Showing posts with label Skyvington family history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Skyvington family history. Show all posts

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ancestry company’s DNA conclusions “mostly total bollocks”

                                            Graham Roumieu for BuzzFeed News

I was pleased to hear the British geneticist Adam Rutherford saying that the conclusions of the BritainsDNA company are “eloquent, but mostly total bollocks”. Click here to read an amusing article in BuzzFeed by Tom Chivers that pulls no punches on this subject.

It so happens that my limited use of Y-chromosomal testing carried out by a US company was highly successful in the sense that it enabled me to prove that my paternal great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959] was a scoundrel, indeed a crazy nincompoop. Click here to visit a page on this so-called Courtenay Affair. I've handled the facts in detail in my book They Sought the Last of Lands, Gamone Press (Choranche), which can be purchased through Amazon. Published in 2014, its number is ISBN 978-2-919427-02-4.

My personal Y-chromosome data is displayed publicly on the ysearch website. Curiously, apart from the Courtenay Affair, I’ve never obtained the slightest match with a so-called “genetic cousin”. This seems to suggest that we Skyvington folk are rather rare birds.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mongrel genes

Every family has a few black sheep, either in the present or in the past. Most often both. And a family historian, believing that every effect has a logical cause, is inevitably inclined to start looking around for mongrel genes: biological factors that gave rise to the existence of such-and-such a black sheep. Now, in such research, there can be both a bit of good and a lot of bad.

The very notion of a certain black sheep in the family can be frighteningly fuzzy. Relatives might think they’re acting objectively when they stigmatize a particular individual as a black sheep. Or decide rather, for that matter, to praise an exceptionally snow-white sheep. But are the relatives themselves pure merinos with an error-free sense of judgment? As for me, I prefer to believe that the supposed existence of a black sheep in the family must always be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe it’s right… but maybe it’s wrong.

The case of alleged family defects such as alcoholism is worse still. Does such-and-such a past or present member of the family drink because of inherited defects… or simply because he/she happens to have easy access to dangerous beverages? It’s far too easy and too silly to declare that there are, or have been, alcohol problems in the family. If the family historian is not perfectly sure of what is being said, then she/he should simply shut up, because false declarations are worse than no declarations at all. [The current Skyvington family historian is proud to declare—just for the record—that he hasn't tasted a drop of alcohol, or even been vaguely interested in doing so, for well over a year, since falling down the stairs at Gamone and bumping his head.]

To me, one thing is certain. Whenever family members start searching for inherited defects, they should look carefully into the terribly common phenomenon of nasty bumps to the brain. Since falling down the stairs, it has taken me a long time to get back to a state that I myself judge as normal.

At the present moment, I’ve been greatly affected by thoughts about an infamous Skyvington black sheep: my paternal great-grandfather, the crazy fellow who called himself “William Courtenay”. See my blog post here. Over the last few days, I’ve received new information from England revealing the admirable character of this fellow’s father. That renders suspicious the mad fellow’s mother, Mary Ann.

Would that poor girl, who died in Yealmpton [Devon] at the age of 21, have been responsible for the introduction of mongrel genes into the Skyvington line? That idea, though theoretically plausible, is quite unlikely, for Mary Anne Jones belonged to an honorable family of Devon, in which no known cases of insanity have been recorded.

Whichever way I look at things (and I’ve thought a lot about that mad ancestor), only one explanation satisfies me fully. Unknown to archivists in general, and Skyvington family historians in particular, my ancestor William Skyvington [1868-1959] probably ran into the same kind of accident as his future great-grandson, also known as William Skyvington. He fell down the stairs and bumped his head. If that was really what happened (and why not?), then all I can say is that I got off better than my mad ancestor. If only God existed, I would promptly thank him.

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.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Family history can be confusing

Here's a studio photo of my grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] with his parents William Skyvington [1868-1959] and Eliza Mepham [1865-1899].

