Archive for September, 2012

Robert Grisdale was born in 1664 (or possibly in 1667) in Matterdale in Cumberland; I will return to his family connections later. He was the founder of Matterdale School. The Trust deeds of the School were established in 1716 and the School itself opened for business in 1722 was a yearly endowment of £200 provided by Robert. By this time Robert had for many years been a clergyman at the church of Saint Martin in the Fields in London. How did he get there? What was his story? I can’t reconstruct it all, but at least a little of his life can be told.

In those days, as indeed is still the case today, you couldn’t just jump from a simple rural family, as the Matterdale Grisdales were, to the dizzying heights of being a clergyman in one of London’s most illustrious churches. You needed an education and a bit of luck.

Queen’s College Oxford in 1675

Robert entered Queen’s College in Oxford University in 1683, aged supposedly nineteen. In March 1689 he received his BA and by 1692 his MA. He later became a Fellow of the college and received his Doctorate in Divinity. It seems pretty clear that he must have attended the Free Grammar School in the nearby village of Barton in Westmorland. The school had been established by 1649 by Dr. Lancelot Dawes and Dr. Gerard Langbaine  and had many links with Queen’s College, Oxford – Dawes and Langbaine was both born in Barton and had both studied at Queen’s.

Rev Dr William Lancaster

The reason why I think it is pretty certain that Robert attended this school is because of his close association with Dr William Lancaster. William was born in 1650 the son of William Lancaster of Stockbridge in Barton. He had also attended Queen’s College and later on was to become its Provost and Vice Chancellor of the University. But for now the important thing to know is that for some time he was a school master of Barton Free Grammar School – a note in the Barton registers says that in 1669 William Lancaster “schoolmaster” became a Church Warden. A mean competitor was later to jibe that he had once been “a little petty schoolmaster in Westmorland”. Not only that, but when Robert entered Queen’s College in 1683 William Lancaster was teaching there. “In college, he became celebrated as tutor. From the beginning of 1686 till 1 August he was junior bursar, for the next four years he held the post of senior bursar.” Finally, William became Vicar of Saint Martin’s in the Field Church in London in 1692, and low and behold Robert Grisdale became a ‘clerk’  and curate there, a post he held until his death in 1723 (William died in 1717). I think it not unreasonable to summise the Robert was taught by William Lancaster at both Barton School and Oxford University and that it was William who gave him his post at Saint Martin’s in the Field. There are in fact many records in London linking the two men.

Robert married Phoebe King on the 29 October 1697 at Saint Martin’s Church in London. They had four children all born in London and baptised at Robert’s church: Elizabeth (1698) John (1700) Luke King Grisdale (1702), and Robert (1703). It seems that only Elizabeth survived. She gave a collection of theological books to Matterdale School in 1723 and is the only child named by Robert in his will in 1722. It seems she never married, so I think Robert’s line died out.

There is much more information available about Robert but one thing that has remained a mystery to those interested in Matterdale and the Grisdale family is: What is the connection of Robert to the other Grisdales of Matterdale in the seventeenth century? The problem is that there are large gaps in the Matterdale records around the time of his birth. Remember this is the time of the Civil War and the troubles afterwards. So there is absolutely no record of a birth of a Robert Grisdale in or about 1664 in Matterdale or elsewhere. This has led people to conjecture other birth dates and different parents. But I think several things can get us nearer an answer.

First there is Robert’s will. In his will his main concern is with his daughter Elizabeth but he also leaves money to Edward “my brother” and to his sister Mararget Judson and to the children of his sister Mary Judson. Now a Mary Grisdale married John Judson “of Askham” in Matterdale Church in 1699. They went to live in Askham and had several children. Mary died there in 1720. I think this Mary can only be the one baptized in Barton in 1677 – the daughter of  Thomas Grisdale – there is no other Mary Grisdale. Thus I think Robert’s father was a Thomas who had moved temporarily to Barton to be close to his son Robert in the Free School there.

Regarding Margaret Judson, I can find no record of a Margaret Grisdale marrying a Judson (but obviously she did). I think this Margaret was the one baptized in Matterdale in 1667  the daughter of Thomas Grisdale of Troutbeck.

