A brief history of the Fitzhugh family

This is a brief synopsis of a history written by the late Terrick V.H. FitzHugh and Henry A. Fitzhugh, PhD. Read more details about the full history.

The surname Fitzhugh derives from the prefix ‘fils du’, for ‘son of’ in Norman French, and Hugh, the first of our ancestors known to us. His son Richard Fitzhugh was the first of our line to choose to have a constant family surname, a custom that began in England in the 13th Century. Hugh was dead by the year 1223 AD, but Richard was then a tenant farmer at Beggary-cum-Goodwick in the County of Bedfordshire. He and the next four generations (Roger, Richard, William, and two brothers John and Richard) lived unnoted lives tilling the land and raising sheep until Tuesday, July 24, 1358, when John Fitzhugh, brother of our direct ancestor Richard, caught his young wife Elizabeth in flagrante with Richard Stocker, the son of a neighbour. Tempers flared, daggers were drawn, and both John and his servant were killed. It is possible to visit the exact spot where this occurred. Richard Stocker and Elizabeth escaped, and the manor eventually passed, after many legal difficulties, to our ancestor Richard. This is the first, but by no means the last, of the extra-legal activities of our family that are so useful to genealogists.

The 15th Century passed with our family doing well out of the legal profession, mostly legally. The first half of the 16th Century saw the family buying up Church property after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. By now the family were substantial property owners, and in the second half of the 16th Century they acquired even more by way of marriage. The family divided at this time into two branches, both descending from John Fitzhugh who died in 1579. The American Fitzhughs are descended from his son William (bpt 1570) and the English FitzHughs descend from Robert (bpt 1573). Technically, therefore, the American branch is the senior, and is certainly the more numerous.

The part of the family that was to become the English branch continued to inhabit the villages north of Bedford town, maintaining a string of manorial properties that was to become known as “the ancient inheritance of the Fitzhughs”. Meanwhile the others, who eventually became the American branch, moved into the town of Bedford. Both sides of the family got into extreme difficulties, which make sad reading and occupy many pages in the telling.

Robert Fitzhugh (of the “English” side) had great difficulty in marrying off his eldest daughter Mary. By the custom of the times, younger daughters could not marry before their older sisters, so as not to show them up for being left on the shelf. This was a serious problem for the whole family. Robert did eventually succeed in getting Mary married off to one William Astry without paying any cash dowry, offering a complicated land deal instead. When Astry discovered that Robert had actually paid a handsome dowry to marry off his younger daughter, Astry was understandably less than impressed. Both Robert and Astry were extremely difficult personalities, and it was not long before the family factions were on very bad terms with each other. Robert wanted to leave his property to his heirs of “the name and blood of Fitzhugh” and thus tried to cut Astry and Mary out of his inheritance. Robert died in 1609 blaspheming God on his deathbed and a dispute began over his Will, which resulted in 13 years of lawsuits through the highest courts of the land. Our side, that is to say not Astry’s, won the case twice, but were thwarted on the seventh appeal and retrial, even though Astry had died in the Fleet Prison. A family settlement was eventually reached that so impoverished the “winners” that they sold all the properties, and “the ancient inheritance of the Fitzhughs” was lost forever.

In the next generation, the English branch came within sixteen days of extinction, or of being surnamed Worsley to be more accurate, when one Robert married the object of his desires, a certain Ann Worsley, only sixteen days before the birth of the next ancestor. But for this late blossoming of affection, Worsley would have been the next registered birthname.

Meanwhile, the branch which was to become American were pursuing mercantile businesses of malting and others in Bedford. They rode higher and higher in Bedford society, with three family members becoming Burgesses and two becoming Mayor in the middle 17th Century. One of these two was Henry in 1649, who was also the father of William the Immigrant who went to Virginia Colony. Their turn for downfall came as a result of Henry’s borrowing an enormous amount of money on very short terms, which he was unable to repay. The author suspects, but cannot prove, that he was attempting to complete a river navigation scheme, from which he would have made a fortune. Instead, he was bankrupted and made penniless in 1658. He went to Ireland, to become the Clerk of the Powder Store in Cork, where he died in 1666.

It is likely that Henry’s tragedy compelled his son William to emigrate to Virginia. There he built up a fortune in land and property. So much has been written about him to need no repetition here. He did however have one more family disagreement, which resulted in the American branch using an incorrect coat of arms to this day. More is explained on this point below, and it is all fully laid out in the book “The History of the Fitzhugh Family” available elsewhere on this site, and also in an article by this author in the Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, Vol. 22, November 1984, Number 4, pp.3-11.

William the Immigrant married an eleven year old girl in Virginia, even though as recently as eight months earlier he had a wife in England named Elizabeth. Careful research shows that she died on the sea crossing, like many others before her. William married an eleven year old girl, Sarah Tucker, with whom he had an affectionate, loving, and respectful relationship for the rest of their lives. They had seven children, of whom four sons, Thomas, Henry, George, and John left descendants living today with the name Fitzhugh. With great reluctance, I end the narrative here, as it becomes too complex to trace the thousands of descendants known to us. Interested readers are advised to contact Charleen Oerding (hotomy@hevanet.com) and web links will be added from this site to any other descendants’ sites whenever notified to us.

Most of the important records of the family pre-1670s are in the National Archives, Kew, London, and Bedford & Luton County Record Office, Bedford, in England.

All of the above is expanded upon in a written history comprising some 500 pages from Hugh down to the present author, of which Henry Fitzhugh is the custodian and part author.

Anyone who believes themselves to be a member of the Fitzhugh Family of Virginia should contact Charleen Oerding [hotomy@hevanet.com] who keeps the Fitzhugh Database of some 35,000 names.

Other Fitzhugh families

In America, there is much confusion between our family (the Fitzhughs of Virginia) and another Fitzhugh family, who began to flourish in Maryland in the latter 17th Century. In all probability, they are more numerous than we. It has now been fairly conclusively shown that the Maryland Fitzhughs are not related to us at all (based on DNA testing ). The best source of information on the Maryland Fitzhughs are Harold Dean Davis (hddavis@ipa.net), 1300 Leon Street, Benton, Arkansas, 72015, or Bob Carney (rcarney@erols.com).

Another point of confusion is the John Fitzhugh mentioned in the Magna Carta. He is no relation to us or indeed to any Fitzhugh family. The English did not have fixed surnames at that time, and he is merely someone named John whose father’s name was Hugh.