Showing posts with label Skeffington genealogy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Skeffington genealogy. Show all posts

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dix ans sans Maddie

Les parents Kate et Gerry gardent l'espoir que leur fille Madeleine McCann, disparu il y a dix ans dans la station balnéaire de Praia da Luz (sud du Portugal), serait toujours vivante. Effectivement, un suspect féminin est recherché en ce moment.

La famille McCann provient du village Rothley au cœur du territoire de mes ancêtres Skeffington en Leicestershire.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Objets de mon passé récent

Leurs anciens propriétaires sont partis depuis un moment. Les deux cannes appartenaient aux parents de mon ex-épouse. Les fers à marquer le bétail étaient conçues par mon père an Australie. Les lettres V8 évoquent les moteurs des automobiles Ford des années '40 qui se vendaient dans l'entreprise Skyvington à Grafton. Ces sont mes seuls liens avec un passé rapidement disparue.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Ancient history of my paternal family

It's a long time since I've mentioned my ancient ancestors in the Leicestershire village of Skeffington. I devoted considerable energy to the publication of my books A Little Bit of Irish and They Sought the Last of Lands. Today, I'm tremendously proud of both books, but I believe that I should no longer remain attached to such subjects. Nevertheless, I remain intrigued by ancient paternal genealogy, particularly since I persist—for reasons of genealogical genetics—in seeing myself as a rare survivor of the earliest imaginable patriarch in Leicester. If I were particularly energetic (which I'm not, particularly since falling down the stairs a year ago), I would pursue an interesting line of my paternal genealogy: namely, research into the identity of the Norman fellow who settled in the English place that came to be known as Skeffington.

When I left this subject, prior to falling down the stairs a year ago, I was particularly intrigued by the case of an ancient Norman family called Verdun, who were closely attached to the village of Skeffington. There's even a chance that my earliest male ancestor in Leicestershire might have been a member of this Verdun family.

So, I am still interested in contacting living descendants of this ancient family, to see if they have any Y-chromosome data they could show me (so I could compare it with mine). But there's a major unexpected hitch. The most prominent living Verdun descendant happens to be the husband of... Christine Dupont de Ligonnès. And I don't intend to start asking those people if they might assist me with DNA research.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Being offended is a childish game

In France, I've always found that the very British habit of "being offended" is relatively rare. Let's say that taking offence at verbal criticism certainly happens here from time to time, but less so (in my humble opinion) than on the other side of the English Channel. Indeed the following Victorian adage, familiar to all English-speaking children, would not make much sense to French people:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me.

The English intellectual Richard Dawkins is constantly plagued by would-be offended people, particularly when he criticizes religious beliefs. I can understand his reasons for retweeting the following ugly New Year wishes:

At a trivial personal level, I'm bored by nitwits who send me blatant rubbish through the Internet. A few days ago, in the genealogical domain, an Irish fellow tried to tell me that the first Viscount Massereene [1608-1665] had received his lordship because of the assistance he gave to William of Orange [1650-1702] in the Battle of the Boyne [10 July 1690]. I replied politely that Lord Massereene had died a quarter of a century before this battle, whereupon my Irish correspondant apologized curiously for "offending" me. He failed to realize that I wasn't offended at all. I merely found him a boring idiot, incapable of checking dates before sending me rubbish... and this had nothing to do with his strange idea that I might be "offended".

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Might I have Viking blood?

It's hard to imagine that a quiet and well-behaved old-timer like me might evoke the possibility of his Viking ancestry. Besides, I can’t really vouch for the authenticity of this nice old family portrait—of an ancient ancestor named Sven, on a beach outing with his mates—that was handed down to me by relatives in the Old Country.

Vikings were intrepid adventurers, who were afraid of nothing and nobody… which is not exactly my personal case. Some of them were seafarers who finally settled on the continental shores of the English Channel (like my son François, who is considerably more Viking than I am). On the other hand, the idea of a Viking living in a place like Choranche would be a bit like Nicolas Sarkozy moving into a monastery, and Carla entering a nunnery. (The ex-president has screwed up his return to politics in such a way that my image is maybe not as crazy as it might appear.)

Genealogical research is often similar to science in that we imagine such-and-such a scenario, and then persevere in believing that our speculations might be valid. That’s to say, we only abandon our scenario when we discover that something in our speculations simply doesn’t add up… whereupon we drop it all immediately, like a proverbial load of shit. And there aren’t even any sentimental thanks for the memories. Scientific research is a harsh business. No matter how much poetry was conveyed by the lovely old concept of an omnipresent ubiquitous ether permeating all the infinitesimal interstices of the universe, this theory was trashed instantly and forever as soon as the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, designed to record the existence of ether-drift, returned negative results. In genealogy, of course, we’re light years away from experimental physics, but family-history research and scientific research both necessitate the invention of imaginative yet plausible speculations. And such speculations are “born to die” in the sense that they must be discarded as soon as they no longer correspond to known facts. So, we advance through generations of better and better speculations, while burning all our poorly-built bridges behind us.

For the moment, therefore, I persist in speculating that our Skeffington patriarch in Leicestershire had come across the English Channel from Normandy in the wake of Duke William’s invasion.

Click the YouTube icon to watch a better presentation

I’ve investigated several theories in an attempt to ascertain the surname of this fellow’s family back in Normandy, but I’ve never been able to obtain any firm facts. Let me invent a plausible name for this Norman ancestor: Sven de Cotentin. I would imagine that Sven lived with his wife and children in the vicinity, say, of the modern town of Coutances. They probably led a simple but quite comfortable rural existence in Normandy, enabling Sven and his family to become candidates for settlement in the captured land on the other side of the English Channel.

