Sunday, December 20, 2009

One of my ancestors was a bastard

I can imagined being admonished by a relative: "William, that's no way to talk about our ancestors!" Well, it's the literal truth. The ancestor in question is referred to technically—whether we like it or not—as a royal bastard. The story starts with King John.

In my article of 3 September 2009 entitled Genealogical breakthrough [display], I indicated that this monarch was one of my countless great(x22)-grandfathers. As every English-speaking schoolchild knows, one of the only positive acts of this appalling king consisted of his being forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. If you read his biography, you'll see that John married twice, to two women named Isabelle, the second of whom was the French matriarch of the Plantagenêt dynasty of English kings. But who was this alleged offspring of John named Richard FitzRoy, born in 1187, who was an ancestor of mine? Well, he was an illegitimate son of the 20-year-old future king and his cousin Suzanne de Warenne.

It's interesting to examine the names by which this bastard son is known. Sometimes he is given the Chilham surname, simply because he was born at Chilham Castle in Kent. (By coincidence, centuries later, this castle happened to be the residence of the late John Skeffington, 13th Viscount Massereene, with whom I once exchanged a series of letters about Skeffington genealogy.) I've seen him referred to as Richard Fitzjohn Chilham. Most often, though, he's known simply as Richard FitzRoy. Now, the elements of this apparent surname, FitzRoy, are synonymous with the French words fils (son) and roi (king). A FitzRoy is therefore a son—generally illegitimate—of a king, and this surname has always been a commonly-used generic title for royal bastards. After my ancestor Richard Fitzroy, there were two other famous FitzRoys:

Henry FitzRoy [1519–1536], 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, was the bastard son of King Henry VIII and his mistress Elizabeth Blount.

— A century later, another Henry FitzRoy [1663-1690], 1st Duke of Grafton, was the bastard son of King Charles II and Barbara Villiers.

I insist upon the fact that all the three Fitzroys I've mentioned carried this false "surname", not because they were related, but simply because they were bastard sons of a king.

A descendant of the Duke of Grafton, Charles Augustus FitzRoy [1796-1858], was the governor-general of Australia, and he named the New South Wales town of Grafton in honor of his grandfather Augustus FitzRoy [1735-1811], 3rd Duke of Grafton. And that's where I happened to be born (funnily enough, in a maternity clinic named Runnymede) in 1940.

For French readers interested in genealogy, I might point out that my ancestral line back up through King John and then William the Conqueror runs into a brick wall (maybe I should speak rather of a stone wall, or a wooden palisade) at the level of a fine 10th-century fellow named Conan I de Bretagne. (I assume he was a fine fellow, and I imagine that he might have been an ancestor of my ex-wife Christine, but the truth of the matter is that I know nothing whatsoever about him.) Besides, nobody will be surprised to hear that, at the level of King John, we're exactly 14 generations down from Charlemagne.

POST-SCRIPTUM: Here's a photo I took in August 2006 of the maternity clinic where I was born:

The former verandahs of the original building have been closed by insipid weatherboard walls with modern windows, and the base of the façades has been bricked in, producing the global effect of a dull cube. All the old-world architectural charm of the original edifice—which used to be of a greenish-gray color—has disappeared.

Having learned a few months ago that I descend from a royal bastard named Fitzroy—son of the future monarch who would sign reluctantly the Great Charter of Freedoms at Runnymede on 16 June 1215, laying the foundations of constitutional law as it still exists today—I'm amused to discover allusions to these events (of a strictly fortuitous and superficial nature) at the spot in the Antipodes where my peephole opened on 24 September 1940.

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