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

Friday, November 18, 2011

Family-history breakthrough

Three decades ago, when I first became interested in genealogy, one of my basic motivations was to shed light, if possible, upon my strangely-spelled surname, Skyvington. I now know that, if the "y" in our name has always been pronounced as an "i", that's simply because it was in fact an "i" up until various parish clerks in Dorset started spelling our surname with an ungainly "y" during the first half of the 19th century. In the context of my direct ancestors, the first example of this anomaly is found in a marriage certificate of 1844, and this erroneous spelling was rapidly adopted within our family. Today, an observer might feel that the presence of a "y", pronounced as if it were an "i", looks old-fashioned and quaint in a superficial way… but I insist upon the fact that it is no more than a silly error, made relatively recently, by a careless clerk or clergyman. If it were easy to do so, I would be tempted get our name restored to its original spelling… but this would be a complicated and burdensome task, with few merits other than the pleasure of signing my name authentically (?) as William Skivington.

There's surely a fly in the ointment. The correct spelling of my surname is probably neither Skyvington nor Skivington, but rather Skevington. In my genealogical research focussed upon my patriarchal surname, I've succeeded in describing precisely no more than eleven generations.

[Click to enlarge slightly, then ESCAPE to return to blog]

After all the years of work I've devoted to this subject, it looks like a meager harvest. But the truth of the matter is far from disappointing, in the sense that I now have a reasonably clear vision of the likely itinerary of my patriarchal ancestors from the Saxon village of Skeffington in Leicestershire down to Dorset. We know, above all, that the various spellings of our surname—including the official (but not necessarily authentic "Skeffington"—are derived from a Scandinavianized form of the Old English Sce(a)ftinga tûn: "the tûn (village) of Sceaft’s people". Incidentally, as I've pointed out already, this means that names such as Skeffington and Shaftesbury have identical etymologies.

While we have no information whatsoever concerning the Saxon chief named Sceaft, we know that his name might be translated into English as "shaft", as of an arrow or a spear. So, he may have been a celebrated warrior. (Websites concerning the village of Skeffington persist in disseminating the erroneous notion that the name of the Saxon chief and his village had something to do with sheep.)

Besides, the above chart suggests that I might use the given name George as a hint when searching among earlier archives.


It's a fact that, in the 17th century in England, George was not yet a commonplace Christian name, since it invoked a Middle-Eastern Catholic saint whose cult had been brought back by the Crusaders. Even though George was supposedly the patron saint of England, he was probably not a homely personage who might inspire rural folk who were searching for a name for their son. In any case, it's a fact that, in the course of my research, I've come upon relatively few individuals named George Skivington (apart from my direct ancestors) or George Skevington. So, this George name could well play the role of a flashing beacon pointing to the possibility of ancestral threads.

In any case, I've just stumbled upon the kind of situation that I've been seeking in the Mormon database known as the IGI [International Genealogical Index]. Two distinct sets of Mormon records describe a marriage that took place inn the Lincolnshire village of Great Gonerby on 18 August 1648. In one set of records, the groom is designated as William Skevington; in the other, as William Skivington. In other words, the expert Mormon researchers were apparently incapable of deciding whether the man's surname should be spelt with an "e" or an "i". Now, an observer might say that this was no more than a trivial incident concerning a poorly-written letter, which turns out to be unreadable. But, in view of the normal exactitude and rigor of Mormon transcribers, I see it as much more than that. We have a case in which there appeared to be total uncertainty concerning the question of whether the individual's name was Skevington or Skivington.

In these circumstances, I am wondering whether this couple, married in Lincolnshire in 1648, might have been the future parents of my ancestor George Skivington [1670-1711] down in Dorset.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tree sawed into firewood

In my recent article about cutting down a dead tree at Gamone [display], I should have pointed out that the tree in question is known in French as a Frêne [Fraxinus excelsior]. In English, it's a European Ash. The latter term has nothing to do with the stuff that remains after a fire. It comes from a Saxon word, æsc, which means spear. Ash wood is indeed hard and dense, and I can well imagine it being used for spears.

Now, this is funny, because my surname, Skyvington, is derived from the Saxon expression Sceaftinga tûn, which can be translated as "the place of Sceaft’s people". Used as a noun, sceaft means a shaft or spear, suggesting that the original settlement (in what we now call Leicestershire) was the home of a Saxon warrior who was a reputed spear-thrower. So, the Saxon words sceaft and æsc are surely related.

