Will: The Will of William the Conqueror

I hesitated about whether to refer to William, 4th Duke of Normandy as “William ‘the Conqueror'” or as “William ‘the Bastard'”.  The term “Bastard” would probably make this blog slightly more popular.  But, since my focus is on the Will to Power, no one person’s epithet says “Will to Power” quite as clearly as the one attached to the name “William ‘the Conqueror’.”

William was a descendant of Rollo and Poppa, just like Black Will de Braose.   Let’s first establish that William was willful, was strong-willed.

In January, 1066, the King of England (Edward the Confessor) died without an heir.  We can view his childlessness as people did in that time, dereliction of duty.  As a King, one of his primary duties was to produce an heir.  Did he not want to/did not will it?  Or did he will it but find it impossible to do?

The traditional view on Edward is that his will directed him toward one object:  The Divine.  He had little interest in the material world, he was focused intensely on the Ideal and the Divine.  He took a vow of celibacy before he married and before he was required to become King.  Let’s also remember that it took another person (a wife) to produce this heir, so it was complicated.  Maybe she didn’t want to, and he wasn’t willful enough to, um, press the issue.  (Good for him)  At any rate, the story is that Edward took a vow of celibacy early on in life and that was the reason he failed to produce an heir.

His own father, Aethelred the Unready (better translated as ‘Unread’ or ‘Uncounseled’ or ‘Ill-Advised’) was interested in material power in the traditional sense:  he organized murders, wars and raids.  He produced several boys, several of whom were the warlike Kingly types expected of him.  He  was married to the sister of the powerful Duke of Normandy.  He hadn’t intended for Edward the Confessor to be King, he had older boys.  Edward’s older brother, Edmund Ironsides, had served briefly as King of England, too busy valiantly leading war crews against the encroaching Danes to find time to marry and produce an heir.   Another son, older than Edward, had been banished (to Hungry) from the Kingdom of England, as he was considered too big a threat to his father’s and brother’s power.   It’s possible that Aethelred actually felt he had enough warlike sons that Edward could follow his own volition and the religious life, which is what Edward did.

Aethelred the Uncounseled

Perhaps Edward realized at some point that William would make a good king and he didn’t need to try and make a king himself.  Bringing a boy up to be a King was tricky business.  Edward’s own father had not succeeded in imparting the warlike, dangerous mien thought needed to exercise a King’s will to all of his own sons.  The “vow of chastity” business is problematic.  It was a form of asceticism, of course, but if a man doesn’t have a very strong sex drive (or doesn’t prefer women), it isn’t much of a sacrifice.  We can’t read King Edward’s mind from this distance, but one wonders.  It’s also possible that Edward knew the English tradition (like the Saxon tradition) of electing Kings out of a possible group of barons and noble contenders would prevail whether or not he broke his vow.

Aethelred, in fact, had had a hard enough time ruling over England and needed help – from the very powerful, willful King of Denmark.  He needed the King of Denmark to calm or at least try to temper the constant raids from Scandinavian Vikings.  The English were not thrilled about being ruled by a puppet of Denmark, but such was the case by the time of Aethelred and Edward.  England needed whatever help it could get  if it wanted to stay out of the clutches of the Viking rulers.  One could say that the English had no will to be completely plundered by raiders, which was a constant possibility and reality.  Like most people, they wanted to hold on to their own stuff – and it took a good leader, with an army, to do that.  Edmund Ironsides was such a leader, but he died (perhaps of battle related injures) soon into his reign.

It’s unclear whether Edward the Confessor named William, the Bastard (he really was known by that name during his time) his successor as King of England.  That was what the Normans said he had done.  In that case, all should have gone well, except that Harold Godwinson, Edward’s brother-in-law (his wife’s brother) decided to usurp the throne.

Edward never liked the Godwins and some people say that’s why he refused to have sex with Edith Godwin, his wife.  She was 20 when they married in 1045, he was 42.  He eventually had a huge falling out with her family, most of her brothers fled England and he sent her to a nunnery in 1051.  Some historians say the excuse was that she had failed to produce an heir, but if he had taken a vow of celibacy, it’s hard to buy both viewpoints at the same time – unless Edward actually had the will to believe contradictory things about his own lack of fertility and found it easy to blame a woman in a sexless marriage for not having children.  People can believe all kinds of things, but if Edward were really so split in his view on things, no wonder he was not a strong King.  It’s more likely he just didn’t want her family around, as it seems clear he really didn’t like the Godwins.

Edith’s brother, Harold, was born on English soil, son of the Saxon Earl of Wessex, while William was of course Norman-French.  Up until that time, the English had followed no strict rules of succession, like Salic law, instead convening a kind of counsel to choose the next King.  The current King’s sons were always in the running and strong contenders, as it simplified things to use heredity.  But, the counsel could choose someone else (as it had done in the past) if it chose.  So, if Edward threw his weight (perhaps meagre) behind William, that would not necessarily have been enough to win over all of his subjects to the view that William should reign.  This business of being born on English soil was very important to them.

Harold and William had a history together.  Harold had been knighted by William during Harold’s sojourn in Brittany and Normandy in 1063.  It is not clear what Harold was doing in Brittany or Normandy, one legend has it that he was supposed to be telling William that Edward wanted him to be King.  At any rate, during the knighting ceremony, the Bayeux tapestry shows Harold pledging fealty to William in all his endeavors, which would of course include a claim to being King of England.

My own view is that is likely that Edward the Confessor didn’t have the power to actually name William the new King, probably knew that, and didn’t make much effort to solve the problem before he died.  He could have done much more.  He could have written a proclamation.  He could have had William crowned King of England while he lived, he could have done lots of things to make William King of England, but he did not.  If he wanted to obtain the power to name his heir, he exhibited little will in exerting himself toward that goal.

So, when Edward died, the crown was up for grabs.  The King of Denmark was eyeing it, Harold happened to be nearer and arranged his own coronation, probably at Westminster (where Edward had just been buried).  The fact that Harold was present at the funeral and could arrange a ceremony of coronation shows how social structure and will come together:  it’s one thing to want a crown, it’s another to actually have physical access to a particular crown and the usual crowning place.  No one really knew whom Edward had chosen (if anyone) as his successor.  Neither Harold nor William waited for any council to convene.  Events took on their own moment, spurred on by the wills of these two men:  Harold and William.

Harold had the home court advantage and William instantly began organizing a vast army.

King Harold as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Organizing vast armies took a lot of time and energy.  William’s degree of energy is phenomenal, and I am taking it to be a sign of an incredibly strong will to conquer England.  He had to personally plan and devise a way to move men and material across the English channel from Normandy.  It’s true of course that Normandy is a perfect place to launch an attack into England, so geography assisted William’s desires.  Would he have been so insistent on being King of England if he had been in Milan?  I doubt it.  William saw the great opportunity in front of him, though and acted very swiftly.  He hired virtually every carpenter on the entire continental Atlantic coast, mostly Flemings, and began constructing as many ships as possible.  He also paid for and directed the construction of portable forts to take to England.

He sent scouts to scout possible landing places and seek out the position of Harold’s gradually accumulating forces.  He forestalled most of Harold’s efforts to figure out what he was up to, while constantly spying on Harold.  He acquired hundreds of horses (if not thousands), many of them from amongst the best horse stock on the continent – from the Grentmesnil family, who specialized in warhorses and other horse specialties.  Harold had no access to Grentmesnil horses – and the Grentmesnils themselves joined William’s expedition.

Practically everyone of note in Normandy joined William’s expedition, convinced he would succeed and that they would be rewarded with large tracts of land in England (they were right).  It’s not clear that everyone knew there would be no turning back once they landed in England; William would build earthwork walls, walling in the ships, to make sure no one deserted the expedition.  He kept less than the number of ships needed to evacuate all the troops, sending the other ships back to Normandy to bring more men and supplies.  Even if he had not done the earthworks, which was a brilliant idea, most of the men had had quite enough of the sea after rocking about – with their horses and their armor and whatever else they wished to take with them beside them in these fairly small wooden boats – for the time it took to cross the channel.

This is a good example of communal will.  Those men had to want to come down to the beach, live in tents, practice warcraft, and wait for the ships to be built and the winds to be right.  More and more men came.  William had quite a bit of money, he borrowed more, but many of the men were not paid – they were there because they wanted a chance at grabbing English land and believed William was the right person to get them what they wanted.  The Earl of Meulan supplied in money what the Grentmesnils supplied in horses.  Other nobles did the same.  William of course also hired plenty of mercenaries.

But minor nobility from all over the Atlantic seaboard decided, on their own, to join their will to his.  The Scots ancestors of the de Braose family were among these people.  Good estimates of the size of William’s army place it at 3000 men – a huge number to transport at sea in small, rocking boats.  Thanks to the efforts of William’s wife, Mathilda, who may well be one of Europe’s earliest cartoonists, we have a visual record of these efforts.  It looks like two or three horses could ride per boat, and if no horses, then several men.  It’s very probable that Matilda watched the preparations and that her pictures are fairly accurate – no one knows for sure.  One historians estimates around 700 boats (one writer who saw the event counted 697) and William may have sent the boats with the carpenters and the wooden forts ahead, along with war materials such as lances and armor.

