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Selby Abbey’s - its Links to George Washington and the Stars & Stripes Flag

Author and Historian Colin Speakman provides a guest blog and some insight into the founding of Selby Abbey and Yorkshire’s links to the American flag…


There are various ways of belonging to Yorkshire. You can be born here, choose to live here, or Yorkshire might even be the part of England your parents, grandparents or even older forebears and ancestors came from.

This is especially true of so many “expats” now living in the USA, Canada, or Australasia. Links between Yorkshire and USA are especially strong – and might even include George Washington himself.


Selby, a small town in North Yorkshire, on the River Ouse at the southern end of the Vale of York, is known for its magnificent Abbey Church. The town probably owes its existence, at least in part, to what is a charming legend.


In 1069 a young French monk named Benedict from the monastery in Auxerre in Burgundy, had a vision which made him feel impelled to leave his parent monastery to travel to the port of King’s Lynn in England. From there he took a boat up the Humber and then the Ouse towards York. When his boat was passing the little Anglo-Viking farming settlement on the river at Selby, he caught sight of three white swans alighting on the river and took these as a sign of the Holy Trinity. So, he immediately disembarked, deciding this was the place to build a small hermitage.


His vision came to the attention of Hugh, Sheriff of York, immediately following the Harrying of the North. Hugh in turn gained the support of William the Conqueror who, perhaps to appease the Pope’s anger at the recent Harrying of the North massacres, granted Benedict land at Selby on which to build an Abbey. Work began on the new building with limestone brought by small craft along a specially constructed dyke or canal from a suitable quarry near Monk Fryston, to the River Ouse.


The fact that William’s son Henry, later Henry I, known as Beauclerc because of his scholarship, was born in Selby in 1070 as the King and his consort were travelling to York, may also have helped secure financial support for the Abbey.


The three white swans form part of the Selby’s coat of arms to this day. Though most of the Abbey complex itself has now long vanished, its magnificent Church with its great Norman columns has survived and is regarded as one the best-preserved Abbey Churches in England. It is especially noted for its magnificent thirteenth and fourteenth century stonework, including the wonderful east window, much of it with its original fourteenth century glass, tracing Old Testament stories.

One particular piece of this glass in what is now known as the Washington Window is of special interest. It contains the arms of the Washington family - Three red stars (known as mullets) above two red bands on a white shield.


The Washington Window is to be found in the south clerestory window of the choir and is the original fourteenth century glass.


It probably represents a gift made to the Abbey by John Wessington, Prior of Durham (1416-46) and a distinguished ancestor of George Washington, first President of the United States of America. In fact the first coat of arms of a member of the Washington Family dates to the late 1300’s, when the family lived in Washington Old Hall in County Durham.


So, this Yorkshire Washington window is probably the earliest surviving representation of the Washington family iconography, which was subsequently to be incorporated into the national flag of the United States – the famous stars and stripes.

The Reverend Dr JS Littell in his book ‘George Washington: Christian’ says of Selby Abbey and its Washington Window; ‘The decorated choir of seven bays, the knave has eight, is unsurpassed for loveliness, and Americans should be proud to know that the finest example of the Washington Arms has such a beautiful and appropriate setting’.


So there is more to Yorkshire than just a place where Americans families may have originated from – it looks like the historic town of Selby can also lay claim to its Abbey being the inspiration for the iconic American flag.

Well worth a visit for US visitors to Yorkshire.






Now then, if only we could get the Americans to start growing rhubarb we'd have a full house! :)

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