Black Will da Braose, the Bad Guy

If you’ve read all the posts in the da Braose series (especially the first one), that’s amazing.  You already know about Black Will’s checkered family past, and that his grandpa was known was William III ‘the Ogre’ da Braose.  His uncle William IV da Braose had died of starvation and thirst walled up in a dungeon in Corfe Castle, for sins his parents committed and in order to torment the true object of that terrible punishment, Black Will’s grandmother, Maud (a woman who truly could not keep her mouth shut when it would have been very helpful to do so).

By all accounts, though, Black Will was much more charming and diplomatic than his grandparents.  His father, Reginald, had gotten the family back into royal favor, and William became, upon his father’s death, Lord of Abergavenny.  I’m sure I’m not the only American teenager who became obsessed with Abervagenny because of Marty Wilde’s song

It’s a beautiful part of the world. Anyway, it wasn’t enough for Black Will, although my conjectures on the wandering lives of men (and sometimes women) in Medieval Times include the fact that, in an effort to space children, sometimes men left and meandered about right after their wives had children, returning only briefly to impregnate them again. There were lots of reasons for this method of birth control (it has roots deep in the past when hunter-gatherers, including those of Europe, had tabus on post-partum sex, in order to space children in a more humane and healthy way). But, as nearly all marriages of the day were arranged marriages, there was often no love lost between the marital partners and, I think, often a distinct lack of true passion. Today’s statistics show that men and women are almost equally unfaithful (it might have been the same back then, except that women who got pregnant when their husbands were physically absent were obviously subject to scorn and worse; everyone could count back 9 months). So in a way, the absent husband could expect his wife to stay at home, technically faithful, and he could wander about, sexually and in terms of the way he spent his time.

At any rate, there was a lot of traveling away from home during those days.  To be fair, Black Will’s wanderings were mostly in order to try and secure his lands against the Welsh.  He was, after all, a Marcher Lord, a man whose fortunes were tied to stealing land from the people of Wales and securing it for the crown of England.  That’s about all his family could expect, after the disgrace suffered by his grandparents.  Indeed, although his grandfather had lands in Normandy, Ireland and England, as well as Wales, it seems clear that William ‘the Ogre’ de Braose was sent to Wales in part because of his cruel practices.  Will’s own grandmother had managed to lead a defense of a stolen Welsh castle that resulted in the deaths of 3,000 valiant Welshmen, fighting to get it back.  It would be only two more generations and Wales would forever lose its sovereignty (unless it gets its sovereignty back someday, which I hope it does).

Black Will’s father, Reginald, was more known for his smooth tongue and diplomacy, though, rather than cruelty.  He was still alive and would have been the person who approved and arranged the marriage between Will, aged approximated 22 and Eva Marshall, aged approximately 16.  This age was not considered particularly young for a highborn girl, the daughter of the powerful 1st Earl of Pembroke, the venerable William Marshall, the protector of England, sometimes called the Last True Knight.  William Marshall adhered to the code of chivalry, treated his daughters well, and they were raised away from the brutality and warfare of England, in the pastoral countryside of Ireland.  They were apparently beautiful and high-spirited girls, but Eve brought little in the way of dowry, as the 10th child and youngest of 5 daughters.  The de Braoses’s didn’t need land or money as much as they needed to have their honor restored, and for that, no girl could have served the purpose better than one of the daughters of William Marshall, who was a kind of Matt Dillon or Daniel Boone of his day.  Marshall certainly took part in expanding the domains of England and served under some pretty harsh kings, but he was known to be personally a man of honour, compassion and good faith.

Will and Eva’s first daughter (of four) was born in 1222.  She was only six (and her sisters, Maud, Eleanor and Eva were 4, 2 and 1, respectively – the spacing between the children being fairly close, and the last two very close together:  probably a really serious attempt to procure a male heir) when her father was captured by Llewyllen ‘the Great’ Fawr of Wales. 

As it turned out, Llewyllen, another honorable man, decided to keep Black Will in royal confinement at his castle at Aber, near contemporary Abergwyngregyn.  Llewyllen’s own arranged marriage to a much younger woman, Princess Joanna, illegitimate daughter of King John of England, had turned into a passionate relationship.  But, Llewyllen was away a lot, and Joanna was a passionate woman.  Black Will, whose name is partly a reference to his hair color, gotten from a Welsh ancestress, is still known to history as Black Will due to his seduction of Joanna.  Handsome, blue-eyed, dashing and charming, the highborn prisoner soon found his way into Joanna’s bed while his wife tried to raise ransom for him.  His father died at around the same time, and it is likely that a good part of Black Will’s inheritance went into the large (£2,000 ).  During the negotiations, Will also pledged not to attack the Welsh again and as a sign of that pledge, betrothed his six-year-old daughter to Llewyllen’s 13 year old son.  The young girl was sent to live at Aber.

