29 July, 2012

When Genealogy Goes Wrong

In the almost seven years (wow!) that I've been writing this blog, I've had numerous messages and emails from readers, at least 95% of them lovely and supportive.  Quite a few readers find the blog because they've been doing research on their family trees and are looking for more information about their ancestors of the early fourteenth century, and occasionally they email me or contact me on Facebook for more details or to ask about someone I haven't yet mentioned on the blog.  This is great and I'm happy to help. I have noticed, however, that a small minority of genealogy researchers are so keen to find royal ancestry somewhere in their tree that they wrongly ascribe royal parentage to someone, who of course just happens to be an ancestor of theirs.  Others, also keen to find royal ancestry, who have read their posts online and are also descendants of the people with supposedly royal parentage then ask me if I can confirm this. When I can't, when I say that actually there is no evidence for this, they can become a bit - well, snippy and defensive. Even rude sometimes.

One classic example of this: I received an email a while ago about a fairly obscure knight of Norfolk of the mid-fourteenth century, whose name escapes me now (and I no longer have the email), who was an ancestor of my correspondent.  The correspondent asked me if it was true that this knight married a daughter of Edward II and Isabella of France, which apparently is a story that appears somewhere online.  No, I said, it's not possible.  Edward II and Isabella had two daughters, Eleanor and Joan, born in 1318 and 1321.  Edward negotiated at various times for his daughters to marry King Alfonso XI of Castile, the future King Pedro IV of Aragon, and two sons of Isabella's uncle Charles, count of Valois. Ultimately, after his deposition, the girls married Duke Reynald II of Gelderland and King David II of Scotland. These negotiations give you an idea of the kind of husbands Edward II wanted for his daughters - preferably kings, or at the very least someone closely related to kings and very well-connected to European royalty and nobility (as the count of Valois certainly was, being Philip IV's brother).

Edward II's marital negotiations with Castile, Aragon and France also reflect his foreign policy and which powers he wanted or needed to make an alliance with at the time. (And before anyone starts screaming about how nasty and unfair it is that he was so willing to use his daughters as 'pawns', a word I would be delighted never to have to see again in connection with medieval marriages, let me point out that his own future marriage had been used since the age of five in the furtherance of his father's foreign policy, and his list of fiancées reflects his father's political aims and need for certain allies at any given time, and this is entirely normal and the case for pretty well every other king of England.) If Edward and Isabella had had more daughters or if Edward had reigned longer, it's certainly possible that the girl(s) would have married in England, as two of Edward's sisters did - Joan of Acre and Elizabeth, who married the earls of Gloucester and Hereford. Edward might have decided to ally himself with an English earl and seal this with a marriage of their children. But it's 100% safe to say that a simple shire knight of Norfolk would never have been considered as a suitable husband for a legitimate daughter of the king of England, who was also granddaughter and niece of kings of France. Edward would have received no benefits at all from such a marriage and it would have disparaged his daughter to make such a match, and been shocking to contemporaries. If Edward II had had an illegitimate daughter, this is the kind of marriage she might have made. But there is no evidence that he did. Another way in which this marriage might just be possible is if one of his daughters was widowed and then decided to please herself by marrying a man of her own choice, as Edward's sister Joan of Acre did with her second husband Ralph de Monthermer. But Edward's daughters Eleanor and Joan married outside England so this evidently didn't happen, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he and Isabella had another living child beyond the four who are well-known to history. Sadly, my correspondent was unwilling to let this line of inquiry and an extraordinarily tenuous possible link to royalty go and basically told me that if I couldn't or wouldn't help, they'd look elsewhere for this non-existent daughter of Edward and Isabella and her marriage. Well, good luck with that.

Something similar has happened to me a few times, with a story doing the rounds that Edward II's niece the countess of Devon made a secret love marriage to a cousin of hers named Richard and bore him a son John, before this scandalous marriage was dissolved and she was forced to marry someone more suitable, Hugh Courtenay, future earl of Devon. The alleged son of this alleged secret marriage allegedly has - surprise! - descendants alive today, many of whom believe they are thus descended from Edward I. Margaret, the countess, was betrothed to Hugh Courtenay in 1314 when she was only three years old and married him on 11 August 1325 when she was fourteen. So if she did marry and have a child with this cousin, which I really, really doubt, it must have been when she was only twelve or thirteen.  (Hugh Courtenay lived until 1377 when Margaret was sixty-six, so her supposed son John can't have been born when she was widowed.)  Again, I haven't received any thanks on the few occasions I've pointed all this out to the self-proclaimed descendants of this secret marriage and love-child; quite the opposite. I'm not saying the story is totally impossible, but there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever for it, and the genealogy websites which perpetuate the story are all forced to make Margaret several years older than she really was when she bore 'John' in this fabulously romantic marriage with her cousin, because otherwise, ewwww, icky.