Men and horses in rocking boats

When William gave the command, some 3000 men boarded those boats and set sail under his command.  The people they were fighting against had stone castles, local serfs, local food and war materials.  William had only what he brought with him.

It was September  – only 9 months after Edward’s death – when William set sail.  Under the circumstances, just sending messages to the various places from which mercenaries were gathered would have taken incredible speed and effort.  Everyone riding by horseback to Bayeux must have taken much effort.  Training everyone to work in consort, stacking provisions, giving orders to load boats, dealing with the various languages spoken by his men:  all of that had to come from William’s command.

William was, personally, a very imposing man.  His inner mental strength was ably symbolized or embodied by his actual physical presence.  He is described by one of his own contemporaries as a large man, and so muscular and strong that he was the only person who could draw his bow.  No one was surprised by the fact that only he could draw that bow:  he was strong and he looked strong.  Would men have followed a weaker man into battle in the same way?

He had a receding hairline (lots of testosterone?), a big belly (which disturbed his regal handsomeness, apparently), and was never sick except for his last illness.  He was able to bend and shoot his bow while his horse was at full gallop.  When Mathilda depicted him in her tapestries, incidentally, she does not show the big belly.

It is sometimes said that the entire fleet was assembled in a month (doubtful) and that it was only the lack of proper winds that kept the fleet from sailing earlier (doubtful).  But, while Harold fumed and worried and waited, a psychological war of attrition was already taking place.  More and more men and material came to William, until he was ready, while Harold had immediately fortified the coast and taken all his ships to London (leaving the Channel unguarded).  Harold was afraid of a sea battle, and he was afraid of Norman piracy against individual ships.

While William had vast supplies still streaming in from Normandy, Brittany and Maine, Harold had to keep taxing his vassals to maintain his fortifications along the coast and soon Harold was running out of supplies.  William knew of this demoralization.  Harold apparently decided William wasn’t coming to England, and since he didn’t have spies in Normandy (and William did have people going back and forth), Harold concluded (wrongly) that William had given up.  It was only 8 months after Edward’s death, but Harold gave up and disbanded most of his army on September 8, as most of them were villeins (farmers who had to be soldiers as part of their vassalage) so that his army could go home to conduct the harvest.

William had spent his money hiring full time soldiers and accumulating noble, not vassal, knights.  He tried to sail on September 12, which is when the winds did actually thwart him.  On September 27, William’s fleet finally landed in England – probably not at Pevensey, as usually claimed, but at a marshy cove nearby, which was entirely unguarded, and which gave William secrecy – and a place to dam up the cove so that his own men could not turn back, even if they wanted to.

William had one of his port-a-forts erected on the isthmus of Hastings, which was mostly marshlands, to protect his flank from any sudden incursion from Harold’s ships (he needn’t have worried).  He wasn’t taking chances, he was thinking ahead, he was very focused on winning.  If the port-a-forts were not sent ahead, but arrived with the rest of the fleet, that must have been an incredible undertaking at the time of landing:  carpenters and fort materials pulled into play, horses to be fed and saddled and convoyed  (it’s said they had to be led rather than ridden through the cliffs and marshes near Hastings, they would have sunk into the mud had they been ridden), men to feed and tactics to implement.

Harold had had the bad luck of falling into a clash of wills with his own brother, Tostig, whom he had been fighting in the north of England.  It doesn’t seem as if this was a deliberate ploy by Tostig to aid William.  Harold had to rush his army from the north of England to Hastings upon world of the Norman landing.  It took him only 5 days – very fast.

William is credited with being the first general to assemble “combined forces,” meaning he had a variety of troops:  archers, lancers on horseback, foot soldiers.  The English army was almost entirely foot soldiers.  They had never seen an army like the one William brought to them.

Harold’s army was exhausted while William’s army was still ecstatic over their successful crossing and their own organization.  They could see that they could readily plunder the local countryside for supplies if need be.  William had given some thought about how to ramp his men’s spirits up even further – he had an entertainer launch the first salvo in the war, his jongleur, Taillefer – a jester.  Taillefer came prepared to entertain.  On the morning of the Battle of Hastings, he rode out to the ridge chosen as the point of command, and while juggling a sword, sang the Song of Roland.  He then attacked and killed an English soldier with the sword, and was instantly killed himself.  The troops roared into action.

At first, the battle didn’t go as William planned.  The English formed “shield walls,” in which the sturdiest and tallest of the vassals held up shields, while the archers shot arrows from inside the shield wall.  It was hard for the Normans to cut through the shield walls or aim down into the area where the English archers were hidden.  Even the well-trained horses shied away from the shield walls, the shield-bearers also possessing pointy lances and swords.

In the fierce fighting, William had three horses killed underneath him.  Naturally, he did not retreat or give up.  At one point, his troops saw him go down and thought he had been killed and they started a retreat – which actually provided the break that William needed to win.  When the English thought the Normans were at least retreating, they broke their shield wall formation and took pursuit.  William then led a cavalry charge into the midst of them, and now it was the English who ran away – but without their protective formation, the foot soldiers were easy prey for William’s horse mounted knights, and as William originally planned, it was his battle from then on.

Harold’s household knights were the last to give up.  William let the lesser foot soldiers flee the field without much pursuit, focusing on bringing down the King.  All the household knights were killed, and so was Harold.

The Norman invasion of England was essentially accomplished, after about 9 months of preparation, in one day.  There was little other serious fighting in this invasion (perhaps I’ll get a chance to talk about how some of the English defenders ambushed some of William’s men later that day or about how the English barons refused to come and swear fealty to William, so that William did have to eventually march on London), but essentially, the King was dead – and William was the new King, as he had claimed to be, all along.

William had sent some ships back to Normandy for reinforcements and more supplies, he was not at all underplanning this event.  Londoners made a half-hearted attempt to crown another King born on English soil – Edgar the Atheling was elected by the traditional counsel.  Only 15, he didn’t last long in the face of William’s army, and Londoners agreed to renounce him as King and to do homage to William in order to spare London further death and plunder.

King Harold became the last English king to die on a battlefield until Richard III, and the Norman conquest marked the last time England was conquered by a power from off the Isle.

William was crowned King of England, on Christmas Day, 1066, at Westminster.  I like to think that, to William, one calendar year was about enough time to conquer England – an amazing act of bravado, derring-do – and incredible planning.  He never wavered in his goal of conquering England, not once, in that entire span of time.  He was ready when the opportunity afforded by Edward’s death occurred, he speedily amassed people who would submit to his will, and he rewarded them as planned.  One of his first acts as King was to bring his Queen, Mathilda, over to England, where she would give birth to the first of William’s sons to be born on English soil – so that Henry I, William’s son, would fit the notion of being English-born – and would eventually rule after William.

It looks like William left nothing out of his plan, enacted by himself, with a bounty of structural components on his side, but after his own desire as the root of the plan.  He changed history.  And that, I believe, is what Nietzsche meant by possessing the “Will to Power.”

Will: The Force, not the Person (Part 1)

I’m thinking about the role of Will in history.  Who isn’t, you might ask?  We’ve all read Nietzsche, right?

Actually most people have not read Nietzsche, nor does reading Nietzsche assist everyone in understanding Will, specifically the Will to Power.  I grew up in a small town, where education even today is not what it is in places like Evanston or Westwood or Palo Alto or any other university town.  I went to university with a lot of kids who grew up in places where education was more thorough.  People from El Paso or Sherman Oaks or the Bronx had had routine experience with computers and programming.  They had studied a bit of logic.  All of that was foreign to me.

I had heard of philosophy.  I learned that it existed when I was 13 and first opened a university catalogue.  I was planning to go to university, not just college (I had figured out the difference).  As I thumbed through the catalogues borrowed from a middle school teacher, three fields of study stood out to me as possible majors:  English, anthropology and philosophy.  I had never heard of either anthropology or philosophy until then.  I used the college catalogues to plan my trips to our local library.  I could see the names listed as great writers or thinkers in the introductory courses in English and philosophy.  It was in this way that I encountered Socrates and Plato.  Had it not been for those university catalogues (which I continued to pore over all through high school), I would doubtless have gone off to University as clueless about Plato and Aristotle as I was about Karl Marx.

When in the first few weeks of university, a teacher kept mentioning Marx, I knew only of the Marx brothers, and I was pretty sure that the teacher wasn’t referring to the entertainer; within a week after the first mention I was in the library, searching for Marx – it took awhile for me to connect Marx up to the Communist Manifesto, I encountered his piece on German Ideology first, but within 10 days of hearing his name for the first time, I had a glimmer of who he was – I considered him a philosopher at that time.  Similarly, when I first heard of Lenin, I thought that teacher was speaking of John Lennon – that took longer to figure out (spelling through me off).  There were no “For Dummies” books back then, and our university bookstore wasn’t the kind of place where Cliff Notes were prominently displayed, but they did have a great section for public consumption and my self-education in philosophy began in earnest.

