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Possible Origins of the Family in Germany and Italy

Excerpted from The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (Save $201 by ordering through us.) Two volumes. By Judge Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. (Eagle Publishing Company of Pittsfield, Mass., 1899). Vol. 1, p 46-49.

Several versions exist as to the origin of the surname Phelps. One historian asserts that Phelps is a contraction and simplification of Phyllyppes, the name of an ancient English family of Staffordshire, the superfluous letters having been dropped during the reign of Edward VI (1546-1553), Phelips, Phillips, etc. meaning Son of Phillip. It is also stated that the name Philips, or Phillips, was derived from a combination of two Greek words, Philos and Hippos, meaning a lover of horses.

A high and reliable authority claims that Phelps is English for Guelph, the name of a historical family of Germany to which Queen Victoria or the House of Hanover belonged, Guelph being German for Welf. The Welf and Guelph names are of a family of princely rank, importance, and power in Italy, originally from the northern part and dating back to the 11th century, or thereabouts, purportedly becoming Phelps, in England, in the 16th. Century.

Another source supplies the information that the name is derived from the Danish word Hvalp, or Swedish Valp, meaning whelp. While there is no proof of the foregoing, we do know that during the past 600 years, we find Phelps is spelled at various times in a variety of ways, including Phelyp, Phelipee, Phelipeston, Philip, Phelip, and others.

However it may be, the Phelps family, with its name definitely established as such since 1560, has many distinguished scions to its credit.

In the burying-ground beside the old Tewkesbury Abbey Church, Gloucestershire, England, founded by the Mercian Princes, Dukes Odo and Dodo, two Noble Saxon brothers who flourished at the commencement of the 8th century, lie interred some of the Phelps ancestors; others lie in the cemetery of Dursley, in Gloucestershire; in Porlock, Somersetshire; in Staffordshire, and in almost all of the shires of old England.

John Phelps, in 1649 was joint-clerk of the Court that tried and condemned to death King Charles I, having such zeal as to sign each record with his full name. To escape the terrible penalty imposed on the regicides for their act, John Phelps became an exile in Vevery, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland, where he died. In the ancient church of St. Martin, in Vevery, a black marble monument, inscribed to the memory of John Phelps, exiled in the cause of human freedom, was erected in 1882 by William Walter Phelps two American descendants of the same English Phelps family of Tewkesbury.

Inscribed on a big bell in St. Paul's Church steeple, London, is the name of Richard Phelps, Whitechapel, London, A.D., 1710.


We find Phelps is spelled at various times in the following way:(1)

Time Variations of the Phelps Name
[King] Edward I
(1272-1307)
Phelyp, Phelipee, Phelipeston, Philip, Phelip, and Phelips
[King] Edward III
(1327-1377)
Pheybo, Phelylo, Pheybo, Philipi, Phelips
(1400-1450) Phelippeston, Phelipss, Phelpse
(1450-1550) Felpe, Phelpes, Phelp, Felpes
[Queen] Elizabeth
(1558-1652)
Phelps, (Pelps also Phelf), (Phelpham also Fellham)
1600 As spelled in State papers, Phellips, Phelleps, Philipes, Phelpes, Phelps. The Montacute family claimed their name never was spelled "Phelps" but is now spelled Phelips, earlier Phellipps, and more Modern and ancient Phellyppee.

Says M. B. Beadham, under date of North Wales, England, Jan. 8, 1898. "In the various registers of the University of Oxford, very important authorities, names spelt in the following forms are found to be identical: Philips, Phelipps, Phelpses, Philipes, Philipp, Philippes, Phillipps, Phillippe, Phillippes, Phillepps, Phillips, Phyllippes.

From Guelphs to Phelps

The Guelphs were a German dynasty of the Middle Ages. They trace their descent from the (southern German) Swabian count Guelph or Welf (9th century), whose daughter Judith married the Frankish emperor Louis I. Eventually the Guelphs became the dukes of Bavaria and Saxony, and were the rivals of the house of Hohenstaufen.

The name Guelph was a corruption of Welf; Ghibelline was a corruption of Waiblingen, an estate belonging to the Hohenstaufen emperors. In Italy the Guelph dynasty was represented by the Este family. The Guelphs came to represent the papal faction in the longtime struggle with the imperial (Ghibelline) party representing the Holy Roman emperors. See the Guelphs and Ghibellines for more information.

A Porlock correspondent says: "The Phelps family were originally from Italy, then called 'Welfs,' thence to Germany, there called 'Guelphs' thence to Scotland, called Phelps." (See sidebar.)