Apparently, Black Will had fallen hard for Joanna, or else he just liked the fact that he’d cuckolded Llewyllen Fawr, but the risk he took in returning to Joanna, attempting to bed her in 1230, slightly less than 2 years after he’d last seen her, was considerable.  Llewyllen was of course away at the time, and Black Will knew that.  What he didn’t know was that Joanna was terribly determined to reject any further dalliances with him.  Or at least, that’s how she told the story.  There is no reason to doubt Joanna’s testimony to her husband (who eventually forgave her, after she admitted first the earlier affair but swore that it had ended in 1228, and that Black Will had acted on his own and with illicit intent in showing up in her bedchamber in 1230).  I’m not so sure.  Joanna knew what was at stake, both times.  She must have really fallen hard for Black Will (in her husband’s absence), because he did feel drawn back to see her.

Through a series of events, probably involving self-interested persons within the Welsh royal family, Joanna was caught in the bedchamber, not in flagrante but certainly in the bedchamber, alone, with Black Will.  It was actually Llewyllen’s own private bedchamber, where Joanna usually slept, to rub salt into the wound.  Given that the Welsh were already suspicious of Llewyllen’s English wife, it’s amazing that Llewyllen didn’t execute both his wife and her lover.

But it was Black Will who paid the price.  He was executed in public, near Abergwyngregyn, at the age of 33.  He probably expected to talk or bargain his way out of the situation, but Llewyllen acted quickly, while still in high temper, and Will died about a week after he’d arrived in his attempt to resume his affair with Joanna.  Joanna was exiled to a monastery, but after about a year, Llewyllen forgave her, took her back into his life and his bed, and apparently, no one ever spoke of this mistake again.  It is a rare store of a wayward wife who was loved enough that her marriage survived an affair.  So, again, the Middle Ages were not much different than the world today.  People sometimes break up when affairs are discovered, sometimes they break off the old relationship and run off, and sometimes, people patch things up.

Black Will left behind four daughters.  The eldest, Isabella, would still go on to marry David of Wales, despite the fact that her father-in-law had hung her father.  That must have made for some awkward family gatherings.  The other three remained in the care of Eva Marshall, who was now the de facto ruler of Abergavenny.  Isabella would die childless, but the other three girls would live to have children. 

Two of those daughters,


Human Nature: a special kind of ethics for a special kind of beast?

Years ago, I read a philosopher who stipulated that human beings that didn’t treat others humanely were not, in fact, entitled to the word “human” in their title.  He argued, further, that they were not persons.  An anthropologist would say this has to do with reciprocity, Jesus would call it the Golden Rule argument, Kant incorporated some version of it into his categorical imperative(s).

The Los Angeles Times, today reported that some complete assholes stole a priceless work of art.  Petroglyphs are near and dear to my heart, so of course this makes me angry.  The furies and the muses compelled the Ancient Greeks to action:  to philosophy, to writing, to theater, to art.  We have to take all that inspires us, whether blissful or…something like this story…and turn it into something else.  So I write about it.

Here, first, are some pictures of what these people destroyed:

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On the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Native Americans kept track of their use of space through calendar-like petroglyphs.  This system of petroglyphs stretches from the California Coast to the Plains.  Paiutes still used this site in sacred ceremony and they believe the petroglyphs were carved by shamans (so do I).

Somebody came in with a winch, a jack hammer and probably a skiff loader and chopped these out of the earth.  Here’s a picture of damage at another nearby site:


The Bureau of Land Management offers a mere $1000 reward for information leading to the capture of these…thieves, and if it’s their first conviction, they face only a year in federal prison (whereas students who commit financial aid fraud face up to 20 years in prison).

Something’s broken here.  Maybe we need skiff loader laws that are like gun laws.  Maybe every skiff loader should have a GPS chip that traces its movements and another 20 years in prison for removing it.  Or, as an online friend of mine said:  The death penalty for this crime and only for this crime.  (Those of us who are anti-death penalty have a hard time using reason sometimes too).

There are no funds to police these sites.

And I have no further words to express what I’m feeling, but I am inspired to donate further to the Archaeological Conservancy, and to other entities I trust to protect our earthly heritage.

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 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).