Category Archives: Knights of Old-Yikes!

Those Genealogy Commercials Didn’t Pan Out for Me


A couple of years ago I started a couple of genealogy projects.  Ya keep
seeing these heartworming, uh, I mean heartwarming, commercials about
delighted people discovering the secrets of the DNA donors who were
their ancestors.  There seem to be a lot of awwwws and ooooohhhs, and
nothing but happy discoveries depicted in those commercials.

However, if you happen to come from a handful of relatively recent
“gateway” ancestors, you may be able to follow the trail back through many
centuries if the ancestors had money, estates or titles, whether noble or
royal.  That’s because, for that group, records had to be kept for reasons of
inheritance, possible consanguinity issues, political considerations, strategic
and tactical alliances and so forth.

So then, after I finished compiling a bunch of pedigree sheets I put the ancestors all into a spreadsheet which became the basis for a searchable database of my
numerous ancestors.

Then I started looking up some of the names on the spreadsheet, picking them at random because I recognized the names, or they came from somewhere I knew nothing about, or even because I liked the sound of their names.

Unfortunately many of my ancestors turned out not be the easiest folks to
love.  For example, because some friends were going to Prague I looked up
my Prague ancestors.  For starters, some of them were allegedly born in
Prague before Prague had even been founded, allegedly by a lady named
Libuse–a many greats grandmother, who was a prophetess and rode a white
horse. (She sounds nice.)  She and her husband Premysl, a humble
ploughman, founded the Premyslid dynasty.

I followed that family line and came to an interesting name, Vratislav/Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia. A quick internet search revealed that he was Good King Wenceslaus’ dad.  “Wow,” I was thinking, “I’m descended from Santa Claus.” Yeah, yeah, I know, Santa Claus was supposedly St. Nicholas but Wenceslaus’ name is widely associated with Christmas too, I guess because he used to give gifts to the poor.

Except, it turned out not to be Wenceslaus who was my ancestor.  It was his
brother, Boleslav, who was my many greats grandfather.  That would be
Boleslav “the Cruel”.  He actually had Wenceslaus assassinated, and even
participated in the deed, stabbing his brother with his own lance.

Yikes, that’s not the warm and fuzzy I was expecting.  Of course expecting
warm and fuzzy feelings from the Middle Ages is a fool’s errand.  There
was no warm and fuzzy in the Middle Ages.  It was an unrelentingly violent,
vicious, cruel and unspeakably monstrous time when life didn’t cut anyone
in Europe any slack.

A relative of Boleslav’s, Lidmila ze Psova was murdered at the command of
her daughter-in-law Drohimira.  The grandmother of Boleslav “the Cruel,”
she was strangled with her veil.

Okay, that one didn’t turn out so well, so I searched for more biographical
info about my family antecedents.

Cynan “Garwen” ap Brochwell/Brochfail caught my eye. The Welsh were
great warriors and I’d read about his horse, one of the three principal steeds
of Britain, in the Welsh Triads of the Horses.  (The English translation of his
horse’s name is “tall black-tinted one”.)

Cynan turned out to be a Welsh war chieftain whose personal bard was the
famed Taliesin, some of whose works are still extant.  Taliesin’s poem about
Cynan is one of those surviving tales.  Supposedly the heraldry on Cynan’s
shield depicted three white horse heads on a sable field.  Ooooh, I love
horses.  So I looked him up.

Jeez, man. The Saxons of Britain at the time worshiped a special breed of
white horses, which were never ridden or used for work. They were solely
for prophecy and had their own priests who were the only ones who could
interpret the neighings and prancings of the horses to glean their prophetic
meaning.

Cynan, presumably to terrorize the Saxons, killed the white horses and
lopped off their heads.  Grandpa!  How could you?  This wasn’t turning out
at all the way the genealogy commercials do.

Then there was “Black William” DeBraose who was hung publicly by
Llywelyn “the Great” ap Iorwerth, Prince of Wales, after Llywelyn caught
him in the bedchamber of Llywelyn’s wife, the illegitimate daughter of King
John.

And Black William’s grandfather, William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bramber
and Lord of Abergavenny, another ancestor, was even worse, having come
down to us in history as “the Ogre of Abergavenny”.  He achieved that
sobriquet as a result of having invited a number of Welsh princes and their
retainers to Christmas dinner in 1175.  De Braose and his men murdered
every last Welsh guest on that day which was traditionally a time for settling
differences in Wales.

