Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Painted myself into a genealogical corner

WARNING: This lengthy and rather austere article is intended for a limited readership of fellow genealogical researchers.

When I first started to explore my paternal genealogy, three decades ago, I envisaged my research according to the following schema:

At the top of the schema, the red arrow corresponds to the history of an ancient English family that came into existence, in the wake of the Norman Conquest, in a village of present-day Leicestershire. Around 1800, the celebrated English historian John Nichols spoke of this village and family in the following elogious terms:

This village gave name to the Skevingtons, an ancient and noble family, who have continued owners thereof for several centuries; and they have produced many men of note and abilities, who have repeatedly by their lives adorned the historic page. Few families in the kingdom can boast of more ancient and honourable descent, or have more eminently distinguished themselves on all occasions.

For the moment, we have no idea of the identity of the Conqueror's companion who became the progenitor of the people to be known in England, later on, as Skeffington (or a spelling variant on that term). It's quite likely that this Norman patriarch actually left older brothers on the family estates in Normandy… and it's thinkable that descendants of these older brothers exist today, maybe even in Normandy. As a longtime Francophile, I've always imagined that it would be a fabulous thrill to meet up, today, with genetic cousins in modern France… and DNA testing means that this possibility is becoming plausible.

Back in 1981, when I started my genealogical research into Skyvington ancestors, it was a rather bare-bones affair. My grandfather had even assured me that no records concerning his ancestors could possibly exist on the surface of the planet, and that the last traces of his background had been wiped out by the Blitz! This, of course, was sheer nonsense… but I now realize that he may have been intent upon avoiding embarrassing questions concerning his father, mentioned in my article of 3 May 2010 entitled Family-history shock [display]. In any case, my research soon led me back over half-a-dozen generations, ending up with a George Skivington [1670-1711] of Dorset. Throughout this research, I've been constantly on the lookout for events that might enable my backward-pointing green arrow to meet up with the mainstream red arrow. In other words, I've been trying to determine the exact point at which my Skivington/Skyvington branch might have broken away from the mainstream Skeffington line.

Let me summarize rapidly some of the major mileposts on that red arrow… which are presented in detail in my Skeffington monograph, whose chapters can be downloaded from this website. The earliest-known members of the English family were referred to as John de Skefynton [1188], Simon de Scheftinton [1193] and Odo de Scevington [1231].

In the first quarter of the 16th century, during the reigns of the Tudor kings Henry VII and Henry VIII, two knights appeared on the British historical scene: Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535] and his young brother Sir John Skeffington [1470-1525]. Artillery skills had launched William's career, and his nickname was the Gunner. His son Thomas, too, was a soldier.

Over two centuries later, another major Skeffington milestone was the London marriage in 1654 of Sir John Skeffington of Fisherwick [1629-1695] to Mary Clotworthy, which enabled him to obtain the Irish Massereene viscountcy. From that point on, alongside the identified offspring of the Massereene lords, various unidentified branches of folk named Skeffington started to appear, first in Ireland, and later in the New World. Personally, I've never succeeded in determining their exact time-place origins.

In a letter to me in 1980, the 13th Viscount Massereene referred flippantly to this proliferation of Irish Skeffingtons as "quite a varied bag", while admitting the possibility of cases of illegitimate children. In any case, to identify the patriarchs of such branches, their living descendants would need to work backwards… in the same routine manner that I've adopted for my Skyvington research. That would be their only hope of discovering possible links with the mainstream Skeffington line. For example, I've often heard of a certain Peter Skeffington, born in Ireland around 1785, whose sons emigrated to the New World. I see half-a-dozen Skeffington males who might have been the natural father of this Peter, at that troubled moment in the history of the Skeffingtons (when the lunatic 2nd Earl of Massereene was still lingering in a Paris prison for debtors). Maybe a Canadian or American descendant of this Peter should spend time searching for traces of their ancestor in the PRONI [Public Record Office of Northern Ireland] in Belfast, which apparently houses all the extant Skeffington/Massereene family archives.

Today, the tip of the red arrow is John Skeffington, the 14th Viscount Massereene. Concerning this 70-year-old gentleman (who doesn't give me the impression that he's particularly interested in family history), an important point must be made. There would be no point whatsoever in looking for Y-chromosome matches between the viscount and Normans who might be our genetic cousins. Why not? Well, the Skeffington male genetic line was broken through the marriage of Harriet Skeffington with Thomas Foster in 1810. Since then, the male progeny is indeed called Skeffington, but their Y-chromosomes are those of Thomas Foster. On the other hand, illegitimate Skeffington offspring who existed before the time of that marriage could well convey the original Y-chromosomes of the Norman patriarchs. Regardless, I advise all Skeffington males concerned by genealogy to get their DNA tested!

Now, what has been happening concerning my green arrow, and the likelihood of its running into the red arrow? Well, the discovery of the above-mentioned George Skivington in Dorset means that the tip of my green arrow has moved backwards to such an extent that my Ski(y)vington family history could not have been linked to the Massereene lords or Irish Skeffingtons. That's to say, the Massereene dynasty and the Irish Skeffingtons are simply not a part of my personal family history. So, I don't intend to carry on researching in this arena.

The separation between the green and red arrows extends still further back in time. Recently, I've encountered references to rural families and individuals whose name is written as Skevington, who are anterior to the Tudor lords. In other words, the time slot in which my little green arrow might join up with the mainstream red arrow can only be somewhere during the four centuries between 1066 and the Tudor lords. In other words, much of what I have written in my Skeffington monograph turns out to be totally irrelevant as far as my personal family history is concerned. And it's in that sense that I say, jokingly, that I've painted myself into a genealogical corner!

To put it bluntly, I now have every right to wonder who in fact, in this whole affair, is legitimately "mainstream": the noble dynasty that emanated from the Tudor lords, or my humble line of Ski(y)vingtons? On their side, the advantages are significant, primarily in numbers (all those folk named Skeffington), historical celebrity (but let us not exaggerate) and the quality of archives. An advantage on our side, however, is the regularity of generations of modest rural folk, devoid of the crimes, notoriety, legacy quarrels and sheer madness that have often characterized the noble Skeffingtons. And above all, on the Ski(y)vington side, there is still the very real possibility of our direct Y-chromosome descent from the anonymous Norman patriarch who reached England with the Conqueror.

Since I've been able to acquire a certain amount of experience in Skeffington history, I would like to tidy up my monograph so that it might be of use to researchers. That is, I don't intend to throw out the baby with the bath water. But, while continuing to advocate the potential of DNA testing, I'll have to make it clear to readers that it is beyond me (no longer within my personal domain of interest) to attempt to construct any kind of genealogical chart concerning the possible origins of Irish and New World Skeffingtons. Even the genealogy of such a major historical figure as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington remains, for me, a mystery. As I've been saying for years, I would hope that concerned researchers end up tackling the question of the history of Irish Skeffington families.

Meanwhile, I shall transfer the strictly Ski(y)vington fragments of my research to another monograph: in fact, to the document I recently started entitled They Sought the Last of Lands.

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