I’ve always been intrigued by two obvious questions:

1 — When Sven left for England, did he leave any relatives back in Normandy?

2 — Back in Normandy, what was Sven’s family-history background?

As far as the first question is concerned, we might imagine that Sven had brothers or cousins (on his paternal side) who had not wished to move across to England, because they were happy with their life in Normandy. Going one step further, we might find that descendants of these folk exist today in France, maybe still in Normandy. If this were the case, then we can imagine that these people might decide to carry out DNA tests, in which case our Y-chromosomes would match. Alas, in the online Y-chromosome database, I've never yet come upon a living Frenchman whose data looks anything like mine. For this and other reasons, I tend to believe that the probable answer to that first question is negative. If Sven were sufficiently motivated to move across to England, then his male relatives would have surely been equally enthusiastic about this project… unless, of course, they owned valuable properties in Normandy.

Concerning the second question, it’s perfectly possible that Sven’s ancestors were Vikings (like the ancestors of Duke William himself) who had arrived in the Cotentin region during the 9th century, and decided to settle down there. As for their wives, they may well have been local Gallic girls. This speculation leads us to imagine that Sven’s Viking ancestor might have left male relatives back in Scandinavia, and that descendants of these folk might exist today in a land such as Sweden, Norway or Denmark.

Two days ago, I performed one of my regular searches in the Y-chromosome database. As of a couple of months ago, I’ve had a single match, with the Englishman Hugh Courtenay, an oddly-named grandson of my rogue great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959], described here. Well, the name of a new match has just appeared in this Y-chromosome database. Here’s my current summary:

Click to enlarge

The Swedish lady who recently submitted this data—on behalf of her husband’s maternal uncle named Sven-Erik Johansson—has promised to send me the complete set of 67 marker values as soon as they’re available. Incidentally, the earliest known ancestor of Sven-Erik Johansson was a certain Sven Nilsson Durmin [1709-1780]. I'm awaiting explanations from the lady concerning the apparent change in surname.

For the moment, as you can see, my match with Sven-Erik Johansson is based upon a subset of 30 markers, and the so-called “genetic distance” (the difference between our respective values) is 2, which is the same as my distance from the Courtenay values (for 37 markers). Obviously, my excitement is premature, since the Johansson/Skyvington genetic distance might explode beyond acceptable bounds when we obtain the remaining 37 values. But I take advantage of this delay in order to revel in the idea (maybe only momentarily) that I might at last be sailing in the wake of our Viking…

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

French village of family-history relevance

A couple of days ago, I made an intriguing discovery in the domain of my ancient family history. It's a little complicated to describe, but I'll try to summarize the situation. My paternal grandparents—referred to, by the offspring of my generation, as Pop and Ma—were Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] and Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964], seen here in Sydney.

I've practically completed a genealogical document on my paternal grandparents entitled They Sought the Last of Lands, whose chapters can be downloaded here. Concerning the origins of my surname, I'm working on a document entitled Skeffington One-Name Study whose chapters will finally be downloadable here. (For the moment, I've only released the opening chapter of the latter document.)

Normally, when we work backwards in time from a couple such as my grandparents, who came together by chance out in the Antipodes, we would expect that their ancestral lines soon diverge, and that they remain divergent for as far as we move into the past. You only have to perform a little elementary arithmetic, though, to realize that this divergence is generally a temporary illusion. Sooner or later, as you work back in time, the distant ancestors of your grandfather are likely to merge into those of your grandmother (unless, of course, one of your grandparents happened to descend, say, from Australian Aborigines, and the other from Arctic Eskimos). Although this situation is logical, I was amazed when I happened to find that remote forebears of both my paternal grandparents actually lived in the same Old World village, indeed in the same household!

Here is the village in question, known today as Ambrières-les-Vallées and located in the French department of Mayenne:

The village is located on a secondary road between Alençon and Fougères that I used to ride along when I was cycling between Paris and Brittany.

Click to enlarge

I've probably ridden my bike through this intersection, alongside the church of Ambrières-les-Vallées.

At a genealogical level, please don't interpret too literally what I have to say. The historical context to which I'm referring is so far back in time, in the 10th century (before Guillaume, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror), that we have to accept a certain degree of fuzziness in our findings. Don't expect me to show you a photo of a log cabin on the edge of the woods (or even an old stone house) and to explain: "That's the big room where my grandfather's ancestors used to sleep, and here's the corner of the house where their lovely female cousins used to stay whenever they dropped in." The kind of genealogical research results that I'm evoking in the present blog post are generally obtained after lengthy efforts, often stretching over decades (as has been the case for me) and necessitating countless guesses, some which are very bad, whereas others turn out to be quite fruitful, if not perfectly correct. The style of investigations is much like in scientific research, although I hasten to add that genealogy is by no means an exact "science".

Let me outline (without going into details) my genealogical links with this village in Mayenne. In the first half of the 11th century, before the Conquest, Guillaume built a fortress in this village, and he appointed as governor a certain Robert de Verdun, who was so named because his grandfather Godfrey had been the Count of Verdun in Lorraine. This Robert had a son, also named Robert, who was born in the Norman town of Estouteville, and therefore known as Robert d'Estouteville. After the Conquest, these two "surnames" would become famous, both in England and in their native Normandy. People of the Verdun family were among the first settlers in the Leicestershire village of Skeffington, which was the cradle of future families with names spelt Skeffington, Skevington, Skivington, etc. As for the Estouteville family in England, they gave rise to a lineage known as Latton, and my grandmother Kathleen Pickering was a descendant of the Lattons. So, between the father Robert de Verdun and his son Robert d'Estouteville, the village of Ambrières included primordial elements of the two English families from which my grandparents were issued.

