a brief history of the Fleming clan

My daughter started asking me questions about our family’s ancestors this evening. I don’t know much, but I told her what I know.
 
fleming_largeThe Fleming family name obviously originates in Flanders, a region that was at various times controlled by France, Spain and the Netherlands, but it got its start as part of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar called the region Gallia Belgica, including it as part of Gaul, and called its inhabitants Belgae.
 
As the Roman Empire went through its lengthy dissolution, Flanders was part of mainland Europe known colloquially as the Saxon Shore, mainly because it was frequently attacked by the Saxons from across the Channel in England.
 
It should come as no surprise, then, that when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, put the word out in 1066 that he wasn’t pleased with the ascension of Harold Godwinson to the throne of England following the death of King Edward and planned to invade England, the natives of Flanders – known as the Flemish – eagerly stepped up to support William’s initiative.
 
(William felt his claim to the throne was stronger than that of King Harald of Norway (Harald Hardrada). King Harold defeated King Harald’s army, killing Harald in the process, but Duke William subsequently defeated (and killed) King Harold, taking the throne of England for himself after the famous Battle of Hastings… but you probably already knew that.)
 
After William – now called the Conqueror instead of the Bastard – successfully consolidated power in England, he distributed land grants to his loyal followers, including the nobles from Flanders who helped him.
 
Henry II (Plantagenet), who was William’s great-grandson, invaded Ireland in 1171 to counteract moves being made by Richard de Clare, known as Richard Strongbow. Henry won the short war, but let Strongbow live and even granted him territory to help bring the other Irish nobles in line under his control.
 
When the Irish kingdom of Meath refused to submit, Henry II simply acknowledged their steadfastness and granted that territory to Hugh de Lacy, a prominent Norman noble. Baron Lacy spent the rest of his life (d. 1186) trying to gain military control of Meath in the name of the king. It depends on who you talk to as to how successful he was.
 
Now, you may wonder why I’ve taken this sideways spin into English-Irish history. Well, patient reader, here’s why you’ve stuck it out this long.

The Flemish, being the loyalists they were, answered Henry II’s call to arms for the invasion of Ireland. Their reward for their loyalty and lives was land grants across Ireland, and indeed, there are Flemings in nearly every county of that fine land to this day. However, my particular branch of the family was loyal to Baron Lacy and set about helping him attempt to pacify Meath.

Other branches of the Flemish clans stayed in England, and still others migrated to Scotland over the years. As the centuries progressed, Flanders became a center of European textile technology and manufacture, with Flemish weavers in high demand across the continent – and especially in England, Scotland and Ireland, leading to a wave of people named Fleming coming to England. Of course, they didn’t get the name Fleming until they got there, because once the King of England established the Poll Tax (a kind of income tax), everybody had to have a last name.

The Flemings loyal to Baron Lacy found themselves on the outs, royal-favor-wise, when they backed James II in his bid to unseat William (of William and Mary) in 1690, but by then the Flemings were well entrenched in Ireland.

It’s entirely possible that my branch of the Fleming family traces its roots back to one John Fleming, who attended a church rite in 1435 in Slane, County Meath, and signed his name spelled with one ‘m’ to an official document. This was not the normal spelling at the time, the common spelling having the distinctive ‘mm’ in the middle.
From what I remember from my Grandmother Fleming’s genealogical research, a number of Flemings fled Meath during the Potato Famine and settled in the Midwest, spanning from western Pennsylvania, through Ohio and on to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

It was at this point that my daughter – remember why I started telling this story in the first place? – declared that she is going to tell people she is “Ohirish with a little Mexican thrown in.” I told her I can live with that.

Now, besides me, you may have heard of a number of Flemings. My clansmen and women have made great contributions to the world. Here’s a rundown of Flemings You Should Know.

  • Peggy Fleming – figure skater who won Olympic gold in 1968, but perhaps most well-known as the object of Snoopy’s love from the late 1960s through the early 1970s
  • Ian Fleming – creator of James Bond. Duh.
  • Valentine Fleming – Ian’s father and a casualty of World War One; the major was a close friend of Winston Churchill and died as a result of German action at Gillemont Farm in May 1917. He was a Member of Parliament at the time, and Churchill wrote his obituary.
  • Alexander Fleming – Scottish scientist who discovered penicillin
  • Renée Fleming – opera singer (and a damn good one)
  • Thomas Fleming – the Archbishop of Dublin from 1623 until his death in 1655
  • Valerie Fleming – two-time Olympic gold-medal winner in the 2-person bobsled in 2006; she also earned 8 silver medals and 8 bronzes over the years
  • Richard Fleming – USMC/USN Captain, KIA in his Vindicator dive bomber in action against the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma during the Battle of Midway and subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor
  • Williamina Fleming – astronomer who discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888 (we claim her even though she married into the clan)
  • Lord David Fleming – a prominent Scottish judge and author of the Fleming Report, which led to public funding for elementary schools
  • John Fleming, the 2nd Lord Fleming – killed in a duel by a guy called Tweedie in 1524
  • Michael Anthony Fleming – a Franciscan monk born in Ireland who became the first Catholic bishop in Newfoundland
  • Dave Fleming – contender for rookie of the year for the Seattle Mariners in 1992
  • Victor Fleming – directed Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Joan of Arc, The Wizard of Oz and won an Oscar for Best Director for Gone With the Wind
  • Nancy Fleming – Miss America 1961
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