Nietzsche, however, eluded me.  I tried to read him.  I couldn’t get through enough philosophy courses to get formal instruction in Nietzsche.  Our introduction to philosophy teacher, John Mothershead, was an expert in aesthetics and Kant.  He did not cover Nietzsche, but he did introduce us to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and we ended the course with Hegel.  

When I ultimately became an anthropology major, it was natural for my professors to assign some Engels and Marx (both had views on primitive society, primitive socialism and of course, class), and mention was often made of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but we were not assigned to read those two.    Clearly every educated person knew something about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, so I attempted to read them.

I knew the concept of Will was important to Nietzsche, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly was meant by the word.  I had heard all manner of arguments about Free Will, of course (that, at least had been introduced to me in the protestant church discussions of my youth, and elaborated on in by Prof. Mothershead).  Power I could understand to some degree.  But Will, in and of itself, eluded me as a concept.  Years later, I would meet and get to know an actual philosopher very well, and he explained it to me.  It turned out it was quite simple.  Things always seem simpler when you have a good teacher.

Will is the desire or conception within the human mind to get something done, to make something happen.  It is motivation, it is the force of mind.  It is stronger when it is conscious, but unconscious aspects of will must be considered in a proper exploration of will.

Nietzsche clearly thinks that this force of the human mind is important to history, and it surely is.

Many questions arose in my mind once I realized that will is akin to motivation, power of belief, and, well, stubbornness or even arrogance:  strong intentions to accomplish one’s own…will.

First, I tried to find out more about the psychology of motivation and learned that psychologists, around the years 2005-6, were just then coming to terms with how to study motivation, an elusive pattern or process within the human mind.  Psychologists deal with both unmotivated and motivated human beings in clinical settings, and everyone knows that unless a person is motivated (has the will) to change, they aren’t going to change much.  Even if they are apparently motivated, they might not be able to accomplish a change.  Addiction studies, rehab, etc., all deal with such issues daily; in ordinary therapeutic transactions, will is at issue.  Experimental psychology still has a long way to go in figuring out how to study motivation.  Functional MRI’s and other measurements of brain activity are only somewhat promising in trying to figure out what sorts of energy patterns occur in the brain when a person really wants to do something.  Chess players, for example, who are trying very hard (willing themselves) to win a game, exhibit high activity in their finger motor cortex, and in the frontal lobes related to spatial reasoning and general reasoning, but little else distinguishes them from a person watching television (a person who must have the will to watch television?)  How could a brain state, like will, be distinguishable physiologically from any other brain state?  Isn’t will always present?

Apparently not.  For example, many people show up in clinical settings with the complaint that unwanted feelings or thoughts are in their heads.  They wish to will those thoughts and feelings (often depression) away, but the thoughts and feelings keep coming back.  This is usually regarded as a jointly biochemical and cognitive problem, and most psychiatrists and psychologists believe that the biochemical issue (often serotonin levels) should be addressed early on, and that cognitive-behavioral therapy as an adjunct will help eliminate the unwanted thoughts.  This does work in many people.

But people will themselves to commit suicide, to kill one another, and to do many other problematic behaviors just as surely as they will themselves to take care of their children, to feed the dog and to water the houseplants.

It can easily be said that some people’s wills are stronger than others (they will themselves to do more difficult or unusual tasks) and it is at this point that,  as an anthropologist, I want to pull in a structural (social structural) analysis.

Some people are in a position, in society, to be able to more easily accomplish their will.  And some actions are much more easily accomplished within a given society, because society provides the means to do so.  The rules, structures and mechanisms of social control within a society all play a role in the ease of accomplishing one’s will.  So, if in today’s Great Britain, one wills that another person be dead and decides to act upon that will by murder, they will have a harder time getting a gun to do so than a person living in the United States.  A person in Arizona, where people are allowed to openly carry handguns in public, will have an easier time shooting their congresswoman than an Ilongot in the highlands of the Phillipines (where guns are virtually non-existent, but the technical means of head-hunting are available).

So, isolating sheer will remains difficult on the anthropological and psychological fronts.  A person might have a strong will to do something, but lack the means to do so.  Often, as it turns out, a collective will to do something is important, and understanding collective will is a bit trickier.  Certainly

If we look at the Occupy movement, it appears to be predicated on collective will, and specifically avoids having A Leader to round it up.  The problem with having A Leader is that it rapidly becomes difficult to distinguish between the collective will and the leader’s will.  If people agree to assign some of their individual will over to another person, which is what happens in the leadership structure, it is hard to know when (and how) to get one’s individual will back.  In formal military structures, soldiers agree and vow to ignore their own will in favor of the next highest leader’s will, until the will of the person at the top of a chain of command is accomplished.  Naturally, most people analyze history in terms of who the real leaders are (whose will gets accomplished) in these hierarchical military settings.  Soldiers can and do mutiny, individually or collectively, or exercise will in ways that are counter to The Leader’s will, but they have frequently agreed not to do so.

If, on the other hand, a collective chooses A Leader who embodies their collective will more or less perfectly, then it may be possible to use the efficiency of a hierarchical structure to accomplish the collective will.  This is how many revolutions start out, and unfortunately, the same system that transfers individual will to A Leader still holds:  it is still difficult for the individual to know when to opt out of the movement, and The Leader may still have power to do as he or she pleases, even if many of the individuals opt out of the movement.

The leaderless front of the Occupy Movement, therefore, is attempting to keep this situation from arising.  In that way, it is an historic, conscious movement that attempts to preserve individual will.   This leads to a different structure of power.  Criticisms leveled at the Occupy Movement have included that fact that not all members share the same stated ideas about what should happen; they do, however, share the will to Occupy.  The fact that the movement is so centered upon this shared will is crucial to understanding it.  They may not agree entirely on what they want, but they know they strongly want something.  As the movement as progressed, two central sets of demands are emerging:  Tax the 1% who control the vast majority of wealth and resources at a higher rate, and Save Education.  These are perfectly reasonable goals, and there are probably very few Occupy members who individually will otherwise.

In my next post, I am going to look at a radically different sort of situation, historical situations in which one person became the embodiment of the will of a people or, alternatively, one person imposed their individual will on a group of people (it’s very hard to discern the difference, even in contemporary movements).  These are the kinds of situations Nietzsche had in mind, and so, in a sense, I’m doing a kind of Nietzschean anthropology of the past.

The de Braose Story: Will the Ogre and not-King Geoff

From Wikipedia:

An ogre (feminine: ogress) is a large, cruel, monstrous, and hideous humanoid monster, featured in mythologyfolklore, and fiction. Ogres are often depicted in fairy tales and folklore as feeding on human beings, and have appeared in many classic works of literature. In art, ogres are often depicted with a large head, abundant hair and beard, a voracious appetite, and a strong body. The term is often applied in a metaphorical sense to disgusting persons who exploit, brutalize, or devour their victims. Closely related is the troll figure, although these are sometimes not as malevolent.

William III de Braose, the murderer, is the same person as William III ‘the Ogre’ de Braose.  The word “ogre” is French, William III de Braose was Norman-French (and as we have seen, with an unusual lineage).

I’m claiming he’s a murderer (and I will present my case shortly), and the question of which came first:  the nickname or the deed?  is pertinent.  But first, let’s finally detail the crime.  It involves the murder of a 16 year old boy, Arthur of Brittany, a haunting precursor to the story of the deaths of the two princes in the Tower.

This is also the story of Prince Geoffrey, Plantagenet, who would have been, should have been King of England.  If you’ve watched The Lion in Winter, perhaps you started rooting for him to be selected by his wavering father, Henry II, after the unexpected and early death of the young king Hal (who had been crowned, Norman-style, at age 15, long before his father was dead).  Unfortunately, the young king died before the old king.  Tradition said that the next oldest son, Prince Richard would be the heir – and so it seemed it would be.  Unfortunately, Richard would eventually become king and then die without an heir – leaving the field open.  So, if Geoffrey had not died, he would have been king.

But, in this story, there is no brother-poisoning-brother, as in the tale of the Dukes of Normandy.  Geoffrey was not directly killed by a brother.  He died while in the court of King Philippe Augustus of France, to whom he had become a sort of soulmate and close friend.  Geoffrey died plotting against his father, but not in a war.  He was killed in a tournament when he was unhorsed, perhaps by someone not quite following the rules of the tourney, and then trampled to death by his own destrier.  He didn’t die right away, and no one around him seemed to suspect foul play.  He had a severe concussion and probably a subdural hematoma.  He would have been unable to remember the events right before he was knocked unconscious, so was unable to identify the arrant knight who unhorsed him – almost certainly on the English side (his father’s side).  Geoffrey was a liegeman of the King of France (as Duke of Brittany) and this was the first time he had publicly declared himself for the King of France, as against his father and brother Richard.  It’s interesting and perhaps ironic that he died in the same event, due to a mishap involving an unknown English knight.