Having identified this interesting place and its history, I'm obliged to say that there are still countless loose ends and fuzzy zones in my family history.

POST SCRIPTUM: In the current version of chapter 1 of my ongoing Skeffington One-Name Study, I wrote (somewhat recklessly):
Contrary to what their family name suggests, the de Verduns had nothing to do with the place in Lorraine where a terrible battle was fought during the First World War on the Western Front.
This statement needs to be reexamined and rewritten (maybe enlarged considerably) in the light of what I've just related in the present blog post. As in scientific research, I have to correct constantly my current family-history presentations and "theories" as soon as I happen to realize that they don't seem to fit in with the latest set of alleged facts.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Unexpected links

A few days ago, a friendly reader of my blog sent me a link to a list of online genealogical resources [here]. I replied that an all-important resource was glossed over in the list. Genealogical research is often dominated by black swan happenings, in the sense suggested by Nassim Nicholas Taieb: that's to say, totally unexpected events that upset the nice and tidy little applecart upon which the researcher had been basing his beliefs.

The biggest black swan that has alighted upon my genealogical research over recent months concerned my Pickering relatives (through the family of my paternal grandmother). On 3 March 2012, my bucolic blog post entitled Vicar's garden [display] evoked the rural existence of our forebear Henry Latton [1737-1798],  the vicar of Woodhorn in Northumberland. I ended that blog post by saying that the vicar would have surely disapproved of my science-based atheism.

Be that as it may, my dear great-great-great-great-grandfather did not deserve to be murdered by bandits while returning from an afternoon of betting on the horses at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.

Six months after having evoked this Latton ancestor, I got an unexpected e-mail from an unknown Englishman named Latton who told me an amazing tale. He alleged that his own grandfather, known to him as John Edward Latton, was in fact the same individual designated in my document They Sought the Last of Lands [display] as John Edward Latton Pickering [1851-1926]. In other words, my correspondent was saying that we had a skeleton in one of our family-history closets: a respected Londoner (archivist at the Inner Temple law library) who had invented a new name for himself (borrowed from our Latton ancestors) and forged a marriage certificate enabling him to become a full-fledged bigamist and raise a second family in parallel to his first one. Needless to say, I've got over the surprise by now, and I'm looking forward to meeting up with my new English cousin when he drops in at Gamone with his wife this summer.

That wasn't the only recent black swan. In April 2012, I became really excited about a possible research avenue aimed at elucidating the mystery of the Norman origins of the Skeffington family. In blog posts entitled Patriarch [display] and Skeffington/Verdun links [display], I evoked the identity of a celebrated Norman family with close attachments to the Leicestershire village of Skeffington at the time of the Conquest. I concluded my first blog post, on 27 April 2012, as follows:
Another fascinating question emerges. Is it thinkable that our patriarch Bertram de Verdun might have descendants today in France and elsewhere? Well, to put it mildly, judging from what I've seen through a rapid visit to the Genea website, it would appear that the community of my so-called "genetic cousins" includes many present-day members of the old nobility of Normandy and France.

When I asked that "fascinating question", I had not yet started to look around in France with the aim of contacting living de Verdun descendants. From this point on in the present blog post, I'm obliged to be deliberately vague, because I wish to avoid mentioning names that would be picked up by search engines. Let me explain in roundabout terms that, in April 2011, French police had come upon a nasty crime scene in the city whose mayor was our present prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. They unearthed the bodies of a mother and her four teenage kids. As for the father, he has totally disappeared. Most people consider that the father—whom I shall refer to as X—is indeed the culprit. On the other hand, X's sister is convinced that her brother never murdered his wife and children. In the ongoing crusade aimed at protecting the honor of her brother, this determined lady is assisted by her husband... who happens to bear exactly the same ancient Norman name as the Conqueror's companion associated with the Leicestershire village of Skeffington, evoked in the "fascinating question" that I have just quoted. For all I know, X's brother-in-law could well be a direct descendant of the 11th-century personage who interests me. Naturally, in the context of my Skeffington research, I would be interested in the possibility of examining a description of the Y chromosomes of this present-day Frenchman. For the moment, though, such a request for DNA data would be out of place, and unwise.

POST SCRIPTUM: In the wake of my initial enthusiasm about the possibility that Bertram de Verdun might have been the "elusive patriarch" whom I've been seeking for so long, I now believe that this was a false track. Click here to download the latest version of chapter 1 of my slowly-emerging Skeffington One-Name Study.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The ancient blazon of the Skeffington family is composed of three bull's heads, displayed here in two quarters of the arms of Clotworthy Skeffington [1743-1805], 2nd Earl of Massereene.

The other quarters are occupied by the Clotworthy blazon. The dull motto Per angusta ad augusta might be translated as "Through hard times to prosperity". The supporter on each side is a Stag rampant. I've always been intrigued by the crest: a mermaid holding a mirror in one hand and a hair-comb in the other. This crest has appeared on the arms of Skeffington individuals ever since the Tudor lord Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535]. Here's another example of the Skeffington mermaid, which dates from the 16th century:

This memorial for the linguist Sir John Skeffington [1584-1651] of Fisherwick (Staffordshire) and his wife Ursula [1593-1658] is located on the wall of the ancestral church in Skeffington (Leicestershire).

A few days ago, the Gallica service (attached to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) offered us spontaneously a series of views of a fabulous little treatise on heraldic blazons that dates apparently from the period 1401 to 1450. Click here to see this document.

Inside this French medieval document, I was surprised to find an illustration of the famous mermaid.