Next there is Edward Grisdale, Robert’s brother. I can find no Edward Grisdale son of Thomas in Matterdale, however he was certainly Robert’s brother because not only is he stated as such in Robert’s will but an Edward Grisdale (of Douthwaite) is noted as being a brother in the 1716 Deed of Trustees of Matterdale School. So Edward remains a bit of a mystery? Although two of his children did move to London and had connections with Saint Martin’s in the Field!

Also added to the list of Matterdale Trustees is the note that William Wilson (Trustee) was the “nephew in law” of Robert. I take this to mean he was the husband of Robert’s niece. Now William Wilson married an Elizabeth Grisdale in 1722 in Matterdale. The only Elizabeth this could be is the one born to a Thomas Grisdale in 1699, again in Matterdale. If this is so it implies that Robert also had a brother called Thomas and if Robert’s father was Thomas as well then the brother Thomas was either born of a father Thomas in 1666 or 1672 (there are two listed in the Parish records). Perhaps Elizabeth’s father Thomas had died before Robert made his will in 1722?

Finally, in support of the idea that Robert’s father was a Thomas Grisdale is the entry in the much later record of Oxford University Alumni:

Robert Grisdale: Son of Thomas, of “Crostormount in Barton,” Westmorland, pp. Queen’s Coll., matric. 23 May, 1683, aged 19; B.A. 22 March, 1688-9, M.A. 1692; of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, clerk; licenced 29 Oct., 1697, to marry Phœbe King of same, spinster.

See London Marriage Licences, ed. Foster.

This clearly states that at the time of his marriage (maybe) Robert’s father was a Thomas. Crostormont is actually Cross Dormant, a farm in Barton! The fact that “Crostormont in Barton” is in quotation marks implies I think copying from Robert’s college entrance records.

But still there is no record of either a Robert or an Edward being born with a father Thomas at about the right date!

One other point is worth mentioning. The entry in the list of Oxford Alumni gives Robert as being 19 when he “matriculated” (i.e. entered) in 1783, implying a date of birth in about 1664. But this seems a bit old given the customs at the time. And in fact in one copy of Robert’s marriage records in 1697 his age is given as 30! This implies a birth year of 1667 not 1664. Maybe the “19” could have been “16”? Of course sometime approximate ages were given but his new wife Phoebe King was said to be 19 (exactly) so maybe Robert was actually 30.

So if Robert’s father was a Thomas as I am tending to believe, then who was his mother? Naming patterns are important. Robert named his only daughter Elizabeth and if he had a brother called Thomas (as I am suggesting) then this Thomas also named a daughter Elizabeth. So was Robert’s mother called Elizabeth?

One possibility is that the Thomas Grisdale who married an Elizabeth Atkinson in 1657 in Matterdale. But then again maybe this couple were the parents of Wilfred Grisdale the Brewer I discussed in an earlier article in this blog?

I would welcome other ideas.

There is no doubt that the Normans who arrived in England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and those who followed in subsequent years, were, as Thomas Paine  so aptly put it in Common Sense in 1776, a group of “armed banditti”. The “French bastard” William was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights on their huge war-horses loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”. For sure there was resistance but it would be many centuries before any amount of ordinary English people would  be able to make serious attempts to crawl out from under this cruel oppression – some might argue that they have yet to succeed.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

In reading popular versions of English history, and even sometimes more scholarly and learned works, it is all too easy to forget another very significant fact: These armed thugs were French and they spoke French. Of course the Normans were originally North-men, they were Vikings, but by the time of the conquest, while still retaining the brutal martial qualities of their Viking ancestors, they were thoroughly French and spoke one version of the many regional varieties of French in use at that time: Norman French. As more and more French men and women from other parts of France arrived in England throughout the late Middle Ages, the language spoken by the royal  court, by the barons, by the local knights and in the courts of law slowly evolved and morphed – away from “Anglo-Norman” and towards a more Parisian French. But let’s be quite clear: the conquerors continued to speak French as their primary language for a long time to come.

