Saturday, February 16, 2019

William Smith Bryan: A lesson in Fantastic 17th Century English/Irish Genealogy Sources

Sir Francis Bryan by Hans Holbien
I have been researching a man named William Smith Bryan, supposedly born in 1599 in Ireland who was deported by Cromwell in the mid-1600s during the Irish Rebellion. He is said to have been dropped off on the coast of Virginia with his family, belongings and the first horses in Virginia. His death is reported as sometime in 1667. Along the way I have been introduced to some 'new to me' sources for researching this period of time in England and Ireland. I thought I'd share them with you.

William Smith Bryan, (WSB) to be the son of Sir Francis Bryan #2, supposed son of the Sir Francis Bryan (1490-1550) English courtier and diplomat whose second wife was Joan Fitzgerald, widow and Irish heiress. They married in 1548 and he died under mysterious circumstances two years later. There is said to be little love lost between the pair whose marriage was one of strategic politics and had little to do with affairs of the heart. 

Houses of Parliament Online [1]
The William Smith Bryan ancestry claims that his father was a son of Sir Francis Bryan and possibly Joan Fitzgerald. Sir Francis Bryan married twice, his first wife was Penelope, daughter of Humphrey Spice. She died apparently childless sometime before Francis' marriage to Joan. According to his biography on the History of Parliament Online, Sir Francis Bryan was succeeded only by an unnamed illegitimate child. So here is our first great source on 17th century, and more important English personages. Here is their blurb about themselves:
This site contains all of the biographical, constituency and introductory survey articles published in The History of Parliament series. Work is still underway on checking and cleaning the data that has been transferred into the website from a number of sources, and the current version of the site is still provisional. In order to find out more about the articles produced by the History, click on the links in the 'Research' section above. Additional material - explanatory articles, and images of Members, Parliaments and elections - have been produced specially for the website, and can be found through the 'Explore' and 'Gallery' sections above. For more information on the History, see the About us section, follow us on Facebook and Twitter or read the HistoryOfParliament, Director and VictorianCommons blogs.
The History of Parliament online version is not yet finished, it covers members of Parliament from the year 1386 until modern times. The bios are brief but chock full of information.

What does this source tell us about Sir Francis Bryan #1 and his possible relationship to the father of Sir Francis Bryan of Ireland? Not much, it confirms that Sir Francis had a son, but he was illegitimate and unnamed.

Old Journal articles: Unpublished Geraldine Documents: The Earls of Desmond [2][3]
This is a small book, published in the 1800s, comprised of letters and other documents related to the Desmond Family. Included in this manuscript is a transcribed letter from Sir John Allen, Lord Chancellor to Ireland, to his brother, Thomas Allen. He sent instructions concerning the widow Joan Fitzgerald to the English Government. The letter describes a deathbed conversation between himself and Sir Francis Bryan. He claims Sir Francis said, "when he bade me farewell, he desired me to have him commended to all his friends in England, and especially he said to My Lord Privy Seal (Lord Cromwell), my Lord of Warwick and Mr. Herbert, and pray them to be good to my son, the poor boy, which my charge I commit to you to do, if you can attend to their presence to declare it." 

It seems clear that Sir Francis had a son. However, the need to recommend him to English nobles seems to confirm that he was not a legitimate son as he would inherit the estates of Sir Francis. To my mind this reads like the son would need the patronage of important men to help his career as his social standing based on birth was limited. 

Books in other languages: Odet de Selve [4]
Odet de Selve was a French politician/statesman who served in England 1546-1549 as Ambassador. he kept a journal which has been published. It is, of course, written in French. Thank goodness for Google Translator,  He wrote in September 1548:
Stratham, September 16th. - Selve received three days ago the dispatch that the admiral sent to him by the son of Sir Francis Bryan, who arrived safe and sound with and except with one of the people of Selve in London, from where he departed to go find his father. Earl of Bryant has for a short time been marrying an Irish citizen named the Comtesse de Ouarmont and is going to Ireland to party to see the good of his wife, but chiefly as I am sorry for the affairs of this king. 
Lesson learned, never overlook books in other languages! What this particular books tells us is that Sir Francis appears to have had a grown son, unnamed by Odet in 1548. He would likely to have been at least 21, so he could not have been a son of Joan Fitzgerald.