I immediately called upon Google and Wikipedia to discover the meaning of the mermaid in a heraldic context. The key concept symbolized by the narcissistic mermaid is vanity, in the sense of the line from Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity." I evoked this theme in a blog post on 22 May 2012 entitled Is the Bible good English literature? [display]. If I understand correctly, placing the mermaid at the crest of a coat of arms is a way of stating that the owner of the arms is of a philosophical nature, inclined to look upon the human adventure in an existentialist spirit. Personally, as a descendant of the Skeffingtons, I like this symbol.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Discovery of a cousin

In a blog post of 7 February 2012 [display], I referred rather rudely to certain individuals in our family tree as "ring-ins", which is an Aussie slang term for an offspring born "out of wedlock" (as the old-fashioned expression puts it). At the risk of offending descendants of such individuals, all I really wanted to do was to draw attention to the fact that, in the case of their male descendants, it's obvious that our Y-chromosome data could not possibly match.

In that blog post, I mentioned the case of a member of the family named Atwell Skivington [1850-1941]. Well, I've just been contacted by a 5th-cousin named Chris Lamble, who lives on the outskirts of London. In the following chart, the left-hand line leads down to my grandfather Ernest Skyvington, whereas the names on the right-hand side lead to the grandparents of Chris.

As you can see, Chris is the great-great-grandson of Atwell Skivington from Iwerne Courtney (Dorset). Chris confirms that Atwell was an illegitimate son of Elizabeth Skivington, and he indicates the identity of his father, named Isaac Atwell (who died at the age of 31).

Up until now, the oldest family photo that I had was a portrait of my great-grandfather William Skyvington (taken in about 1894).

Thanks to Chris, we now have this excellent portrait of Atwell Skivington (taken in about 1920), who belonged to the generation of my great-great-grandfather Frank Skivington [1845-1916].

Between my ancestor William and his father's cousin Atwell, I find that there's a certain physical resemblance. But maybe it's simply because of the mustaches.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Opening chapter of Skeffington study

I've more-or-less terminated the opening chapter of my Skeffington One-Name Study, entitled Elusive patriarch [download], dealing with the half-century that followed the Norman Conquest in Leicestershire, in the vicinity of the village of Skeffington.

As the title of this opening chapter suggests, I haven't been able to track down and identify the patriarch of the Skeffington family in England. So, you might say that the hero of my document is totally absent. On the other hand, as I've often suggested, the widespread adoption of genealogical genetics (Y-chromosome profiles) could well add totally new dimensions to this quest. For the moment, I seem to have no potential relatives whatsoever in the Y-chromosome database, so the current score of my Skeffington matching is a huge zero. In fact, the match hasn't even got under way yet, since I'm still the sole player on the field. My chapter 1 might become interesting in the future, for certain small groups of readers, when the techniques of genealogical genetics have become commonplace.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The Domesday Survey was commissioned by King William I in 1086, two decades after the Battle of Hastings and the start of the Conquest. Today, the original Domesday Book is housed at Britain's National Archives in Kew, located about 15 km to the west of the heart of London (midway between the city and Heathrow airport).

Domesday has been wrongly described, at times, as a census. In fact, it was a nation-wide audit carried out for the assessment of taxes due to the king. The only human individuals whose names appeared in Domesday were noblemen and upper-class citizens who owned land. And, in the rigid class system that has always characterized England, ever since the Norman Conquest, these landholders formed a tiny minority of people.

You can examine the original Latin of the Domesday Book—filled with abbreviations and featuring all sorts of mysterious handwriting quirks—at the following fine website:

To understand what it's all about, I've just purchased the excellent English transcription of the Domesday Book published by Penguin, which arrived here in yesterday's mail.

I spent the entire evening studying the Leicestershire chapter, in the hope of receiving inspiration in my quest for the identity of the Skeffington patriarch.

From the outset, I've been obliged to discard a few false ideas:

— Back in those days, you couldn't become a landholder simply by saving up a few hundred quid (like my father did, out in Australia), and then waiting around for an attractive property to come up for sale. Things didn't work that way in ancient England. A prospective landholder had to be a distinguished individual (preferably a member of the nobility) with friends in very high places (preferably in the royal circle). Then, if you belonged to the Chosen Few, you might be granted land, like manna from heaven. Literally: a manor from above.

— The men, women and children who actually worked the land were all members of the vast category of peasants, whose nature and numbers varied considerably. But they had one thing in common: It was unthinkable that a peasant might rise in a spectacular fashion to the status of a landholder. Back in those days, there were no fairy-tales, and no inspiring stories of slaves breaking their bonds, or pioneers breaking their backs and providing demonstrations of what would be known later on (in the 19th century) as the Protestant Work Ethic.

— Prominent citizens such as the Skeffingtons of Skeffington (who appeared explicitly on the scene as early as 1164) didn't simply emerge from the mud, or crawl out of the woodwork of Skeffington Hall. It's possible that they were there all along, in Leicestershire, ever since the days of the Conqueror. If not, then we must accept the idea (less likely, to my mind) that they were distinguished Norman emigrants with powerful friends in high places in England.

— Last but not least, if the late Viscount Massereene, head of the Skeffington family, once told me that "the Skeffingtons came over with William I from Normandy and were granted land in Leicestershire at Skeffington", then maybe I should respect his words, instead of believing (as I have done for years) that he was simply talking snobbishly through his hat. If there seems to be no explicit evidence of future Skeffingtons accompanying the Conqueror, maybe this simply means that I haven't searched hard enough...

