The de Vismes family in Britain: the invention of a princely title
This page details the origin of the British de Vismes family, and how they came to claim the title of princes in the 19th century.
The origin of the family is in northern France, stemming from Jean de Vismes, who lived in the 1560s and was a Protestant. There seems to be no connection to the family of Monchy, who held the title of barons de Vismes as late as 1665. Several members of the family emigrated to England, of which Philippe de Vismes (1687-1763). Although he was a younger brother (his older brother Pierre also emigrated to England and had descendants throughout the 18th c.), by the 1830s the grandson of Philippe de Vismes tried to have a title of count recognized for himself by the French authorities, claiming descent from the Blocquel de Croix de Wismes family. His efforts only succeeded in obtaining a very ambiguous letter in 1838, not so ambiguous that it could fool the College of Arms in England. His petition for a Royal Licence was denied in 1838, and several other attempts (in 1844 and in 1896) were also unsuccessful. By the 1840s, the British de Vismes thought themselves to be descended from the "sovereign" counts of Ponthieu, and they began to use the titles of prince and count.
The case is interesting because it highlights the role of the genealogist John Burke, founder of Burke's Peerage and other publications, in the invention of this fanciful claim. Burke served as de Vismes's agent in France, and later inserted a rather fanciful account of the de Vismes ancestry in his publications.
Ruvigny's Titled Nobility of Europe (1914, p. 1528) states "recognition of count de Vismes [F. mpr.] for Elisee William by French govt 1 Sep 1838". As the documents below make clear, nothing of the sort occurred.
The Daily Telegraph on Nov. 4, 2006 carried a death notice as follows:
"James Arnold Godfray Martin St Valery, Sovereign Count de Vismes, Ponthieu et St Valery" who died on 26 October 2006, aged 90.
This notice prompted my curiosity. What British family could claim such exalted French titles?
The county of Ponthieu originates in a march created in the 8th century by the Frankish monarhy. Roughly speaking the county passed by inheritance to the kings of England from whom it was confiscated in 1336, 1360, and lastly in 1380. Thereafter it was given as apanage to various people, lastly the Angoulêmes, a legitimated line of Charles IX. The county was briefly (June-Sept 1710) part of the apanage of the duc de Berry. The last owner of the county was Charles, comte d'Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI, who received it as part of his apanage in 1773. He later became king of France in 1824, and after his overthrow in 1830 used the style of "comte de Ponthieu" as incognito.
The barony of Vismes (Somme, zip code 80140) was a fief within the county of Ponthieu. It passed from the family of Cayeux to the family of Monchy in the 14th century, and as late as Sept. 1665 it was still owned by the Monchy family (François de Monchy, son and heir of Charles de Monchy, baron of Vismes, gave homage).
The barony of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme (Somme, zip code 80230), a fief in the county of Amiens, passed from the Melun family with Isabelle to the Artois comtes d'Eu, then to the house of Bourgogne-Nevers along with Eu and followed the county of Nevers through the houses of La Marck and Gonzaga until the mid-17th c., when it passed by sale to the house of Rouault de Gamaches which still owned it in 1737.
It's not a little puzzling to see someone claiming all three titles at the same time, given their very disparate histories.
The earliest traced ancestor of the de Vismes family is one Jean de
Vismes, a Protestant, who lived in the mid-16th century in Airaines, in
Picardy (northern France), and married Annette Courchel. He had
several children, of which three sons left issue:
The descendants of Jean de Visme, laboureur in Gouy-l'Hôpital, remained mostly Protestant, and as such were increasingly the victims of persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries. A number of them emigrated to England, where their distant cousins were already established. From Jean the descent can be traced to Marin (b. 1604), Jean (1638-85), who left Pierre (1657-87) and Jean (c1662-after 1702). The latter Jean's great-great grandson Léon de Visme was sous-prefet under Napoleon I in 1814 and ex officio received the title of baron. Pierre left three sons: André (1679-1726) whose descent still exists in France, Pierre (ca 1685-1768) and Philippe (15 Sep 1687-26 Oct 1763), both emigrating to England in the early 18th century.
The British family of de Vismes can be traced to Philippe de Vismes, a French Huguenot who settled in London after the edict of toleration of Protestants was rescinded in 1685. According to the documents presented by the family, he appears to have been styled "comte" as early as 1716 in the registers of the French protestant church of St Martin Orgars, and his son Guillaume or William (d. 1781) is so styled on his tombstone in Beckenham, Kent. A genealogical sketch of the family follows.
