Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Noble Endeavor

As I've mentioned in several previous posts, I had long believed that I was a descendent of Dr. Edward Jenner, the discoverer of smallpox vaccination. I also knew that I was a descendent of a frontier lawman (George Frederick Pellman) and a respected British judge (William Willis, QC), as well as the famous (well, notorious) border reivers of clan Kerr. As a youngster, it was a source of great pride that I was descended from someone famous, and I'm sure I bragged endlessly about my family heritage. When I read Ivanhoe and the tales of King Arthur, I imagined that somewhere in the distant past there had been a Sir Percival Willis (or something of that sort), who had been a gallant medieval knight, rescuing damsels in distress and slaying dragons, who had been one of my ancestors.

As I reached my teenage years that childish pride gave way to something a little more noble -- a sense of purpose and duty stemming from a family legacy of people who, if not really famous, had accomplished things of genuine importance in their lives. I remember approaching adulthood with a strong sense of obligation, if not outright destiny, to accomplish great things. I've certainly fallen well short of those expectations, but my genealogical research has proven to be much more than just another in a long list of life's disappointments and failures.

A few months into my research, I discovered that through the Jenner side of my family (my paternal grandmother's side) I was related to Alec Baldwin and the other Baldwin brothers. In making that discovery, I had traced the Baldwin line back to Richard Baldwin I (1503 - 1552) and Ellen Pooke (1507 - 1565), who were my first common ancestors with the famous acting family. Richard Baldwin's mother was Agnes Dormer, daughter of Lord Geoffrey Dormer, Baron of Wing, whose arms are shown above.

50 years after first imagining that I might be descended from an English knight or noble came the discovery that I actually am! The surprise, however, was that it was not on my English mother's side of the family, as I had so long suspected, but on my very American father's side!

This led to a whole series of discoveries in quick succession. The first of these discoveries is the one that made the rest of the process so quick: every family of European nobility is related to practically every other family of European nobility -- and those relationships are extremely well documented. With hindsight the reason for this seems obvious: the rich and powerful families of Europe used marriages to form alliances and accumulate greater wealth. Since noble birth was the key to a noble marriage, meticulous records have been kept for centuries of most noble births and marriages. Because of this, it has actually been quicker and easier to trace more than a 1,000 years of my noble European ancestry than it was to trace the first 200 years of my American ancestry. Most of it is listed in Wikipedia!

It had taken me well over a year to trace the Jenners back to the 17th century, then the Baldwins back to the early 16th century. In the process, I had accumulated about 150 people in my family tree, but the majority of branches -- dozens of them -- had reached dead-ends around the year 1800. Within just a couple more weeks after discovering my lineage to Geoffery Dormer (my 14th-great-grandfather), my tree had grown to over 1,000 individuals and I had traced one line back more than 1,500 years!

As of today, my known family tree includes nearly 3,500 people, the majority of whom are European nobility -- barons and baronesses, margraves and margravines, counts, countesses, and earls, dukes and duchesses, kings and queens, and even several emperors! They range across most of medieval Europe, from the British Isles to Scandinavia, to continental Europe, and northern Africa. They include some of the most famous names in world history, like Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. They also include people of amazing character and accomplishment, like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, as well as a full compliment of cowards, fiends, and monumental failures. Their lives unfold the entire pageant of medieval history: conquests, plunder, assassinations, truces, alliances, crusades, defeat, and bloody revenge.

Just as American history came alive for me when it became the story of my family, so has European and Middle Eastern history now become personal and vital when viewed for what it really is: centuries of family squabbles. And not just any family, but my family!

In future posts, I will share with you some of the more interesting members of this amazing family.

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