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well.

At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.

The British Coat of Arms makes it clear who is in command

Of course there was a need for some sort of communication between the conquerors and the conquered. The native English needed to know some French if they had to serve and appease their new lords in their manors, work on the lords’ home farms or understand the lawyers and judges in the courts. Slowly but surely Old English or Anglo-Saxon evolved and morphed into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Although French remained the principal language of the rulers, one by one, and at first very reluctantly, they started to be able to understand and then speak Middle English as well.

In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most “English” of Kings Henry V(1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French.

It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.

So when we read history books or watch television programmes about the exploits of “English” kings such as Henry II, his sons Richard “Coeur de Lion” and John, or later about Edward I “Hammer of the Scots” or indeed about the countless English barons and knights fighting each other as well as fighting the kings of England and France, it is advisable to remember that these people weren’t yet English in any real sense of the word and didn’t yet see themselves as such. Whether we call them “Anglo-Norman” or something else, and whether or not they were born in England, these were Norman/French “aristocratic” thugs.

I want to stress this linguistic and cultural point not because I have anything against the French, nor because there were only French thugs. Thugs in fact appear everywhere and their arrival on the historical stage is, rather sadly, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization itself. Rather knowing what type of people these really were can help clear some of the mist from popular English history as it is too often presented.

Thugs fighting thugs

Simon de Montfort – a very big French thug indeed

On the political level one could, I think with some justification, regard the whole of the thirteenth century as being a period of thugs fighting thugs. Once these Normans and French had divvied up the spoils, and when they weren’t preoccupied with trying to squeeze more and more surplus out of the enserfed native population, they were fighting each other, both in England and abroad. At home from the barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, through the Second Barons’ War between 1264 and 1267 and even including Edward I  seeking dominance in Britain at the turn of the century by fighting the Welsh and the Scots. Abroad the various wars fought by the “English” Plantagenet and Angevin kings and barons on French soil from the time of the Conquest right up at least to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (and arguably until the final loss of Calais in 1558), were also essentially dynastic fights between groups of “strenuous” French-speaking Frenchmen.

Regarding the Magna Carta and all that, the British human rights barrister Geoffrey Robinson once accurately commented:

The appearance of ‘rights’ as a set of popular propositions limiting the sovereign is usually traced to Magna Carta in 1215, although the document had nothing to do with the liberty of individual citizens: it was signed by a feudal king who was feuding with thuggish barons and was forced to accede to their demands.

Very true. But it needs to be added that with the help of the Pope he soon got out of even his limited commitments to the barons.

At the local level in England, the kings, barons and knights fought each other to get more land (the basis of medieval power) and to be allowed more “liberty” to extract the maximum surplus from their feudal dependants with the minimum possible truck or hindrance from either the king or from other lords. In fact “Liberty” originally and literally meant the freedom to exploit properties and people. They fought each other with swords and axes in the fields and, with inexhaustible alacrity, with words in the courts, the words of course being French; although court proceedings were usually recorded in Latin.

A Shropshire tale

My concern in this essay is just one such local event. The setting is the thirteenth century in the Welsh borderland (March) county of Shropshire. It is a story of local thugs fighting each other and fighting King John. It concerns two pretty representative thuggish French families: the FitzWarins and the Corbets, one thuggish Welsh family – that of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys – as well as the King himself.

Let’s allow Winston Churchill to eloquently summarize the story:

Fulk Fitz Warin, the third of that name, was a Shropshire knight, arbitrarily deprived or ‘Disseissed’ of his land by King John (1199-1216) in the first decade of the 13th century. His exploits during the years of rebellion and ultimately successful struggle to regain his estates was recounted in a popular French Romance, probably written to sustain the morale of the family when the Fitz Warin patrimony was again in danger in the 1250’s. At that time Fulk Fitz Warin IV purchased from the Royal Chancery a writ of ‘novel disseissen’ by order of which, in January 1256, the Sheriff of Shropshire brought before a party of royal justices on circuit at Shrewsbury, a leading Shropshire baron names Thomas Corbet, together with a jury who were required to say whether Thomas had dispossessed Fulk in the recent past of 120 acres of arable land in Alberbury. The jury told the justices that the case had risen from a ‘love-day’ held on the borders of Wales to settle a minor war between Thomas Corbet and the Prince of Powys, at which Fulk, as a tenant of Thomas, had been present with the rest of the local gentry. In the heat of argument, Thomas had called Fulk ‘a traitor as his father was to king John’ and Fulk had replied that, after such an insult, he would renounce his homage to Thomas and ‘never hold land from him again’. Thomas had taken Fulk at his word and occupied his land but the jury replied to questions from the justices that Fulk had not renounced his land in due legal form: it had all been mere feudal histrionics. So damages of 40 shillings were awarded against Thomas and Fulk recovered his land.

What a great story! I’ll discuss the “French Romance” later; but first a little background on the three border families involved.

Hugh Le Corbeau. Founder of the English Corbets

The Corbets were one of the leading marcher families in Shropshire.  Hugh “Le Courbeau” (The Raven) came from Caux in Normandy, he had perhaps been with William the Conqueror at Hastings. He was rewarded with extensive lands in Shropshire that had previously belonged to King Edward ‘the Confessor’, as it says in Domedsay Book. He built his castle near Westbury in Shropshire and called it Caus after his Norman home. At first he held his fees from Roger de Montgomerie, who William had created first Earl of Shrewbury in 1074. But when Roger’s grandson Robert, the third Earl, rebelled against Henry I he forfeited his title in 1102. Hugh  le Corbeau’s descendants then held directly from the Crown and much of the history of Shropshire for a long time thereafter can be characterized as various baronial and knightly families alternately fighting each other and marrying each other, trying to grab as much land for themselves as they could following Robert de Montgomerie’s removal from the scene. One of these fractious, war-like families was the Corbets, who by the mid thirteenth century had consolidated large feudal holdings in Shropshire and elsewhere. The head of the senior branch was the Thomas Corbet mentioned by Winston Churchill.

The next person we need to consider must I guess for reasons of ethnic even-handedness be called a Welsh thug: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn.  He was a Welsh prince who was lord of the part of southern Powys. Powys being that portion of central Wales adjoining Shropshire. Gruffydd was the son of Gwenwynwyn ap Owain but his mother was Thomas Corbet’s sister Margaret. Hence he was Thomas Corbet’s nephew. Under pressure from the rise of the Prince of Gwynedd Llywelyn the Great, Gruffydd, although originally a Welsh “nationalist”, increasingly allied himself with the English kings. He eventually even adopted the Norman family name of De la Pole – after the family’s main English manor of Pool (present day Welshpool in Shropshire).

Whittington Castle as it probably was. The cause of Fulk’s dispute with King John

Finally, there is the FitzWarin family, who probably arrived in both England and Shropshire only in the twelfth century. Not initially as powerful as the Corbets, they nevertheless soon became involved in the usual and never-ending power battles the border barons fought among themselves. The family traced its descent from the eponymous Warin de Metz. Either Warin, or just possibly some of his ancestors, came to England from Lorraine in eastern France. Warin, so the story goes, was victorious in a tournament, and he thereby won the right to marry Mellet Peverell, the heiress to the Whittington manor near Oswestry in Shrophire.

But throughout the second half of the twelfth century Whittington was being occupied by the Welshman Roger de Powys and later by his son Meurig (Morys) FitzRoger, so the FitzWarin family weren’t able to take possession. Fulk FitzWarin III, the great grandson of Warin, continued his family’s quest for Whittington. He paid a fine of £100 for the manor to King John but John refused to reverse his support for Meurig of Powys. “Exasperated” Fulk III “waged a guerrilla rebellion against the king between 1200 and 1203. His fifty-two adherents included his brothers William, Philip, and John, some Fitzwarine family tenants, and many younger sons of prominent Shropshire families. The king sent Hubert de Burgh with 100 knights to respond to this threat, but finally pardoned Fulk and his followers on 11 November 1203. Fulk paid 200 marks and finally received Whittington Castle in October 1204.”