De Braose had been a big favorite of King John but they had a falling out.
When he fell out of favor he bolted for France, leaving behind his wife,
Maud de Braose and his eldest son, William, to take the rap for him.  King
John had them walled up inside one of his castles where they presumably
starved to death.  This event was one of the more flagrant of John’s many
abuses of his barons which ultimately resulted in him having to sign the
Magna Carta.  So I guess that’s an upside.  Sort of.

After that I took a break from genealogy. I’m not sure I want to know what
my ancestors were up to. They seem absolutely terrifying!

How come the genealogy commercials don’t mention the possibility that you might not be all that thrilled to find out from whence you came?

Conquest — What’s in It for the Conqueror?


Since we seem to be heading back into the Middle Ages, I’ve been reading up on the history of those grim centuries.  William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, King of England, invaded Britain in October of 1066 and won the Battle of Hastings, and the country of England.  (The Welsh took a lot longer to be subdued.)  By Easter of 1067, William, having been crowned William I, King of England on Christmas Day 1066 at nearly new Westminster Abbey, returned to the family home at Fecamp, Normandy and had a huge party.  (Earl Harold Godwinsson had also been crowned in that abbey, on January 6, 1066, succeeding Edward the C0nfessor and totally pissing off William, Duke of Normandy who was pretty sure that damn crown was supposed to be his.)

Various historical sources provide details.  This one below, from Orderic Vitalis’ “The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, Vol. 2” (Forester translation) speaks volumes about the luxury to which William was quickly becoming accustomed.  Supposedly he brought everything he’d captured in England with him when he returned for the Easter festivities at the small Northwest French harbor town–even people whose number included many nobles who were not specifically called hostages, but were.

…The feast of Easter was kept at the abbey of the Holy
Trinity at Fecamp, where a great number of bishops, abbots,
and nobles assembled. Earl Radulph, father-in-law of
Phillip king of France- with many of the French nobility,
were also there beholding with curiosity the long-haired
natives of English-Britain, and admiring the garments of
gold tissue, enriched with bullion, worn by the king and his
courtiers. They also were greatly struck with the beauty of
the gold and silver plate, and the horns tipped with gold at
both extremities. …

So that’s what it’s all about?  Snazzy duds, including “garments of gold tissue” and  “horns tipped with gold at both extremities”?  Is that like, the emperor has no clothes?   One has to wonder–was gold tissue to be worn over more substantially woven clothing?  It sounds, well, itchy.

The Hastings invasion sounds pretty much like the Vikings’ original 793 invasion of England at Lindisfarne.  By the time of William II, Duke of Normandy that country was wealthy, fat and soft, ripe for another round of plundering.  William II, Duke of Normandy was only five generations removed from his gr gr gr grandfather, Rollo the Viking.  (The succession was; from Rollo’s son, William le “Longue Epee” styled Duke of Normandy,  to his son Richard I, Duke of Normandy, “Sans Peur” (“the Fearless”) to his son, Richard II, Duke of Normandy (“the Good”) to his son Richard III Duke of Normandy who was succeeded by his brother Robert I, Duke of Normandy (either “the Devil” or “the Magnificent” depending on who’s doing the talking,) who was the father of William (“the Bastard” or “the Conqueror” depending on who’s doing the talking).  William’s conquest was just another Viking invasion.  You might say it was sort of an “apple not falling far from the tree” kind of thing.  It was often speculated that Robert (“the Devil”so called because of suspected fratricide, or “the Magnificent” because, well, I don’t know why) had his brother bumped off so he could have the Duke of Normandy title, but this was never proven.  William,the Conqueror, gr gr gr grandson of Rollo the Viking, conquered England just 273 years after the Vikings first came a-raiding at Lindisfarne.

It’s common knowledge that when William I of England died, his servants stole everything they could carry and left him, basically, lying in his underwear.   Then his corpse wasn’t attended to in a timely manner and it swelled up, then burst during the attempt to inter William.

What isn’t such common knowledge (I think) is that at William’s funeral, before he popped, someone spoke up with a claim to the patch of ground he was to be buried in.  Turns out William had ripped off the land from this guy’s father years before.  So the knights and family retainers had to take up a collection to pay off the gravesite claimant in order for the ill-fated funeral to proceed.  (Can’t ya just see them looking at each other, rolling their eyes and waiting for someone else to cough up some cash.)