When Geoffrey died, he left behind two young daughters and a pregnant wife.  Geoffrey had just changed the ancient laws of Celtic Brittany to male primogeniture (or at least, he thought he had) in order to simplify political life there.  He was very confident that his wife, Constance, would eventually bear him a son – and she did.  The third child was a son, who lived and was sworn in as Duke of Brittany as a tiny baby.

Now, had Geoffrey lived, when Richard the Lion Heart died, he would have been King of England.  If he had been King of England, his son Arthur would have been more than Duke of Brittany, he would have been heir apparent and eventual King of England as well.  In a system of male primogeniture, males inherit in order, first son first, last son last.  First son of a living first son is the next in line, supplanting all the younger brothers of his father.  These uncles are often discomfited or worse when this happens, but those are the breaks, that’s the way male primogeniture works and still works.

King Richard was well aware of this.  In his heart, I believe he wished his brother Geoffrey still lived, and that his brother John could be kept off the throne.  John was young, perhaps prone to acting younger than some of his age, a bit immature.  Callow.  But also quite observant and clever.  Richard did not much like clever, he liked swordplay.

The young Duke of Brittany was named heir to the throne of England when Richard continued after marriage without an heir.  It would be hard to begat an heir without actually sleeping near one’s wife occasionally.  Richard may have had one bastard son, in his youth, but the rest of his life almost seems a frantic avoidance, first of marriage itself, and then of married life.  Richard did not expect to die young, himself (I mean, if you already had two brothers who had died young, wouldn’t you think maybe God would favor the remainder?  Richard certainly put his life on the line for God, going off on Crusade for years, and surviving that against tremendous odds).

So Richard, back from the world’s most dangerous places, didn’t expect to be killed close to home.  They say most accidents happen in or near the home, and so it was with Richard.  While examining the battlements of yet another castle he was about to siege, he got, yet again, into range of an arrow from the archers on the battlements and took one through the shoulder.  This fairly minor wound festered (poison?  did they know about bacteria/poison?  I bet they did  –  there was so much dysentery, I’ll bet some soldiers put 2 and 2 together).  Anyway, Richard died of a festering wound, but not before (on his deathbed, and he knew he was dying), naming his brother John as his heir.  The idea is that he thought 1) that Arthur (aged 15) was still too young to hold the empire together  and 2) that his brother John was wolfish and a tremendous threat, one that Arthur could never withstand.  It was only practical (and Richard was practical) to name John.  That should have ended things.

But Duke Arthur of Brittany had been brought up by his mother with a crown in mind and Brittany had the money to pay for an army.  The young duke was, like Henry II, in charge of his own army, at age 14.  Bright, handsome, composed and regal, Duke Arthur fit the image that many had of a king.  Before leaving on Crusade, King Richard had named the boy his heir, in part to thwart his brother John’s schemes for the throne, in part because he truly believed the boy had a legitimate claim to the throne and would eventually make a good king, so Arthur was raised with a crown on the horizon.  He was only three when he became the heir apparent, but would remain in that key position until he was 12.  Prince Geoffrey, the boy’s late father, after all would be next in line to the throne.  If a current English heir apparent died but left issue, it is likely that child would be the heir, so Arthur’s claim – which was supported strongly by the continental components of the English empire – was very strong.  Indeed, when Richard changed his mind at the last minute (if he really did) and named his brother John as his heir, King John found himself immediately at war against Duke Arthur and nearly every other continental duchy.  Arthur was in rebellion against King John, pressing his claim to the throne, and had captured his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitane, and was holding her at Mirebeau, when King John came to her rescue and capture the boy-Duke.

The tradition in those days, upon the capture of a Royal, was to keep them in royal confinement, awaiting ransom.  This was usually quite comfortable.  Arthur was taken to the King’s castle at Rouen, in Normandy, where he was probably kept in one of its Towers, probably the one where Joan d’Arc was later held.  It no longer exists, but today, Rouen Castle maintains a similar tower:

Philippe Auguste's Tower at Rouen

Philippe Auguste's Tower at Rouen

There, King John pondered what to do with Arthur.  He had also captured the boy’s only sibling, Lady Eleanor.  He had no intentions of ever letting them out of captivity.  William, the Ogre, de Braose was put in charge of Arthur while Eleanor was sent into permanent captivity in England, at Corfe Castle.  It’s not clear that King John meant to keep her captive for the rest of her life.  She was very beautiful, with her father’s dark blonde hair and deep blue eyes, and he did considering marrying her off, as after all, her children would be maternal heirs, not the threat that Arthur was.

It is not clear who killed Arthur, as the crime was committed in a Royal Castle, possibly by King John, possibly by William the Ogre.  It was probably on Easter, and Duke Arthur may have been dining with the King, in the style of royal captivity.  The boy apparently provoked John into a rage and later, Maud de Braose would claim that the King strangled the 16 year old at dinner.  Or, alternatively, King John simply gave an order to execute Arthur without trial.  Or, in the manner of his father, King John simply made it clear that he wanted Arthur to disappear and William the Ogre obliged.  Contemporary sources say that Arthur was killed, and that William da Braose tied a stone to his body and dumped it into the Seine.  King John would never speak of what happened or explain what happened to the boy.  When the boy did not reappear for several years, it was finally assumed he was dead, and it was far too late for any further facts to be uncovered on the manner of his death.

At some point, Maud de Braose apparently grilled her husband about what had happened to the boy, and he told her that King John had killed Arthur.  Now, it may be that William the Ogre didn’t want to admit that he had himself done it, or it may be true that King John is the real murderer.  At any rate, it seems clear that King John intended for William the Ogre to take the fall for the crime, and to cover it up.  Immediately after the two left Rouen (and Arthur had disappeared, in April, 1203), King John made William the Ogre even richer, awarding him the lands of several rebel Marcher lords, within the border of Wales, knowing that de Braose would be a great ally in trying to subdue the Welch.  If Arthur had still been alive at Rouen, de Braose would surely have been left behind and in charge of the boy.  Maud knew the boy was dead, and with sons of her own, she may have truly wanted to know the depth of her husband’s complicity.

At any rate, 7 years later, Maud personally accused the King of murder.  Her husband had fallen out of the King’s favor.  William the Ogre, Lord of Bramber, was also Lord of Abergavenny and many other places in Wales, as well as Briouze in Normandy and Limerick, Ireland.  The man had a veritable mini-empire within King John’s empire (he had been rewarded with Limerick immediately upon John’s succession, always a kingly favorite).  Maud herself acted as a mini-empress, repeatedly being left with the military commands of various castles.  She defended  Llanbedr Painscastle in Wales for three weeks, resulting in the deaths of as many as 3,000 Welshmen.  The castle has gone to ruin, but its moat can still be seen and tales are still told about Maud’s defense of the castle.   The battle is said to be perhaps the bloodiest in Welsh history.  It gives some insight into the kind of man the Ogre was.

The Welsh prince Gwenwynwyn was attacking Llanbedr Painscastle in revenge for the murder of his cousin by William the Ogre.  WIlliam had ordered that the young man be dragged through the streets from a horse’s tail and then beheaded, a rather typical Norman-English tactic for subduing a town or region in those days.  This was horrifying to the Welsh, of course.  So, whether or not William the Ogre killed Arthur with his own hands, he certainly ordered the murders of many others, and did this sort of thing habitually in “defense of his lands,” most of which were given to him by King John without the consent of the current holders of the place.  Indeed, the practice of completely displacing the Welsh from their own towns and bringing in English settlers is reminiscent of what happened later on the American frontiers.

I believe that the reason the Ogre fell out of favor with his equally cruel King had to do with the disappearance of Arthur.  As the years went on, people blamed King John for the boy’s death, and King John wanted to shift the blame onto William.  William had told Maud, who was not a silent woman, that King John had strangled the boy and the story was spreading.  On the pretext of monies owed to the Crown, King John demanded to take several of William’s children and grandchildren hostage, with the ransom being so high that there was no hope of ever paying it.  When John rode into the castle where Maud and her son, William (along with other children and grandchildren) were staying in order to collect the younger William as a hostage, Maud imprudently told the King off.  “I’m not delivering my son into the hands of a man who murdered his own nephew,” she said.

John was so stunned that he did not react immediately.  Maud realized instantly that she had made a huge blunder and tried to appease John’s beautiful wife and Queen, Isabella, hoping that Isabella could intercede on her behalf, as John was gathering troops to bring against her.  She sent the Queen 400 cattle, the quality of which she had been boasting of to the Queen, whom she had met on many occasions and whom she hoped would act as a kind of friend.  That didn’t work.  Maud and her son, William, were forced to flee from place to place, managing to make it to Ireland.  Meanwhile, her husband fled the British Isles altogether, making it to France, and playing no part in trying to save his wife or children.