Wills, Probates, IPM [5][6]
Wills, probate records, and IPMs, (Inquisition Post Mortem) can add a lot to the genealogical record. The only problem with most of these 17th century wills is that they are either written in latin or if written in English they can be very difficult to read. No will has been found for Sir Francis Bryan and the disbursement of his land is unknown. I have seen mention made of Joan's will but have not seen the actual document or a transcription. This is a shame as it might have settle this dispute immediately or perhaps it would never had occurred in the first place. The one will I could find was for Margaret Brian, the mother of Sir Francis Bryan.

This will is written in English, but 17th century script is difficult to decipher, it's fun to try though, like putting a puzzle together. Margaret outlived all her children. She does not mention any grandchildren, not even a poor son of Francis.

A Wee bit O' Irish History
According to the story of WSB his father was Sir Francis Bryan #2. I have been unable to find any proof that this man was the son of Sir Francis #1, but that doesn't mean that he didn't exist. Let's look a litter closer at his story. According to his profile on both Wikitree and Geni, he was born in 1549 in County Clare in Ireland. Both websites agree he died in County Clare in 1640. Before I go on I have to same something about all these dates for births and deaths in the Bryan family. Did you notice, as I did, that everyone is born and dies on the 1st of June? This is a bright red flag that tells me someone is 'making this shit up', pardon my French.

Anyway, back to County Clare. Sir Francis #1 lived with his reluctant wife in Clonmel in Tipperary in the Province of Munster, a seat of power of the Earls of Ormond. Joan Fitzgerald's first husband was James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond and her son Piers was his heir. After the death of Sir Francis, Joan married her powerful cousin, Gerald Fitzgerald, the 15th Earl of Desmond. The Desmond family also controlled a huge swath of Munster. Joan's father was the 10th Earl of Desmond. Joan's life was firmly planted int the Desmond/Ormond lands of her father and her son.

County Clare, despite it's Norman name, was part of the Kingdom of Thomond and home to the powerful Irish family the O'Briens.  No child of Sir Francis Bryan #1 would have been born in County Clare. He would not have inherited land in County Clare as his mother would not have inherited land in what was if not enemy territory certainly adversarial.

Knighthood [7]
According to his bio Francis father of WSB was a knight. This claim should be pretty easy to sort out. I reference a set of book called The knights of England : a complete record from the earliest time to the present day of the knights of all the orders of chivalry in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of knights bachelors, and guess what, there is no Sir Francis Bryan other than Sir Francis Bryan #1.

Land Owners of County Clare [8] [9]
From the story of WSB we are told that he was a land holder in County Clare. He married Catherine Morgan and had a large family at the time of Cromwell's invasion in 1641. County Clare has an amazing library which has a significant amount of content available online. One of the database which is searchable is the Book of Forfeitures and Distributions. Here is an explanation of this database:
The Books of Survey and Distribution were compiled by the English government at the end of the 17th century to establish a reliable record of landowners in Ireland for the purpose of imposing rent (the Quit Rent). The Books incorporate information collected during earlier surveys – the Strafford, Civil and Down Surveys – detailing the names of proprietors who forfeited their land under the Cromwellian Settlement of 1641 and the amount and quality of land they held. The names of those to whom this land was granted, under various Acts between 1662 and 1703, is also given. 
Guess whose name is not found on this survey of land owners whose lands were confiscated by Cromwell. There is no Sir Francis Bryan and there is no William Smith Bryan or just plain William Bryan. If WSB held extensive land in County Clare in 1641 his name would be on this survey.