Apparently, after the Conqueror’s corpse popped open there was an unbearable stench and the services were hastily concluded.  That would be by the clerics whose livelihoods had been provided for generously by William for decades but who wouldn’t even endure his stinking corpse long enough to provide a moment or two of dignity for the much abused dead king.

Yeah, generally there are plenty of assets in it for conquerors.  But in the long run, the second he (or she) is vulnerable, supporters and sycophants will take all their stuff and leave them lyin’ dead on the floor in their underwear.  They can’t even count on a decent burial.

Humans are such a mystery!  They seem smart but keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

 

 

 

How I Got My Name and the Conqueror of Ossory


The following incident took place sometime in 1169 or 1170 during
Strongbow’s conquest of Ireland.  Ossory was a petty kingdom of Ireland at
the time.  The occasion of the Irish conquest by Strongbow was at the
behest of Dermot Mac Murchada, King of Leinster who, after stealing
another king’s wife, was dispossessed of his kingdom.  Strongbow was
promised Dermot’s daughter Aoife (MacDermot) by her father, if he would
help him (Dermot) get his kingdom back.  Strongbow‘s real name was
Richard Fitzgilbert De Clare and his wife thus became Aoife MacDermot De
Clare when she married Strongbow.  (And that is from whence comes my
name.)  There is a famous painting depicting the marriage of Strongbow and Aoife in the Irish National Gallery.  Dermot, who was responsible for Ireland
being conquered by Strongbow and held in subjugation by the English from
that time until the 19th or 20th century, depending upon how you look at it,
is one of the great villains of Irish history.

Here’s what happened before the conquest of Ossory during that war,
according to Gerald of Wales in his history The Conquest of Ireland.
(Gerald was not only a medieval historian, he was also the tutor of  two sons
of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, King of England, i.e. Richard the
Lionheart and John Lackland, later King John.)

…Duvenald, the prince of Ossory, was the most implacable of all the
enemies of Dermitius (Aoife Note; Dermot) and some time before,
when the son of Dermitius was his prisoner, having become jealous of him,
he carried his vengeance to such a pitch, that he put out his eyes. …

Dermot’s, or actually Strongbow’s, army assaulted Ossory and won the day.
Dermot wasn’t exactly gracious in victory.

…The victory being thus gained, about two hundred
of the enemies’ heads were collected and laid at the
feet of Dermitius, who, turning them over one by one, in
order to recognize them, thrice lifted his hands to heaven
in the excess of his joy, and with a loud voice returned
thanks to God most High.  Among them was the head of
one he mortally hated above all the rest, and taking it up
by the ears and hair, he tore the nostrils and lips with his
teeth in a most savage and inhuman manner. …

And we think we live in violent times.  Talk about needing an anger management course.

If I could go back in time and speak to Dermot, I think the conversation
would go something like this:

“Now, ya just gotta reel it in a notch or two.  Calm down.  Y’know, attenuate your responses just a tad.  Here, I have something for you.  It’s called Prozac. Really, take one, you’ll feel much better and maybe won’t be so high strung.  No, I am not possessed of the devil, it’s just a pill.  Hey, put down that sword…”

 

Mercy or Vengeance


Diarmat Mac Murchada (Dermot) King of Leinster, had been dispossessed
by the High King of Ireland.  He sought assistance from Henry II, King of
England to regain his kingdom.  Henry gave his knights permission, if they
wished, to join Dermot’s cause.  Richard “Strongbow” Fitzgilbert De Clare,
Earl of Striguil took him up on it.

Dermot even threw his daughter Aoife overboard, metaphorically speaking;
as an incentive, he gave her as wife to Strongbow.  There is a famous painting
in the Irish National Gallery, “The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife”
which depicts this event.

In 1170 Strongbow sent an advance party of ten men-at-arms and 70
archers, led by Raymond le Gros, to Ireland.  Near Waterford, at Dundonolf,  about 3,000 men of Waterford engaged Raymond’s small band and, due to the
inopportune tactics employed by the Irish, amazingly, Raymond’s contingent won the day.  It was a long fight and Raymond and his men grew so weary of cutting people down with their swords that they finally resorted to just throwing the Irish off a cliff into the sea where they drowned.