Maud and the younger William (who was a grown man at this time) were eventually captured after King John went so far as to send an expedition to Ireland in order to catch them.  They tried to flee to Scotland, but were captured.

King John took a novel view of Maud’s punishment.  First, he included her eldest son in the punishment, which must have been one of its most horrifying aspects to her.  Then, he had them taken to the dungeon of Corfe Castle.  

At Corfe in 1210, King John had Maud and her son walled up into the dungeon, with a piece of raw bacon and a sheaf of wheat, unmilled and uncooked, for them to eat.  Perhaps this was so he could say he had no intention of actually killing them.  There is no mention of any water, so we can only imagine how they managed not to die of thirst (perhaps they did).  The dungeon room was opened up 11 days later.  Maud and her son had tried to claw their way out, they were both dead, the young man had died first and Maud had tried to gnaw on his cheeks.

The Ogre, meanwhile, had become a beggar in the streets of France, offering no aid to the rest of his family, and dying there in France a year later.

It’s amazing, actually, that the rest of Maud and the Ogre’s 16 children, managed to continue to exist in England.  Reginald, the third oldest son, managed to regain Abergavenny and some of the other forfeited estates of his father, in 1216, just six years after his mother’s terrible death.  One can only imagine the kind of mental constitution it would take for a man to continue to curry favor with the King who had executed his brother and mother in such a terrible manner.

It is likely that King John gave Abergavenny back to Reginald in part because he hoped that the de Braose clan would deal with the Welsh sternly and he didn’t have anyone else who could play that role.  Reginald carefully managed his relations with the Welsh and instead of warring against them, he eventually managed to put aside his first wife Grace Briwere, Black Will’s mother, and marry Llewyllen Fawr’s daughter, Gladys Dru.

Upon the death of King John, King Henry III confirmed the da Braose claim to Abergavenny, paving the way for an easy transfer of the title of Lord of Abergavenny to Black Will.

The fact that Prince Geoff should have been King and had precedence over his brother John, meant that Duke Arthur of Brittany had a legitimate claim to the Throne of England.  Had Arthur become King, it is likely he could have held together the Angevin Empire, as he had the loyalty of Brittany, and had made progress in dealing with the King of France, who took Arthur’s side against John, resulting in John’s expulsion from his continental domains.  It’s interesting to think that had King Arthur reigned, England might well have maintained a substantial chunk of real estate on the continent, instead of being confined to the British Isles, which it then tried to bring firmly and entirely under England’s control.  The death of the potential King Arthur changed English and French history forever.  While King John could be brutal, he alternated between that brutality and making amends to the people he’d harmed, as when he restored the da Braose lands.  William the Ogre, however, gave no signs of anything except brutality – and then cowardice, when he left his wife and son to be locked up and fled the realm.

Rollo, Poppa and Will III, the Murderer

William III da Braose’s great grandmother, Agnes St. Claire, made him a descendant of Rollo and Poppa, the ancestors of the Dukes of Normany, and of William the Conqueror himself.  It seems like nearly all the Norman conquerors eventually managed to marry into some line coming from Rollo ‘the Dane’ Ragnvaldson (Rollo is “Robert” in French, and Ragnvald is “Reginald.”)  Rollo married Poppa of Valois, a descendant of Charlemagne through his son, the Italian King (Pepin).  Poppa was the daughter of the Count and Justiciar of Rennes, who in turn was a descendant of the Kings of Brittany.  In short, Rollo the Dane was a key figure in the Norman conquest of Normandy, and Rennes was a key city with which to ally oneself.  Poppa’s name was likely a play on the name Pepin.

Rollo can be considered the first Duke of Normandy, and he made sure his son Guillaume was considered the second Duke of Normandy.  Dropping their northern tongue, the Dukes of Normandy quickly switched to French (Norman-French, with a slightly different accent than the French of the Ile).  William could therefore consider himself both a Norman highborn lord and the grandson of a Scottish lord who joined the Norman conquest, not to mention a descendant of the Prince of Wales.

An intense and ambitious man, William III da Braose was also one of the most trusted companions of Prince John, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane, late King John.  William wasn’t content to sit home on his own lands when there was fighting, plundering and looting to be done.  While he couldn’t hope to bring home as much treasure as the King, he did well for himself.  In those days, killing and plundering and raping was so common, that you had to be a special kind of guy to earn the nickname ‘The Ogre’, as William III did.  It isn’t clear whether he got that nickname before or after he married Maud.   He was about 28 when he married.  There are a couple of different pedigrees for Maud, she was either 4 years or 11 years younger than William.  It is likely, given her prompt fertility, that she was 11 years younger, so 17 when they married.  She gave him 5 children, including 2 sons, all of whom survived to have further children, as William IV managed to marry and reproduce before meeting his grisly end.

Maud’s pedigree also made her a descendant of Rollo and Poppa, so William III and Maud were cousins.  Maud was a St. Valerie and a Montlhery.  Richard II, Duke of Normandy was her 4 times great grandpa (he was William the Conqueror’s grandpa, so Maud was a fourth cousin, two times removed, or thereabouts from William the Conqueror).  Everyone in William the Conqueror’s line intended to stay on the throne of England and probably no one had been as successful at enlarging the domain or ruling it so ably as Henry II, King John’s father.  Prince John was the fourth and youngest son of Henry II, and was never expected to sit on the throne.  It’s amazing to think that Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine had 5 total sons, and the youngest ended up with the crown.  Prince John is often made out to be an evil, terrible person from nearly the beginning of his life, but it looks like he had high aspirations for his reign and very bad luck.  He also, undeniably, had a mean streak that he probably learned by emulating his gruesomely fond-of-violence older brother:  Richard the Lion-Heart.

Like William the Ogre, Maud could claim an esteemed ancestry dating back to prehistory in northern Europe, although unlike William, she had more continental ancestry.  In place of his occasional Goth ancestor, she had the occasional German (Allemanian) ancestor.  Her family had been rooted in and around Dijon, France, not Scotland like William’s.  Her father had been one of William’s men at the Battle of Hastings, and like so many others, was rewarded with land and a highborn wife:  her mother was Eleanor de Domnart (Dammartin).  The problem with Maud’s family history though, is that her parents appear to be quite closely related (both Dammartin’s).  But, this could be forgiven as both were descendants of Hugh Capet; Robert II, King of France; Princess Constance of France and then, her son Hugh, Count of Dammartin.  Maud’s father’s grandpa was her mother’s great grandpa.

Now this degree of inbreeding was prohibited by Holy Mother Church (7 degrees of kinship, counted by the lineage was prohibited) and needed a special dispensation from the Pope.  There is no evidence that Maud’s parents got such a dispensation, they really weren’t important enough, they could fly under the radar.  But the desire to “keep it in the family” was very strong in Maud’s proud kin, who insisted they were double descendants of Robert II of France – a man whose stature was similar to Henry I Beauclerc of England’s at the time.  This was claiming high heritage.

So when Prince John chose his closest friends, he wasn’t choosing street ruffians, he was choosing aristocratic ruffians.  Now the thing is:  did William become ‘the Ogre’ before or after he killed the boy who might have been King Arthur?


Da Braoses? Part III

When last we left off (see Parts One and Two of the da Braose story…right here on this very  blog!)…we had finally found some familiar names, partly because writing has come to England and we’ve now left prehistory behind.

Robert and Emma de Braose/de Brusse/Briouse had several children whose names survive in historic records.  Indeed, Robert and Emma now live in historic times, as things are getting written down.  Robert will die in 1066, the year of the Norman conquest, but as you’ve seen, he’s a Norseman and his family already “conquered” parts of Scotland and the Orkneys, and possibly would have been seen by the incoming Normans (from Normandy) as Scottish, not as Norsemen.  Whether or not they saw themselves as the same group, the Briouze/Braose family (some of Robert and Emma’s children spell it Briouse, some spell it Briouze, some spell it Braouse, some spell it Braose:  a testament to the fact that things are just now getting written down in that part of the world, in a language that captures phonemes in symbolic containers).

One of their sons fought at Hastings with William the Conqueror, Robert de Brusse/Brussi/Brusse (almost certainly the same man also listed as Robert de Buci).  We usually think of the new elite in England being comprised of Normans, from Normandy.  William began to collect his army soon after January 5, 1066, and while he had many loyal knights and liegemen with knights, he also hired a lot of mercenery soldiers (routiers).  Did Robert de Brusse come down from the North along with a lot of other Scots soldiers known to be at Hastings?  If so, why?  Was it just the money?  This was the elder son of landed Scots nobility, with his own company of knights in tow.  It seems one motivation might have been to accomplish what happened next:  acquiring land south of the Scottish border, in England.