Last night, I made an effort to browse through the Leicestershire chapter in the Domesday Book like a Sherlock Holmes trying to dig up evidence. First, I pursued a perfectly simple and sound idea. In the centuries that followed the Conquest, we learn that the Skeffingtons possessed land, not only in the ancestral village of Skeffington, but in neighboring villages such as Billesdon and Rolleston (both of which lie a few kilometers from Skeffington). So, in looking for the elusive patriarch, we should investigate Doomsday landholders in such places. (Let me remind you that the unique landholder in the village of Skeffington, as indicated unequivocally in the Domesday Book, was King William I himself!)

Another approach is to use the familiar family-history trick that consists of following up given names that would appear to be traditional and popular in certain contexts. Inversely, whenever certain given names are totally absent within a family-history context that concerns us, then we can probably rule out possible ancestors who carried such names. Recently, this trick helped me greatly in the case of 17th-century Skevingtons and Skivingtons named George. In the context of Leicestershire after the Conquest, there were Norman families with given names such as Hugh, Roger, Bertram and Ralph. But I don't recall ever meeting up with these given names within a Skeffington family. So, I'm not inclined to imagine any genealogical links at this level.

Among the early Skeffingtons, there's no doubt that Geoffrey was a traditional and popular given name. Besides, as I said, later Skeffingtons inherited lands at Billesdon. Putting these two clues together, I was interested to find a section of Domesday that describes the land of Geoffrey Alselin in Leicestershire. The transcription reads:
Geoffrey Alselin holds of the king 6 carucates of land in Hallaton, and Norman [holds] of him.
The same Norman holds of Geoffrey 12 carucates of land in Billesdon.
Of this land, 3 knights hold 7.5 carucates...
The  same Norman holds of Geoffrey 10 carucates of land in Rolleston.
Taki held all this land with sake and soke.
Since a carucate was about 120 acres, this fellow named Norman, apparently a friend of Geoffrey Alselin, was in charge of a few big properties all around Skeffington. All this land was seized from a certain Saxon named Taki, the son of Auti. Maybe (I'm inclined to say certainly) Auti and his son Taki had been members of Sceaft's people, who gave their name to the future Norman village of Skeffington. What's more, Norman wasn't all alone as the new lord of the land. Alongside him, in Billesdon, there were three knights in charge of smaller properties. So, all of this sounds very much like a situation involving a nobleman who was a friend of the king (Geoffrey Alselin), his slightly less noble tenant named Norman, and several knights who probably fought for the Conqueror. And, in one way or another, from this community, there emerged a gentleman named Geoffrey de Sceftington who went down in our medieval family history, in 1164/5, as having fully paid an unidentified debt ("he is quit") of 15 shillings and 6 pence.

Incidentally, when Domesday says that Taki held all this land with sake and soke, it sounds a little as if Taki called upon the help of two mates, Sake and Soke. In fact, "with sake and soke" is a common but fuzzy medieval legal expression meaning vaguely that Taki had the right to act, within his domain, as a public prosecutor and judge. [Please correct me if I'm wrong, or if you can explain this expression more correctly and clearly.]

As a guess, I would conclude that one of Geoffrey Alselin's daughters (visiting or living in Billesdon, Rolleston or Hallaton) was probably impregnated by either Norman or one of the three anonymous knights. Later, with help from the girl's father, that new family acquired land in the neighboring village of Skeffington. Finally, Geoffrey de Sceftington would have been a descendant, born in the first quarter of the 12th century, whose given name was meant to recall the noble Alselin forebear. That sounds plausible, no? This is no doubt as close as I've ever come (and maybe as close as I shall ever come) to the possible identification of our Skeffington patriarch.

In any case, for the moment, I'll continue to use this charming little drawing of Norman knights as the cover illustration of my ongoing Skeffington One-Name Study.

Monday, June 25, 2012

When the Mormons go down

For ages, we family-history researchers have all believed that the Mormons are our friends, and that we can take advantage indefinitely of their fabulous databases in Utah, present on the Internet through the time-honored FamilySearch website.

Personally, I've always been a little dubious of this idyllic scenario. While giving thanks constantly to the Mormons for their free services, I couldn't help wondering: What would happen in the genealogical domain if these crazy idolaters of the god Mormon suddenly decided to turn the tap off? Well, I fear greatly that this is what happened a week or so ago...

For some time, they've been touting the merits of their so-called new interface to the database as a friendly godsend, devoid of errors. What they really mean is that the new interface is designed to render user contacts antiseptic, as it were, with nothing more than the display of pure Mormon-authorized data... as distinct from all the stuff that heathen contributors (such as me, for example) might have dared to submit to Utah.

The outcome, for the moment, is catastrophic. It's as if the Mormon database—the summit of irony—has lost its soul.

Personally, I have complained bitterly on their blog. The latter, incidentally, can only be accessed if you're sufficiently well-informed to think of Googling "IGI": the Mormons' International Genealogical Index. Then you have to click around to find out what might be evolving in this domain.

Meanwhile, the new interface greets family-history researchers in pleasant green tones, with the charming silhouette of a young couple and a pair of kids in the mountains, alongside a lonely but auspicious family tree, as if nothing had ever changed in the universe of the prophet Mormon:

The only problem is that... everything has changed in the interface! You simply can't use it any longer as before, to look around for data of all kinds (true and maybe false) about your ancestors.