But they also captured 70 Irishmen and there was a public debate about
what to do with the captives.  The noble Raymond pleaded eloquently for their lives, but a more practical knight, Hervey de Montmaurice, was of another mind.  The debate is relevant and apropos today, given the issue of terrorism and the war on it.  Here is how the debate went.

Raymond’s Speech
“RAYMOND, contending earnestly for the liberation of the prisoners, spoke
thus :”
…Their enterprise was honourable, and they are not to be treated as thieves,
insurgents, traitors, or freebooters.   They are now in such a position that
mercy ought rather to be shown them for example’s sake, than cruelty to
torture them. …
…Let our clemency, therefore, procure for us the noble distinction that we
who have conquered others can conquer our own fury and wrath. …
…How worthy is it of a great man, in the midst of his triumphs, to count
it for sufficient revenge, that vengeance is in his power? …
…It is the part of a brave man to consider those as his enemies with whom
he is contending for victory, but to consider the vanquished as fellow-men;
that while courage brings war to an end, humanity may add to the blessings
of peace.  Mercy is, therefore, much more worthy of a noble man than
victory; the one is a virtue, the other the effect of fortune. …
…but as they were made prisoners, their lives were granted, and they have
been readmitted from the rank of our enemies to the common fellowship of
men, it would be a great stain on our honour, and bring us to great disgrace,
if we were now to inflict on them the punishment of death.

“His discourse…was received by a murmur of applause from the people”

Then Hervey had a go at it.
Hervey’s Speech
…Was that the way by which Julius Caesar and Alexander of Macedon
conquered the world ?  Did the nations voluntarily flock together from all
parts to such spectacles of mercy, or were they not rather compelled to
submit to the yoke by force of arms and the terrors of cruelty? …
…Raymond argues with wonderful mildness, as if we had already
subjugated these nations, and we had only to do with treating them kindly,
or as if our enemies were so few, that, with such valour as ours, it matters
not that we augment their numbers, whereas the whole population of Ireland
are leagued for our destruction, and not without reason. …
…Tell me, I pray you, whether Raymond’s acts are not inconsistent with his
words. Let him answer me whether, if the enemy should advance to storm
our camp, and by any chance should succeed, they would deal mercifully
with us. …
…We must so employ our victory that the death of these men may strike
terror into others, and that, taking warning from their example, a wild and
rebellious people may beware of encountering us again. …

How did it work out?

“Hervey’s opinion was approved by his comrades, and the wretched
captives, as men condemned, had their limbs broken, and were cast
headlong into the sea, and drowned.”

So much for “The quality of mercy is not strained”.

The account is taken from The Conquest of Ireland, by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), a 12th century historian and tutor to  two kings, Richard the Lionheart and his brother, John.

How Depression Was Cured in Wales in the Middle Ages


Depression has dogged our species time out of mind.  While today we treat it with a combination of pharmaceuticals and counseling therapies, back in the 12th century, in Wales, they took a different approach.  I came across the account below in the Brut Y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes) of how joy was restored to the life of Prince Owain “Gwynedd” after his bout with depression back in 1161.

Spoiler alert–definitely NOT recommended for 21st century.

…In the same year, Howel, son of Ieuav, son of Owain got possession of the castle of Tavalwern in Cyveiliog through treachery; and on that account, Owain Gwynedd* fell into such grief, that neither the splendour of a kingdom, nor the consolation of any thing else, could assuage or draw him from his resentment.  And nevertheless, though insupportable sorrow affected the mind of prince Owain, a sudden joy from the foreknowledge of God raised him up.  For the same Owain moved an army into Arwystli, as far as Llandinam; and after they had obtained a vast booty, the men of Arwystli assembled together, being about three hundred men, under Howel, son of Ieuan, their lord, to pursue after the booty as far as the bank of the Severn.  And when Owain observed his enemies coming suddenly on, he incited his men to fìght; and the enemies took to flight, and were killed by Owain and his men, so that scarcely a third of them escaped home.  And when that joy had filled the mind of Owain he returned to hís former state, having been released from his sorrow; and he repaired the castle. …

That’s it.  Invade someone else’s territory, ravage the countryside, steal as much stuff as you could carry, kill two thirds of the pursuers and, voila,  headache gone.  As I said–definitely not a 21st century remedy.

