to the Armstrong lairds.[28] Robert Leith of Overbarns, Aberdeenshire was one such case.[29] In 1343, Gilbert Armstrong received an income from the canonry of Mortlach, fifteen miles from Overbarns.[30] Overbarns skirts the perimeter of Whitehaugh Forest. The Armstrongs of Roxburghshire occupied the similarly named Whithaugh Tower.

Platts states that the Setons were relatives and close neighbours of the Edinburgh Leiths.[31] Two Seton brothers, both Brus adherents, were executed in 1306 during the period of Anglo-Scottish strife. As a result they lost their Cumbrian holdings near Ousby for their perceived treasonous behaviour. One of the brothers was Sir Christopher de Seton, a man of great stature who is said to have wielded a sword measuring nearly five feet in length.[32] A similar weapon adorns the Armstrong lairds’ memorials at Mangerton and Whithaugh.

Port Seton, a Seton holding, lies ten miles east of Leith. Four miles south of the port stands Ormiston. Author W. A. Armstrong named ‘Black Ormiston’, a Teviotdale Armstrong, as being implicated in the murder of Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Ormiston is thought to have sought refuge with the Armstrongs of Whithaugh following the killing.[33] Stodart’s Scottish Arms, 1370-1678 depicts one Philpe Ormestonn’s shield, which bears a striking resemblance to the Armstrong memorials.[34]

Some researchers believe that the Pennington and Mulcaster families were actually branches of the Percy family and therefore shared a common Flemish ancestor. Alicia, niece of John de Mulcaster of Cumberland, is mentioned in the Close Rolls of 1304.[35] She was the widow of Thomas de Soules, a member of the infamous Soules family who were Lords of Liddesdale until the 1320s.[36] Sir Robert de Brus held the lordship in 1332, followed by Sir Archibald Douglas in 1333. Liddesdale became the main Armstrong power-base in the 14th century and endured as such well into the 16th century.

The Multon family, once of Lincolnshire, held Egremont, Cumberland in the 13th century. Platts states that Egremont was named for the lords of Aigremont who were peers of Lille.[37] Platts describes a seal, belonging to the 1237 castellan of Lille, as showing ‘a shield vair, embellished in his case by a dexter arm’.[38] A key question here is whether this could be the source of the Armstrongs’ embowed arm emblem.

Box 2: DNA Analysis

DNA research appears to support some of the theories discussed above, although far more testing is required before any definitive claims can be made.
Armstrong mainstream Y-DNA falls under the large R1b haplogroup that encompasses much of Western Europe. In recent years, the Armstrongs were designated as R-P312**.

In 2013 Professor Jim Wilson, founder of BritainsDNA, discovered a new SNP (these form part of the male Y-DNA signature) called S389 that was relevant to the Armstrongs. The Armstrong mainstream was categorised as having its origins from among the Beaker Folk (c.2800-1800 BC). One of the areas that the Beaker Folk inhabited was Flanders.

Some other testees who also fall under the R-P312** umbrella include Gordon, Desharnais, Crosby, Clayborne and Kirkpatrick. The latter three are of interest as their names reflect locations in Cumbria and Dumfriesshire, close to areas heavily populated by Armstrongs during various periods in history. The Desharnais testee has 17th century links to a village on the outskirts of Lille.

A Ross testee matches some of the Armstrong mainstream Y-DNA group at a level that suggests a 99% likelihood of a shared common ancestor in the 1200s. It’s possible the Ross testee is a descendant of Piers de Ros (born c.1082), who once inhabited Drogo de Beuvriere’s Holderness stronghold.

Piers’ descendants had numerous links to the Percy, d’Albini, Stuteville, and Brus dynasties, whose activities impacted on the lives of the first Armstrongs. It may be that a descendant of Piers de Ros gained the epithet ‘Arm Strong’: the family were ardent jousters, so a nickname reflecting strength might be expected. Robert de Ros and Nicholas de Stuteville were among the Flemish knights named in the 1210 Prestita Roll.

In summary, many of the surnames explored above, found in Cumberland in the 12th and 13th centuries, mirrored place names found within twenty miles of Lille, Flanders. Strong links existed between the Flemish families in Lincolnshire, Cumberland and Scotland, with marital bonds (the Flemish law of nobilitas) protecting their shared heritage. While it cannot be conclusively proven at present that the Armstrongs had a Flemish progenitor, there is good circumstantial evidence to support this theory.

