Thursday, 22 August 2013

Out of Their Trees - Florence Nightingale

There’s a lot of speculation about the sexuality of Florence Nightingale. Was she a closet lesbian? Was she asexual? She’s often high on the list of famous lgbts issued during LGBT History Month in the UK. I’m not going to concentrate on that aspect of her life today – that can wait for another time.

So what’s Florence Nightingale’s ancestry? It’s only a fluke of circumstance which led to her being called Florence Nightingale in the first place. She was born when her parents were travelling around Europe and they chose the city of Florence as the place they wanted their child to be born and named after (it’s a good job they didn’t choose Frankfurt!) Or course they didn’t know Florence would be a girl, and this was the first time the city’s name would be given to a girl. However, the common boy’s name Florens had been used in the Low Countries for centuries. It would not have sounded unusual if Florence Nightingale had been born a boy!

Florence’s father William wasn’t even born with the surname Nightingale, but Shore. In 1815 he inherited the estates of his cousin on condition that he adopted the Nightingale surname.

A lot of Florence’s immediate ancestry is covered in many of her biographies so I needn’t repeat it here, except to point out that her aunt married into the Bonham-Carter family and became the great-great-grandmother of actress Helena, making her one of Florence’s closest living relations.

Most of Florence’s ancestors were from Derbyshire and the surrounding area. The Nightingales came from Lea near Ashover, Derbyshire, where Florence spent her final years, and the Shores came from Sheffield at the northern end of the Peak District. But I want to concentrate on the ancestors of Florence’s great-grandmother Mrs. Anne Evans. She was the daughter and heir of Peter Nightingale, through whom Florence acquired her surname and home.

Anne was married to George Evans (1726-1808) of Cromford and Matlock, Derbyshire. Even though the name sounds more Welsh than English the Evans’s had lived in Derbyshire for many generations. George’s grandmother, Mrs. Hannah Evans (née Fern), could trace her ancestry back to the bow-bearer of King Henry V. In the Tudor period one of her ancestral uncles lived at Temple Belwood in Lincolnshire, just a couple of miles from where I was brought up, and became ancestor of Prince George of Cambridge (through Diana Spencer).

George Evans’s mother was Mrs. Rebecca Evans (née Gell). The Gells were another big Derbyshire family and had lead mining interests throughout the Peak District. I got a big surprise a couple of years ago when I was tracing my friend/partner Mark’s ancestry. The name Gell appeared. Could Mark be related to Florence Nightingale I wondered? Yes, he was, I found. Mark’s mother is descended from Rebecca’s sister Anne. It was the first famous name I’d found in Mark’s family tree and I discovered it, quite literally, the night before I was going to meet his parents for the first time. What a surprising bit on news I had to tell them!

Further research has found that the Gells were descended from the unfortunate Sir John de Blackwell. In 1308 the knight was attending the king’s coronation. The crowds were enthusiastic because it was the crowning of a popular prince. Unfortunately the crowds were quite lively and poor Sir John got trampled to death.

The coronation in question was that of King Edward II. This person was also significant in the ancestries of myself and Mark, as explained last year, and for Nottingham Castle. King Edward II loved Nottingham Castle and went there a lot. I am descended from him. Edward’s lover, Piers Gaveston, was appointed Constable of Nottingham Castle, and Mark is descended from him. At Edward’s coronation he paid more attention to Piers than he did his new 12-year-old wife Isabella. It wasn’t a very good start to the marriage, and it ended with King Edward being deposed and Piers being beheaded.

It would have been perfect to find a long line of doctors, nurses and medical men in Florence Nightingale’s ancestry, but, alas, there isn’t. So instead let’s return to Nottingham Castle. Florence has 2 lines of descent from the Beresford family. Through several female lines they are descended from William de Peverel, a Norman knight who may have fought at the Battle of Hastings. In 1068 he was appointed as the first Constable of Nottingham Castle.

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