And we think extreme sports are dangerous.

*Owain, son of Gruffydd, son of Cynan, son of Iago

The quote is from the Brut Y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes) edited by Rev. John Williams ap Ithel, 1860. Pg 197

So You Think You Have Marital Strife and In-law Problems?


Here’s an illustrative tale about marriage and family life in the fractious Middle Ages during the Age of Chivalry.   Marcher Baron William deBraose, lord of Abergavenny, was born around 1204.   He was the qunitessential A-lister.  Wealthy, well-connected, well born–what could go wrong?  The Welsh called him “Black William”.   Now before he came along the Welsh already hated his family, the deBraoses, who were, collectively, a powerful marcher lord family (of Norman origin of course) with a history of abuses of the Welsh. His grandfather, William deBraose, 4th Lord of Bramber, was known as the “Ogre of Abergavenny” (“the Ogre”) because in 1175 he invited several Welsh princes to Christmas Day festivities to settle their differences and had all of them and their entire retinues murdered.  Ho, ho, ho and Merry Christmas indeed!

The aforementioned Ogre had also been suspected of being complicit in the disappearance of Arthur of Brittany, at one time  heir-designate to the English throne, chosen by Richard Lionheart instead of his brother, John.   Arthur’s father  Geoffrey was a son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a middle brother between Richard Lionheart and youngest son (eventually king) John.

Arthur of Brittany was no peach.  He had revolted against his uncle King John in 1202 and besieged his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, who John had to rescue.  It was for these acts that John captured and imprisoned him the same year, leaving the aforementioned Ogre in charge of the captive.  In 1203 Arthur disappeared, never to be heard of or from again.  It was widely assumed that his uncle, King John was responsible and it was said that he and/or the Ogre had bumped off Arthur, whose body was found by a fisherman.  It had supposedly been weighted down and dumped in the Seine but became entangled in the fisherman’s net.

Subsequently the Ogre/4th Lord of Bramber, alas, had a falling out with King John and had to flee for his life, escaping England disguised as a beggar and leaving behind his wife, Maud de St. Valery de Braose and his eldest son William, both of whom John threw into prison, where they were eventually believed to have been starved to death after being walled up somewhere within Corfe castle.

Compared to that, Black William could be considered only mildly delinquent.  Reginald, Black William’s far less notorious dad, was a son of  the Ogre but William was the one who took after his grandfather.

Against this backdrop of familial dysfunction, Llywelyn the Great (Prince of Gwynedd who eventually ruled most of Wales) was married to Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John, (The Pope later legitimized her. I think money was involved.)  During a visit to Llywelyn’s castle Black William was caught in Llywelyn’s bedchamber with Joan.  Llywelyn had him hung publicly (by one account naked) on 2/5/1230.  William was only 26 and he’s still infamous, so I guess you could say he carried on the family tradition.

Yesterday though, I came across an interesting bit of trivia about that event. After hanging his wife’s frisky lover Llywelyn graciously sent a letter of apology to the wife, Eva Marshall (one of the five daughters of Sir William Marshall “the best knight who ever lived”) for having hung her husband.  His excuse was that his fellow Welsh nobles hated her husband and his family so much and  were so outraged at this public disgrace that he, Llywelyn–basically to keep up appearances–had to avenge/revenge the scandal/offense of  banging the queen and getting caught.  Amusingly (sort of) Llywelyn and the Marshall family had already arranged a marriage of one of Eva Marshall’s daughters to his only legitimate son.  He made some reference in the letter to that contractual arrangement, which went forward despite one of the in-laws having hung the father of half of the bridal couple.  The wedding feast must have been awkward.

Lywelyn seems like a polite guy.  As we all know, you should send your hostess a note after a social engagement gone awry.  Does his letter to Eva  count as socially progressive? Maybe pragmatic?  I guess that’s what passed for being sensitive back in the days of chivalry.

Eva? She inherited all of her husband’s lands, titles and wealth, and became the direct ancestor of all the English monarchs after Henry VIII and several before him.  One suspects she wasn’t all that heartbroken at Black William’s demise.

In view of all this, perhaps the Clintons aren’t really all that high on the family dysfunction scale.  How’d you like to argue with some of these folks at Thanksgiving dinner?