There is also a book called The Irish And Anglo-Irish Landed Gentry, When Cromwell Came to Ireland: Or, a Supplement to Irish Pedigrees. Surely if WSB held land in Ireland which he lost when Cromwell busted him to Virginia, his name would appear somewhere in the 792 pages of this books, alas he is not to be found.

No WSB can be found on The Down Survey for Ireland., nor is he mentioned in the 1641 Depositions. 

Reclaiming forfeited land [10]
Francis Bryan, son of WSB returned to Ireland to reclaim his fathers hereditary titles and lands. So far we have seen no such land but there are books and data on those who did make a claim to recover their confiscated estates. There is a book aptly named Lists of the Claims as they are Entered With the Trustees at Chichester House on College Green Dublin On or Before the 10th of August 1700. This is a list of over 3100 claimants to lost land. There is no William Smith or Francis Bryan on this list.

What's the big deal with Denmark?
WSB married Catherine Morgan in Denmark. Why? What was he doing in Denmark, what was she doing in Denmark? This is so weird.

Francis Bryan #3, son of WSB goes to Ireland to reclaim his father's land. Somehow he ends up in Denmark where he marries Sarah Brinker. FB#3 dies in Belfast? Does no one else think this is crazy?
I think the Denmark references are an attempt to make a connection to Morgan Bryan whose grandfather was Danish as per his son's American Revolution Pension Application.

WSB in Virginia
So, WSB is sent by Cromwell to Virginia. The Prince of Ireland is dropped off and that's it. No record of this man in Virginia exists. Why? I believe it's because he did not exist in the first place.


[1] Houses of Parliament Online

[2] Daniel MacCarthy, "Unpublished Geraldine Documents", The Journal of the Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1869), pp. 499-559, 570, 1-2 (86 pages).

[3]  Hans C. Hamilton, editor, Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Ireland, of the Reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elisabeth: Preserved in the Public Department of Her Majesty's Public Record Office. 1509 - 1573, Volume 1, (London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1860) 106.

[4] Odet de Selve, Correspondance politique de Odet de Selve, ambassadeur de France en Angleterre (1546-1549) (Paris: F. Alcan, 1888).

[5] London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section, Clerkenwell, London, England; Reference Number: MS 9172/2A; Will Number: 49

[6] John Kennedy,  A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex, (London: Phelp Brothers, 1894) p.344; transcription of her will.

[7] William Arthur Shaw, George Dames Burtchaell, The knights of England : a complete record from the earliest time to the present day of the knights of all the orders of chivalry in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of knights bachelors, Vol 2, (London, 1906).

[8] James Frost, The History and Topography of County Clare, (Dublin: Sealy, Byers and Walker, 1893.

[9] John O'Hart, The Irish And Anglo-Irish Landed Gentry, When Cromwell Came to Ireland: Or, a Supplement to Irish Pedigrees,(Dublin: James Duffy, 1892).

[10] Great Britain. Trustees for the Sale of the Forfeited Estates in Ireland, Patrick Campbell, and Joseph Ray. A List of the Claims As They Are Entred With the Trustees: At Chichester-House On College-Green Dublin, On Or Before the Tenth of August, 1700. Dublin:: Printed by Joseph Ray, and are to be sold by, 1701.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. And well done. Sir Francis Bryan seems to attract Bryan researchers like flies are attracted to honey. The lives of such well known historical figures are generally well documented, making fact checking relatively easy.

belleza said...

So WHO IS my 9th great-grandfather then?

Unknown said...

Our Ancestry follows this bloodline as well & both my daughter & my brother's DNA reports support this claim as they are fairly compatible, 49.6% English/Irish, French/German & Broadly Northwestern Europe. Apparently William Smith Bryan's bloodline followed through Ireland, England, France, Germany, & Scandinavian countries it is easy to see that it leads to royalty in several different countries.