A Minor War

The arguments and “minor war” between Gruffydd and Thomas Corbet mentioned by Churchill started in 1241 and initially concerned the question of the entitlement to Margaret Corbet’s dowry, which included a “tenement” at Caus, but eventually escalated to other matters in several different parts of the country.

Janet Meisel, the historian of these border barons tells us:

The longest and most complex of all Thomas’s legal battles began in 1241 with a suit between him and his sister, Margaret, who by then was the widow of Gwenwynwyn, prince of Powis, and mother of Griffin (sic) ap Gwenwynwyn. At first the only issue was Margaret’s dower, but by 1247 Griffin became involved in the dispute and the quarrel quickly grew to include such matters as alleged breaches of the peace by both men in several counties and a variety of land disputes ranging from Derbyshire in the east to Wales in the West. By 1255 the dispute had grown so large that the king appointed a special commission to investigate the various contentions of Thomas and Griffin, but this commission… appears to have met with little success. 

In The Antiquities of Shropshire Robert W Eyton tells us:

On May 9, 1255, Justices are appointed to try an action of novel disseizin preferred by Thomas Corbet against Griffin Wenunwin (sic) for a tenement in Caus.

Novel disseizin just means someone has recently seized the land. Evidently Gruffydd had seized the tenement in Caus from Thomas, no doubt claiming it was part of his mother’s dowry. Further we read:

On July 5th, 1255, another Patent appoints three Justices to set to rights the wrongs and strifes which subsisted between these same persons…


But obviously at least once Thomas Corbet and Gruffydd had tried to settle their disagreements without resort to violence or the courts of law. They had called a Jour d’Amour – a Love-Day – as Churchill rightly said. Finding their origins in Anglo-Saxon times, these days weren’t always, or even mostly, meetings of reconciliation freely decided upon by the antagonists, they usually had a certain form or process and were generally agreed upon in a court. It is quite possible that the Justices mentioned above had agreed to this love-day.

It worked as follows (I take this from John of Oxford’s La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron of 1265): The defendant (in this case that would be Gruffydd) would ask the court steward or justice for a jour d’amour with the plaintiff (Thomas Corbet). “We grant it you”, replies steward, “so that you be at one between now and the next court”. As Michael Clanchy writes:

A ‘loveday’ … is therefore a day of reconciliation between disputants. The court does not adjudicate this reconciliation, nor does it inquire what its terms are; the court’s only function is to fix a time limit within which agreement is reached.

The court’s lack of responsibility is explained by the principle that ‘pactum legem vincit et amor judicium’ . The request of the steward for a day of reconciliation superceeds the law and the subsequent ‘bond of love’ between (the disputants) eliminates further action by the court.

When the court reconvenes the steward would ask the parties: “How then has business gone between you? Are you at one?” Which Michael Clanchy explains can be “ literally translated as ‘Are you one people or kindred? (une gent or une genz)’” If the plaintiff answers “Yes, sir” then that’s an end to it, except for the court’s fee.

The loveday makes the contending parties into une genz just as the marriage ceremony does. Like marriage, a loveday should be sealed with a kiss (the kiss of peace), blessed by a priest, and witnessed by mutual friends and kinsmen.

If there is no agreement, as apparently there wasn’t between Thomas and Gruffydd, the parties could go back to the courts. We know that this particular petty, though representative, dispute dragged on till Thomas death. But what is of importance to our little story here is that such love-days had to be witnessed “by mutual friends and kinsmen”. Fulk FitzWarin was one of these and following the love-day Thomas Corbet had seized Alberbury manor from him. Why?

Corbet’s insult and Fulk’s day in court

The Assize-Roll of the January 1256 Shrewbury Eyre Court tells us what had happened and why, I’ll quote this at some length:

An Assize comes on, to make recognition whether Thomas corbet hath disseized Fulk Fitz Warin, junior, of his free tenement in Alberbyr, viz. of about 120 acres.

