This young Anglo-American was to become one of the most puzzling figures in twentieth-century genealogical history. His distinguished career included a series of pioneering studies of medieval and early modern families, particularly in the north of England, and the friendship of numerous famous genealogists, including the historian of Northamptonshire, Henry Isham Longden, and the American scholars Donald Lines Jacobus and George Andrews Moriarty. And yet, sometime between 1946 and 1950, something snapped. An outstanding career was compromised beyond recovery by a series of articles and books in which Washington claimed that he was a descendant many times over of the Stuart kings of Great Britain and the natural grandson of Napoleon III. For the rest of his life he published as prolifically as before, but increasingly in small, private press pamphlets as the learned journals which had previously published his scholarship stepped back from these fantastical claims.
Washington has always fascinated me and last summer I began to read my way through his impressively large oeuvre. Other projects interrupted and I never finished, so my plans for a serious article exploring his scholarship remain on the back burner, but I want to write a little about what I did discover and how that might help us understand this baffling man.
Washington began to study genealogy at Harrow, under the patronage of Isham Longden, whose fatherly regard he fondly remembered in an obituary written for the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1943. His published juvenilia, however, only consists of three novels which I have yet to read, though their titles – In Darkest Africa (1923), The Temple of Mystery (1924), and The Story of Old Egypt (1924) – may give some indication of their quality. When he first began publishing on genealogical subjects in 1937 his interests lay chiefly in his own ancestors: the wealthy planters of the Virginia Tidewater and their English forebears. He identified the English origin of William Claiborne, Secretary of the Virginia Colony, 1648-1660, and made a series of important discoveries concerning the Washington family in England, culminating in his seminal article on Amphyllis (Twigden) Washington, great-great-grandmother of the president.
In the 1940s he was a leading exponent of the new, “scientific” approach brought to genealogy by Horace Round, his friends Jacobus and Moriarty, and others, lamenting in a 1943 article that:
[I]n England itself, despite Freeman’s bitter tirades and Round’s scathing criticism, many of the same genealogical errors and absurdities are still being annually repeated thirty or forty years after they had originally been exposed.
On the surface the young Lee Washington seemed like a perfect leader for the mid-century genealogical establishment: precise and thoughtful in his methodology, aware of the larger historical stakes inherent in his research, and committed to sweeping away the cobwebs of sloppiness and fantasy that obscured so much Victorian genealogical writing. But a closer examination of his articles from these years reveals quirks which, in retrospect, seem to foretell things to come. Washington had a literary turn which sometimes manifested itself in purple prose dangerously close to historical fiction (echoing his juvenile novels?), such as when he wrote, in an essay on the marriage of Lawrence Washington and Amphyllis Twigden:
and we may imagine how Lawrence, the cultivated Oxford Don, would have been instantly attracted by the bright eyes of this Northamptonshire lady, whom he must have well remembered as a young girl at his mother’s house at Wicken or amid the stately pleasaunces of Althorp Park.
Perhaps saddest and most telling, however, was a throw-away comment in his greatest triumph, the article first identifying Amphyllis (Twigden) Washington:
Such a statement [that Amphyllis’s father and grandfather were yeomen], taken as it stands, might well suggest that Amphyllis Washington’s own relatives on her father’s side were both uninteresting and obscure . . .
Washington had been living in Cambridge when he began publishing, but as the second world war progressed he returned to America, living first in Washington, D.C. (1941-1942), perhaps with his family, and then in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was from this latter address that he penned an article which was published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register for July 1950 and entitled “The Royal Stuarts in America”. The dense, manic tone, replete with a plethora of vast footnotes, involved in-line citations, constant irrelevant references to literary works, and far too many exclamation marks reads like a parody of his earlier scholarship. The subject is the presence of three alleged descendants of Charles II in America: Captain Henry Crofts alias FitzRoy (died 1702 in Boston), J. F. D. Smyth (1747-1814), and Benedict Calvert (1724-1788). Smyth, Washington claimed, was the great-grandfather of Washington’s own grandmother, Kate (Lee) Washington.
He became obsessed with his supposed connection to the Stuarts, publishing multiple articles, additions, and corrections in the NEHGR during the following two years, now under the orotund moniker of “Charles Edward George Sydney Horace Laurence Cosimo Lee Washington, M.A., F.S.A., F.I.A.G.” By 1952 he was in the act of discarding his earlier Crofts-Smyth-Stuart pedigree, which he no longer believed was ancestral to his paternal grandmother, but rather to his mother. His father’s family was not entirely left out in the cold, however, for in July 1952 he published a claim that his great-great-grandmother, Margaret Stephens (1784-1869), was a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie!
Such mad assertions seem to have passed without too much comment in the rarified circles of the NEHGR, but in February 1953 Washington sought out a more mainstream audience, publishing a farrago of impenetrable genealogical fantasy in the British historical and literary journal Notes and Queries. But he had overreached himself. The Jacobite historian George Sherburn challenged his claims – particularly to have had access to private documents, collectively described as the “Roehenstart papers”, supposedly in Sherburn’s possession – and wrote in no uncertain terms that “Mr. Washington’s statements seem gravely misleading – practically unbelievable without some cogent evidence”. By 1957 the Jacobite antiquary Leo Berry had also written to the journal, pounding the final nail into Washington’s coffin:
I am satisfied that the “Roehenstart papers” mentioned by Mr. Washington have no existence at all. Mr. Tulloh-Hatchett kindly showed me in confidence the story which Mr. Washington now has. It does not even mention Roehenstart and cannot properly be used again to bolster up the romantic but most misleading fictions of Mr. Lee Washington.