Even though any documentation concerning the parentage of Francis Bryan II has apparently been destroyed to disinherit the titles & lands of his parentage. It was my understanding that it was Francis Bryan II who inherited lands from his mother's in Clare, Ireland. I realize there has not been any proof of Francis Bryan II's parentage, but Sir Francis Bryan I, was born June 1490 in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, England. He was the son of Sir Thomas Bryan & Lady Margaret Bourchier, daughter of Humphrey Bourchier. Francis Bryan I reportedly married Lady Joan Fitz-Gerald, Countess of Ormond, the widow of James Butler & daughter & heiress of James Fitz-Maurice Fitz-Gerald & Amy O'Brian in 1548 in Burkinghamshire, England. Francis Bryan II, was born June 11, 1549 in Clare, Ireland. Sir Francis Bryan I died February 02, 1550 at the age of 59 & he is buried in the Old St. Mary's Churchyard, at Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland.

If it was the English peers intention to disinherit future heirs of Ireland, it is easy to understand why there is no mention of Francis Bryan II in their records. Apparently Joan Fitz-Gerald hated the power & control of her husband, Francis Bryan I understandably & intended to marry her cousin prior to Francis Bryan I's marriage. It is conceivable that her family did not wish to share her legacy with Francis' son.

I must admit, I enjoyed reading & appreciate all your research.


Unknown said...

Hello Jeannie,

I found memorials in Bryans Island Cemetery, Goucester County, Virginia, USA. (A small family cemetery located on an island off Eagle Point Plantation. Accessible only by water, the cemetery is enclosed by a brick wall amidst a grove of Magnolia trees.)There are 10 memorials in all. Find a Grave Cemetery #2358438. Listed as Ann Smith, 1549-1635, Catherine Morgan Bryan, June 1603-June 1680, Francis Bryan II, 11 June 1640, & William Smith Bryan June 1579-June 1667. There are 6 other presumptive relatives in which I did not research. Note: I found two find a grave index, 1600s-current listings which are very similar, but have different gravesites: One is the Bryan Family Cemetery & the other listsAbingdon Episcopal Church Cemetery, White Marsh, Gloucester County, Virginia, USA.
I found a listing for William Smith Bryan in the U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index 1500s-1900s. He is listed as arriving in 1650, arrival place is listed as Virginia, USA under family members: is reads family, source publication # 9448. In the years from 1925 to 1942, Frederick A. virkus edited seven volumes with the title, The Abridged Compendium of American Genealogy, published in Chicago by the Institute of American Genealogy. Each volume has a section in the main body of the work, Virkus Frederick A., editor. Immigrant Ancestors: A list of 2,500 immigrants to America before 1750. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1964. 75 p. Repr. 1986 Source Citation Place: Virginia, Year: 1659, Page Number:16. I found this on To me, this alone proves the story is factual, as well as the burial cemetery information.

Robert said...

The Bryan Island Family Cemetery was the burial place of John Randolph Bryan and his family. John Randolph Bryan was born in Georgia in 1806 and died in 1887. He built his home, called the Eagle Point Plantation where he lived. The cemetery is on a small island nearby. There are only a handful of family graves which have been indexed. This cemetery did not exist before it was created by John Randolph Bryan. Just because it's on Findagrave, doesn't mean it's real.

The US and Canada Passenger Lists 1500-1900s are based on user input. There are not a definitive source and cannot be used to prove the existence of arrival of William Smith Bryan.

Unknown said...

I am also a descendant of Sir Francis Bryan and coincidently from Virginia. My father was Eugene Kelsey Wilson IV. I have the full family tree and can let anyone know - if interested- dates and descendants.

Anonymous said...

Thank you to those that share their knowledge.
I am fairly new tracing my ancestry.
I can trace my 9th great-grandfather back to William Smith Bryan, WSB, (1600 -1667). He married Catherine Morgan (1604-1680). Their son was John Bryan (1626-1687).
I would appreciate and information prior this. And If I have made an error in the above information, please correct me.

RBLamb said...

Thanks for your research and both posts on William Smith Bryan. When I got to him as possible ancestor, I too was puzzled by the lack of evidence. As a librarian, I get suspicious when someone is supposed to be famous, but doesn't show up in period sources. As a historian, my research focus is the intersection of myth and history--and this is a great example. So I have two areas of expertise, and both backing your research. Great job!

