Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Vances of the Past: The Rev. John Vans of Kilmacrenan

Today's blog post is a musty dive into old books, so I thought I'd start with a fun fact:  did you know that on there are 38,948 public family trees that include the Rev. John Vans of Kilmacrenan?  The man is probably more widely known as an ancestor than he ever was in real life! (And if YOU don't know who the Rev. John Vans is, read the Irish origins of "Vance" in our Short History of the Vance Surname)

The story goes that a Protestant clergyman named John Vans (variously spelled Vauss, Vaux, Vaus, and Vanse in old records when spelling was variable) who was somehow connected to the Vans of Barnbarroch in Scotland came to minister in Kilmacrenan in Ireland in the early 1600s, and is credited with being the original ancestor in Ireland of a whole modern group of Vances.  But what do we really know about the man?

William Balbirnie certainly didn't do us any favors in his Vance book from 1860 when he speculated freely about the Rev. John Vans and his offspring.  By now there is a ton of confusing information about him out there - many trees have him born in 1617, or married to an Elizabeth Shaw, or show his exact father and mother from the Vans of Barnbarroch in Scotland, or other details that are really all just speculation.

There actually IS a surprising amount of historical evidence about the Rev. John Vans.  For those of you who may want to add evidence to your records, here is a list of recorded facts:

1.  Rev. John Vans graduated with a B.A. from St. John's College in Cambridge in 1605 (his birthdate is not recorded, but presumably he was therefore born about 1585-1590).  He received a Master of Arts (where is not recorded) and was ordained as Church of Ireland deacon and priest in Kilmacrenan on Feb 7, 1613.  He also became rector of Movagh in 1615.   The reason that we know all this is that he was remembered in a history of Church of Ireland clergy in Raphoe, which also references his graduation from Cambridge, and the graduate rolls of Cambridge do show a John Vaux graduating that year.

2.  This part is speculation because the Raphoe Clergy book above doesn't list where "our" John Vans received his Masters of Arts, but the graduate rolls for the University of Edinburgh record a "Joannes Vaus" graduating with a Masters of Arts on July 27, 1611, which would certainly fit the timeframe for the Rev. John Vans of Kilmacrenan.  Is this the same man?  It fits, but we don't know for sure.

3.  In order to own land in Ireland at that time, non-Irish citizens had to be granted "denization", and the record of "John Vanse" being granted denization in Kilmacrenan on Nov 28, 1617 still exists in the Irish Patent Rolls ("clerk" at the time meant "cleric" or local religious figure).   Note:  not related to Rev. John Vans, but on this same page (Scots-Irish Links, Vol. 3, page 195) is a record of "Patrick Vans, of Libragh,  second son of Sir Patrick Vans of Barnbarroch...was granted Irish denization on 11 Aug 1610..."

4.  Abstracts of destroyed records from the 1922 fire in Dublin have survived, some of which were made by St John D. Seymour and entitled "Notes relating to the Ministers of the Gospel appointed by the Commonwealth Government to minister throughout Ireland".  This includes an entry from Sept 5, 1660:
Petition of John Vance.  Referred to Solicitor General.  There was produced a document dated 17 May 1615, whereby Andrew, late Bishop of Raphoe, conferred upon him Kilmacrenan and Movagh.  Another document was produced, dated 25 May 1615, ordering Thomas Bressy, clerk, to induct him.  Ordered to enjoy the livings.
Note:  Many Irish clergymen left their parishes during the Commonwealth period of 1650-1660 for religious reasons; this may be a sign that the Rev. John Vans did as well and was petitioning to be reinstated.

5.  There is an odd mention in the 1654 Civil Survey of Donegal, which recorded landowners from 1640 and was compiled between 1655 and 1667.  In that survey, the "clerk"/cleric of Kilmacrenan is recorded as "William Vans".  The Rev. John Vans is known to have had a son William mentioned in his will.  Did the Civil Survey mis-record the cleric's first name, or was Rev. John Vans' son perhaps administering his lands while his father had left his position during the Commonwealth years?   We don't know.

6.  Of course, we also have William Balbirnie's book from 1860, who references the Rev. John Vans' will from 1661.  That will was part of the Prerogative Wills which burned in the fire in Dublin in 1922.  However, another set of abstracts of the prerogative wills made by Sir William Betham in 1810, has survived and Rev. John Vans' will is also referenced in Betham's Abstracts - including a picture of the coat of arms that Balbirnie says sealed the will in red wax!!

