Thursday, April 9, 2009

Individuals of 1066

The Bayeux Tapestry (not in fact a woven tapestry, but rather a work of embroidery) illustrates the story of the Norman Conquest.

Click the image to access a website that presents this masterpiece in the form of a loop.

It's quite possible that my earliest ancestor in England was a Norman who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066: maybe one of the so-called Compagnons de Guillaume-le-Conquérant. If this were the case, then I might have "genetic cousins" still living in Normandy today. It would be amazing if DNA tests could put me in contact with such people.

In this domain, it's interesting to have a list of the actual Compagnons. Long ago, when I sought an expert's opinion concerning the identity of these men, the president of the Genealogical and Heraldic Circle of Normandy, Count Gérard d'Arundel de Condé, informed me that a reliable list had been compiled and published in the 19th century by Léopold Delisle. For researchers who might be interested, I've uploaded a copy of this list here. In fact, the data in this list should probably be used in conjunction with two other existing lists: the Falaise Roll and the Battle Abbey Roll.

A few days ago, while talking with Count d'Arundel de Condé on the question of Franco/British "genetic cousins", I asked him a question that has often intrigued me: Why did certain Norman invaders of England decide to settle down there, then abandon their original French-sounding names and replace them by Anglo-Saxon surnames? This question can be rephrased differently: Why would a Norman nobleman who had arrived in England with William the Conqueror decide to relinquish his Norman roots and properties and settle down in relatively primitive conditions in the English countryside, often in a former Saxon neighborhood? On the surface, that kind of "sea change" is hard to understand. These days, I believe that few people would be prepared to swap a property in the French province of Normandy for a farm on the other side of the English Channel. In fact, there was method in the Normans' madness. The count explained to me that, in taking over vast tracts of fecund lands in England, the Norman nobleman didn't relinquish anything whatsoever back in Normandy, where his lady was probably waiting for her lord to return to the family castle as soon as possible. What happened, in many cases, was that the youngest son in the family (who normally had neither a title nor riches) was immediately dispatched to England to manage the newly-acquired lands. And he's the person—rather than his father or his elder brothers—who ended up assuming an Anglo-Saxon surname and becoming a proper Englishman.

Personally, I would be thrilled if DNA testing were to reveal, magically, that my Skeffington patriarch was in fact the fellow named Hugue l'Ane in Léopold Delisle's list. In English, that name translates to Hugh the Donkey. In Normandy, today, it would be fun trying to get in contact with French descendants of the Donkey family.

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