Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Vaughan Family Crest: No, We're Not Really from Slytherin


Sigh. I've been waiting for someone to ask, but since no one has I'll go ahead and answer anyway. The unarticulated question is, why do I have a picture of a boy with a snake around his neck as my profile pic? It is a legitimate symbol of heraldry belonging to some of my ancestors bearing my surname - Vaughan. That's the old anglicized spelling of the original Welsh "Fychan" roughly sounding like "Vaughan" but with two clear syllables and sort of a throat-clearing in the middle. (Which makes me feel a little better about my Little League coach referring to me as "VAH-gun" all that season. Maybe he was Welsh?) My people dropped the second "a" or maybe it was forced on them at Castle Garden, New York, when they arrived in this country in 1886.

I know that anybody can go to that kiosk in the mall and buy a family crest. But it's taken me 25 years and a trip to Britain to figure this one out. I also know that even if one can prove direct descent from a noble family, that does not mean one may have the right to use the coat-of-arms. My family fell out of the gentry many generations ago and I don't think we're getting back in. There is only one branch of the family, the Vaughans of Courtfield, near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire who still claim this descent from nobility. They've also produced a Bishop or two and even a Cardinal as the Catholic branch of the family. I renounce any claims to ancestral properties and as I do not claim any actual title, I do not run afoul of Art. I, Sec. 9, clause 8 of the US Constitution prohibiting such in this free land of opportunity. Oh, and as I do have permission of the actual artist who designed this version as explained below, I'm just going to go ahead and use it.

Maybe it's the snake thing. My wife thinks it's disgusting and I'm not sure she would have married me had she known she was marrying into a reptilian family. And the funny part is, there is no solid history or consensus on what the symbol means and how it came about.

There are basically three versions. The most entertaining is that it represents the story of a Welsh infant prince who was set out in the garden to eat his breakfast bowl of bread and milk. When the nurse came back to him, she found a snake (a poisonous adder) wrapped around his neck which the infant then killed. He grew up to be a great warrior king, Moreiddig Warwyn, and prided himself with the reminder of the Hercules-like story by adopting the snake as the family symbol.

Another, and sounding the most likely, is that it represents the noble prince who was actually born with the cord around his neck and survived. There is a variation that the cord around his neck was the result of his mother being bitten by an adder and that the child had a birthmark like a snake bite. And the strangest, for which I haven't found any really good explanation, is that it represents a group of  Saxon boys being strangled or beheaded - the usual appearance is in a group of three heads. Why the ancient Brits would have done their strangling with a snake and not a regular rope is not at all clear.

Solid history is that it first appeared as a family crest armorial symbol when knighthood was granted to Roger Vaughan (abt. 1383-1415) who claimed descent from Moreiddig Warwyn. He won his title, even if unfortunately awarded posthumously, when he died on the Field of Agincourt defending the King, Henry V. Last summer, we visited Sir Roger's effigy monument in the little, ancient Church of St. Andrew, Bredwardine, Herefordshire, on the banks of the River Wye.

Three descendants of Sir Roger, August 2010
Sir Roger, whose name in Welsh was "Rhossier Fychan," married the lovely Lady Gwladys daughter of David (Daffyd) Gam who was actually named in Shakespeare's Henry V, Act IV, Scene 8, line 2813, as one who died at Agincourt, presumably along with his son-in-law who was somehow missed by the Bard.

The history of these Vaughans can get rather complex. And I should probably point out, while this is a Welsh family originating in the ancient kingdom of Brycheiniog (later Breconshire now part of Powys), the Welsh Vaughans obtained their titles, lands and wealth through alliance with the English Norman Royal Families, sometimes at the expense of their Welsh people (likely including the horrible slaughter of the Welsh attacking Painscastle (1196) after it was held by the alleged witch, Matilda or Maud de Braose, wife of William de Braose). Some also lost their heads being on ultimately the wrong side (Yorkists) in the War of Roses.

Sir Roger is credited as the originator of the Vaughan surname that is fairly prevalent in the Valleys of the Wye and Usk in southeastern Wales. As the histories say, most Vaughans in the area claim descent from Sir Roger. I have a direct descent, thanks to a cousin with the research, that goes up through the Rices, Morgans, etc. to a daughter of Sir Roger. We have not linked our surname in direct line back to Sir Roger, but we are getting closer. The problem is the origin we have for our surname is from an illegitimate birth in Hay, Breconshire, in 1789. The mother was a Vaughan and we now think she came from Glasbury, just west of Hay. And those Vaughans possibly tie into the Vaughans of  nearby Porthamel, Talgarth, and ultimately Tretower and a son of Sir Roger, also named Roger Vaughan.

