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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ancestors are daggy

I learned that excellent adjective quite recently, from a young cousin in Australia. Something is said to be daggy when it exhibits an indigestible mixture of several negative or frankly nasty features. It's generally scruffy, dirty, broken, something that would best be discarded as rubbish. Although I like the fresh Down Under twang of this word (like bogan, an equally pejorative epithet), it goes without saying that the title of this blog post is not intended to cast aspersions of any kind upon the fine folk who were my forebears. No, I've decided to invent (facetiously) a totally new meaning of the adjective "daggy"...

Let me explain. The only serious way of understanding the phenomenon of ancestors is to represent them by means of illustrations of the kind that mathematicians refer to as DAGs: directed acyclic graphs. Unless you do this, you're liable to remain forever confused by the sheer quantitative proportions of the vast hordes of procreators who have been responsible, ever since life has existed on the planet Earth, for copulating, conscientiously and copiously, in ways that have led to your present existence.

Genealogists have often used tree diagrams to represent ancestors, and half the community feel that the roots should be down at the bottom and the leaves at the top, whereas the other half find that it would be preferable if such diagrams could reveal their content in a chronological top-to-bottom direction. Obviously, the best way of ending this dispute is to lay your family-history charts out in a horizontal fashion, because nobody would ever dream of putting old folk to the right and living individuals to the left.

In fact, the ancestral scene has always been a jungle, rather than a tidy forest. And the only aspect of the situation of which we can be relatively certain is that there are far more human beings on the planet today than when all the diligent copulating got off to a start, long ago.

Some folk have the pleasure of emerging from ancestral contexts in which so much irregular screwing of all kinds was taking place constantly that it can become quite a difficult task to distinguish between the various roots and leaves, and to determine where certain rooting leaves off, while elsewhere certain leaves take root… if you see what I mean. [If I weren't sure that you've heard it already, I would throw in here the joke about the rare Tasmanian marsupial that eats, roots, shoots and leaves.] I warned you that the situation is daggy.

Here's a typical example of a graph of the directed acyclic kind:

Clearly, it's a graph, since the diagram is composed of labeled vertices (nodes) linked by lines. It's a directed graph because all the lines carry arrow heads to indicate their respective directions. And it's acyclic, above all, in the sense that, no matter where you start, you'll never find yourself going around in circles. To put it bluntly, there's no way in the world that a young lady might give birth to a child who turns out to be the girl's father. Not even in the Holy Bible, where supernatural birth is a common phenomenon, would you find such a far-fetched tale as that (unless it has escaped me). Now, this kind of DAG provides an elegant way of indicating how humans might procreate. Admittedly, at times, the relationships are not particularly Christian. But who cares?

— Fred and Kate gave birth to a son, John.

— Kate appealed to a different father, Ken, to produce a daughter, Alice.

— These naughty kids, John and Alice, promptly got together to give birth to Bill… who probably ran into various terrible health problems later on.

— Meanwhile, Alice was seduced by John's dad, Fred, who bore her a son, Tom.

— Alice, a spirited young woman, also had a daughter, Mary, whose father is unknown.

As I said, the overall situation is mathematically "daggy" in the sense that no unthinkable acts have ever taken place. There are no vicious circles. No closed loops. No offspring has ever ended up becoming the genitor of his or her own father or mother. So, the overall situation is perfectly human, all too human.

Many observers who see how genealogical researchers behave are inclined to cry out in disbelief that their activities are crazy. For example, I'm proud of the fact that I can document—more or less clearly and plausibly—the 29 generations that take me back to William the Conqueror. [My "pride", of course, is perfectly irrational and superficial, on a par with saying that I'm proud to be Australian, say, simply because my ancestors happened to be led to that land, for various random reasons.] Certain observers are shocked by my evocation of the Conqueror, and they hit out with bad arithmetic: "William, your alleged royal ancestor is merely one of N individuals who played a role in your procreation, and the value of N is approximately 2 to the power 29, that's to say 536 870 912." The problem, here, is that this number no doubt exceeds the total number of inhabitants who were looking around for a bit of procreative Franco-British rock 'n' roll back at the time of the Conqueror. So, there's something basically wrong with the use of binary trees when calculating the volume of your ancestors. What's wrong, as I've been saying, is that you have to use DAGs, not binary trees, to represent your ancestral jungle.

Other observers throw up their hands in despair and say: "It's impossible to explain the situation. Back at that time, clearly, everybody was related to everybody else." In France, for example, people like to claim that every living French citizen is a descendant of Charlemagne… which is ridiculous. For all we know (and we shall never know such things, of course), my global circle of forebears at the time of the Conqueror may have been limited to little more than a handful of rural villages in Normandy. I hasten to add that, in making such a suggestion, I'm forgetting, of course, that ancestors in all kinds of remote places no doubt got into the act of procreating me, further down the line. There were lots of Irish copulators, for example, and I have no reason to believe that they were necessarily hanging around in Normandy at the time of the Conqueror. But, if we were to know the numbers, the entire team, maybe scattered throughout several regions of the planet, might have been relatively modest. In any case, it's absurd to imagine that a host of medieval folk—more than the current population of the USA—were copulating furiously, day and night, in a sense that would ultimately lead to my peephole opening on a September day in 1940. My crowd of ancestors must not be likened to the armies of Joshua at Jericho, or the host of angels on Judgment Day.

Let me finish with an anecdote. I was pleased, a few weeks ago, to have made contact with a prominent American scientist named Skevington, and I immediately tried to persuade him to obtain his Y-chromosome data, to see whether we might be related. I was amused by his immediate reaction. He evoked the notorious but very real phenomenon of so-called non-paternity events: that's to say, cases where a child's genuine father is not the guy whose name appears in the records. Often, we hear amazing figures concerning the proportion of male babies who grow up (and maybe spend their lives) without ever becoming aware of the true identity of their biological father. Now, while it's probably high, the figure is not as high as it's often made out to be. For example, it's silly to suggest that 10% of English-speaking males have a mistaken idea of the identity of their fathers.

Click the banner to access a scientific article on this question entitled Founders, Drift and Infidelity: The Relationship between Y Chromosome Diversity and Patrilineal Surnames by Turi King and Mark Jobling.

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.