Finally, there was, according to numerous genealogical sites, a man born in England sometime between about 1320 and 1330, who has tens of thousands known descendants in the twenty-first century. His name is variously given as William Alfred, William Knight, William Alfred Knight, or William Knight of Bradley. (I haven't looked into him properly, so have no idea what primary sources prove his existence and his descendants.) Some time ago for reasons I can't quite fathom, someone got it into their heads that this William was the illegitimate son of Roger Mortimer and Isabella of France, and now this astonishingly dubious claim is repeated all over the place as fact with inventions and inaccuracies galore, such as:
"Mortimer was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and then hung. Isabella, who was pregnant with Mortimer's child, was given a large pension for life. She gave birth to a son, Willielmo, in 1325. After paying eight shillings for the "fifth part of a knight's fee", he became known as Willielmo Knyght de Bradley.  Smuggled out of the Tower of London after his birth by Adam Orleton, Bishop of Worcester. He was fostered in Worcester, and undoubtedly never told of his parentage. According to the French chronicler, Froissart, Isabella was pregnant in 1330 when Mortimer was executed. However, the evidence is that the child was conceived and born in the Tower of London during the year that both Isabella and Mortimer were in residence. Nevertheless, it seems to have been generally known that there was a child of this union. As soon as she had recovered from this birth, Isabella fled to France, taking her eldest son, the heir to the throne with her. He was given the name "Knyght" by his mother, who pleaded for his father's life with the words: "Now, fair sirs, I pray you that you do no harm to his body, for he is a worthy knight, our well-beloved friend and our dear cousin."

Notice how this account brilliantly warps known history, turning Isabella's journey to France in March 1325 to negotiate with her brother Charles IV (with Edward II's full knowledge and permission) into a flight to her homeland because she had borne a child to Roger Mortimer, and notice also that the illegitimate boy didn't know his true parentage but somehow genealogists of the twenty-first century do.  Amaaaaaaaazing.  Adam Orleton, bishop of Hereford, incidentally, had fallen out of Roger and Isabella's favour as early as 1327, and wouldn't have been smuggling their secret love-child anywhere in 1330. The notion that Isabella and Roger had a son who, ta-da, actually survived has become a popular one in recent times and has featured in at least one novel I know of, wherein simply by existing he is said to be some kind of threat to Edward III and his position on the throne, for reasons that are not at all clear to me. Details are breathlessly invented and added to this bizarre story for extra spice and excitement, and the whole unappetising concoction is then given credence by being repeated on numerous websites and posts on Ancestry.com. (All of them, not at all coincidentally, written by descendants of Sir William whatever his real name was.) There really is no evidence that Isabella and Roger Mortimer had a living child, no real evidence in English sources that she was ever pregnant by him at all, no evidence that they ever met in the Tower when he was imprisoned there in 1322/23 let alone had sex (puh-leaze!), no evidence that people at the time were so remarkably stupid that they wouldn't have noticed if the queen of England had borne a child to a prisoner and then fled abroad with the child years later. It makes me cross when sites like this make statements such as 'the evidence is that the child was conceived and born in the Tower of London during the year that both Isabella and Mortimer were in residence'. What evidence? Cite it. Oh wait, you can't, because you're talking utter nonsense.


From another site, about William Alfred/Knight:
"On the genealogy web site Ancestry.com there are an astonishing 72,103 descendents of William Knight who have listed him in their family tree. Interestingly, almost all of them firmly believe that William was the illegitimate love child of Roger De Mortimer (The Earl of March) and Queen Isabella (The Queen of England). This fact may or may not be true, the history is inconclusive, but the story is well worth telling…It is accepted by most scholars that at the time of Roger De Mortimer’s execution, Isabella was pregnant with his child. The official record states that she lost the baby in childbirth, but others are not so sure. There are reports that the baby was smuggled out of the castle by Isabella’s friend and supporter Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Worcester, and given to a sympathetic family. It would make sense, since a male child of this union would have almost certainly been seen as a threat to the throne* and would not have been allowed to live. In case you haven’t guessed, that baby is said to have been William Alfred Knight, my ancestor.