Thomas says that the land is of his Fief, and that the Plaintiff, before many Magnates and Lieges of the King, rendered back his homage and the said land to the Defendant, and positively declared that he never would have either that land or any other land of the Defendant. For this reason the Defendant put himself in seizing of the said land, as it was lawful for him to do, the moment that Fulk abandoned it to him

Fulk says (in reply) that he never rendered back land nor homage, and asks judgement on the special point, – whether, even if it were true that under anger and excitement he had verbally rendered back his homage, yet had not subsequently changed his state, but had continuously remained in seizing, – whether it was competent to the Defendant to disseize him on the ground of a mere word. As to his never having, spontaneously, and of goodwill, surrendered the land, he put himself on the Assize. (ie appeals to the Jury).

The Jury declares that a certain day of reconciliation ( a love-day or dies amoris) was fixed upon between Thomas Corbet and Griffin ap Wennonwyn, touching several matters of contention; – that many Magnates met together on the occasion, and that Fulk, the present plaintiff, was of their number; – that Fulk and Thomas Corbet quarrelled together; – that Corbet called Fulk, Fulk’s father, a Traitor; – that Fulk announced to Corbet, that, seeing he charged his father with such a crime, he (Fulk Junior) would render back his homage to Corbet and would never hold land of him again.

The Jury, being asked (by the Court) whether Fulk, in his own person, made the said surrender, say that he did not; indeed that he made the surrender through Hamo le Strange.

The Jurors, being further asked whether Fulk, after he sent the message, returned to his seizin, say ‘Yes’, – and that Fulk is still in seizin of the Castle of Alberbyr, which is the capital Manor pertaining to the said land; and that Fulk caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land, in the interval before Corbet ejected him.

The court decides that Fulk do recover his seizin.

Similar to all such martial societies who viewed themselves as heroic, going back at least to Homer’s Myceneans, these Norman Frenchmen were extremely concerned, touchy and tetchy about their honour and that of their family – however fictive this honour might had been in reality. Hence, in Churchill’s words, Fulk’s “feudal histrionics” following the insult to his father..

A view of Alberbury Church and Castle in the eighteenth century

But Fulk wasn’t stupid, he knew that he held his fee at Alberbury (I will use the modern spelling) not direct from the king but from Thomas Corbet. He had its use only so long as he did homage to Thomas and if he withdrew his homage Thomas could repossess or seize the property. And this he had done. Fulk claimed that it was all done in “anger and excitement” and was at pains to stress that after the love-day he had gone back to Alberbury and “caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land”.

Such feudal fees were slowly but surely changing into hereditary possessions (what we now call cases of freehold or legally more accurately  “fee simple absolute in possession”). Fulk won the case. This was a pivotal period in the evolution of the law of property in England as it moved away from purely feudal holdings to a more modern form of absolute and inheritable private property.  As the historian of the thirteenth century Alan Harding noted:

The real meaning of the case is that even in the marches, where military feudalism lasted longer than elsewhere, the common law had deprived lords of the freedom to decide, in the company of their vassals in their honour courts and love-days, who should and should not hold lands from them.

Even though the 1256 court found in Fulk’s favour, Thomas Corbet refused to accept the verdict and continued to try to hold on to Alberbury. The case continued for years. It was probably to strengthen his case that Fulk commissioned a Norman French Trouvère at Ludlow to write the “French Romance” of his family and its long connections with Alberbury to which Winston Churchill referred. It is usually simply called Fouke le Fitzwarin  or The History of Fulk FitzWarine. The Fulk of the tale is our Fulk’s father generally referred to as Fulk FitzWarin III while his son of the 1256 Assizes is known as Fulk FitzWarin  IV. I will simply call them from now on senior and junior respectively.

The History of Fulk FitzWarine starts with a long history of the FitzWarin family,  its deeds and exemplary exploits from the time of the eponymous Warin de Metz up to the times of Fulk FitzWarin senior and then it tells us why King John had such an enmity towards him and the background to Thomas Corbet’s insulting Fulk junior during his love-day with Gruffydd by suggesting that he was a “traitor”. While obviously somewhat self-serving this part of the romance story is worthy of retelling.