It turns out we actually know a lot about this 400-year-old clergyman.  What don't we know?  Well,  we don't really know his parents or where he came from.  William Balbirnie makes a convincing case that he WAS connected to the Vans of Barnbarroch (although probably not the eldest son and heir as Balbirnie suggests), based in large part on the coat of arms sealing the will.  However, the arms as drawn by Betham above are actually closer to another related family, the Vaus/Vans of Menie, who died out in the 17th century but were related to the Vans of Barnbarroch (this theory was first advanced by Jamie Vans and is very possible).

We also don't really know the Rev. John Vans' wife's name or whether he really had all the children attributed to him by William Balbirnie.  And no one (to my knowledge) has really shown their ancestry back to him.  But we DO have a large group of Vances today who through DNA have proven that they share the same ancestry as the Vans of Barnbarroch (whether directly or through the Vaus/Vans of Menie).  So that large group of Vances certainly shares a common ancestor, and it could be the Rev. John Vans.

In the meantime, the story of the Rev. John Vans continues to spread today.  I know of at least 38,948 people who have heard it.  Some people hear it through older researchers in their families, others discover it on their own.  Had you heard it before?  How was the story told to you?


  1. Dave, Great job on this article. Very interesting! I have visited his church at Kilmmacrenan, now called the "Abbey" by the locals. Although the church is a ruin, the cemetery beside the church is still having interments. I have a few pictures if you are interested.
    Ron Vance

  2. I am a vance my gg grandfather is joel Witt vance.born 1847 in smith county Tenn.what do know about this?

    1. Hi! There isn't a lot on Joel Witt Vance here: but there is a little. If you are on, there is a researcher there who appears to have more info (see which goes back to Samuel Vance and Agnes Penquite who are ancestors of several Vance lines today. I can't speak to the accuracy of those trees but it may be a place to start!

  3. hello I just discovered that I am a descendant of the Vance/Vans family line. My 3rd great grandfather is listed as Samuel C. Vance his father was David Vance and John Vance was his father. Do you have anything on these individuals. Thank you Jennifer

  4. Victoria Samms Descended from Samms line from Mary Vance and Robert Lusk who had quite a number of children including Sarah Lusk who married Joseph Samms my 5th GGF and had George Davidson Samms of SC

  5. Hi. My name is Tracy and I'm a Vance. Yes I have heard of Rev. John Vans. I have him in my lineage. I would like to know more about his son Lancelot. I love reading about my ancestors! Thank you. Have a blessed day

    1. Hi Tracy here also! Lancelot Vance is an interesting case. All of our information about Lancelot (that I'm aware of) comes from William Balbirnie's uncle George Washington Vance and the story about Lancelot and the Rev. John Vans that Balbirnie reported in his book in 1860.

      There are no primary records (government, census, land records, church records, wills, etc) that have ever been uncovered naming Lancelot.

      The story is poetic... that Lancelot was a soldier, possibly a doctor, who assumed command of his regiment during the siege of Derry (Londonderry) and lasted through the siege only to die of exhaustion a short time after it was lifted. The problem is there is a well-documented actual person named Thomas Lance who lived nearly exactly the same story and did leave well-documented records of himself.

      You can tell I have some doubts whether someone named "Lancelot Vance" actually existed, but the jury's still out. If his name WAS recorded wrong then it was recorded as "Thomas Lance" in several unconnected places, including his own signature on an open letter to King William from the besieged, and his death record in St. Columb's Cathedral shortly after the siege. But anything's still possible!

      If you want to know more about the origin story of the Vance surname, including ones like Lancelot, you can download our free book called "Path of a Family, Part 1" listed under "Books of Interest" on the right. There are various formats PDF, IPad, etc, including a printed version from Amazon (that last version costs for printing). That covers most of the available stories AND supporting records where known going all the way back to the Norman Invasion and even before. Not all of it is proven, but it is all a good story.

  6. Hi. My name is Tracy and I'm a Vance. Yes I have heard of Rev. John Vans. I have him in my lineage. I would like to know more about his son Lancelot. I love reading about my ancestors! Thank you. Have a blessed day