Evidently the editors thought so too, noting “this correspondence must now cease” underneath Berry’s contribution. It marked the end of Washington’s reputation.
In 1960 Washington – who now had settled into the name “George S. H. L. Washington”, evidently a compromise between his birth name and his immensely long reinvention of the early 1950s – had returned to England and privately published a pamphlet in Cambridge entitled Prince Charlie and the Bonapartes. Now all the stops were pulled out and the convoluted pedigrees of bastard Stuarts rehearsed in his articles of the previous ten years paled in comparison to the baroque fantasy described there. His father, he wrote, was the natural son of Napoleon III and his mistress Marguerite Bellanger. Napoleon III was the same as Plantagenet-Harrison, the Victorian genealogist and fantasist, for whom Washington had always had a predilection, but the real (or, in his view, the fake) Plantagenet-Harrison was, in fact, Napoleon’s amanuensis, the Rev. William Jackson. Historical figures donned and discarded identities in a merry-go-round of speculation and invention. Unremarkably, given the previous incident surrounding the “Roehenstart papers”, Washington provided unimpeachable authorities for his Bonapartist origins:
Finally, to revert again to the late Princess Ytúrbide (née Marie Bonaparte of Paris): after her death in England on 11th May, 1940 I became her ultimate heir, and not only did I thereby acquire many precious family papers, portraits, etc., but also I grew vividly aware for the first time of our true family background – quite a shock for one who throughout his earlier career at Harrow, Princeton, and Cambridge had always clung to the good old American names of Washington and Lee!
Needless to say, no one other than Washington seems ever to have seen these “precious family papers”.
Although he continued to privately publish various pamphlets on both the Washingtons and the Stuarts, Washington faded into comparative obscurity after his first, prolific decade of myth-making. What I feel I haven’t fully grasped, though is why. Why did such a brilliant scholar suddenly devote himself to concocting fantasies? Perhaps the answer lies in his comment about Amphyllis Twigden’s supposed yeoman ancestors who were “both uninteresting and obscure” and in a telling quotation from John Maynard Keynes in one of his late articles. Keynes, reflecting on an early twentieth-century eugenicist’s claim that the Villiers family possessed disproportionate “hereditary ability” wrote:
What are we to conclude? Is it that all Englishmen would be found cousins within four generations if we could trace all our trees? Or is it true that certain small ‘connections’ have produced eminent characters out of all proportion to their size? It will be a very cautious and sceptical reader who does not leave this book [the eugenicist, Gunn’s, publication] with a bias for the latter conclusion.
These may be Keynes’s words, but the spirit, I think, is Washington’s. Disappointed with his own lack of relationship to his obsessions, the Stuarts and the Bonapartes, he not only invented one, but combined the two historic families into a single “small connection”, as far from the “uninteresting and obscure” ancestors of Amphyllis Twigden as he could get.
 The late William Addams Reitwiesner offered a characteristically trenchant, but in this case slightly inaccurate, summary of Washington’s career in the notes to his “Children and Descendants of George I, King of Great Britain”. In fact, Washington’s fantasies did not recur “every few years”, but only began to be published in 1950.
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “Rev. Henry Isham Longden, M.A., F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S., F.S.G.”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 97 (April 1943): 99-102.
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “The Origin of the Families of Greystoke and Dunbar”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 97 (July 1943): 239-240.
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “The Marriage of the Rev. Lawrence Washington and Amphyllis Twigden”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 97 (April 1943): 197.
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “Amphyllis Washington, 1602-1655, Her Ancestry and Family Connections”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 94 (July 1940): 252.
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “The Royal Stuarts in America”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 104 (July 1950): 173-176.
 John Ferdinand Smyth, later Smyth Stuart (1745-1814), though not an ancestor of Washington, was a perfectly real Stuart pretender of the early nineteenth century who invented a descent for himself from the Duke of Monmouth and wrote an astonishingly bad epic poem justifying his pretensions (see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.n.).
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “The Royal Stuarts in America”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 106 (July 1952): 235-237. In the same article he claimed to be related to both Horace Round and the Victorian fantasist Plantagenet-Harrison. It is remarkable that here and elsewhere the scholars whose work he discussed and used in his earlier writing appear transformed into actors in his genealogical dramas.
 S. H. Lee. Washington, “The Count of Roehenstart”, Notes and Queries 198 (February 1953): 71-75.
 George Sherburn, “The Count of Roehenstart”, Notes and Queries 198 (April 1953): 174.
 C. L. Berry, “Charles Edward, Count Roehenstart”, Notes and Queries 202 (June 1957): 257.
 George S. H. L. Washington, Prince Charlie and the Bonapartes (Cambridge, 1960).
 Bellanger was Napoleon’s mistress, true enough, but their only child was one Charles Leboeuf (1864-1941).
 Washington, Prince Charlie and the Bonapartes, xi-xii. The actual “Plantagenet-Harrison”, born George Henry Harrison in Yorkshire, had created a mythical past for himself not unlike that forged by Washington (see this, the only easily available biographical summary).
 Washington, Prince Charlies and the Bonapartes, xi.
 George Washington, “Family Knowledge in Genealogy”, Notes and Queries 12 (1965): 43-47.
 John Maynard Keynes, “The Great Villiers Connection”, in Essays in Biography (1951), 71, quoted in Washington, “Family Knowledge in Genealogy”, 47.
Copyright © 2013 Kelsey Jackson Williams