Dr. James said...

This cautionary research is well done and thank you for sharing with us and reminding us that proof is a very elusive thing. I find that the absence of records to prove anything is quite common and just because we do not have records of Bryan land holdings, knighthoods etc. does not mean they were never land owners or knights. My Father's war records went up in a fire as did my grandfather's and hence they never fought in the wars because no official records exist. And yet we have family letters, photographs, medals and so on to prove that they did. Regarding the Norway exile I think if a Cromwellian was about to skewer my cat flap I would be on the first ship out of Ireland regardless of its destination!

Anonymous said...

Jeannie, thank you for your relentless research on William Smith Bryan. I've always come to a standstill with my ancestor John Adam/Adam O'Brien. Many researchers place him in line with Cornelius Bryan, as father and Brian Bryan as great grandfather. I hesitate to go any further back with these individuals as noted in many research sites as being descendants of Sir Frances Bryan II and so on. My Adam O'Bien/OBryan/Bryan families have posted names without the "real" research and only by site from Ancestry, My Heritage, Geni, Family Search and so on with so much inaccuracy it's ludicrous. The O'Brien name is prevalent throughout Europe. However, when the Irish came to America they had to drop the "O" from their sir name. In those days the Irish were treated as bad as the slaves who came to America from Africa. The Irish were told by friends and family to drop their "O" to protect themselves from such fate. So, why would I want to add a "possible" descendant such as Francis Bryan II and his families when their name was already originally Bryan and not O'Brien/O'Bryan. It doesn't add up. Many records of families were destroyed in Ireland during the uprisings. Therefore I find it hard to believe when a distant cousin sends me records dating back to the "royals".

Dr. James said...

Jeannie has done a wonderful job in setting us off on a search for evidence to support a much published connection between WSB an the FBs. Jeannie's argument is that:
(a) No evidence for FB 1 having a son FB 2.
(b) No record of land for FB in Clare.
(c) Denmark enigma.
(d) No record of WSB in Va.
Hence WSB is the figment of someone's imagination.

I have examined the (b) issue and found that there is evidence in the confiscations and claims for return of land for a Francis O'Brien. In the same claims there is a mention for William Smith and a John Smith. I don't want to quibble but the spelling of Brien, O'Brien, Bryan in interchangeable. I am now looking to see what I can find about the William Smith being perhaps the father of an Ann Smith.
Regarding (d) there does seem to be land records for WSB in Va.

I am thinking that there might be a case to answer for conflating a Bryan (English) family with an O'Brien (Irish ) family.

Dr. James said...

Inrolments of the Adjudications" in favour of the (a.d.) 1649 Officers (formerly denominated " The '49 Lots ") :
Preserved in the Office of the Chief Remembrancer of the Exchequer, Dublin.—See Records of Ireland,Marked
<' 1821-1825," pp. 610-637.
Bryan, Francis

These are Royalists who rendered service to the cause for resisting Cromwell in Ireland and for which compensation
in money or land was provided for in the Charles II act of Settlement after the Restoration of
the monarchy circa 1670.

If I am reading this correctly then William Smith Bryan, who returned to Ireland to claim estates, may be
referring to his right as an hier to the land above. Francis and William Bryan are clearly mentioned and
the spelling Bryan distinguishes his claim from those of the native O'Briens.

A William Smith was a claimant:
2243 William Smith, Gent.
Estate for Lives.
By Deed dated the 9 February (81). Witness Hen. Hickman, & al.
Castles, Town, and 2 Plowlands called Cahirmoroghove and Cahirmore.
B. Clondiralae. Co. Clare.
Lord Clare
2244 William Smith, Gent.
Estate for Lives.
By Deed dated the 16 of February, (71). Witness John Harte, & al.
The Lands of Tullagover and Gower-Hast. B. Moyarta. Co. Clare.
Lord Clare

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