His son Guillaume or William (1729-81) married in 1756 Elizabeth Auriol, of a Genevan Protestant family. Their eldest son Élisée William (1758-1840) was an officer in the Coldstream Guards; in 1838 he petitioned both in France and in England to have a title of count recognized to him.
In February 1838, John Burke and Antoine Perpigna (a Parisian lawyer specialized in patent law) filed with the "Conseil du Sceau" at the French ministry of Justice a request for the recognition of the title of "comte de Visme de Cayeu" on behalf of Elisha (Elysée) William de Vismes, colonel of the Coldstream Guards and grandson of Philippe de Vismes. The contents of the file are reproduced here.
It was explained that the petitioner was desirous to formally use his title of count in Britain, particularly during the upcoming coronation festivities, and he had been advised that, in order to obtain formal recognition in Britain, he needed a formal recognition from the country of origin, in this instance France. John Burke, who was already gaining notoriety for his genealogical writings and would soon publish the first edition of his Peerage, acted as de Vismes' attorney in France.
The initial papers filed included a petition to the French minister of justice signed "de Visme" in Southampton, Feb 13, 1838; a letter from Burke, and two genealogical notices by Saint-Alais and by Somerset Herald (James Cathrow Disney). Burke wrote again on Feb. 27 and March 7, asking for a swift answer. Then, on March 16, he asked to withdraw the supporting documentation to update and improve it. Finally, in March, he was told that his petition was incomplete and in any case needed to be filed by one of the accredited solicitors (référendaires du sceau). Burke chose a solicitor named Grossot Devercy, who signed the subsequent petition.
The petition from Grossot Devercy had five supporting documents:
The file in the French national archives contains the report on the petition, presented to the commission of the Seal on May 22. The reporter concluded that the petition should be rejected, for a variety of reasons. The pedigree of Somerset Herald was rejected as insufficient because it was not certified by six to eight gentlemen of the county of residence of the family (a procedure which was deemed necessary to make the document authentic). The documents provided did not fully prove the descent, nor did it prove that the petitioner was an eldest son and his father an eldest son.
The key point, however, was that it made no sense to ask the French authorities to establish the claim to a title on the basis of British documents. It was possible to establish a claim to a title by documenting that the title was lawfully used for three generations. But only British authorities could make that judgment. And it was illogical to ask the French authorities to recognize the title when the only purpose was to convince the British authorities to recognize the title.
The reporter then added a note: considering the recommendation from Lord Brougham, the minister might consider writing a careful letter to the petitioner, and proposed a draft of such a letter, stating that "I think one could not dispute him the right to continue to use a title that he would have thus received from his forebears". The chair of the commission approved the idea, and the minister endorsed it. A letter was written in those terms on June 5 to colonel de Vismes.
The colonel immediately applied for recognition of the title in Britain with the Home Office, and his solicitor withdrew the documents in English that had been submitted (certified translations remained in the file). On August 7, the French minister of justice received a letter from his colleague at Foreign Affairs. The British authorities thought that the letter of June 5 was not official, and asked for an explicit statement as to the recognition of the title in France. This request must have created some embarrassment, as the several drafts of a response suggest. In the end, the minister replied that the letter of June 5 contained the exact expression of his opinion on the matter, and reiterated the deliciously ambiguous phrasing that "one could not, in [the minister's] opinion, dispute a title that he held in such manner from his ancestors". Fearing perhaps that the phrasing was too subtle, a sentence was added to the letter: "furthermore the documents presented to me must be the same as those presented to the English government in support of his request, and that government can therefore assess them and form an opinion". This letter was sent to the French minister of Foreign Affairs on September 1, 1838 and forwarded to the British ambassador.
This letter clearly achieved its effect: in October Burke was again in Paris and transmitted a letter from Lord Brougham explaining how this last sentence had created additional difficulties for de Vismes with the Home Office, who now claimed that the French authorities were suggesting that the British authorities investigate the whole matter themselves. Surely this was not the French minister's intention, and a word to say so would dispel doubts raised only by the greed of British bureaucrats. A reply was sent to Burke on November 25, curtly referring him to the letters of June 5 and September 1 (an explicit sentence in a first draft: "the explanations you request would be more damaging than useful to your client" was removed from the final version).
