Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Ancestors -- we all have 'em. Here's part of a pedigree chart my mom put together decades ago. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

Forbearing Our Forebears

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 12:02 PM

Autumn doesn’t begin until Thursday night — Friday morning if you’re a few time zones east of here — but recent events led me to begin a regular fall pastime a little early this year.

The death of Queen Elizabeth, the only English monarch most of us have ever known, was accompanied by a flood of often-ancient rituals. As it unfolded, curiosity impelled me to do a little research into the rationale behind some of it. That in turn brought me, as it always does — and rightly so — to the documentaries hosted by Lucy Worsley, who is — may I use a highly technical term here? — a real hoot. Her approach to English history is less obsequious than it is like the notes the funny, top-ranked student might pass to a friend during a particularly boring lecture. I love her work. Also, she’s cute.

She reminded me — I don’t know how or why — of the amazing story of the discovery of King Richard III’s skeleton beneath a social services parking space in Leicester more than 500 years after he was deposed via violent death at the battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485.

The Wars of the Roses, between the Tudors (the Lancastrians) and the Yorkists continue to fascinate for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ll list in the order that they occur to me. The first is that Shakespeare’s histories are a master class in propaganda. Shakespeare, no matter what he thought personally, was fond of his head and wished for it to remain connected to his body. The Tudors having won, Shakespeare wrote that they deserved to win and was able therefore to die of natural causes.

The second is that both Richard III, the Yorkist king, and Henry Tudor (soon Henry VII) were bad guys. But being a bad guy was a job requirement both for kings and for pretenders to the throne. Yes, it’s likely that Richard killed (or had killed) the Little Princes. On the other hand, Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was thin to the point of nonexistence. (If bastardy hadn’t disqualified one from succession the history of England would be very different.) Then again, the Lancastrians did kill the Yorkist king, so Henry could claim to be the conqueror of England — there’s plenty of precedent for that kind of thing. (Still, there is guilty evidence that he knew this was all phony — he back-dated his ascension to August 21, so he wouldn’t seem a regicide.)

The third is that on the whole I have to come down on the side of the Yorkists. (And, looking at the characters involved, I can’t help but think that Donald J. Trump would consider the Tudors his soulmates, should he develop curiosity and read about them. Joe Biden would side with the court jester until he got himself locked up in the Tower of London when it was discovered that “stupid” isn’t the same as “funny,” but it would do him good.)

What has any of this to do with my autumnal pursuits? Well. Not each autumn but many autumns I dive back in to genealogy, which is a frustrating and satisfying pursuit. You have no idea, unless you’ve done it, what it’s like to spend days, months, even years chasing down something exciting you have been told is true only to learn that it isn’t. (Conversely, there are few delights as rich as confirming such an account.) Several years ago I took a couple of weeks and dove in head-long, following one twig back quite a distance. One ancestor was basically the founder of English common law before he got himself killed in one of the Crusades. I’ve found ancestors who were beheaded in 12th-century England, and ones who were of nobility and royalty — sometimes they were the beheaded ones. (From the looks of it, anyone in medieval Europe who had holdings equivalent to a riding lawnmower in today’s possessions was made a count or a duke.) I lost two ancestors — in my accounting so far — in the Crusades.

One unfortunate ancestress, the Bavarian Romilda, found that geopolitics was not for her. Her husband, Gisulf II of Friuli, had taken his guys and gone out to battle the approaching Avars under Bayan II and he and his lads got massacred. Here’s how Paul the Deacon put what happened next in his Dark Ages potboiler Historia Langobardorum (Yes, it’s long, but worth it.):

The wife of this Gisulf, by name Romilda, together with the Langobards who had escaped and with the wives and children of those who had perished in war, fortified herself within the enclosures of the walls of the fortress of Frulii (Cividale). She had two sons, Taso and Cacco, who were already growing youths, and Raduald and Grimuald, who were still in the age of boyhood. And she had also four daughters, of whom one was called Appa and another Gaila, but of two we do not preserve the names. . . . Also in the same way they fortified themselves in the remaining castles, so that they should not become the prey of the Huns, that is, of the Avars. But the Avars, roaming through all the territories of Forum Julii, devastating everything with burnings and plunderings, shut up by siege the town of Forum Julii and strove with all their might to capture it.

While their king, that is the Cagan, was ranging around the walls in full armor with a great company of horsemen to find out from what side he might more easily capture the city, Romilda gazed upon him from the walls, and when she beheld him in the bloom of his youth, the abominable harlot was seized with desire for him and straightway sent word to him by a messenger that if he would take her in marriage she would deliver to him the city with all who were in it. The barbarian king, hearing this, promised her with wicked cunning that he would do what she had enjoined and vowed to take her in marriage. She then without delay opened the gates of the fortress of Forum Julii and let in the enemy to her own ruin and that of all who were there.

The Avars indeed with their king, having entered Forum Julii, laid waste with their plunderings everything they could discover, consumed in flames the city itself, and carried away as captives everybody they found, falsely promising them, however, to settle them in the territories of Pannonia, from which they had come. When on their return to their country they had come to the plain they called Sacred, they decreed that all the Langobards who had attained full age should perish by the sword, and they divided the women and children in the lot of captivity. But Taso and Cacco and Raduald, the sons of Gisulf and Romilda, when they knew the evil intention of the Avars, straightway mounted their horses and took flight.

One of them when he thought that his brother Grimoald, a little boy, could not keep himself upon a running horse, since he was so small, considered it better that he should perish by the sword than bear the yoke of captivity, and wanted to kill him. When therefore, he lifted his lance to pierce him through, the boy wept and cried out, saying: ‘Do not strike me for I can keep on a horse.’