Was William Knight really the child of Roger De Mortimer and Queen Isabella of England? We may never know. There are scant few records from the time to prove or disprove it. But the vast majority of the 72,103 people who list themselves as descendents of William Knight certainly think so. And as a descendant myself, I’m happy to include the Queen of England and one of England’s most notorious traitors in my family tree. Although I do feel an obligation to point out that most sources record William Knight’s birth year as somewhere between 1320 and 1325, 5 to 10 years before Isabella was pregnant with De Mortimer’s child in 1330. But hey, why let that ruin a great story."

* Why?  It was perfectly clear to everyone that Edward II by 1330 couldn't have been the father of any children Isabella produced, and any child of Isabella and Roger Mortimer - or any child she might have had by anyone else, legitimate or not - would have had no possible claim to the English throne.  (Which came from Edward II, not Isabella of France.  I really shouldn't have to point that out.)  The birth of an illegitimate half-sibling might have been deeply embarrassing to Edward III, but it was no threat to his position.  I find it hard to picture anyone seriously putting forward a son of the dowager queen and a married nobleman as a potential king in place of Edward III.  The latter was the eldest legitimate son of Edward II who was the eldest surviving son of Edward I who was the eldest son of Henry III and so on, and was thus the rightful king of England in the eyes of absolutely everybody.

That last sentence from the website is quite telling - hey, as long as it's a good story, and as long as some people believe that we might have a royal descent via this knight, who cares really if it's true or not?  Could I make a request to some of you: If you want to ask me about royal ancestry you think you might have in the period of history in which I specialise, and you don't get the answer you want, please don't get snippy and rude with me.  Frankly it's quite hurtful, and it's not my fault if other people have invented and perpetuated stories with no foundation which you want to believe because it's just so cool to think that Edward I is your 23 greats grandfather.  Some people do accept what I say (one lady recently sent me two lovely emails about William Alfred and really took on board what I said, so thank you for that, much appreciated!), but others just inform me that I must be mistaken because this one website is totally certain that Person A is definitely certainly positively the child of King X and if I think otherwise, I'm ignorant and wrong and They Will Prove It and then I'll be sorry to have doubted them.

Incidentally, it doesn't hurt your cause if you say 'please' and 'thank you' and use my name when you write to me requesting my help, and remember that I do all this for free out of the goodness of my heart and am not your own personal researcher with many hours available to work on your family tree.  Just saying.  Sending me peremptory emails such as 'I need to know details about William Alfred who is said to have been the son of Edward II's queen', and yes, I have received emails like that without so much as a hello, in no way makes me inclined to help you.  I know, I'm funny like that.  And to finish, a big thank you to all the many, many lovely readers and correspondents (who I am in no way talking about here) for your support and your thought-provoking ideas and suggestions and for kindly sharing your own research with me.

24 comments:

Anerje said...

I didn't know you had so many people asking for help with genealogy - and such a shame you encounter such negativity. I think most people would secretly hope they were descended from the royal line, and it's bizarre that even when presented with facts, they still can't accept it.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, it happens quite often. Most people are lovely and polite and thank me for my time and so on. Some aren't. :( It's just so weird, this determination to believe something on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

It's very kind of you to continue to help people with geneologies, when others would have stopped after receiving the flak you get. I am curious, though, as to why so many people want to be descended from this particular royal line. That a writer would want such a descent could be great publicity, but the others .....

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Esther! I completely understand the interest in genealogy, and would love to find out more about my own family tree, but this obsession with proving royal descent by having to make up implausible stories is just really strange to me.

Gabriele C. said...

OK, now I really have to trace down that connection with the Romanov family. I have some Russian ancestors in my family tree, you know, so why not aim high? :)

Kathryn Warner said...

I'm sure it's there somewhere, Gabriele! Maybe a great-great-grandmother, whose parentage is as yet uncertain - obviously a Romanov, probably smuggled out of the imperial palace in Super-Sekrit Scandal-Avoiding Circumstances :-:-).

karacherith said...