Now, in England, there were few Celtic-speaking or Celtic-identified people left (if any) after the previous Saxon conquest (which itself was sparked by the locals’ desire to keep out marauding Norsemen; the Saxons came in and unified and defended England under Alfred the Great).  Robert’s brothers (one named William and one whose name is lost to history) probably accompanied him to Hastings.  Perhaps their mother’s connections in Brittany (her father was the Duke of Brittany) or Blois (her mother was a Lady of Blois) drew them to Normandy in the first place.  Perhaps they traveled to the continent seeking their fortunes and ran into William’s scheme.  Maybe word was sent through family networks that William’s cause was honorable and they weren’t hired at all.  Anyway, they were there, at the battle.

At any rate, Robert’s side won and he and his brothers were awarded with lands in England (or took lands in England, as after the Battle of Hastings, the intruders fanned out across England and took what they could, which was a lot).

It looks like Robert I’s grandson spelled his name William de Braose in English and/or Guillaume de Brioze in Norman French (today, he’s known in English textbooks by the former, and in French textbooks by the latter).  It is this William I de Braose who achieved a notable Norman marriage:  a woman descended from the Capet King of France, Robert II.

Agnes St. Claire came from an illustrious family, indeed.  Her father was the Earl of St. Claire and nouveau-riche.  But her mother was Helena “le Bon” of Normandy.  daughter ofRichard III, Duke of Normandy and Alice Capet, Princess of France.  Richard had been William the Conqueror’s uncle and the legitimate heir to Normandy, but he died young.  It’s thought he was poisoned, possibly in a plot involving his brother, Robert II ‘the Devil’, who became Duke of Normandy upon his death (in 1028, when Robert was 28).  Robert II was, of course, William’s father.  Had Richard III lived, Robert II would not have been Duke of Normandy, and William the Conqueror would not have been Duke of Normandy, and would never have been able to press a claim for the throne of England.

Robert ‘the Devil’, Duke of Normandy married a Danish girl (with roots in Jutland, north of Normandy, on the continent), while William was, of course, a bastard, son of Robert II’s lover, the tanner’s daughter.  But William managed to distribute his relatives, both those born in wedlock and those born outside it, in marriage alliances.  Helena ‘le Bon’, it seems, was another illegitimate child.  It seems that while Richard III (being originally the heir to Normandy and his own father’s oldest son) had been married to Alice Capet, Princess of France, he had a concubine.  Helena was apparently raised as if she were Alice’s daughter, but there were rumors that she as in fact, one of Richard’s love children.  She was, nevertheless, William the Conqueror’s first cousin, and he married her to Waldren St. Claire, the newly minted Earl of St. Claire, at which point the founding member of the great St. Claire dynasty steps into history, off of William’s battle field.  He must have been quite something at the Battle of Hastings to be rewarded with a title, lands – and the new King’s very own first cousin, an ersatz (or perhaps real) grandchild of a King of France.  Waldren and Helena’s daughter, Agnes (they also had a son, so Agnes was not an heiress) married William I de Braose, and thus brought a much closer kin tie to William the Conqueror (and the King of France) thus, if one looks at it through a certain perspective, elevating the family as high as it could go, in those ties, as considered through kin ties, without actually being in the main line of royalty themselves.

There are number of other illegitimate children along Black Will’s line, several before William I was born.  So the idea that people always waited to have sex until they are married is not only laughable, but it seems that concubinage and illicit sex were fairly common.  It’s hard to say if this was just among the upper classes or whether, like William the Conqueror’s mother, many of the concubines were the daughters of artisans or the proto-middle class.

William I da Braose had many children, but it’s not clear whether he had any boys with the illustrious Agnes.  It seems that his heir, Philip, may be the son of a mistress.  Having an “insurance policy” of boys gotten from women not-the-wife is very common in Christendom (and it was a very religious society of course) at that time (1000-now).  But again, by claiming that the child was really his wife’s child (as it seems Will the First might have done), he retains for his lineage the blood claims of the illustrious Agnes, including the tie to King William and King Robert II of France.

William managed to marry that son fairly well, but the fact that Philip didn’t marry a Norman princess or any princess at all, but instead a great grand daughter of the County of Picardy (the French province) can be viewed two ways.  The Count of Picardy was a relatively new aristocrat and had no known royal ancestors, but he was a Count and he was French.  Perhaps that’s the best William I could do for Philip da Braose, given his questionable maternity.

Philip, in his turn, managed to marry his heir, William II to a highborn lady of Norman and Welsh descent, Bertha of Gloucester de Pitres.  Bertha claimed de Pitres (Petres) ancestry, part of the larger Crepon dynasty.  Bertha may or may not have been a direct descendant of Herfast Ranulf de Crepon, but she certainly had Scandinavian aristocratic roots.  If she was Herfast’s descendant, that made her a descendant of one of the Old English Kings, Ethelred the Unready (who in turn was descended from Alfred the Great, and allegedly, from the original Brit nobility).  But with Bertha’s descent from Gruffydd ap Llyewlyn (b. 1001, Wales), Prince of All Wales may have given her black hair – and perhaps that’s how Black Will got his dark hair (apparently combined with blue eyes).

It’s hard to see how the da Braoses could have done better than this, to unite themselves with so many royal families over so few generations.

William III’s son, Reginald, married a Briwere (Brewer), a woman of the de Meschines and de Vaux clans, well tied into the Norman conquerors.  Reginald’s name was a renewal of the old Norse name, Rognvald (at last).  As it happened, Grace Briwere also belonged to the larger de Redvers clan, and could claim descent from Henry I Beauclerc, through one of his illegitimate children.  So, while the da Braoses were not rising in the constellations of English nobility, they were certainly holding steady.

But, rather drastic circumstances changed the perceptions of the da Braoses forever:  William III (the murderer) and confidante of King John would not get away with murder, not really.  When the Briwere marriage was made (and when Black Will was born), William III was still in favor with King John…that would change.

Da Braose Past: Part 2

Black Will de Braose earned his lasting nickname in a couple of ways.  He had black hair, which did not come from his Swedish ancestors (but we’ll try to figure out how he came by it, it won’t be too hard).  But, it was rascal nature and his slyness that made the nickname stick.  He was apparently very handsome, and more than charming.

His illustrious ancestry (going back to Ymir the Frost Giant) came to England and Wales by a circuitous path (see my earlier blog post on Braose Part One).  For many generations, Will’s ancestors were blonde-haired, blue-eyed Norsemen, living in primarily Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but also representing Goths, Fins and Gutlanders.

Just after the fall of the Roman Empire, Will’s ancestors included Rurik Skane von Holland, through Rurik’s great grandson, Rorik Slingeband, King of Lethra.  His patrilineal Swedish ancestors managed to marry a 4X great granddaughter of Slingeband himself.  The name Harold was given to Slingeband’s son, a name that would remain very popular in the Scandinavian lineages and, of course, the Rurikids who founded Russian Kiev were of the same lineage.  The actual Rurik who went to Russia came later, the name was very popular and was certainly a dynastic name.

Well before the Norman conquest, the daBraose line had ties to the British Isles – to Celtic Britain.  The offspring of the Swedish nobility and Slingeband’s lineage would go to marry into the lines of the first King of Scotland and, apparently, the first person to claim title to Ireland.   This occurred not by moving to Ireland or Scotland, but by importing spouses, mainly women from Scotland and Ireland.

The Scottish import was Grelod of Caithness Duncansdottir, born around 898 A.D., and already the “Ness” of Scotland is imported into Nordic vocabulary, with this bride.  Her grandfather was Kenneth MacAlpin, 1st King of Scots.  She must have brought prestige with her, and her son, Hlodvir, married the Princess of Ireland, Audna Kiarvalsdatter, obviously another Norse clan member.  So, at this time, the Norsemen were already claiming Ireland, while Scotland was still fiercely held by the Picts.  Looking over MacAlpin’s Pictish ancestry, we see mostly generations of Picts and other Celts, with perhaps one or two previous drops of Scandinavian ancestry.

The island kingdoms of Ireland and Scotland, therefore, began to be influenced by Scandinavia and other Norse cultures (and vice versa).

Sigurd Holdvirsson, therefore, was Irish-Norse, Pictish and Norse.  His fortunes were about to rise.  His descendants would sit on the thrones of Scotland and marry into the family of Vladimir I, Saint Vladimir, of Kievan Rus, not to mention other aristocratic families of Europe.

We can see this as a kind of geographical-marital breakthrough.  Up until the times of Sigurd (who was born around 970 A.D.), Scandinavian Norsemen sought some marital alliances with Goths and Gutlanders, and the occasional Fin, but mostly married within their own lands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  As they cast their marital/political alliance nets further, they manage to marry into the nobility of both Ireland and Scotland.  Obviously, boats played a huge role in this type of courtship and marriage.  A peninsula-bound people, the northern Scandinavians managed first to grab and hang onto Denmark, then to gradually spread their influence.  At the same time, one of Sigurd’s ancestors, Harold Hilditton, King of Lethra, had an ambitious grandson, Rurik of Novgorad, who was brought into what is now Russia by locals seeking to hire strong men to civilize and quell local disputes and rebellions.  Since no one could manage to emerge as head of all the small Russian and Prussian groups, it took a strong man – Rurik – to accomplish that.  Within a few generations, his descendants were marrying all over Europe and into the best families.

