From Wessington to Washington

George Washington painting

The first President of the United States, George Washington's origins start right here, in Washington Village.

While George's story is well known, there may be some aspects of his journey that could come as a surprise.

Such as, it's right here in the village of Washington where the family name ‘Washington’ actually began. That's right, many centuries ago If history had chosen a different path he could have been named George Hertburn.

In what was the ancient County Palatine of Durham and dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, the name – now synonymous with the first President of the United States - has been spelt Wessynton, Whessingtun and Wassington. 

It is now commonly known and spelt as Washington – even if some locals pronounce it Weshintun.

The origins of the 'Washington' name

Around 1180, William de Hertburn, a tenant of the Bishop of Durham Hugh le Puiset exchanged his holding near Stockton for that of Washington. 

The Bishop was reorganising his estates and needed Hertburn to consolidate his lands in that part of the Bishopric, or district. 

Washington, other than for the land belonging to the church, was untenanted and, therefore, available to William. With Washington now his new home and as custom dictated, William assumed “de Wessyngton” as his new surname.

How does this link with Washington Old Hall?

The house, or Washington Old Hall, incorporates a large portion of a medieval manor which was home to the Washington family. 

Whether William built himself a new manor house or moved into an existing one is unknown. 

The earliest parts of this building date back to the mid-13th century - a time when there was relative peace on the Anglo-Scottish border and funds were available from the marriages of successive Washingtons to wealthy widows.

Parts of it remain. The most obvious being the pointed arches at the west end of the Great Hall, which could have been part of a screen passage arrangement connecting the hall with the kitchens.

The branch that produced George Washington came from the marriage in 1292 of Robert Washington, great, great grandson of the first Washington, to Joan de Strickland of Sizergh Castle in Cumbria.

In September 1304, Edward I visited Washington on a return journey from Scotland cementing the family’s status during the medieval period. 

Soon after, the family adopted a new coat of arms which was in use by 1346. 

The arms featured two bars (stripes) and three mullets (stars) in red against a white background and remains of this appear to be carved in stone on the west front of Hylton Castle, three miles from Washington Old Hall.

The senior branch of the Washington family continued to live at Washington until the death of William in 1399. 

His heir was his only child, Eleanor, who before 1402 had married Sir William Tempest of Studley Royal in Yorkshire. 

Through the marriage of their daughter Dionisia, Washington came into the hands of the Mallory family.

Washington Old Hall is open every day from 10am and you can visit The Washinton Room to explore George Washington's past as well as see some rare collection pieces.