During my youth in Grafton (Australia), I was in constant contact with my grandfather, who had become a successful businessman in the Ford automobile domain. After my move to France, I became most interested in genealogy, and my grandfather—whom I called Pop—tried to provide me with as much information as possible on this subject. I was disappointed to discover, though, that Pop's knowledge of his English ancestors was amazingly flimsy, as if his ship voyage to Sydney in 1908 had discarded all "luggage" about his background in London. Here, for example, are two blatant cases of missing information that alarmed me for years:

• Pop could offer me no serious information whatsoever concerning the destiny of his own father, William Skyvington. He imagined vaguely that this man had been killed during World War I, but he could offer me no serious information whatsoever on his death. Now, if Pop had been an ignorant hillbilly, abandoned by his London relatives, I might have understood his ignorance. But that was not at all the case. Members of his mother's family were smart individuals, interested in literature and music, and relatively well off.

• When I asked my grandfather whether he could recall his own grandfather, Frank Skyvington, Pop amazed me by saying that he had never once heard such a name!

There was clearly something weird and disturbing in this curious state of affairs! A deep psychological problem? In the family-history domain, Pop seemed to have been brainwashed. I simply don't understand...

• Click here to read my very first blog post, entitled Family-history shock, published on 3 May 2010, on what culminated, several years later, in the Courtenay Affair.

• Click here to read the major blog post in this affair, entitled Chromosomes reveal the truth, published on 3 August 2014.

• The final step in understanding the Courtenay Affair consists of acquiring my book:

They Sought the Last of Lands
My Father’s Forebears
© William Skyvington 2014
Gamone Press, Choranche
ISBN 978-2-919427-02-4

This book can be ordered by dropping in at your local bookshop.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My grandfather's London

Over the last few years, several members of my Australian family have taken advantage of the addresses of places indicated in my family-history research to visit the area of northern London where our grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] lived, before his arrival in Australia on Christmas day 1908. Pop, as we called him, was born and grew up in a comfortable London district that is known today as Stroud Green, located just to the west of lovely Finsbury Park.

My family-history book entitled They Sought the Last of Lands contains lots of references to this pleasant corner of London, which still contains (in spite of World War II, followed by urban development) the totality of places associated with Pop's childhood: the house at 65 Evershot Road where Ernest was born, the house at 16 Marriott Road where his mother died when her son was nine years old, the house at 72 Mount Pleasant Crescent (today's address) where the young boy was brought up by his mother's family, and Ernest's Stroud Green school.

At the web link, readers can browse through an on-line version of my book, which includes various photos of my grandfather's childhood district of Stroud Green.

Late in life, my grandfather (accompanied by his daughter Yvonne) went on a trip to London, but I don't believe they actually identified and located many (if any at all) of his childhood places. (That trip to London took place before the start of my personal research into my grandfather's personal history.)

An English writer exactly ten years younger than my grandfather lived in that same Stroud Green district. I'm talking of the police officer Cecil Rolph Hewitt [1901-1994], who published books under the name of C. H. Rolph.

As a young boy, at the time that Pop was at school in Stroud Green, "Bill" Hewitt (as he was called) lived in a narrow terrace house at 101 Woodstock Road, just across the road from Pop's school.

So, if any of my readers are interested in obtaining sound facts about Pop's childhood places in Stroud Green, I advise them to purchase (through the Internet) this well-written book: London Particulars - Memories of an Edwardian Boyhood, C. H. Rolph, Oxford Paperbacks, 1980.

Monday, June 15, 2015

My ancestor King John

Elias Ashmole's suggestion that my Latton ancestors descended from the illustrious Estouteville family was published in 1719, with superficial documentary evidence. In They Sought the Last of Lands, I explored the possible origins of this alleged Estouteville/Latton link, and concluded that it probably came about during the 12th century, in the context of Latton Priory in Essex, through the marriage of Robert de Stuteville with Sibyl de Valognes.

Click to enlarge

Today, 15 June 2015, is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by our ancestor King John.

Our descent from this monarch passes through one of his illegitimate sons, Richard Chilham.