One of the greatest experiences of my family history work was to visit Tretower Court and Castle, now under the control of Cadw, the national historic trust of Wales, as a public attraction. It is located a little north of Abergavenny, Wales, on one of the routes to the Wye Valley. We saw the first real depiction of the Vaughan crest arms on a monument stone in the courtyard for a Charles Vaughan of the 18th Century. I knew the manor house had been recently renovated. Yet I was not prepared when I entered the Great Hall and saw the amazing, recreated wall hangings depicting the 15th Century history of the Vaughans. My wife and I sat at the Lord and Lady's places at the banquet table, my wife not nearly as enthused as I was (probably the snake thing).

The Vaughans return to the ancestral estate at Tretower

After returning home, I contacted Cadw by email and asked for more information, even a print if I could get one of those wonderful pictures at Tretower. A historian connected me with the artist commissioned for the work, Tony Barton, who was willing to share some digital pictures, designs and explanations for the various pictures. I was very grateful.

Temple work has been done for Sir Roger and Lady Gwladys. Of course with likely thousands of descendants, it was done dozens of times before new.familysearch arrived to help us consolidate records. My concentration is to find those lost individuals and family groups connected to my family origins in that beautiful, green valley along the banks of the Wye. I've found a few. There's a lot more work to be done.

ADDENDUM OF MAY 10, 2011
I meant to include a paragraph on what "Vaughan" or better, "Fychan" means in Welsh. A literal translation might be "little" but it relates to the word "bychan" for "calf." And the word is used to designate a son by the same name as the father, meaning "the younger" or "junior." So, for instance, Roger Vaughan's father was also named Roger. Actually, it was Roger (or Rhossier) Hen. "Hen" being the word for "the elder" or father. So, his son also named Roger, would go by Roger Vaughan in the anglicized form. Interestingly, Roger Vaughan had a son also named Roger. So his name was Roger ap Roger Fychan (Vaughan). The "ap" is used in Welsh genealogical tables meaning "the son of." And after that "Vaughan" stuck as a surname for my people. There are a lot of other Vaughan families out of Wales as the "Junior" name was fairly common.

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And if anyone wants to read more about the Vaughan Family, you can check out our Family History Blog at: johnelinorvaughn.blogspot.com.

19 comments:

  1. Vaughan with an a? Never mind Sir Roger (after all, the Thaons crossed the channel with Guillaume le Conquerant)but, if your family is, by some slim chance, related to Stevie Ray (of "Pride and Joy" fame)I will stay impressed forever.

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  2. Vaughan with an a looks as wrong as Utahan with an a!

    I laughed when I saw your picture but just assumed it was how you felt sometimes when you looked at the political issues you follow. Nice to know the rest of the story.

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  3. More seriously, reading this post made me think what huge investment in time and work you have put in researching your Vaughn line. Where do you find the time, with work, family, church jobs? Granted I haven't even scratched the surface, but I have found genealogy to be time-consuming and maddeningly frustrating.

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  4. @anonymous

    I have been working on this line over 25 years. I am currently blessed to live close enough to the FHL in Salt Lake. Anybody can go there and get all kinds of help (you need to find the real experts behind the counter, though. Some of the couple missionaries, well ...) I spend a lot of federal holidays there. I used to take kids down to youth symphony practice and I would spend the time waiting in the library.

    But the real secret to family history success is to collaborate. I connected up with my dad's cousin by family connection and a very distant cousin by email on familysearch.com. We share info, check each other's work and theories, etc.

    You can also find an awful lot on-line these days. And even connect up with histories already done (that you still should check out independently)

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  5. I always learn a lot of good, solid information from your post and they make me laugh. The bit about your Little League coach brought back memories of the Junior High teacher who, when calling the roll, always insisted on pronouncing my name Taon (the "th" in French is a "t", not a dyphthong)so, instead of calling for Mademoiselle "Tah-an" (the correct pronounciation, two syllables), she was inquiring if Miss Horsefly was there.

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  6. Your story and travels are very interesting. You are so lucky and so am I. I'm also grateful for your hard work and the info on our past. Ok, Maybe my past. I know I'm from the Welsh Vaughns and trying to learn more. My mother did a great deal of work on her side but didn't have time for my dads side of the family. Thanks for enlightening me!

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    1. Thanks! Good to hear from a distant Welsh cousin, Alan! I have a son named Alan! Best of everything to you!

