On hearing an organ playing inside a church last Sunday as I strolled along Trumpington Street in Cambridge, England, I felt drawn inside to listen. It was Little Saint Mary’s Church which sits tightly between the Fitzwilliam Museum and Peterhouse College, and is as old as Peterhouse, the first Cambridge college.
The church was empty apart from a young man practicing at the keyboard in the organ loft. A clergyman appeared from a side door to check the lectern, and when he passed along the aisle I stopped him to ask about the church’s history. It was Anglo-Catholic, meaning its loyalty was stretched between Canterbury and Rome, and it had an interesting plaque on the wall. I had to check it out.
It commemorated a former vicar of the church, one Godfrey Washington of York (1670-1729) who, according the man in the black cassock, was the great uncle of George Washington. Yes, that George!
But what captured my attention was the coat of arms above the inscription. It was rendered in red five-pointed stars and stripes on a white background. When I checked the heraldic history at the House of Names I found it was indeed the family crest of the Washington family, who came to England with the Norman Conquest. [Check your own family emblem at houseofnames.com].
Was this the origin of the American flag we have today? The one whose origin was declared at the 2nd Continental Congress in 1777: “the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field …” Only the blue is absent from Washington’s coat of arms.
The history of the American flag is shrouded in mystery. There is an old story, often dismissed as fanciful or apocryphal, that George Washington sketched a design with stars and stripes for Betsy Ross, an upholsterer he knew, to make a cloth flag from it. Scholars argue about the authenticity of that homey story, but the similarity between Washington’s coat of arms and the Union flag is surely more than coincidence?
Next Post: Jean Purdy: Hidden Life of an IVF Pioneer