Yesterday, I discovered, quite by chance, that Richard’s maternal family, whose French surname was de Warenne, provides us with a link to the original French line of the Estoutevilles. It’s a trivial link between two sisters and their respective husbands, but this information nevertheless adds weight to the Estouteville/Latton hypothesis presented in my book. The starting point of this newly-discovered link is a famous personage, Geoffrey Plantagenêt, Count of Anjou [1113-1151], who reposes peacefully (except for the last 24 hours) in the capital of the ancient French province of Maine, Le Mans.

Geoffrey got his “Plantagenêt” nickname through his habit of decorating his hat with a sprig of the yellow broom shrub [genêt in French].

Geoffrey went down in history as the father of Henry II of England, founder of the Plantagenet dynasty. Not surprisingly, Geoffrey had several illegitimate children. His son Hamelin (nothing to do with the German town of the Pied Piper), of an unidentified mother, was invited by his half-brother King Henry to marry an extremely wealthy English widow, Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Surrey. Young Hamelin was delighted to accept this invitation, even to the extent of adopting the lady’s Warenne name. Consequently, in a flash, the French bastard child became Hamelin de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. 

The couple had several daughters, one of whom was the above-mentioned Suzanne de Warenne, who jumped into the royal bed of her cousin King John and gave birth to my ancestor Richard Chilham. And I have just discovered that, in 1190, her sister Maud (Matilda) de Warenne [1166-1212] married Henri d’Estouteville [1170-1232], lord of Valmont.

This Estouteville/Warenne marriage plays no direct role in my Latton ancestry. That’s to say, the English marriage between Robert de Stuteville and Sibyl de Valognes remains the only explanation I can find for an alleged Estouteville/Latton link. But the Estouteville/Warenne marriage indicates that the French Estouteville family had personal links with ancestors of the Wadham, Stourton and Berkeley families, described in my book. Incidentally, in the context of Hamelin de Warenne, we come upon references to the feudal town of Ambrières in the Mayenne department (mentioned in my book), which played a role in early French Estouteville history.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Yvonne Skyvington [1919-2015]

My paternal aunt Yvonne Elizabeth Skyvington was born at the Hillcrest Hospital in Rockhampton (Queensland, Australia) on May 1, 1919. She died at Taree (NSW) on Sunday evening, April 12, 2015.

After an in-depth career in nursing, Yvonne married Reginald Tarrant, and they had three children: Lynne (married name Greenlees), Roger (deceased) and Glenn (married name McMurrich).

The death of my dear aunt (with whom I was in constant contact during the writing of They Sought the Last of Lands, Gamone Press, 2014) means that I am henceforth the senior member of the 19th-century branch of the Skivington family, from the Dorset village of Shroton (also known as Iwerne Courtney), who spelt their name as “Skyvington”.

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…

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Chromosomes reveal the truth

Initially, Old Bailey was the name of a London street...

Four years ago, in a blog post entitled Family-history shock [display], I described my chance discovery of this record of a trial at London’s Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey.

Click to enlarge

The trial had taken place on 24 October 1898. A man named William Skyvington, said to be 26 years old, had been charged with
feloniously forging and uttering an endorsement on an order for the payment of one pound, three shillings and eleven pence, with intent to defraud.
The accused man had pleaded guilty, and he was sent to jail for six months’ hard labour.

Here’s an old photo of one of the courts at the Old Bailey where criminal trials for London and Middlesex were held.

The accused individual was placed in the dock on the left. The jury was seated in the box on the far side, below a pair of large windows. On a throne beneath the wooden canopy on the right, alongside a sword of justice, an alderman (sometimes the lord mayor himself) represented the city of London, whereas the judge, sheriff and trial recorder were seated at plain desks in the far corner.

I wondered immediately if the criminal might have been my great-grandfather William Jones Skyvington [born in 1868, and therefore almost 30 years old at the time of the trial].

