When I was growing up, one of the family legends from my maternal grandmother was that we were direct descendants of John Knox, the Reformer – the man who founded the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. This connection to a famous individual who was a contemporary of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the First was supposedly through my great, great, great-grandmother, Mary Emily Knox Kelsey (1801-1887). This was the first family history mystery that I debunked. And debunking my grandmother’s story was not a difficult task. It was a simple process of elimination.
John Knox, the Reformer, had five children – two sons by his first wife and three daughters by his second. His two sons died at an early age, both without issue. Therefore, he had no descendants who bore the last name Knox. The lines from two of his daughters have died out, leaving only the descendants of his youngest daughter, all of whom settled in colonial America and none of whom bear the last name Knox.
This mistake of claiming descent from John Knox the Reformer through a “Knox” line seems to be a common one. For example the Wikipedia article on James K. Polk mistakenly identifies John Knox the Reformer as one of the President Polk’s ancestors when it states: “His mother, Jane Polk (née Knox) was a descendant of the Scottish religious reformer John Knox.” She is actually a descendant of a man named John Knox who settled in North Carolina; not the Reformer.
Then about ten years ago, I discovered that I am the descendant of a man named John Knox (abt 1770-1846). Yet, I didn’t have to go very far to find him as he was the father of Mary Emily. This was proof that there was some truth to my grandmother’s story.
Mary Emily’s daughter, my great, great-grandmother, was named Henrietta Knox Kelsey Bannon (1838-1915). She was born and raised a Protestant on an estate called the Plantation located at Lisburn a few miles outside Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Her first husband, my great great grandfather, Richard Bannon, was born and raised Roman Catholic. He grew up in Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland. They were married twice – the first time in a Protestant ceremony in Belfast and then in a Roman Catholic ceremony at Louisville, Kentucky, which the Bishop of Covington officiated. As my grandmother told me, Richard would joke that even though Henrietta did not have a dowry worth more than £400, he married into the upper class when he married her. She was said to be Lace-curtained Irish.
The same thing could probably be said about the marriage of Henrietta’s parents. When William Kelsey married Mary Emily Knox, he was marrying into what was known as the Protestant Ascendancy – a term that refers to “the political, economic, and social domination of Ireland between the 17th century and the early 20th century by a minority of landowners, Protestant clergy, and members of the professions, all members of the Established Church (Church of Ireland or the Church of England).“
The Knox family came to Ireland by way of Scotland, and they were part of a group of Scots, who had rebelled against the Commonwealth of England, led by Oliver Cromwell. In defeat, they were forced by Cromwell to transplant to Northern Ireland to provide a Protestant buffer between England and the Catholic majority of Ireland.
According to the Wikipedia article on the Plantations of Ireland, it started before Cromwell:
“The plantation of Ulster began in the 1610s, during the reign of James I. Following their defeat in the Nine Years’ War, many rebel Ulster lords fled Ireland and their lands were confiscated. This was the biggest and most successful of the plantations and comprised most of the province of Ulster. While the province was mainly Irish-speaking and Catholic, the new settlers were required to be English-speaking and Protestant, with most coming from England and Scotland. This created a distinct Ulster Protestant community.”Plantations of Ireland
The estate that William Kelsey initially rented for several years before purchasing was named the Plantation, and this was a reference to the original owners having participated in the Plantation of Ulster.
Mary Emily grew up on an estate not far from the Plantation, and her father’s estate was named Maze House. Those who are familiar with the history of Northern Ireland should recognize the name Maze. Today, there is near Belfast, a town called Mazetown, and from 1971 to 2003, it was the home of a notorious detention center known as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze.
The research that I did on this family a decade ago was rather hastily prepared. It was one of the last things I worked on before publishing the second edition of Gathering Leaves. One of the things at the top of my to-do list is to clean up the research that I have done on the family of Mary Emily Knox.
I discovered last night while I was researching my Knox line, finding the death notices for both Mary Emily and her father, John Knox, Esq.
Belfast News-letter Tuesday, December 7, 1886
KELSEY — December 4, at the residence of her son, Mary Emily, relict of the late William Kelsey, Plantation, Lisburn. Funeral private.
Belfast News-letter, Friday, December 18, 1846
On the 16th inst., John Knox, Esq., of Maze House, in the 78th year of age.
Also, I discovered that Mary Emily’s maternal grandfather was a well-known Protestant minister, the Rev. George Augustus Rogers (1736-1812). I found death notice Mary Emily’s uncle, the Reverend George William Rogers.
Belfast News-letter, Wednesday, January 2, 1861
December 27, at Rower Rectory, New Ross, age 78 years, the Rev. George William Rogers, upwards of 20 years rector of Rower Parish, son of the late Rev. George Rogers rector of Cloneallen, Warrenpoint, and Chancellor of the diocese of Dromore.
Dromore, County Down, Northern Ireland, is where Mary Emily Knox was born.
There is much more to come, so watch this space.