Category Archives: Sixth Century Knight

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

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

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?

Pyll, Son of Llywarch Hen; “impetuous as a fire through a chimney”

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of medieval manuscripts, especially a lot of Welsh tales and poetry, mostly translated in the 19th century.   (In part it’s to escape the dreary prospects of this sorry election season.  You’ll find no heroes in that tale!)  Some of the verses from the Red Book of Hergest/Hergist speak of a man, Llywarch Hen (Llywarch the old) who lived probably in the fifth or sixth century.  Llywarch was (supposedly) both a bard and a warrior. Normally I’m not a big fan of poetry but some of these verses are so elegantly spare, immediate and illuminating that they carry you across the centuries and reveal the subject with such clarity that it seems almost contemporaneous.  In the following verses Llywarch Hen is mourning the death of one of his 24 sons, Pyll .

Note; In verse LII the reference to Pyll gracefully placing his thigh over the saddle is speaking of one of the requirements for a man to become a knight.  One of the benchmarks for a knight in training required that he be able to leap into the saddle of his warhorse, unassisted, in full armor.  (Yikes!)

MWG MAWR DREFYDD from the Red Book of Hergist, translation by William Forbes Skene

“VI.  The best three men under heaven
To defend their homes,—
Pyll, and Selyv, and Sandev.”…

… XLIX When Pyll was slain, gashing was the wound;
And the blood on the hair seemed horrible;
And on both banks of the Ffraw there was violence.

L.  A room might be formed for the wings of shields,
Which would hold one standing upright,
That were broken in the grasp of Pyll.

LI.  The chosen man amongst my sons,
When each assaulted the foe,
Was fair Pyll, impetuous as a fire through a chimney.

LII.  Gracefully he placed his thigh over the saddle.
Of his horse, on the near and far side—
Pyll, impetuous as the fire through a chimney.

LIII.  He was gentle, with a hand eager for battle;
He was second to no treasure;
He was a bulwark on the course–
Fair Pyll!  fearful is his covering of separation.

LIV.  When he stood at the door of his tent,
On the dark-gray steed,
At the sight, the wife of Pyll would recognise a hero

LV.  There was fractured before Pyll a strong skull;
Seldom would the silent coward be concealed from him;
The weak is satisfied without anything

LVI.  Fair Pyll, widely spread his fame:
Am I not invigorated since thou hast existed
As my son, and joyful to have known thee?

LVII.  The best three men under heaven
That guarded their habitation,—
Pyll, and Selyv, and Sandev.

LVIII.  A shield I gave to Pyll;
Before he slept was it not perforated?
To promise it carelessly was to depreciate it.

LIX.  Should Cymry come, and the predatory host of Lloegr,
And many from distant parts,
Pyll would show them conduct.

LX.  Nor Pyll nor Madawg would be long lived,
If they preserved the custom.
Would they surrender? they would not surrender! they would never ask for truce!

LXI.  Behold here the grave of a faultless one and warlike;
With the Bards his fame went, where would not have gone,
Pyll, if longer he had continued?

Yeah. Pyll, “impetuous as a fire through a chimney”.  Seven words reveal a glimpse of the spirit of a man gone from this earth more than a thousand years.  I can almost see him on his dark grey warhorse, in front of his tent, his wife looking on, knowing him for a hero and probably dreading where that would inevitably end.  Unyielding in battle (the ferocious Welsh warriors tended to be like that) he would never seek terms.   And so, he died young.

Fair Pyll.  Impetuous as a fire through a chimney.  So glad to have made your acquaintance, sir.