Four months ago, in a blog post entitled White lies of men in love [display], I explained that an English lady named Nicola Courtenay had sent me an e-mail indicating that her grandfather William Courtenay [who had died in 1959] often used “Skyvington” as if it were one of his given names. Since this “Skyvington” name is rather uncommon (resulting from a 19th-century spelling mistake that replaced a letter “i” by “y”), I was greatly intrigued by Nicola’s news of somebody having, as it were, “borrowed” our surname and used it as an aditional given name. The story simply didn’t add up. Above all, several clues in Nicola’s tale evoked authentic details associated with my great-grandfather. So, I was automatically tempted to speculate that Nicola’s grandfather and my great-grandfather might have been one and the same individual.

Well, to cut a long story short, a Y-chromosome test carried out on a DNA saliva specimen from a living male member of the Courtenay family has just proved scientifically (with no room whatsoever for doubt) that this was indeed the case. In other words, after vanishing from the northern-London context in which his son—my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985]—was born, William apparently decided to adopt the “Courtenay” surname, invent a fictitious identity (in which he claimed to be a member of the ancient and noble family of the Earl of Devon from Powderham Castle) and raise a large family.

Insofar as this Courtenay Affair provides us with specimens of William Skyvington’s apparent tendency towards mythomania, I am now convinced that the individual convicted at the Old Bailey in 1898 was indeed my great-grandfather. Besides, I had reached that conclusion prior to meeting up with the Courtenay Affair purely through the perusal of genealogical archives.

This morning, I retrieved a document from the National Archives designated as a calendar of prisoners, which mentioned the trial and imprisonment of William Skyvington. Here is the cover page:

An index includes the name of William Skyvington followed by the letters NL, meaning North London:

For the moment, I’ve been unable to determine (while awaiting clarifications from the National Archives) whether this means that William came from North London, or that he was now detained in a jail in North London. Further on in the document, we find the actual reecord of the trial.

It contains several interesting elements of information that did not appear in the Old Bailey record that I found 4 years ago. William was a “traveller”: that’s to say, a commercial traveler or salesman who moved around to contact customers. The term “well” means (as explained on the cover page) that William could read and write well. Above all, I learnt that he was jailed in Pentonville Prison in Islington (North London).

That’s to say, William Skyvington was placed in a prison just to the south of the family home in Evershot Road, not to mention Finsbury Park, his son’s vast playground. Star-shaped Pentonville was thought of as a “modern” jail, because it had been designed in the early 1840s by skilled carceral engineers.

But it was surely a nasty place.

Besides, William had been condemned to so-called hard labor, which meant that he had to toil daily at heavy manual tasks. Amazingly, we have here a photo of such inmates at Pentonville:

Then there’s a ballad sung by Pete Waters, with a catching refrain:
I was sent off for trial at the Bailey
And remanded to Pentonville Jail

The situation is funny (weird). For ages, I had concluded that, if I wanted to enhance my family-history writing with melancholy ballads about the hardships of a convict's existence, it was in New South Wales that I would find such stuff, in the context of my maternal ancestors from Ireland... and certainly not in the refined English context of the Skyvingtons.

Today, I must admit that the tables of my genealogical temple have been upturned. And I can't even blame Jesus...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Looking back on a London century

A century separates these two photos taken at exactly the same spot in a northern neighborhood of London.

The older lady was Martha Watson [1837-1915], while the young woman is Martha’s great-great-great-granddaughter Indiya Taylor, born in Australia. The following chart indicates that Martha’s married name was Mepham (which was loaded onto my unfortunate father as a second given name):

The second child, Eliza Jane Mepham, married a certain William Skyvington, as indicated in the following chart:

Their only child, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], went out to Australia in 1908 on a steamship named the Marathon.

Ernest, who was Indiya’s great-grandfather, became a prosperous businessman in Grafton (NSW), where he started up the Ford automobile dealership.

