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Welf and Guelph, Possible Ancestors to the Phelps

The House of Hanover and its Origins in Germany and Italy

Excerpted from The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (Save $200 by ordering through us.) By Oliver S. Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. (Get an updated index here.).

Queen Victoria reigns to-day(1) because of her direct descent, through James the First, from Mary, Queen of Scots, the mother of that pedantic king. On the Hanover side, she can claim an ancestry far more ancient, and far more illustrious than this.

Among the mountains which divide Italy from Germany a powerful house named Welf held great possessions as long ago as the year 1100. Extending its conquests southward, it ruled some of the finest provinces of Italy, where the name was changed into Guelph, by which it has ever since been known. The Guelphs, with their impregnable castles among the mountains, drawing tribute from the fertile provinces of northern Italy and southern Germany, appear to have been for a time as wealthy and powerful a family as any in Europe of less than imperial or royal rank. It became too powerful.

The Guelphs quarrelled among themselves. They divided into two factions, one of which retained the name of Guelph, and the other acquired that of Ghibeline, and each of them was powerful enough to maintain an army in the field. The bloody contest was waged a while among the German mountains. The family quarrel, as was usually the case in those days, absorbed into itself public questions of great pith and moment, until the whole south of Europe were drawn into the interminable strife. It was this famous contest between the Guelphs and the Ghibelines which saddened the existence of the poet Dante, and made him for twenty years an exile from his native city.

When mortals fight, it rarely happens that one party is wholly in the right, and the other wholly in the wrong. Both the Guelphs and the Ghibelines committed enormous outrages. Neither of them was strong enough to hold the other under subjection, and neither was great enough to forgive a fallen foe. When the Guelphs conquered a province or captured a city, they banished the powerful Ghibelines, and confiscated their estates. The Ghibelines, when they were victors, pursued the same policy. Consequently there were always a great number of persons, both within and without the conquered place, whose only hope of regaining their rights and property was in overturning the government. Hence three centuries of fruitless, desolating war.

But although in this cardinal error of the contest there was not a pin to choose between the hostile factions, it is nevertheless evident that the Guelphs were, upon the whole, fighting the battle of mankind. Dante was upon their side — a great fact in itself. Closely allied with the pope, then the chief civilizing power of Europe, the sole protector of the people against the tyranny of their lords, the Guelphs were greatly instrumental in limiting the power of the emperors, and preventing all the fairest countries of Europe from lapsing under the dominion of a single dynasty.

It was from these warlike Guelphs of the middle ages that the present royal house of England descended. Gibbon, indeed, traces the family of Guelph up to Charlemagne; but we need not follow him so far in the labyrinth of heraldry. Let it suffice us to know that a powerful prince of the Guelphian race, six hundred years ago or more, acquired by marriage extensive possessions in the north of Germany. This prince is known in the history of Germany as Henry the Black. Other Henries succeeded — Henry the Proud, Henry the Lion, and a long line of Henries, Williams, Othos, Georges, and Ernests, until at length we find a branch of the family established in Hanover, and ruling that province with the title of elector.

(1) From: Eminent women of the age being narratives of the lives and deeds of the most prominent women of the present generation. By James Parton, Horace Greeley, T. W. Higginson, J. S. C. Abbott, Prof. James M. Hoppin, William Winter, Theodore Tilton, Fanny Fern, Grace Greenwood, Mrs. E. C. Stanton, etc. 1868.

(2) See Sir A. Halliday, History of the House of Guelpk (1821); R. D. Lloyd, Origin of the Guelphs; F. Schmidt, Die Anfange des welfischen Geschlechts (Hanover, 1900).