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  7. I am also related to the Vaughans of Tretower. My grandfather, William P. Vaughn had genetic testing done before he died a few years ago and was found to be a genetic match to the direct genealogy within the 99% percentile. How I wish we could visit. My Aunt has done so much research on it. Hello family. :)

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  8. Oh how envious I am you have been able to get so far. I am a Vaughan descendant but I don't have much information to go, specially when my family has a bad habit of changing nationalities every other generation. I've no connection to my dad's family and the only thing I have are names but as I know of where they were born I'm not sure my dad's grandfather's name was written correctly. Specially since he was (as to what I've heard and the only thing they could understand) that he came from Great Britain, from where? I don't know and wish I could get more info., but that seems almost like an impossibility now. But I do appreciate hearing this part of the history of the Vaughan family name. Thank You!

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    1. Thanks. I just posted a new piece on slight developments. It's very slow work.

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    2. yes, I know its slow work.. I've been at it for 24 years and I've not gotten much done until AFTER I read your story. I've just made so much advancement that now I have the correct name and I even got one more person behind him. but no dates, so very hard to find in the british records. I am happy thought that in a weird and strange sort of way you've helped me find a way to get the information I needed to then proceed on the british side (again, w/o dates).

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  9. I have a question. As a Vaughan myself(young and just looking into my family history), I am curious as to why there is so much discrepancy in the different coat of arms? Any insight and tips would be greatly appreciated.

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    1. I'm certainly no expert as an American, but I understand that Vaughan is a fairly common name from Wales. As explained above, it was common in family pedigrees meaning "the lesser" "younger" or "junior" of a father of the same name. And because it was the families of the gentry that kept those pedigrees, we would expect the various families of Vaughan (Fychan) to have armorials.

      I am only a pretender, but from the history I've gathered I've got as much right as anyone to the armorial of the ancient Vaughans of the Wye and Usk Valleys.

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    2. The reason for the discrepancy is because armorials are issued to a person not a family. So the armorial may change from person to person and only keep a piece from the other or nothing at all. I've studied (on my own of course) heraldry and while there is a way of reading it that will tell you insights as to the lineage of the family name(as in where it comes from either by marriage or whatever) today, most of the armories say nothing about its past really. The only ones that have some meaning are those old and ancient armories (especially the royals) that have not changed or barely changed through time.

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  10. May i consult with you for some ideas unto tracing back my branch of the vaughan's? I have 2 names but no dates and i'm baffled as to how to proceed. I know they came from great britain in nicaragua they always say england. But they did say they owned land and farms there. How do i go about finding the right one on the internet (that's about the only thing i have available to me in Fl. Tks. In advance for any guidance you can offer.

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    1. You could try a trial subscription on ancestry.com and do some research quickly. It's rather expensive to sign up. And, if your Fl. means Florida, there has got to be an branch LDS Family History Library not too far away.The libraries have a subscription to ancestry.com and many other sites that you can use for free on their computers. Also, they have specialists that may be able to help you and even access microfilm from the main library at a small fee. check this site:
      https://familysearch.org/locations/centerlocator?c=florida (you have to cut and paste the url on google blogger).

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  11. Hi, since we last spoke on june 14th, I had advancements on my family tree research, and in sept. I'll be able to go to LDS for a correction and further research, but wanted to find out how have you been able to find an ancestor from GB when you barely have any info?... In my case I have 3 names all From GB, but when I looked on the website of the LDS it lists so many that I don't know which one it is... I don't have birth dates and I don't have a way of finding out how they made it to Nicaragua. What can you suggest I try to do as far as research is concerned?

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    1. It wasn't me who did all the research, so I will speak for all. We knew where our family had come from so we went to the records on England in the library and followed the Census from 1881 and every ten years back to 1841. From 1851 forward, the census tells where the people were born and then we could go to the Church of England records for christening, marriages and burials. The church and census records are on microfilm, physically in Salt Lake City, but you can order them for a fee. - some are being converted to digital forms available on-line. Ancestry.com has census info on line to search and view for a fee. But at the LDS family history library, you can see it on their subscription without subscribing yourself. The British civil registry for births, deaths, marriages started in 1838, I think, and there are ways to search that on-line, but then you have to order the official record from the UK National Archives in Kew, near London. The consultants at the LDS library should be able to help target your particular search when you arrive.

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  12. I'm a Vaughan with the extra "a" and I think the Vaughn without the "a" just looks incomplete. I'm from the Vaughan's in FL, and we've got a few historic scandals I'm trying to substantiate, if anyone knows anything about a Singer sewing machine warehouse, a fire, and a trip to South America...

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Comments are welcome. Feel free to disagree as many do. You can even be passionate (in moderation). Comments that contain offensive language, too many caps, conspiracy theories, gratuitous Mormon bashing, personal attacks on others who comment, or commercial solicitations- I send to spam. This is a troll-free zone. Charity always!