He once revisited the Old World and his native London in the company of his daughter Yvonne. In Paris, my wife Christine asked Pop (as we called him) to name the place that had most impressed him during his world tour. His reply: “Burleigh Heads.” That was the town on Queensland’s Gold Coast where he had been living in retirement for a decade or so. Pop had a great sense of humor, and that was his way of telling us that there’s no place like home. But the address that Indiya tracked down a few days ago was indeed Pop’s true home throughout his adolescence in London.

With technical assistance that I had obtained from historical authorities in London, Indiya was able to discover the quiet dead-end section of Mount Pleasant Crescent (called Mount Pleasant Road in Pop’s time) where the old Mepham house is currently numbered 72.

I’m amused by the symbolic aspects of the following photo, in which my lovely niece appears to be narrowing down her search for origins, while looking back upon a London century.

Incidentally, I should have normally published by now my genealogical book that talks about our London origins (amongst many other aspects of our family history). Its cover will look like this:

Publication is delayed, however, by fascinating last-minute news that I mentioned briefly in my recent post entitled White lies of men in love [display]. The potential “white liar” in question is the man whose name appears in the upper left-hand corner of the second chart: my great-grandfather William Skyvington. I’m hoping that the friends who have kindly revealed this curious affair—the Courtenay family in the UK—will be convinced that the only way of elucidating this enigma is to call upon modern science: namely, a Y-chromosome genealogical test.

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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In 1857, a US scholar screwed up his Saxon

Ever since I've been interested in family history (that's to say, for over 30 years), I've wondered who was the shoddy scholar who created and spread the false idea that our family name, usually written as Skeffington, has something to do with sheep. Yesterday, I finally succeeded in identifying him, quite by chance. He was an American named William Arthur, and his Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names was published in New York in 1857. Here is William Arthur's faulty explanation, which has spread throughout the domain of Skeffington history—over the last century and a half—like a mild virus:

He failed to see the difference, in written Saxon, between sheep and spears. I've summarized the correct situation in the form of two images:

Here are both words, presented in the celebrated Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Bosworth and Toller:

 Click to enlarge

Furthermore, it's quite silly to use our modern term "town" for an 11th-century settlement in the woods. The chief of the settlement was simply named Sceaft (the Saxon word for a spear) in the same way that somebody today might be named Smith. But we might speculate that this Sceaft fellow had indeed earned this name through his skills as a spear-throwing warrior. On the other hand, there's no reason whatsoever to imagine stupidly that "Mr Spear" was a shepherd! Unfortunately, though, William Arthur's silly meme is not likely to disappear overnight.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Ever since I started to investigate my paternal Skyvington genealogy, back in 1981, I've been obsessed by an obvious question:
Would I ever know the name and origins of the Norman knight—a companion of William the Conqueror—who might be thought of as the patriarch of our primordial Skeffington family in England?

Such an individual surely existed, and he had received the territory of the Saxon place called Sceaftinga tûn—the tûn (settlement) of Sceaft’s people, to be known later on as the Leicestershire village of Skeffington—as a reward for helping the Duke of Normandy to conqueror England.

But, in the list of names of the Norman knights who accompanied William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, I had no means of figuring out which one of them was our future patriarch. I often said to myself that, if only I knew the identity of "my" Norman knight, and if ever this individual happened to have descendants in France today, then these folk would be my "genetic cousins" (as they say in the domain of DNA-based genealogical research). I realized, however, that these were two big and unlikely if conditions...

The standard version of the story of the Skeffingtons was written in the 18th century by a plump English chap named John Nichols.

Nichols was a prolific professional writer who succeeded in churning out a vast collection of historical tidbits about the county of Leicestershire. In this context, it was natural that he should devote numerous pages of his History and Antiquities of Leicestershire to a presentation of members of the distinguished Skeffington family. At no point, however, was Nichols capable of indicating explicitly the likely identity of our 11th-century patriarch.

Nichols did however mention the existence in 1231 (that's to say, 165 years after the Norman Conquest) of an individual named Odo de Scevington, who owned lands down in Kent. Clutching at straws, I wondered if this individual might have descended from a celebrated personage with the same name: the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, represented vividly in the famous tapestry.