It is from this Russian connection that part of the de Braose family name arises, even though the family had little Russian blood, they were Rurikids themselves, cousins of the Russian lord, as shared descendants of Harold.

Sigurd’s son, Bruce/Brusse, would end up taking the Caithness lands in Scotland as his demesnes, thus bringing Black Will’s patriline onto the soil of the British Isles, finally breaking the connection with Scandinavia, at least in terms of geographic residence.  This was accomplished when Sigurd himself, whose grandmother was the Scottish lass from Caithness, took a Scottish wife, Anleta MacKenneth of Scotland.  He moved to Scotland and prepared the way for Bruce to become the lord of Caithness.  Bruce married well, and from Scandinavia:  a Gotland princess.  Notice the similarity between the names Scotland and Gotland.  Clearly, at that time, the Scandinavian and Celtic languages and customs were close together, probably due to common ancestry, but also due to continual melding through marriage.

Bruce’s son, Ragnvald Brusse/Bruce, was elevated to the title of 19th Earl of Orkney, a thoroughly Scottish position, even though not part of the Scottish mainland – instead, Orkney is an archipelago leading back to Scandinavia.

It is Rognvald who married the Russian princess.  Remember, they share a common ancestor.  Her 4 times great grandfather is King Harold is his 10th great grandfather). How could this be?   Well, it might not be.  On Rognvald’s side, there are some suspect connections, in particular, the bastard son of King Harold (with so many intervening generations).  The fact is, Rognvald’s family claimed descent from the King of Lethra, and everyone believed it so.  The fact that their genealogy had so many extra generations hints that, perhaps, it is not quite accurate.  The bastard son, Thrond, does not have historic dates that are firm.   Harold himself though certainly existed and died in a sea battle, the Battle of Bravik around 770.  Thrond may well have been his first son, while the Russian princess descended from one of his younger sons, Halfdan of Frisia.  It’s clear that Harold’s progeny spread out through the Nordic world, and remained in powerful positions.  Thrond started having children early in life, while Halfdan did not.  Halfdan had at least two sons, one early (by a concubine) and one late (by a wife).  This pattern of waiting until late in life to marry and produce legitimate offspring is seen throughout the Norman world.  Rurik of Novgorod was the son of Halfdan.

Now, it’s possible that Rurik is the one whose line is fictionally related to Harold, as opposed to Rognvald’s.   Thrond is shrouded in mystery, but a person named Thrond did exist and was progenitor to the de Braose line, and his son was called Eystein Throndheim, a man who was also known by the Nordic title Jarl (Earl), indicating a man who had land and vassals.  Since Eystein died in 710 (and there are historic records to support this), it’s not possible that Eystein is the descendant of Harold.  

When Rognvald arranged his marriage to the Princess of Kiev, Vladimir I’s daughter, it’s possible that his family made up the connection to Harold and were able to get away with it, since no one at the time would have known that Thrond was born too early to be the properly connected ancestor.  By the time Black Will lived, the entire family would have been taught the whole story.  Fictive ancestors are, it turns out, as important in constructing relationships as actual ones.

But here’s the amazing part.  Did you catch the name “Bruce” up above?  Bruce or Brusse, it was (same pronunciation, different spelling).  Everyone thinks of Scotland, nowadays, when they hear this name (or of some boy born in 1950’s America).  But B’Roos probably meant “Born of the Roos.”  You see, the Kievan Rus and the Scots B’Roos families were closely related, linguistically and genetically.  Whether or not Harold of Lethra was ancestral to anybody, all of these males (all R1a1a Y chromosomal pattern) shared a common ancester – and they knew it.  So, for Rognvald B’Russi (another spelling) to marry Ardogia Vladimirovna de Russia was nothing less than a standard distant cousin marriage, and one that, as everyone always hoped, spanned the breadth of the ancestral domains (from Scotland to Russia).

It’s not that the Scottish came from Russia, or the Russians from Scotland but that both groups share common ancestry and knew it, in the late 9th century anyway.  B’russi because Briouze, which became Braose within a few generations.  By marrying into the Royal Family of Kiev, who was certainly descended from Harold of Lethra, the family thereby insured that the family myth became true:  all future sons and daughters were, in fact, descendants of Slingebland and Harold – and Vladimir I.

Rognvald’s son, Robert, was not quite as farflung in his quest for a bride, but he didn’t settle for a local girl.  Robert, now a descendant of Norsemen, Picts and the Rus, sought to unite himself with another Celtic people:  those of Brittany.  Brittany’s language was probably closer to that of the Picts at that time, but it’s possible that the Swedes and Danes didn’t see themselves as speaking a language that was all that different from Celtic.

At any rate, Robert married the daughter of Alan, the Duke of Brittany (a vast and powerful kingdom compared to Orkney or Caithness), a girl named Emma.  The fact that all of a sudden we have Bruces, Roberts and Emmas (as opposed to Rognvalds and Thonds and Eysteins) is a testament to how historically influential the rising and expanding Normans would become.  Whether we call them Norsemen or Normans, they are moving southward, into the vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire, and with techniques that are perhaps even more enduring than those of the Romans, at least in terms of our current names for persons.  There are lots of living Roberts, Emmas and Bruces.  There are quite a few Harolds as well, and some Vladimirs.  But hardly a Rognvald or Hlodvir or Grelod to be found in the English-speaking world (and I assume you’re English-speaking, because you’re reading this).


Family Histories: De Braose

One of the reasons anthropologists record genealogies is that they show change. People have records of their families, or they remember. Both are valid ways of understanding a family. Families are part objective biology (and I love when I can get mtDNA or Y chromosome markers or autosomal markers for the people I study). They are built on marriages too.  The people who provide DNA to a child and the people who raise children can be different or overlapping sets of people. And that’s nothing new, although many people on the New Right will tell you a false story about the past: there were no good old days of “family values” as they mean it.

I suppose that’s one reason I got interested in the topic. What changes? Are the French correct (they usually are). La plus ça change…

But it’s also about the family mythology, what a family tells itself about who it is, what its founding principles are, what’s “born” into them. I am a lot like my dad – but I am not biologically related to him. When I say I’m a lot like my dad, I mean that I share many things that may be proven to be inherited, so it was fascinating to find that my both my dad and I are a good deal French and Scottish (but I have more English, both Norman-English and Saxon-English…and we both have a Celtic background, going way back). We are lots of other things too. Most families are.

The example I chose to illustrate the fun of genealogy as a way of viewing European prehistory is the de Braose family.  Aficionados of the Norman conquest of England will know who they are).  To the rest of you, they could be “any family” of ancient times. They are reasonably good example of a family that kept track of itself, plus, modern genealogists and scholars had added to whatever they would have known themselves.

There are literally thousands of ancestors of Black Will de Braose, infamously excecuted  by Llywellyn ap Gruffydd, the Last True Prince of Wales. And despite his early death by hanging, Black Will had a lot of descendants through his three daughters (I am descended from two of those daughters).  Black Will’s wife was Eva, the daughter of one of history’s good guys, William Marshall, the Protector.  While Black Will was known for his treachery, he came by it rightly, as his parents were the murdered William de Braose and the unfortunate shrew Maud de Braose.  Good guy William Marshall’s descendants and Bad guy William de Braos’s families joined together.  Most of us have both devils and angels in our nature.

Technically, the de Braoses can trace their roots back to…God…or Odin. But that’s true of all families with Norman roots, so we can move on. Some say it wasn’t Odin, but Ymir, The Frost Giant.  Personally, I’d rather be descended from Ymir than Odin, so I’m going to stick to that story.  I’ve got some tall relatives somewhere.  Ymir may well be the first to take a name with the -mir pattern to it, in European mythology (and it may be before the Indo-European push into Persia and India around 6000BP).

So let’s say that Ymir and Odin stand for the mythical progenitors of one set of ancestors of the de Braose family.  The first known mortal of their line was almost as mythic as the gods:  Tuisto, First King of Germany.  Now, it wasn’t called Germany back then (and it still isn’t, by the Germans, they call it Deutschland).  More about that in a later post.

There has to be a First King somewhere along the line.  In anthropology, we haggle over who’s a “Chief” and who’s a “High Chief” or a “War Lord” and then…what constitutes a “King.”  I think there are two main views on this:  1) translation is nearly impossible and it’s we anthropologists and linguists who make decisions about how to interchange these terms over time; and 2) there’s some kind of intuitive basis to awarding the title of “King,” which while varying somewhat from culture to culture, remains something like “Top Dog” of a large geo-political entity.  Or “Top Cat.”  (We will encounter some Lion Hearts and very few wolves or dogs in this genealogical journey).

