Thy Name Shall Be Arlington

How did Arlington get its name? Not as nobly as some believe.

Legend—and the Arlington County website—has it that our fair county’s name descends from royalty. Arlington House (the Custis-Lee estate now located inside Arlington National Cemetery) was named after another Custis estate on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which is alleged to have been named in honor of the Earl of Arlington. The English earl was said to have been a cherished patron of the Custis family.

Not so fast.  According to one local historian, John Custis II named his new world estate “Arlington” in 1657, some 15 years before King Charles II named Henry Bennet as the first “Earl of Arlington” in 1672. (Bennet was actually from the English village of Harlington in Middlesex, but the “h” got dropped somehow.)

The research of Warren Clardy, a past president of the Arlington Historical Society, suggests that Custis named his Eastern Shore estate “Arlington” not to immortalize some lofty noble, but to fight that timeless battle against high taxes. Because the family had spent years trading in the Dutch United Provinces—where John Custis II was born before coming to the colonies—he was about to be taxed at a higher “foreigner” rate. Naming his property “Arlington” was a resounding effort to get a break by reminding then-Governor Berkeley of Virginia of the Custis family’s roots in Britain’s scenic Cotswolds. (The village of Arlington is located in the shire of Gloucester, not far from Governor Berkeley’s own ancestral castle.)  

Thus, our connection to the Earl of Arlington is likely a myth. There’s no evidence of any royal patrons, although there were probably plenty of patronizing royals to go around. Henceforth, our jewel of a county must give up any and all claims to royal roots. Although more than a few of us would be happy to change our “estate” name, our dog’s name, and perhaps even that of our first-born child for a little tax relief. After all, Arlington County does manage to have some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

Categories: Local History
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