By J. L. Starkey
“If Heaven had looked upon riches to be a valuable thing, it would not have given them to such a scoundrel.”– Jonathan Swift
I didn’t set out to research 500 years of Digges’ family history, but that’s how things turned out, thanks to Gustave Anjou.
If you’re in the genealogy community, you’re probably familiar with Anjou’s “body of work,” if it can be referred to as such. The fraudulent genealogist made a mess of things for the Lilly family, among others . If you find a surname on Anjou’s list, well…ya got trouble.
Yep…right here in Pennsylvania. (Or Maryland, according to John Digges.)
Because of Anjou’s deception, FAN club research is crucial for Lilly family researchers. But things can get complicated, and there are rabbit holes everywhere. Just this month, I discovered a rabbit hole that turned out to be a castle!
That’s right – the Digges family had their very own castle.
It seems that Dudley’s father wasn’t always broke and desperate. In fact, John Digges was born into a wealthy family – a very wealthy one.
The petty nobleman who couldn’t follow rules or even read a simple map descended from from a long line of leaders, legislators, academics, and explorers. His family tree was so full of wealth and power that it looked like a game of “To Tell the Truth: Ancestors Edition.”
With that in mind, please welcome…
Ancestor #1: The Governor’s Stepson-in-Law
Depending on which theory you believe, John Digges was either the son or grandson of Maryland Governor William Digges, who was born in Colonial Virginia around 1650 . William’s marriage to Lord Baltimore’s stepdaughter Elizabeth Sewall was called an “advantageous” union, and soon after the wedding, William was appointed Deputy Governor of Maryland . Life was successful and prosperous for William, who would later be known as the Lord of Warburton Manor . A historical marker notes that William’s descendants were “the most intimate friends” with George and Martha Washington, and that Washington even celebrated his forty-third birthday at the Manor.
William lived a life of privilege and wealth, and he probably had his father to thank for that. Though that man was known to others as Edward Digges, here we refer to him as:
Ancestor #2: The Silk-Farmer-Turned-Governor
Born at Kent, England’s Chilham Castle in 1620, Edward Digges was the youngest son of Sir Dudley Digges and Mary Kempe. A shrewd businessman, Edward knew that his options were limited in England. As a youngest son, he would inherit no property from his father’s estate, and around 1650, he decided to improve his prospects for the future.
Shortly after he married Elizabeth Page, Edward immigrated to Colonial Virginia. By 1653, he had patented over 4000 acres of land in York and Gloucester Counties .
Were those early years plagued with struggles and tragedies? Probably not. After all, Edward was the son of one of the original shareholders of The Virginia Company of London. With that background, he certainly had the means to do well in his new home .
He did just that.
Edward focused his efforts on silk and tobacco production and profited in both areas. It is thought that Mulberry Island (which was partially owned by Edward) was named for the trees “cultivated for the silk worms” for his business. For a short time, Edward was the premier producer of Virginia silk .
In 1655, Edward became governor of Virginia, a job with an annual salary of 25,000 pounds of tobacco. But he would make far more money from his signature “E.D.” tobacco that commanded the highest price among all brands available in London. E.D. would later be known as “the benchmark for England’s luxury tobacco market,” and profits from its sales would add to Edward’s wealth .
Edward Digges died in 1675 at Bellfield, his estate in York County, Virginia. The youngest son with limited prospects had done well for himself, and had become a very wealthy man. His father would have been proud, since he was pretty good at building wealth as well.
The history books know that man as Sir Dudley, but here he is called…
Ancestor #3: The Knight Who Built the Castle
Born to mathematician Sir Thomas Digges in 1583, Dudley was raised in a life of privilege and academia. An extremely intelligent man, he enrolled at Oxford University when he was just fifteen and earned a BA at age eighteen. Six years later, Dudley was knighted by King James I. That same year, he inherited part of his father-in-law’s Chilham Estate.
He soon acquired the rest of the estate and set about building Chilham Castle. When the luxurious renaissance-style home was completed in 1616, its front entrance was decorated with the family’s coat of arms and an engraving that read “The Lord is my House of Defence and my Castle.”
Not content to live a life of leisure, Sir Dudley dedicated himself to writing, governing, and exploring. As a member of parliament under James I and Charles I, he was imprisoned several times for using “unfitting words in the Council Chamber.” Undaunted, he continued to speak his mind and later distinguished himself as “a great assertor of the country’s liberty.” In 1636, his fearlessness was rewarded when he was named Master of the Rolls .
