Friday, 3 November 2017

Out Of His Tree: Wilde About Oscar's Ancestry

Perhaps the most famous person imprisoned for a gay crime is Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). In 1895 he was given a prison sentence after bring found guilty of gross indecency. I don’t think there’s been a proper look in his many biographies at his ancestry, apart from his immediate family tree, so that’s what we’ll do today.
A lot is known about Oscar’s immediate ancestry. Both of his parents were well-known in their lifetimes. His father was Sir William Wilde (1815-1876), a prominent surgeon, having the position of Surgeon Occulist to the Queen in Ireland created specially for him by Queen Victoria. He was also a noted antiquarian and writer.

The Wilde family originate in County Durham, England. Ralph Wilde moved over to Ireland after he became the agent for Lord Mount Sandford at Castlerea in County Roscommon. He was Sir William’s grandfather.

Sir William’s wife, Oscar’s mother, was Jane Francisca Elgee (1826-1896) and her ancestry can be traced back in Ireland a bit further. Jane was also a writer. She wrote poetry and prose and established a reputation that rivalled her English female counterparts. She adopted the name Speranza, an Italianate-sounding name which she thought emphasised the Italian origin of the Elgee family. She was wrong about that.

The Elgee family actually came, like the Wilde’s, from County Durham. Several Elgee brothers went to Ireland as jobbing stonemasons and bricklayers in the construction boom in the 1730s. They flourished and became quite wealthy farmers. Rev. John Elgee (1753-1823), one of the children of these brothers entered the Protestant Church of Ireland and became Rector of Wexford and Archdeacon of Leighlin. He was Jane “Speranza” Wilde’s grandfather.

Jane’s other grandfather was also a clergyman, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, Vicar of Kildare. The Kingsburys were also an immigrant English family, originally from Dorset. Rev. Thomas’s father was an influential Dublin physician, also called Thomas, who was President of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. He was also a close friend of the famous writer Jonathan Swift.

Rev. John Elgee, mentioned above, married Jane Waddy (1751-1804), from yet another family who migrated from England. The Waddys originate in Yorkshire and went to Ireland in the 1600s during Oliver Cromwell’s vicious Irish campaigns and were granted Clougheast Castle, County Wexford, in recognition of their services.

Jane Waddy’s parents were Cadwallader Waddy, an Irish MP, and Ellinor Tench. The Tench family were one of County Wexford’s most important landed families. In genealogical terms Ellinor is referred to as a gateway ancestor because her ancestry takes us into more noble and royal families. The Tench’s of Bryanstown to which Ellinor belonged claim Norman ancestry. Again, they migrated to Ireland from England, though much earlier than the previously-named families. They were among the first wave of Anglo-Norman invaders in the 12th century. The Bryanstown estates were inherited by them in the 1500s through marriage to the heiress of the Bryan family after whom the estates were named.

One set of Oscar Wilde’s 4-times greatgrandparents were John Tench and his wife Elizabeth Cliffe. The Cliffe’s arrived in Ireland, yet again from England, at about the same time as the Waddys. Elizabeth’s father John was Secretary of War to Oliver Cromwell and came to Ireland in that tyrant’s merciless attack on Ireland. John settled in Ireland and married a well-connected girl called Eleanor Loftus (1641-1700), another gateway ancestor.

The Loftus family were more well-connected than the Tench’s. They were deeply involved in Irish politics with many members of the family serving in the Irish parliament. Eleanor Loftus’s father was an MP, her grandfather was Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and her great-grandfather was Most Rev. Adam Loftus (c.1533-1605), also Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who was Archbishop of Armagh. Before establishing themselves in the Irish Establishment the Loftus family were, yes, you guessed, English. Adam Loftus’s first connection with Ireland came in 1560 when he became chaplain in Ireland to the Earl of Sussex. He then became chaplain to the Bishop of Kildare and, before he was 29, was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh, less than 3 years after arriving in Ireland. What a meteoric rise! Among the Archbishop’s descendants are not only Oscar Wilde but Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Wellington, “Lord Voldemort” Ralph Fiennes (and his real-life nephew Hero Triffin, who played Tom Riddle in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), Sir Arthur Vicars and Eleanor Acheson.

It is the Archbishop’s son Sir Dudley Loftus, Oscar Wilde’s direct ancestor, who provides the link to royalty. He married Anne, the daughter of the Marshal of the Army in Ireland to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Nicholas Bagenal (1509-1591). He was a very colourful character. After fleeing to Ireland to escape a murder charge he befriended an Irish prince, the Earl of Tyrone, who obtained a royal pardon for him. Later in life Sir Nicholas was involved in a drunken punch-up with a rival for the post of Marshal. He was about 80 years old at the time. It is his wife, Eleanor Griffith, who provides Oscar Wilde with his royal blood. She is descended from King Edward III of England and his gay father King Edward II.

I’ll end with a ghost story (it’s not that long since Hallowe’en). Young Anne Tottenham, one of Oscar’s ancestral cousins, related through the Loftus, Cliffe and Tench families several times over, was living at Loftus Hall, County Wexford, in the 1770s. One stormy night a young man sought refuge at the hall and stayed a few days, becoming friendly with Anne. One evening while they were playing cards Anne reached down to pick up a card she had dropped. It was then that she saw the man had cloven hooves instead of feet. She screamed in horror and the young man shot straight up through the ceiling. Anne was in deep shock and refused to eat or drink and died a few days later. Legend had it that the hole in the ceiling could never be repaired and it reappeared again every time it was sealed.

I wonder if Oscar Wilde heard about this family legend and used parts of it to inspire his own ghost story “The Canterville Ghost”. After all, that story also has a supernatural stain that keeps returning.

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