And his brother, seizing him by the arm, put him upon the bare back of a horse and urged him to stay there if he could; and the boy, taking the rein of the horse in his hand, followed his fleeing brothers. The Avars, when they learned this, mounted their horses and followed them, but although the others escaped by swift flight, the little boy Grimoald was taken by one of those who had run up most swiftly. His captor, however, did not deign to strike him with the sword on account of his slender age, but rather kept him to be his servant.

And returning to the camp, he took hold of the bridle of the horse and led the boy away, and exulted over so noble a booty - for he was a little fellow of elegant form with gleaming eyes and covered with long blonde hair - and when the boy grieved that he was carried away as a captive, he took out of the scabbard a sword, such as he was able to carry at that age, and struck the Avar who was leading him, with what little strength he could, on the top of the head. Straightway the blow passed through to the skull and the enemy was thrown from his horse. And the boy Grimoald turned his own horse around and took flight, greatly rejoicing, and at last joined his brothers and gave them incalculable joy by his escape and by announcing, moreover, the destruction of his enemy.

The Avars now killed by the sword all the Langobards who were already of the age of manhood, but the women and children they consigned to the yoke of captivity. Romilda indeed, who had been the head of all this evil-doing, the king of the Avars, on account of his oath, kept for one night as if in marriage as he had promised her, but upon the next he turned her over to twelve Avars, who abused her through the whole night with their lust, succeeding each other by turns. Afterwards too, ordering a stake to be fixed in the midst of a field, he commanded her to be impaled upon the point of it, uttering these words, moreover, in reproach: ‘It is fit you should have such a husband.’ Therefore the detestable betrayer of her country who looked out for her own lust more than for the preservation of her fellow citizens and kindred, perished by such a death.

Her daughters, indeed, did not follow the sensual inclination of their mother, but striving from love of chastity not to be contaminated by the barbarians, they put the flesh of raw chickens under the band between their breasts, and this, when putrefied by the heat, gave out an evil smell. And the Avars, when they wanted to touch them, could not endure the stench that they thought was natural to them, but moved far away from them with cursing, saying that all the Langobard women had a bad smell. By this stratagem then the noble girls, escaping from the lust of the Avars, not only kept themselves chaste, but handed down a useful example for preserving chastity if any such thing should happen to women hereafter. And they were afterwards sold throughout various regions and secured worthy marriages on account of their noble birth; for one of them is said to have wedded a king of the Alamanni, and another, a prince of the Bavarians.

As a descendant of Grimoald (who went on to become king of Italy when it still mattered), I can say with certainty I’m glad he got away. You, the reader, may arrive at a different conclusion: if he hadn’t, I’d not be here.

So yes, genealogy isn’t just the compilation of a list, it’s the study of history — with a twist.

But there are limitations, the chief being sheer numbers. We each have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, 32 great-great-great-grandparents — and so on. Go back 10 generations and you’re talking 1,024 people. At the 14th generation, it’s 16,384 people. And I’m talking direct ancestors here, no siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. It grows exponentially. Let me give you an example.

Following just one small twig, I looked at my relationship to Charlemagne. I learned that just within that twig, I am “the fourtieth great grandson of Charlemagne, Carolus 'Magnus', the forty-first great grandson of Charlemagne, Carolus 'Magnus', the forty-second great grandson of Charlemagne, Carolus 'Magnus', the thirty-ninth great grandson of Charlemagne, Carolus 'Magnus'.” And so on.

I picked Charlemagne due to one simple fact. We in the West are all descended from Charlemagne. It’s not because he was especially prolific but because of the math. Given the exponential nature of ancestry, and picking the 40 generations mentioned in the first of the relationships mentioned above, not only is Charlemagne my ancestor but so are 1,099,511,627,776 other people of his generation. Problem is, there weren’t one trillion people around then. There aren’t now. Indeed, only about 100 billion people have existed since the beginning of people. This means that except for those whose lines died out, I am related to everybody alive at the time. So are you. What’s more, we’re related to all of them multiple times — that 1-trillion-plus number is inviolate; each person has to have a father and mother. (We’re related to each of them hundreds of times, thousands of times, maybe millions of times. and we’d know it if our family trees were complete, which is to say had more than a trillion entries at the 40th generation. But they aren’t complete and won’t be.)

In that the miscalculating Romilda (c. 560-610) predated Charlemagne, you’re almost certainly descended from her, too. Which does take a little bit of the exclusivity out of the story, but in exchange it give us an all-in-this-together fragrance that after a little getting used to is kind of nice. The “family of man” isn’t just a warm and fuzzy phrase — it’s a fact. But it also means that just about any great historic tale, if it’s old enough, is also a great personal family tale.

Which has nothing to do with Richard III, except for one little genealogical thread I found. I’m the 15th great grandson of one Katherine Stanley (and 32,767 other people). She lived from ~1430 to 1498. She had a brother, William Stanley, who was on Richard’s side until he wasn’t, with the change taking place, unfortunately for Richard, on Bosworth Field. Stanley switched sides and some accounts say it was actually his men who killed the king. Stanley became Henry’s lord chamberlain (the title of the official who on Monday broke his staff of office and placed the pieces of Elizabeth’s coffin). Ah, but in those days (Why did I say that? It’s the same now.) everyone was always jockeying for position. William Stanley backed, or appeared to back, or was suspected of backing, one Perkin Warbeck, who showed up in 1491 and claimed to be one of the two princes from the tower and therefore the rightful king of England. After Warbeck tried Henry’s patience for a couple of years, he was hanged.

Stanley was charged with treason and beheaded.

So watching the committal service Monday afternoon, sad though it surely was, I looked at the lord chamberlain and was able to honestly think, “It could be worse for you.”

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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