When he wasn’t governing (or serving time in the Tower!), Dudley used his wealth to finance journeys for world explorers. His friend Henry Hudson honored those efforts by naming a group of islands in the Hudson Bay after Dudley.
A prolific writer, several of Sir Dudley’s works were published when he was still in his twenties. A later work, entitled The Compleat Ambassador: or Two Treaties of the Intended Marriage of Queen Elizabeth of Glorious Memory, was published posthumously, and was called “a landmark English historiography.”
Sir Dudley’s death in 1639 was described as “among the public calamities of those times.” At the time of his death, Sir Dudley’s wealth was so great that it would support his descendants for the next four generations. Sir Dudley’s descendants were able to live comfortably through some of the worst times in England’s history, until the wealth “…was whittled away to nothing .” According to an article on the Chilham Castle website:
“The Digges family held Chilham through four generations… but after Sir Dudley built the house, the only achievement of his descendants was to lose it.“– The Digges Family, Chilham Castle
The castle was gone. A life of riches and nobility was no more. All that remained was…
Ancestor #4: It’s That Petty Nobleman Again!
I researched the Digges family to prove that John Digges’ son, Dudley, married my sixth-great-aunt, Esther Lilly. I accomplished that goal but didn’t stop there. It was impossible to do that! The stories pulled me in, and I got lost somewhere between a Chilham Castle and Digges’ Choice!
Was it too much effort for a single ancestor-in-law? Maybe not.
Since Esther and Dudley had two children, I knew I might find DNA matches with the Digges surname. For that reason, it wasn’t surprising when I clicked on the profile of another Digges researcher, and found that I matched three of the DNA tests in that person’s profile.
What was surprising was the shared matches listed for those individuals. There were several – but they were not from the expected branch of my family tree.
“The Fisher line?” I wondered as I clicked through the matches. “How is that possible? That ancestor died penniless and alone…not wealthy and surrounded by family!”
The Digges family was about to leave my FAN club…and enter into my official family tree. And it was all because of that one poor man…
- Anjou, Gustave. The Lilly Family: Lillie, Lille, Lilli, and Lilly: a Complete History of the Lillie, Lille, Lilli, and Lilly Families from Sweden to France to America, 1291-1898. Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1975.
- John Digges is listed as a son of Ignatius Digges in some histories (See: “Two Centuries Ago,” The Evening Sun, Hanover, Pennsylvania, 22 Jun 1963, pp. A-1 & A-5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.). In other histories, he is listed as a son of William and Elizabeth Wharton Digges (See: Bowie, Effie Gwynn. Across the Years in Prince George’s County [Maryland]. Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1975. Retrieved from ancestry.com.)
- Tyler, Lyon G. “Pedigree of a Representative Virginia Planter, Edward Digges, Esq.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, Apr. 1893, pp. 208–213., doi:10.2307/1939711.
- “Warburton Manor,” The Historical Marker Database, https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=3663. (See also: Parran, Alice Norris. “Register of Maryland’s Heraldic Families: period from 1634, March 25th to March 25th, 1935.” Volume I, Back Matter, p. 402 (digital image 437 of 873). Retrieved from ancestry.com.)
- Tarter, Brent and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “Edward Digges (1621–1675).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2019.
- For more information on Sir Dudley Digges’ involvement with the Virginia Company: Records of the Virginia Company of London, Virtual Jamestown, http://www.virtualjamestown.org/virgco.html.
- Rowland, Kate Mason. The Virginia Cavaliers. 1886. Retrieved from Google Play Books. (For more about the effort to produce silk in Colonial Virginia, see: Hartlib, Samuel, and Samuel Hartlib. The Reformed Common-Wealth of Bees. Presented in Severall Letters and Observations to Sammuel Hartlib Esq.: With The Reformed Virginian Silk-Worm. Containing Many Excellent and Choice Secrets, Experiments, and Discoveries for Attaining of National and Private Profits and Riches. Printed for Giles Calvert at the Black-Spread-Eagle at the West-End of Pauls, 1655, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=HlHjw-JHMI0C&rdid=book-HlHjw-JHMI0C&rdot=1.)
- Erickson, Mark St. John. “A Cradle of Slavery on the York.” Daily Press, 25 May 2013, https://www.dailypress.com/life/dp-nws-york-river-slavery-0526-20130525-story.html.
- Chalmers, Alexander. The General Biographical Dictionary. 32 volumes. London: J. Nichols and Son, 1812-1817. Vol. 12, pp. 84-87 (Digital images 84-87 of 541). Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- “The Jacobean House.” Chilham Castle, https://www.chilham-castle.co.uk/the-jacobean-house.