At about the same time, Elisee William de Vismes petitioned for a Royal
Licence to bear the French title of count de Vismes. The the
College of Arms stated that "there was no precedent for such a grant
previous production of the original patent" and the Home Office
declined to submit the application for consideration to the
In July 1840 his younger son Henry (1808-75) wrote again on behalf of his ill father to the Home Secretary (HO 44/52, fol. 585-587) pressing for recognition. The Home Secretary declined to reconsider the case, and the correspondence dragged on, the vicomte writing in vain several rambling (if not incoherent) letters in 1844 and 1846, without receiving replies. He finally asked for his correspondence to be returned to him, which was denied. His correspondence makes it clear that, as of 1844, the British de Vismes now considered themselves to be a collateral branch of the sovereign comtes de Ponthieu, though they only claimed the title of count.
In 1865 and 1867 his son Henry Auriol Douglas asked again about the petition, asking for copies of the correspondence and for an explanation why the petition had been denied. He was told that a copy of the correspondence could not be provided.
This failure did not deter Burke. He included the de Vismes in his Peerage, but now abandoned the connection to the Blocquel de Croix de Wismes. Perhaps he had noticed that the Wismes in their case was located in Artois, not in Ponthieu, and spelled with a W rather than a V. Perhaps, more to the point, he learned that the family was not extinct at all (it is still extant). It seemed safer to postulate a connection to the house that first owned the barony of Vismes, before it passed by marriage to the Cayeux. This meant, of course, abandoning the title of "Vismes de Cayeux", but claiming that this family was a junior branch of the counts of Ponthieu allowed to adopt the title of "Vismes de Ponthieu". Better yet, the title could be upgraded from "count" to "prince", and become available German-style to all members of the family, not just the first-born. This is what happened with the two sons of Elisha William: one became prince, the other became count.
And so we see in the Times that the wife of of Theobald is called "Princess Theobald de Vismes et de Ponthieu" in 1859; that "HRH the Prince de Vismes et de Ponthieu &c" is on the committee of the Corinthian Club in 1870, and "HRH Prince de Vismes" on the committee of the Regent Club in 1872, etc. The children of Theobald Raoul William use the name "de Vismes de Ponthieu," although the Army lists never give them any title.
It seems that further efforts were made to secure a royal license for the title in Britain. In 1896, the College of Arms asked the French authorities for a copy of the decree confering the title of count on Elisha William de Vismes, a decree they thought dated to 1832. Being told that there was none, they asked to look under "Vismes de Ponthieu", then to look under 1838. Finally, they were told that there was no such decree at any date, the only title conferred on anyone with the name of Vismes between 1808 and 1848 was that of baron in January 1814 to Valéry de Vismes, sous-préfet of Vervins. In 1899 the College of Arms, having obtained a copy of the September 1, 1838 letter, asked for a copy of the minute in the file where the opinion of the minister of justice on the title and status of de Vismes was expressed, and the French authorities simply sent back a copy of the letter of June 5 (which the letter of September 1 merely repeated!).
The following is based on Burke's Peerage (1874, 1938: the last edition with a section on foreign titles), Annuaire de la Noblesse de France 1865 (p. 223-228, largely based on various editions of Burke's Peerage), Burke's Commoners (IV:321), Ruvigny's Titled Nobility (1914, p. 1528), various death and birth notices in the Times, supplemented by a few birth entries from the IGI.
The two brothers Pierre and Philippe were both born in
Gouy-l'Hôpital, France, sons of Pierre de Vismes and Marie Leroy. The children of Pierre, who was
naturalised by act of Parliament (3 Geo I n. 54) can be traced through IGI entries:
Pierre de Visme (probate 16 Feb 1768)
Philippe (15 Sep 1687-buried 25 Oct 1756, Clapham, Surrey)
~ (2 Mar 1819) Charlotte Chatfield, d. of Francis Chatfield
This sketch is based on the pages of Philippe Roelly's pages on Protestant genealogy in Picardy. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the lineage. It seems plausible enough, up to the point where he identifies Jean de Vismes with Jean de Monchy, of the Monchy family: at that point, references to sources evaporate. In any event, it is clear that Jean de Vismes and his descendants were not considered noble.
Jean de Vismes
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Last modified: Oct 02, 2015