Bob Armstrong
September 2014

Bob Armstrong has been a co-administrator of FTDNA’s Armstrong Surname Group for the last seven years. His interest in genealogy began nearly forty years ago and he regularly writes research articles for the Armstrong Clan Association magazine.


Since this article was written, Y-DNA data and other analysis suggests that the Armstrong mainstream descent cluster descended from Bell Beaker or Pictish stock. The  Armstrong mainstream belong to haplogroup L624, which is found to be most common in north-east Scotland, particularly around Aberdeenshire.

In 2021, ancient Y-DNA remains from a site in Moray revealed that a male, who lived around 890 BCE, belonged to the L624 haplogroup. Evidence indicates that some of these people moved down the Great Glen Way into Argyllshire and beyond.

It would appear that the Armstrong links to Flemish folk in Cumbria was simply geographical, and via marriage.



[1] J. E. Prescott, The Register of the Priory of Wetherhal, charter nos. 183, 186, pp. 292-295.
[2] W. G. and R. G. Collingwood (eds), Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, N.S. 22, p. 46.
[3] William Hutchinson, The History of Cumberland and Some Places Adjacent, vol. 2 (1794), p. 353.
[4] Magnus Rotulus Pipe, Anno 1196, Ric. I, Burg of Baenburc.
[5] G. A. Brenan, History of the House of Percy, vol 1, p. 14.
[6] W. Farrer (ed.), Early Yorkshire Charters, vol. 2 (1915), p. 13.
[7] W. G. and R. G. Collinwood (eds.), Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, vol. 22, p. 66.
[8] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 2 (1985), p. 134.
[9] Calendar of Patent Rolls 4, John.
[10] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry III, vol. 6, 25th March 1271.
[11] List of Sheriffs of Carlisle, Cumberland and Westmorland. Photocopied at the Public Record Office, Kew.
[12] Richard Sharpe, ‘Norman Rule in Cumbria, 1092-1136’. Lecture delivered to Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society on 9th April 2005.
[13] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 2 (London, 1990), p. 109.
[14] Rotuli de Liberate Praestitis, King John, p. 225.
[15] Rev. Arthur Abbott, History of the Parishes of Irnham and Corby (1927), p. 93.
[16] Johan Verberckmoes, Flemish Tenants-in-Chief in Domesday England (1988), p. 727.
[17] Calendar of Inquisitions Micellaneous (Chancery), vol. 2, no. 1671, p. 411.
[18] Registrum Honoris de Morton, vol. 1, app no. 17, ‘Extentus Terrarum Vallis de Lydell, c1376’.
[19] Jean Froissart, Chronicles of England, France and Spain and adjoining Countries, book 3, chapter 124.
[20] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, Ric. II, Nov 6 1398, p. 512.
[21] Calendar of Entries Papal Registers: Papal Letters, vol. 3, 1342-1362, p. 79.
[22] Rotuli Scotiae, vol. 1, 877a-878b.
[23] Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, vol. 2, 1359-1379, pp. i-li.
[24] J. Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland, vol. 2, p. 200.
[25] W. Farrer and C.T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters, vol. 9 (1952), p. 125.
[26] Lise Hull, Britain’s Medieval Castles (2006), pp. 13, 19.
[27] R. R. Stodart, Scottish Arms, 1370-1678, vol. 2 (1881), p. 254.
[28] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 1 (1985), p. 166.
[29] Alexander Nisbet, A System of Heraldry, vol. 1 (1816), p. 213.
[30] Calendar of Entries Papal Registers: Papal Letters, vol. 3, 1342-1362, p. 79.
[31] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 1 (1985), pp. 172-4.
[32] George Seton, A History of the Family of Seton, vol. 2 (1896), p. 615.
[33] William A. Armstrong, The Armstrong Borderland (1986), p. 126.
[34] R. R. Stodart, Scottish Arms, 1370-1678, vol. 1 (1881), p. 21.
[35] Calendar of Close Rolls, 32 Edw. I.
[36] Thomas Cockburn-Hood, The House of Cockburn of That Ilk (1888), pp. 165-6.
[37] Beryl Platts, Scottish Hazard, vol. 1 (1985), p. 150.
[38] Ibid., p. 164.

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