I posted a complaint on their blog at
William Skyvington says:
June 21, 2012 at 12:11 am

The impossibility of accessing the old interface is, for me, catastrophic. I’m right in the middle of a one-name study on the Skeffingtons, Skevingtons, etc… and nearly all the essential basic data has suddenly become unavailable.
Then I tried to be constructive:
William Skyvington says:
June 23, 2012 at 5:07 am

The IGI database came into existence because of the religious beliefs of its Mormon creators. And countless genealogical researchers bless them for this immense creation, without which modern family-history investigations would not have become a daily reality. It is time, though, to start evoking the perennial dimensions of this affair. Today, we are all alarmed because the LDS church seems to have suddenly decided (for reasons that are not totally clear) to block access to the celebrated old interface. Would it not be imaginable to ask the Mormons if they might be willing to to donate a copy of their database to a world-heritage fund under the auspices of UNESCO ?
 Finally, I succumbed to despair:
William Skyvington says:
June 25, 2012 at 6:48 am

We lamenters of the demise of the good old Mormon website are all crying in the genealogical wildnerness in the sense that most people, finding that the behavior of FamilySearch has become strangely unfriendly, won’t even know how to find help, seek explanations or complain. The privileged few who are submitting comments to the present blog are sufficiently well-informed to know that they should Google “IGI”. Unless you do that, you’ll never be guided gently by the Mormons to the present blog and its litany of complaints. In other words, the old database is dying, it would appear, not with a bang but a whimper.
Happily, at a purely personal level, all is not quite as bleak as I might have suggested (in my enthusiasm for saving the old Mormon website). A year or so ago, I started to sense the fragility and the awkward presentation of data in the Mormon database. So I decided to start saving everything that was offered. Already, my preoccupation was a comprehensive one-name study of Skeffington (Skevington, Skivington, etc). It was clear to me that the major weakness of the Mormon database was that a researcher could not simply make a common-sense request such as: Please give me a listing, in chronological order, of all your Skeffington records.

Well, to cut a long story short, as soon as I sensed that the Mormons were unlikely to react positively to a request such as mine, I decided to adopt a do-it-yourself approach aimed at the production of such chronological list of records for three groups of folks: the Skeffingtons, the Skevingtons and the Skivingtons. This goal necessitated countless hours of manual processing. Today, those three precious Mormon files exist in my personal archives... and it goes without saying that I am prepared to send them freely to researchers who might be interested in such data.

Amazingly (Does God protect genealogists such as me?), I had just terminated my in-depth analysis of Bedfordshire Skevington data at the same moment, last week, when the old Mormon database went down. So, I'm no longer really concerned about whether or not the Mormons might bring their old interface back into existence, since I know exactly what it contained.

The gist of my conclusions is that normally, if my reasoning is right, and if all our respective female ancestors were righteous Christian women who only slept with their lawful husbands (that's a big "if", I agree), then individuals such as Judd Skevington (in Western Australia) and I should share exactly the same Y-chromosomes as the Tudor lord Sir William Skeffington. In that perspective, we Australians (along wth certain Skevingtons in England) might be thought of as the unique "blood descendants" (to use an old-fashioned expression that I detest, because genetic inheritance has nothing to do with blood) of the Leicestershire Skeffingtons. So, exit the Mormons, and enter DNA.

Behind the masks

Over the last few years, this grinning mask has attained planetary notoriety as a symbol of political protest:

Anonymous at Scientology, Los Angeles (2008) — Vincent Diamante

This iconic disguise has been adopted by members of the Anonymous group of hacktivists, but they were not the inventors of the mask, which had been a key visual element in the 2005 movie V for Vendetta by James McTeigue.

Today, it has become one of the most famous masks of all time, on a par with theater masks of Ancient Greece:

Or the carnival masks of Venice:

The historical personage depicted in the mask is supposed to be the English Catholic would-be terrorist Guy Fawkes [1570-1606].

In the early hours of 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes and a small group of conspirators, opposed to the Protestant monarch James I, made a foiled attempt to blow up the English Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. We might say that the veritable creator of the iconic mask was the anonymous 17th-century Dutch artist who dashed off this famous drawing of the group of conspirators.

Did the Dutchman actually see any members of the group before drawing their portrait? Probably not, but that's neither here nor there, for the artist had a knack for drawing convincing conspirators: the proof being that his iconic "conspiracy look" is still making front-page news some four-and-a-half centuries later.

The eight conspirators who were captured alive were subjected to some very nasty treatment, to say the least. It started with sessions of torture in the Tower of London. Then they were rapidly tried and condemned. The following drawing shows the so-called hurdles of wattle branches on which the condemned men were finally strapped and drawn by horses to the gallows at Westminster.

One of the executed conspirators (not shown, curiously, in the group portrait) was a Leicestershire knight, Sir Everard Digby [1578-1606]. He was in fact the only one of the conspirators who pleaded guilty. He also had the dubious honor of being hanged for a short period of time. Consequently, when they cut him down, he was still perfectly conscious... and therefore capable of observing in agony the ensuing operations of castration and disembowelment.

Digby (issued from a long line of distinguished males, most of whom were named Everard) came from the village of Tilton, just a few kilometers to the north of our ancestral village of Skeffington. Here's a recent photo of the parish church of Tilton-on-the-Hill (as it is now known) and the old school-house (made from the same stone):

Our ancestor Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535] was married in that church in 1492. And his 20-year-old bride was a village girl, Margaret Digby, daughter of an Everard Digby... who was a predecessor of the Everard Digby involved (over a century later) in the Gunpowder Plot. William, a Catholic—known familiarly as "the Gunner" because of his military predilection for heavy artillery—had seven offspring with Margaret. Then, when she died, William seems to have concluded that Digby women were a good affair, for he married Margaret's cousin Anne Digby, and had another five offspring.

Getting back to the famous mask, I have the impression that no authentic images of Guy Fawkes have survived. On the other hand, we do have an authentic portrait of at least one of the condemned conspirators: Everard Digby.