This afternoon, I finished the job of cutting up the branches with a chainsaw. And it has provided me with a stock of fine dry firewood.

For the thicker parts of the trunk, I used steel wedges and a sledgehammer to split the wood.

Next winter, when I'm warming my toes in front of a log fire, I'll inevitably think back to the ancient Saxon warrior who was at the origin of my family name. He did this in a rather indirect manner, and grudgingly, because his settlement was simply taken over (maybe after a combat) by the companions of William the Conqueror. One of these Norman invaders was my real ancestor, not the celebrated Saxon spear-thrower. Be that as it may, I'm grateful to the Saxon fellow named Sceaft for participating unwittingly, unwillingly, in my personal genealogy by supplying me with my surname… just as I'll be grateful to the dead ash tree for supplying me with warmth.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Latest deductions from Skyvington research

As every genealogical adept knows, the quality of the Mormon IGI database [International Genealogical Index] is truly amazing… particularly when we realize that the faith-based research efforts of the members of the so-called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are motivated by beliefs that most of us look upon as totally ridiculous. Insofar as I see things in this way, should I therefore consider myself as a perfidiously dishonest double-dealer when using the Mormons' data to pursue my own kind of research?

No, not at all. If each citizen, in his daily preoccupations and activities, were to make a point of refraining from exploiting resources that had been created or obtained in ways that didn't necessarily conform to his personal convictions, then he would be condemned to sitting passively on his backside and waiting for events in the world to metamorphose magically into his ideal vision of reality.

There has always, however, been a curious weakness in the style of presentation of IGI entries. [I haven't checked whether this weakness has been corrected in the latest version of their search tool.]

The problem—unless I'm dumb—is that it doesn't seem to be possible to obtain a list of all entries sorted by date. This was annoying in that I wanted to know at what dates we start to find church records for individuals named Skeffington, Skevington, Skivington, etc. So, I decided to play around manually with the various Mormon IGI entries, using the excellent BBEdit text editor, with the intention of processing and examining all the available data... which has taken much time. My findings are summarized in the following chart:

After primitive Latin-inspired versions of the name—such as Sciftitone (Domesday Book of 1086) and Sceftinton (Leicestershire Survey of 1125 and Leicestershire Pipe Rolls of 1165 and 1192)—the earliest "modern" spelling was undoubtedly Skeffington, which appears in a Mormon IGI record dated 1315. The spelling with "ev" instead of "eff" appears a century and a half later, in 1478, and the "e" vowel is replaced by an "i" for the first time in 1563. The respective volumes of the various spellings present in the Mormon IGI are no doubt significant in a rough way. As you can see, there's a large package of Skevington entries, particularly for the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas the volume of Skivington spellings remains relatively low.

At a concrete level, what these deductions mean is that I might expect to find a Y-chromosome match, one of these days, with a fellow whose surname is Skevington. As for a match with a Skeffington, I've already more-or-less ruled out that likelihood, because I'm convinced that all the ancient male lines of that name ran aground (if I can be allowed to express myself in that fuzzy manner). In any case, for the moment, I would appear to be the only male individual with a Skeffington-based surname who has had his DNA tested.

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.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Antrim assassinations

Last night, two British soldiers were assassinated at the Massereene army base in Antrim, a few dozen kilometers north-west of Belfast. This village, in a county of the same name, has been associated for almost four centuries with the Skeffington family from Leicestershire. The present holder of the Massereene viscountcy is 68-year-old John Skeffington. His father, John Skeffington [1914-1992], the 13th Viscount Massereene, was Deputy Lieutenant for County Antrim.

Back in 1981, Lord Massereene helped me personally get started in my Skeffington genealogical research, whose results are now available at


In 1922, Massereene's castle at Antrim was set on fire by members of the Irish Republican Army, resulting in the destruction of many ancient Skeffington archives.

In pointing out that the army barracks carry the same name as the viscountcy, and that the former viscount was already the target of a terrorist attack in this same village, I do not however intend to suggest that these associations might have any bearing whatsoever on the reasons behind yesterday's assassinations.

A dissident republican group known as the Real IRA has claimed responsibility for the assassinations. A British government specialist in counter-terrorism said that Antrim might have been chosen simply because it was a "soft target": that's to say, an engineering base with minimal protection. Whatever the explanation, let us hope that this stupid act is not going to rekindle the fires of hatred and terror that burned for far too long already in Ulster.