I wonder if some of the confusion is not the fault of modern genealogists entirely. Wasn't it the practice of some up-and-coming families in the 17th and 18th centuries to "fudge" some of their ancestry a little? It's possible that local legends and falsified genealogies were taken seriously by gullible descendants.

Kathryn Warner said...

Karacherith, you've put your finger on the problem with one of these scenarios, at least (the Bohun one). It was first recorded at least a couple of centuries ago, as far as I know, for the reason you give. It's similar with the Spencers, who many people still think are the same family as the Despensers because centuries ago the Spencers used the Despenser arms and made out they were the same family.

stag said...

No evidence whatsoever. Oh my. When in the history of human endeavor has "evidence" had anything to do with beliefs?
Whether its fabricated tenous connections to royal families, ghosts or naturopathy, evidence takes a back seat to the unsupported desire to believe in something just ain't so.

Its human nature. Upon reflection, I suppost that I would not have it any other way.

Kathryn Warner said...

Sure, people are free to believe what they like, like I'm free to say what I think of it. I'm just sick of getting rude abrupt emails and peremptory demands to provide more free stuff.

Gabriele C. said...

Actually, fudgung up your family trees has been around since the Middle Ages. Charlemagne, Arthurian heroes, Aeneas, and Brutus were the most popular candidates. The Campbells snatched Merlin, for example. :)

Though in the Middle Ages it was usually about legitimazing some claim by superior ancestry, not so much about ego boosting.

Carla said...

Even earlier than the Middle Ages; Julius Caesar claiming descent from Venus and assorted Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies claiming descent from Woden spring to mind.

I second the comment above, it's kind of you to help people with their genealogical research.

Kathryn Warner said...

Good points about this having a long history, Gabriele and Carla! :)

Anita said...

How fascinating to run across this post! Having traced my Knight ancestry back to the the same William Knyght, I wondered why it was so easy to get it back so far, but now I see why people are so fascinated with the legend. I had never heard of this supposed connection.

Melissa Hansen said...

I'm delighted to find your post. I bumped into William Alfred Knight on my line and knew it was wrong.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and humor!

Melissa Hansen said...

I was delighted to discover your post. I, too, ran into William Knight and knew something was very wrong.
I appreciate your sharing your knowledge and humor!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the information. I was rather curious about what I read on Ancestry.com about my ancestor and you have answered my question of ... Am I really a descendant of Mortimer and Isabella and now I know that I'm not!

Thanks for the historical clarification I really do greatly appreciate it! Keep up the good work!
One satisfied Knight!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much! So glad you found and enjoyed the post!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much! So glad you found and enjoyed the post!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much! So glad you found and enjoyed the post!

Anonymous said...

I am passionate about history and have been doing my personal genealogy for 12 years, it takes time to complete 1 line before moving onto the next and since lines are endless this is an unending job. This year however, I fell into Royal lineage and once in, it becomes all inter-marrying and lines cross and re-cross!!! I am confused as to why people WANT to be linked to Royalty. Some of my less affluent lines that take me to the 15thC and beyond are simply names and locations, I dont have to become emotionally attached to anymore than a name. But when you fall into nobility and royalty, it is NOT a pretty place, I am coming across direct ancestors hung, locked in the tower for life, hung drawn and quartered, repeatedly under house arrest, exiled, beheaded slain in duels, and killed in battle. This is not just men but women and children also. There is obviously more to be discovered, but royalty is not all fairy tales and castles, it is all a brutal game of chess.
Marie

paula said...

Thank you so much for your post.

I hope you don't mind but I am attaching it to my family tree. Perhaps, in my own way, I will help change the idea that Roger de Mortimer and Isabella had a son who became
Willielmo Knyght.

Since I found you today, I am going to follow you. I love learning history from people who are not trying to make money and changing the historical facts.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Paula, thank you for the kind comment and the follow! Yes, please do feel free to use the post on your family tree! I'm so glad you found it helpful.

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog trying to verify the father of Ralph Knight 1350 as Willielmo Knight DeBradley 1325 because I have discovered you can not trust anything the "leaf" on ancestry.com provides for the very reasons you have stated, too many want that royal connection. I have found parents younger than their children, mothers giving birth well after age 50, and my favorite, when in doubt, no matter where they lived, the person traveled to Y Somme Picardie France to die