It's quite possible that this Digby portrait was the only visual document that could be accessed by the anonymous Dutch artist who created the group drawing of the conspirators. I have the impression that Digby's facial features and his vaguely cynical expression are not unlike those of Guy Fawkes in the group drawing. If it were the case that the Digby portrait inspired the Dutch artist, then that would mean that all those modern V for Vendetta masks might be thought of as joyful mementos of a curious Catholic from the tiny Leicestshire village of Tilton who was knighted by King James I on 24 April 1603, and then tried to blow up that same monarch just two and a half years later.

What would Sir William Skeffington "the Gunner" have thought of the behavior of this Digby descendant? We shall never know, of course, because these two Leicestershire knights were separated in time by a century. But I have my own idea on that question.
Remember, remember the 5th of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason that gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Marvelous ghosts

I'm fascinated by the craftsmanship of the bright fellows who earn their living writing speeches for leading figures such as heads of state. For the last five years in France, everybody has known that, whenever Nicolas Sarkozy happened to be expressing himself in an exceptionally brilliant style in a speech, he was simply repeating words written for him by Henri Guaino, often referred to as Sarkozy's "plume" (quill).

Henri Guaino

In the case of François Hollande, his excellent speech-writer Aquilino Morelle is the son of a Spanish immigrant who worked on Citroën's assembly line at Nanterre.

 Aquilino Morelle

Once upon a time, a writer who produced words that were then attributed officially to another author or speaker was referred to as a "nègre" (Negro)... but this term, in such a context, is no longer politically correct. In English, we speak of ghostwriters.

Many years ago, just after my marriage, I worked briefly as the ghostwriter for a distinguished French industrial leader, Maurice Ponte, head of the CSF (Compagnie générale de la télégraphie sans fil), later to become Thomson–CSF. He had been called upon to deliver a speech in London, and he asked me to invent a style of English expression that was sufficiently rickety (my adjective, not his) to give his audience the impression that he had indeed written his speech. I even got around to including explicit apologies for Ponte's allegedly less-than-perfect English. Truly, in earning my living like that, I felt like a male prostitute.

Here's an interesting mental experiment. Imagine that you're a ghostwriter and that you've been hired to write a speech for the head of the Australian delegation at the forthcoming Olympic Games in London. At the last minute, the person who was supposed to deliver your carefully-written speech informs you that he has changed his mind, in that he has decided to write his own speech. At the same time, since he doesn't want you to waste your efforts, he puts you in contact with the head of the delegation from Papua New Guinea, because they are prepared to pay you for the use of your speech. Now, would this arrangement work out? Probably not, since the words you propose in the case of one nation can't normally be "put into the mouth" of another quite different nation. In the same way, a political ghostwriter couldn't simply create a brilliant speech and sell it to the highest bidder. Obviously, a ghostwriter has to choose his words in accordance with what he believes his employer would normally say.

It's a funny situation. If a ghostwriter named Fred were hired to write a speech for a great lady of politics named Julia, say, then he has to invent in his imagination, as it were, a kind of ethereal Julia, and he then has to try to think and talk in the style of this virtual creature. Finally, the words of the speech belong, neither to the real Julia, nor to the ghostwriter, but to this imaginary creature in-between. The term "ghostwriter" is therefore well chosen, because the word craftsman is indeed setting down the words of a ghost, who does not really exist.

Ghostwriting has long been recognized as quite a challenge in the ancient domain known as rhetoric, which is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. And if ghostwriters were seeking a patron saint, it would surely be the Roman rhetorician Quintilian.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus [35-100]

He referred to this branch of rhetoric by the Greek term prosopoeia, which suggests that a fictitious "face" (that of the ghost) has been created, and made to speak. Consequently, one might say that the craftsman who writes words for the ghost is practicing the art of prosopography.

Now, let us jump into a domain that doesn't appear, at first sight, to have much to do with the art of ghostwriting. Let us look at history. In a historical text describing the words, actions and presence of a long-dead individual, who exactly is expressing himself? Is it the historical personage, or is it rather the living historian? In fact, it is neither... but rather a ghost that appears between them, between the inferred events of the past, and the present-day discourse that is supposed to describe those events. In other words, the historian is practicing a creative art that is not all that far removed from ghostwriting.

Over the last couple of decades, an entirely new branch of so-called prosopographical history has come into existence in the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Instead of pretending to explain what happened in the past, the prosopographical historian collects every imaginable item of data concerning the past events with which he is concerned, and organizes them in the form of a vast structured database, enabling modern researchers to stick their inquisitive noses into the piles of data—as it were—and make up their own minds about what might or might not have been the case. In other words, it is the database that becomes the ghost, and modern researchers can listen to fragments of the discourse of this ghost in any way they please.

Concerning the history of families named Skeffington (or something of the kind), it is quite possible that a prosopographic approach would be ideal. We dispose of quite a lot of fragments of data concerning events and individuals that appeared on the scene in the wake of the Norman Conquest, then through the Tudor period and beyond, right up to my personal ancestors in Dorset. But the earlier individuals remain ghosts, and we must respect them as such. The most mysterious ghost of all is of course the original patriarch who called himself Skeffington.

Recently, I got led away into imagining, for a moment, that this patriarch might have been a member of the de Verdun family, but that idea is almost certainly false, for the simple reason that people named de Verdun and Skeffington coexisted in parallel for ages.

There is another possible explanation of the identity of the Skeffington patriarch that should not be ignored. Most often, we talk as if the Normans simply killed or chased away all the Saxons and took over their settlements and lands. And that is how Normans came to settle in Sceaftinga tûn: the place of Sceaft. But is it thinkable that the Normans might have spared Sceaft and his people, and allowed them to carry on living in Leicestershire? If that were the case, then my earliest ancestors would indeed have been Saxons, not Normans.

In that spirit, let us listen for a moment to the voices of the Saxon ghosts. That is not difficult, thanks to the excellent database of prosopographic historians from King's College London, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Centre for Computing in the Humanities and the University of Cambridge. Click here.

