The Never-Ending Sir William Phips Saga

According to various apparently dodgy genealogical claims regarding William Phips (1651-1695), governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, he had 25 siblings. If this was the case, then why do abstracts of his will, dated 18 December 1693 and proved 29 January 1696, refer to only the following siblings: James, Mary, Margaret, Anne (deceased), and John (deceased)?

As notes in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register expressed it in 1884, Phips’s biographer Cotton Mather, the well-known church figure, wrote that William’s father James had 21 sons and 5 daughters, yet “Sir William mentions in his will but one brother and three sisters.”

A number of problems or potential problems can be seen with other genealogical claims which have persisted over several centuries regarding this William. Interesting and illuminating notes appeared in the April 1884 issue of the NEH&GR. Among the points raised in the notes is the statement that,

Sir William . . . was son of James Phips, a gunsmith, who came from Bristol, England, and settled near the Kennebec River.

Even just the statement that James worked as a gunsmith, as opposed to having merely gone through a gunsmith apprenticeship, might be suspect except that Stephen V. Grancsay, “The Craft of the Early American Gunsmith,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 2, October 1947, p. 61, does refer to a “doglock fowling piece” in the collection. The gun is dated 1663 and is signed “by the gunsmith James Phips of Kennebec River.”

The notes focus on the claim that Sir William Phips was the father of Sir Constantine Phipps, who was Lord Chancellor of Ireland 1710-1714 and grandfather of the first Baron Mulgrave. Those notes then continue by observing that, with regard to this claim,

Cotton Mather states that James had twenty-one sons and five daughters. Sir William mentions in his will but one brother and three sisters, and having no child adopts his wife’s nephew, afterward known as Spencer Phips, who lived and died in New England. Sir Egerton Brydges copied the statement from Archdall and incorporated it in his celebrated edition of Collins’s Peerage (1812), but having noticed later the Life of Sir William Phips by Cotton Mather, corrects the statement in an appendix, so far as Sir Constantine was concerned, by suggesting that Spencer Phips, the adopted son of Sir William, was the true ancestor of Lord Mulgrave. Debrett, in his annual Peerage, carried the original story for years, but finally left it out entirely. Burke substituted “cousin” for “father,” still keeping Sir William Phips for the “figure-head” of the family by saying he was cousin of Sir Constantine. Savage (1861) Vol. iii. p. 422, calls attention to the “preposterous fable,” and quotes “Smiles’s Self-Help, p. 169,” as a present example of its continuance. The Heraldic Journal (1865), Vol. i, pp. 154-5, contains a full and interesting account of this “popular error.” The latest promulgation of the old story which has come to my sight is in an elegant volume purchased by the Boston Athenaeum during 1881, “Picturesque Views of Seats of Noblemen, &c.,” by Rev. F. O. Morris (no date) but evidently a very recent publication, Vol. ii. pp. 11 to 12, with a view of Mulgrave Castle, the seat of the Marquis of Normanby.

The same notes continue by casting doubt on the claims of a connection to King James II. That is accomplished by bringing a certain James Graham into the picture:

This magnificent place was inherited by Constantine Phipps (a grandson of Sir Constantine previously mentioned) from his maternal grandmother, whose paternity was a question of historic doubt.

Catherine Sedley, created Countess of Dorchester for life, was the acknowledged mistress of James II.; the keeper of his privy purse, Col. James Graham, also had intimate relations with her. It happened that her daughter – Lady Catherine Darnley – bore an exact resemblance to his daughter, the Countess of Berkshire. Col. Graham was not inclined to deny the paternity, while the mother asserted that her daughter “need not be so proud, as she was not the King’s child, but Col. Graham’s.” (Jesse’s Lives of the Stuarts, Vol. iii, p. 508.)

Lady Catherine Darnley was married first to the Earl of Angleseyt, from whom she was divorced; she then married the Duke of Buckingham. From him she received Mulgrave Castle, and she gave it to Constantine Phipps, the son of her daughter by her first husband.

This Constantine Phipps was created Baron Mulgrave of the peerage of Ireland in 1768, but the titles have accumulated upon his descending line until the present head of the family is “Marquis of Normanby, Earl of Mulgrave, Viscount Normanby and Baron Mulgrave of Mulgrave, co. York, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom; Baron Mulgrave of New Ross, co. Wexford, in the Peerage of Ireland.” The armorial bearings are quarterings of those of James II.! and of Sir William Phips!

The exclamation points in the last sentence appear in the original article, as printed. We’ve noted amazing apparent connections involving armorial or heraldic bearings in past posts. The notes then continue by stating that,

Mr. Waters has found a father for a [“a” in italics] Constantine Phipps, and we hope the whole question of relationship to Sir William (if any existed) will be fully settled soon [Note: This was 1884.] Dr. Marshall in “The Genealogist,” Vol. vi., gave new material as to the marriages and children of the first Constantine. – J. C. J. BROWN.

From Hist. and Antiquities of Reading, by the Rev. Charles Coates, LL. B., London, 1802, p. 445, we learn that there was a tradition that Sir Constantine Phipps, the ancestor of the Mulgrave family, was born at Reading. – H. F. W.)


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