Says Isaac Phelps of Pachaway, England, in 1849, "1 think I have heard my father say our right name was 'Guelphs,' and from Germany."

The late Rev. Austin Phelps, D. D., of Andover Theological Seminary, under date of Sept. 1st, 1859, and who had previous to that made an extended trip through England, says, " The only point in your letter on which I am able to speak confidently is, that of the identify of names 'Guelphs' and 'Phelps.' There is no doubt of this identity. When I was in England a few years ago, I found it to be a matter of common fame that the original name was 'Welf.'

The earliest trace of the family dates back to the eleventh century or thereabouts. The family was originally settled in the north of Italy, and was early transplanted to Germany, there assuming the name 'Guelphs.'

The identify of the name 'Guelphs' and 'Phelps' accords with a tradition which I have met in several branches of the Phelps family, viz: that we are from the same luck with the House of Hanover of whom Queen Victoria is a representative.

The Queen, it is well known, derives her lineage through the 'Guelphs' of Germany from the old Wells of Lombardy. The history of the 'Guelphs' you will have no difficulty tracing."

Again he says, under date of Sept. 16th 1859, " I suppose the trouble to be that beyond a few generations, it is impossible to follow our family name specifically, that is verifying our descent through A. B. C., etc., with dates, and places and individual history. Probably this can be done with some approach to completeness, back through nine or ten generations (note, our record runs eight to ten generations in New England, and two in England of authentic dates. A[ndrew]. T. S[servin].)

But as I understand the matter, there are two distinct departments of research, in tracing the genealogy of so a family as ours.

One is the one I have just mentioned, i. e., the specific, with names, dates and places, documents, proving that John was the son of Robert, and Robert of Joseph, and so on.

The other is a far more general one and lies back of all modern and specific information, and the proof of the results must be, so far as the Phelpses are concerned traditional, and of common fame.

It indicates such facts as these:

1st. That Phelps is the English form of Guelphs.

2nd. That 'Guelph' is the German form of 'Welf.'

3rd. That the 'Welf' family was of princely rank, and several branches of it of great political importance in Italy.

4th. That the same is true of the Guelph family in Germany, the Guelphs being the leaders of the Papal party in the famous conflicts of the Pope with the German princes in the middle ages.

The parties being the Guelphs and Ghibellines corresponding in character very much to the Tories and Whigs of England.

5th. That the present Royal House of England (the House of Hanover), was one branch of the ancient Guelph family, being distinctly traceable back to a its seat in Padua, a city of great literary renown in Lombardy.

All these facts, except No. 1, are fixed by the standard historians.

There is no doubt of them whatever and all the royal noble lines of Guelph genealogy, are doubtless a record in the archives of severaI countries of Europe.

But the claim of the Phelpses to any interest historically, depends on fact No.1, and the only evidence of this which I know of, is common fame. It is understood and believed in England.

An English gentleman on observing my father's door plate once, reminded him of the fact, and told him that such was the general understanding in England.

I found the same to be true also, on a visit to England a few years ago. Still the documentary evidence I have never seen.

When the change from Guelph to Phelps took place; when the family became domiciled in England; from what branch of the Guelphs the Phelpses descended; how near related the Phelpses of England are to the noble stock, from which the Queen derives her descent across the channel — I do net know. Any such questions as these, could be determined only by visit to the oldest library of Great Britain.

All that can be affirmed without such research, is the fact known to common fame among the Phelpses of England, that they are Guelphs in origin, and then the fact of noble and royal Guelph history, well known as being recorded in standard books.

All this material would be valuable for an interesting introductory chapter in your book; but if some 'dog of an infidel' ventured to enquire for the documentary evidence with dates, names, places, etc., supporting the Phelps claims to this venerable antiquity, why 'Non est inventus.'

Says the Rev. Stuart Dodge, under date of Aug., 1887:

''Phelps original family name was 'Welf': they went from North Italy in the 11th century to Germany then writing and spelling their names 'Guelphs or Gulphs' In the 16th century they crossed to England where their names after taking various forms of writing became Phelps."

We also find in many of our English letters here recorded, the same reference as to the origin of the family, viz: Italy then known as "Welf." This is common tradition with the English Phelps family.


(1) Excerpted from The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (Save $201 by ordering through us.) Two volumes. By Judge Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. (Eagle Publishing Company of Pittsfield, Mass., 1899), Vol. 1, p 46-49. (Order a reprint here.)