 If anybody could get the ghost of Sceaft's place to say a few words, then it's surely this prestigious group of experts. When I browsed through their long list of Saxon personalities, looking for my possible patriarch Sceaft, I was in for a huge surprise. He's quite possibly there, but as Sceaf, without the final "t". That doesn't worry me. What's a missing "t" between me and a Saxon ghost! In fact, the database offers me two choices. One is relatively realistic. This Sceaf would have been the father of Cerdic and an ancestor of Æthelwulf. Fair enough. But I prefer by far the other choice in this fabulous database.

Wow, a Saxon Sceaf who was "born in the Ark; father of Beadwig and son of Noah". I'm convinced that's him, the Saxon patriarch I've been searching for!

Prosopography is truly a great approach to digging up possible facts about the past. Back in Grafton, when I was a child, there were many disastrous floods. Ah, if only I had been able to boast at the time to my schoolmates that maybe my most ancient ancestor was born in the Ark... and a son of Noah!

Virtual pilgrimage to my patriarchal village

As I've often said already in this blog, I refer to Skeffington in Leicestershire as my patriarchal village because we have every reason to believe that the earliest male ancestor of our families (who have written their surnames as Skeffington, Skevington, Skevyngton, Skivington, Skyvington, etc) came from that place, shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I've never set foot in Skeffington. So, this morning, I decided to set out on a virtual pilgrimage to this village. These days, pilgrims no longer need to wear their boots out walking. During their pilgrimages, they don't even need to leave home. In other words, I used Google Maps. I left the city of Leicester at a leisurely pace (from an Internet viewpoint) and set out in an easterly direction along Uppingham Road. The following sign soon informed me that my destination was three-quarters of a mile in front of me.

[Click to enlarge]

Coming upon the following messy set of redundant warnings, I started to wonder whether I was about to meet up with a busy urban environment, with dense traffic all over the place.

In fact, the Skeffington turnoff was so quiet that, at first, I carried on straight past it.

When I backed up to the tidy intersection, I noticed a small sign indicating the direction of Skeffington village.

A little further on, I turned right and soon came upon Skeffington's ancient church, dedicated to Thomas Becket.

In fact, the village is surprisingly small... and it appears to contain neither shops, pubs nor businesses.

Most of the historical data about Skeffington and the Skeffingtons comes from an old book by John Nichols. For years, I've been using a poor-quality photocopy of the 25 Skeffington pages in this book, which I've never been able to find on the Internet. A few days ago, I sent off an e-mail to a distinguished Leicestershire archaeologist asking where I might obtain a good copy of the Nichols pages. Well, this friendly man, named Richard Buckley, reacted by sending me spontaneously an immaculate PDF file of the precious pages. I'm always impressed when I discover that it's possible for a simple researcher such as me to communicate meaningfully with a distinguished scholar such as Richard Buckley.

Yesterday, still on the theme of the village of Skeffington and its inhabitants named Skeffington, I received a copy of another precious book on Leicestershire, published in 1926:

I've already scanned J B Firth's dozen or so pages on Skeffington, and I shall soon make them available through my Skeffington website.

Monday, May 14, 2012


When I was a schoolboy, we were expected to learn an assortment of curious old units of weights and measures. One of the strangest of these obsolete specimens—which came down to Australians as part of our British heritage—was the furlong: a distance of 1/8 of a mile, 220 yards. Initially, the furlong was a medieval term associated with the use of bullocks to plow a field.

The Anglo-Saxon legend is "God Spede ye Plough and send us Korne enow": an invocation to the plow to perform its function efficiently, so as to yield enough corn.

At Waterview in South Grafton, my Walker uncles used a pair of draft horses to plow their land. And their grandfather Charles Walker [1851-1918] was a so-called teamster, in charge of a bullock team that transported timber.

As the original expression "furrow long" suggests, a furlong was the length of a furrow in a plowed field. A wit suggested that, to please nostalgic rural Brits, automobile speeds might be indicated today in furlongs per fortnight. In my native land, the term "furlong" survived in the domain of horse racing, but Australia finally changed to metric distances in 1972.

Over the last week or so, I've been brought back in contact with ancient English units of measure through my work on Skeffington genealogy. Now that I've completed my book whose title is They Sought the Last of Lands [access], I've moved back to the challenge of assembling a greatly-revised version of a document whose new title is Skeffington One-Name Study [access].

It will start with the Norman Conquest and attempt to describe how the patriarchal family from Leicestershire flowed out into several corners of the British Isles, including (in the case of my recent ancestors) Dorset.

Details of the original manor in the settlement of Sceaftinga tûn are available through the Domesday Book, which can now be viewed freely on the web [access]. The settlement is described here on line #6:

The settlement referred to in Domesday (1086) as Sciftitone belonged entirely to King William. It included 12 carucates of plowed land (1440 acres, or some 583 hectares), a mill and 6 square furlongs (24 hectares) of woodland.

I now realize that, before being able to write correctly about the ancient origins of the Skeffington family, I'll need to broaden my technical knowledge, not only of land measures, but of feudalism in general and the old manorial system.

Talking about plowed land, I took this photo today of my neighbor's cousin, who brought his tractor across from Châtelus and spent an hour or so preparing the earth at Gamone for Jackie's vegetable garden.

Thinking back to my childhood in Australia—and my lessons about archaic furlongs, rods, carucates and so forth—I now realize that we were no doubt closer in spirit to the Anglo-Saxon fellow in the drawing at the top of this blog post than to the modern mechanized neighbor in the above photo. Hey, that's a great revelation: I grew up in medieval surroundings!