It was ridiculous of me to speculate about links based upon no more than a shared given name.  I had been momentarily enticed into imagining an association between the two Odo fellows because of another false reason, even more outlandish. Bishop Odo of Bayeux had a notorious habit, illustrated in the above image, of wielding a baton when he rode into battle. Now, the other Odo's surname, Scevington, evoked a Saxon warrior, Sceaft (meaning shaft, spear or baton). I was mesmerized into imagining that the battle skills of the legendary Sceaft had been inherited magically by the Conqueror’s wild half-brother. Need I point out that my family-history thinking at that time had little in common with rocket science?

Two days ago (on Anzac Day), for the nth time in three decades, I happened to be skimming through the Nichols pages on the Skeffingtons, and my attention was caught by the presence of a reference to a late 13th-century individual, "John lord of Verdun".

The term "Verdun" evokes, of course, the place on the Western Front in France where a horrendous battle took place in 1916, engaging the victorious forces of a certain Philippe Pétain. Maybe those nasty evocations of 20th-century military butchery had dissuaded me previously from bothering to look more closely into the Nichols mention of this unknown "John lord of Verdun". On Anzac Day 2012, however, I made an effort, but the weight of all the World War I stuff meant that Google in English wasn't particularly helpful. So, I switched to French, replacing "John" by "Jean". And almost instantly, the facts concerning our patriarch started to unfold before my astonished eyes.

The name of our likely patriarch is Bertram de Verdun. Today, his domain in the splendid countryside of Normandy has dwindled to a humble signpost on the outskirts of the town of Vessey. That should discourage any squabbles among us concerning rights to the family castle... if ever it existed.

The Verdun domain of our probable patriarch in Normandy is indicated by the red blob in the following Google map:

Chances are that Bertram's ghost got shook up a bit back at the time of the Normandy landings in June 1944, which took place not far away. After all, this was the splendid gateway into the eternal province of Normandy... or the eternal province of Brittany if you happen to be traveling in the opposite direction. The town of Vessey appears to lie alongside one of the rural roads I used to take—between Alençon and Dinan—back in my youthful days when I would ride my bike from Paris to Brittany and back.

The shield of Normandy is composed of a pair of golden lions (passant, as specialists say, meaning that the lions are running) with blue tongues and claws, on a red background.

Now, I can hear my readers saying that this Norman shield looks remarkably like the familiar banner of the kingdom just across on the other side of the Manche (the stretch of sea that folk on the other side persist in calling the English Channel).

Yes, it sure does, and that's not just a coincidence. The myriad of present-day associations of all kinds between Normandy and England were the consequences of the actions of a group of French tourists, in 1066, with names such as Guillaume, Odo, Bertram, etc. (If you're interested in this subject of heraldic emblems, click here to access an excellent Wikipedia article on the origins of various English coats of arms.) Even our respective languages reveal countless common features... which means that it's not really rocket science (I like that expression, don't I) when an English-speaking individual such as me gets around to communicating in French.

All the rumbling of canons on D-Day would not have alarmed unduly the ghost of an oldtimer such as Bertram de Verdun who had lived through the battle of Hastings, on the other side of the Channel.

After the Conquest, when things settled down a little in England, the Domesday Book reveals that our patriarch Bertram de Verdun was officially allocated enough earth to plant a vegetable garden on the conquered land (which happens to correspond exactly to my own activities at the moment of writing).

But what do we really know today about our patriarch Bertram de Verdun? Yesterday, following my discovery of this man, I was delighted to learn that a scholar at the Bangor University in Wales, Mark Hagger, has published a book about the family de Verdun:

For the moment, for me, this whole affair is totally new. So I know little about our Norman patriarch. Click here for an English-language Wikipedia article about the family, and here for the French-language version.

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.
Les sanglots longs des violons
de l'automne blessent mon cœur
d'une langueur monotone.
 [Click here to see why I ended this article with those splendid lines of poetry.]