As one begins to search for a better understanding of Agnew origins they find most sources claim the Agnews are of Norman origin from a village called Agneaux near St. Lo in Normandy. It appears this theory came from Sir Andrew Agnew's The Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway in which he hypothesized the Agnews might have originated in Normandy through some presumed association with William the Conqueror and the de Courcys. To date there has been no evidence to support this. Historians state there is evidence linking a couple dozen surnames with the Conqueror but Aigneau or Agneau are not among them.(1) Some sources previously regarded as authoritative are now considered of questionable reliability, making this a very contentious issue.
While vacationing in St. Lo, France we consulted the archives and found a book by Simon, Georges-Abel, Marie-Joseph-Paul Aigneaux, and Regis-Ulric-Marie-Joseph Beausse. 1949. Histoire genealogique de la Maison d'Aigneaux: par l'abbe G.-A, Simon,... avec le concours du marquis d'Aigneaux et du baron de Beausse. Avant-propis de M. R.-N. Sauvage. Caen: Impr. de Ozanne.
This genealogical history of the d'Aigneaux of Normandy includes comments and a chapter on Sir Andrew Agnew's association of the two families. The book contains an extensive list of documents which were consulted leading them to conclude there is no connection between the families. One sentence on p. 8 sums up the findings. "Il imagine une descendance tout a fait fantaisiste d'Herbert d'Aigneaux..." [He supposes a descent completely fanciful from Herbert d'Aigneaux...]
Sir Crispin Agnew, 11th Baronet of Lochnaw, has examined the Agnew coat of arms for signs of Norman influence and has found none. Arms for Norman surnames in England and Scotland reflect a Norman descent at a glance, but this is not the case with the Agnew arms. In fact, the Agnew crest has an eagle which is consistent with a Celtic descent from Somerled and the MacDonalds. The Agneaux arms do not have an eagle and the colors and symbols are completely different. (2)
[An essay detailing this examination by Sir Crispin was originally published in the International Agnew Newsletter June 2013 and can be read HERE.
What We Know
Agnew families occupied land in both Scotland and Ireland but their origin is murky, to say the least. The Agnews in Scotland were found in the southwest just a short distance across the Irish Sea from Counties Down and Antrim in Northern Ireland. Because of this short distance by water there was frequent travel between the two countries for millennia.
During the 15th century in Scotland Andrew Agnew was named Constable gaining land in Galloway along with Lochnaw Castle. Subsequently he was appointed Sherriff of Wigtown, an heritable position which firmly established the family in the area. Thus he became Andrew Agnew the 1st of Lochnaw. Then in the 17th century the Lochnaw Agnews acquired land in County Antrim near Larne providing them a footing in Northern Ireland.
In the same region of Northern Ireland there was a bardic family named O'Gnimh whose name, after undergoing many changes (O'Gneeve, O'Gnive etc), became Agnew. Their lands were also in County Antrim in very close proximity to the Lochnaw Agnew lands which makes separating the families extremely difficult, especially without reliable documentation. Adding further confusion, in modern times, some Ulster Irish families without connections to either Antrim Agnews or O'Gnimhs have adopted the surname Agnew.
We know the O'Gnimh surname was Celtic and can be traced through early bardic poetry, while Lochnaw Agnew history before the 15th century is vague being based in many cases upon tradition and myth when fact was not available. A John Aignell was documented in southern Scotland during the 12th century whose name has been associated with the Scottish Agnews, but study by Celtic linguist Brian O'Cuiv indicates that surname would not have linguistically evolved into Agnew.(3)
The Agnew DNA Project indicates there are two major lines of Agnews, one with the majority of whom are said to show descendancy from Niall of the Nine Hostages and the other of Scottish tradition. This poses a difficult question now that DNA has indicated the Agnews are not all one and the same. Who owned Kilwaughter and the lands around it and how extensive was it?
The earliest recorded O’Gnimh dwelling known in the Kilwaughter area was a tower house on the coast of Ballygally where an Agnew poet, believed to be Fearflatha, resided. Dobbs writing in 1683 said he was living there "in old times" which makes us wonder how long a period that may have been. (4) O'Laverty thought the dwelling was probably dismantled early in the 1600s, an indication it had been in existence for an appreciable period of time and certainly prior to written leases. In addition, he states "Many of the parishioners of Ballygowan are named Agnew; they are of the same race as the proprietor of Kilwaughter; their proper name is O'Gneeve; their ancestors were hereditary bards of the Clannaboy O'Neills."(5) Writing in 1878, O’Laverty must have had some basis for stating Agnews at Ballygowan and Kilwaughter were related but he fails to provide a source.
M’Kerlie stated over a century ago “the O’Gnieves are not to be put aside…. , nor should their existence be ignored." (6)
Today we have better access to old manuscripts and documents than ever before and DNA is providing new insight. By coupling the two we believe that an answer to our question is at hand.