Unfortunately, Tuisto is often said to be the First Mortal Human, which puts him in a tricky time period.  The real Tuisto (because someone has to be the European ancestor of the de Braoses) must have lived as many as 1000BP.  At any rate, his children are largely mythical and span enormous amounts of time, as do the early progenitors of most lineages.  Maybe it was a clan name.

Anyway, Tuisto is the grandfather of all the -mir Kings of Europe, and specifically, of the Norse, Gothic and Burgundian Kings (who span proto-Germano-Celto-Slavic in terms of word origins), men like Ingae, who ruled over the Nordic lands, as well as Burgundy, while his brother Irmino gave rise to the Herminones.  Yes, the echoes of Greek are in the language, because we’re speaking of a time when it’s really proto-Indo-Euroean that’s being broken into fragments, and the naming system shows that.

A third brother, Njord or Nord of Nortun, goes on to found (you guessed it) the Nordic/Scandinavian branches of the family.  A real Njord of Nortun lived at around the year 200 A.D., so we’re entering times that comprise history – if you’re speaking of Greece or Rome or bits and pieces of the Roman empire.  There isn’t any writing in Norway or Sweden at 200 A.D., but apparently the Romans have heard of a Njord (or two or three, again, maybe a clan name).

It’s possible that Njord was not the de Braose ancestor, that it was someone named Nerthus, or that Nerthus (as is claimed in some rec0rds) was a son of Njord.

At any rate, either Nerthus or Njord had a son named Frey av Svitjod (probably pronounced S-wv-ih-t-vyod).  Yes, it sounds both Nordic and Slavic, as this guy is an ancestor to both – and to the Norman French (and so, to the de Braoses).  He ruled over a place called Uppsala until 299 (being born in 235).

Oddly, the place name Uppsala has long intrigued me.  It sounds vaguely Greek, like the name Ypsilanti (home of the Three Christs of Ypsilanti; more on that in another post, maybe).  Again, we are probably looking at placename characteristics from a period when many of the short sound sequences were already taken.  Uppsala, of course, is in Sweden, overshadowed by the newer city of Stockholm, but at the time, Uppsala was a royal stronghold and emerging “city” of Sweden.  To my surprise, when I first began to study prehistory, I learned that anthropologists and prehistorians use the word “city” very loosely.  Early cities probably had no more than 1000-1500 people, but compared to the Paleolithic fishing settlements upon which they are based, that’s a 300-1000% increase.  Population boom occurred just as Frey av Svitjod becomes known, probably no coincidence.  He seems to be historical, and note the Celto-Slavic patronymic construct:  av instead of ap, as it would be in Wales.  We can safely assume that the patriline was already of keen importance at this time, around 300 A.D.

Did Black Will de Braose know he had a Swedish ancestor?  Probably, in some vague way.  He knew he was Norman-French, and the Normans knew they came from Scandinavia.  Frey would have had blue eyes, of course, and been of the R1a1a Y chromosomal pattern.  He can be seen as one of the founders of the lineages that would eventually be the Vikings, but also control pre-Romanov Russia, much of Prussia/Poland/Germany, the coast of the Atlantic all the way south to Normandy.  And, of course, in 1066, his descendants would conquer England.

Not much is known about Frey’s wife, but by the time of his grandson, he and/or his son, Young Frey (Yngvi-Frey) were making political alliances with other high chiefs/Kings.  Specifically, the grandson Fjolnir Yngi-Freysson married the granddaughter of the King of Kvenland (a place which was made up of part of contemporary Finland and part of contemporary Norway).  These people would have been seen as distant relatives and of a similar level of grandeur to Frey’s family.  Notice that history records the last name, still patronymic, as Yngi-Freysson instead of av Yngi-Frey, but that two lineal relatives’ names are combined in the last name.  These people were proud of their patriline and wanted to make sure that the grandkids remembered who their progenitors were – and, sought to keep their high status by reminding everyone of Frey (who must have been quite the warlord in his day, as certainly, artifacts of war abound in Scandinavia of this period).

Fjolnir’s son was named Svegder Fjolnirsson (also spelled Fjolnarsson), so the -sson ending is entrenched by that time.  Naturally, Svegder’s son has the “last name” of Svegdasson (note the contraction of Svegder’s name in making the last name).  Would people still have remembered Frey by then?  Perhaps not.

While retaining their lands in Sweden, one Frey’s Great-great-great-great grandsons would establish lands for himself in Denmark, marking an incursion onto the mainland, the advance of the “Vikings” into Northern Europe.  These people were of course considered among the Barbarian Tribes encountered by the Romans, and if one remembers their history, these people are well connected to the troubles the Romans had in conquering northern Europe.  Frey’s 5-times great grandson, Rij,  established himself as the First King of Denmark, and while it is said (by Romans and their descendants) that these people had no writing, in fact, of course, they had a Runic system of notation that went beyond petroglyphs, and petroglyphs are already a fairly sophisticated extra-somatic system of marking down meaning.  While the Romans looked to the north and saw “barbarians,” the barbarians thought of themselves as comprising orderly Kingdoms, with signs of status and wealth.  The Romans were more lavish, had a fast empire, but the descendants of Frey must have also felt quite expansive by around 400 A.D.

The de Braoses are descendants of the King who stayed behind in Sweden, Domaldr, not his brother, Dan ‘the Magnificent’ of Denmark (Rij’s father, and an alternate candidate for the first King of Denmark, as he is the one who conquered the place and secured it for his son, Rij).

As time went on, the great grandchildren and further descendants of both Domaldr and Dan would intermarry in state weddings uniting the chiefs of Sweden with the Kings of Denmark.  While Dan’s line prospered, Domaldr’s line fell back into the ranks of lesser chiefs, as Domaldr and his line did not manage to hold very much of Sweden and other families rose to power, families with which Domaldr and his descendants had to contend and, eventually, to whom they had to pay homage and be vassals.  They did not become poor or landless, though, because 6 generations after Domaldr, they managed to marry a son, Yngi Alreksson, to the granddaughter of the new King of Sweden, Dagr the Great, about whom little is known except that he was now in charge of most of what is modern Sweden.  Yngi Alreksson likewise kept his status fairly high, as his children married well and his great grandson married a granddaughter of the King of the Goths, and their son married back into the ancestral line by marrying a descendant of Dan the Magnificent.  About 10 generations had passed before this “cousin marriage” took place, so although the two were cousins, they were not very closely related.  Since all of these people were blue-eyed, blonde-haired and spoke inter-related languages and had similar kinds of Runic symbols, they must surely have seen themselves as natural allies.

By the time Dan’s and Domaldr’s line reunited in the production of Aldis the Great Otarsson of Sweden, it was about 600 A.D. and the Roman Empire was falling.  The number of northern peoples who took part in the fall of Rome is rather a long list, and Aldis is not mentioned as directly involved in any events taking place in Rome.  His distant cousins, of course, were very involved.  Since marriages were now being worked out in a web that encompassed Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and the Goths of Northern Germany, it is very likely that Aldis, who held Sweden together against any encroachment from the mainland, would have heard of the great Latin-speaking empire to the South.  It is also possible that, as peoples of northern Europe swept into the former Roman empire, looting and taking over towns, Sweden was less of a target and, being difficult to reach, a military society, and ruled by a central ruler, it was well on its way to establishing itself as a state.

The mother of Aldis’ 3times great grandson, Olafr Treehewer Ingaldsson was the descendant of a newish King, the King of Gutland (another Nordic Kingdom).  The Kings of Gutland were noted for being “mild”, Gutland taking its name from its founding Lord, Gauti or Goti (probably a Goth setting out to establish a demesne for himself).  Goti is also a son of Odin, possibly a historic Odin and not a reference to the God, but going around saying one is a son of Odin certainly had connotations.  Goti, whoever he was, proclaimed himself as both royal and semi-divine, easily earning a title of King, in English.

The fact that so many of these ancient kings traced their lines to their gods, or to Odin in particular, shows that it’s not just the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews or Hawaiians that had these kinds of stories.  Rooting the distant past in some connection with divinity:  being a direct child of God, or made by God, is a part of everyone’s past.  That Olafr’s wife, Gauthilde (literally, daughter of Gauti) could claim that her grandfather was divine must have made her quite a desirable bride.  We can conjecture as to whether Olafr knew his own divine genealogy – I think he did.  We can conjecture whether he viewed it as symbolic, or was even cynical about the entire divinity business.  I doubt that he was cynical.  I tend to believe these people felt that divine beings lived in their immediate past and that they were connected to them.  Their right to rule over others came directly from this divine connection.

The fact that it was more than 20 generations for Olafr, though, may mean that he, like his later descendants, would not have been so keen on claiming divine ancestors.  After all, while his ancestors included many Kings and Queens, they also included people more properly thought of as peers or aristocrats.

But, one thing is clear.  Lineage is important in those days in ways that we moderns can only perceive from a distance and try to understand.