Honour and feuds

As a boy Fulk senior was brought up in Henry the second’s Royal household at Windsor Castle, where he and the future King John were playmates. The two supposedly had a falling out at a young age while playing chess. Let me let the romance speak for itself. First I will quote it in the original Norman French; once again just to illustrate the point about the French culture and language of all England’s ruling class at the time:

Fouke le jeouene fust norry ou les iiij. fitz Henré le roy, e mout amé de tous, estre de Johan; quar yl soleit sovent medler ou Johan. Avint qe Johan e Fouke tut souls sistrent en une chambre, juauntz a eschekes. Johan prist le eschelker, si fery Fouke grant coupe. Fouke se senti blescé, leva le piée, si fery Johan en my le pys, qe sa teste vola contre la pareye, qu’il devynt tut mat e se palmea. Fouke fust esbay ; mès lée fust qe nul fust en la chambre, si eux deus noun, si frota les oryles Johan, e revynt de palmesoun, e s’en ala al roy, son piere, e fist une grant pleynte. ” Tès-tey, maveys,” fet le roy ; ” tous jours estes conteckaunt. Si Fouke nulle chose si bien noun vus fist, ce fust par vostre desert demeyne.” E apela son mestre, e ly fist batre fynement e bien pur sa pleynte. Johan fust molt corocée à Fouke; quarunqe pus ne le poeitamer de cuer.

In modern English:

Young Fulk was brought up with the four sons of King Henry, and much beloved was he of them all save John, for oft did he quarrel with John. And it chanced on a day that John and Fulk were alone in a chamber playing at the chess. And John seized the chessboard, and gave Fulk a heavy blow. And Fulk felt himself hurt, and he raised his foot, and kicked John in the chest, so that his head struck against the wall, and he became all powerless, and fell down senseless. And Fulk was sore afraid, but glad was he that no one was in the chamber save themselves alone, and he rubbed the ears of John, and he recovered from his faintness, and went to the King, his father, and made sore plaint. And the King said, “Silence, fellow, you are ever quarrelling. If Fulk has done by you aught but what is good, it must needs have been by your own desert.” And he called his master, and caused him to beat him soundly and well, because of his plaint. And John was sore angered against Fulk, so that never after could he bear good will toward him.

Henry 2 and Eleanor of Aquitaine – Fulk was brought up in Henry’s court with Henry’s four sons, including the future King John

The veracity or otherwise of this retrospectively amusing vignette is probably beyond recovery; the romance is after all an “official” family hagiography. But as it was probably written sometime between 1256 and 1264 and its content most likely derived from the telling of Fulk senior’s son Fulk FitzWarin junior himself, and was thus just still within living memory, I don’t see any reason to discount it. It’s also possible that Fulk senior was still alive at the time of writing, though we are told he was by now blind. Regardless of its truth, the episode does I think illustrate the very personal and vindictive preoccupations of these people, from the king on down. Insults or damage to honour were not forgotten and quite often led to long and bloody feuds.

According to the History of Fulk FitzWarine this slight denting of his honour is the reason why King John, when he became King in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard “Coeur de Lion”, reconfirmed the grant of the manor of Whittington to the FitzWarin family’s old enemy Meurig FitzRoger of Powys and thus provoked Fulk senior to renounce his feudal homage. We are told that Fulk senior said this to King John:

Sir King, you are my liege lord, and I am bound by fealty to you the whiles I am in your service, and as long as I hold lands of you, and you ought to maintain my rights, but you fail me in my rights and the common law. Never was he a good king who, in his courts, denied the law unto his free tenants. Wherefore I relinquish my homage to you.

An outlaw but no Robin Hood 

Fulk became an outlaw, killed Meurig (Morys) and spent the next three years on the run, trying to evade, and periodically killing, all the forces the furious and vengeful John sent to capture and kill him. He went to Brittany, France, Scandinavia, Spain and the Saracen Barbary coast; just like Odysseus he slew a dragon, fought enemies and won renown and ladies’ hearts. On one of his visits back to England he captured John and, under duress, extorted pardons and restitutions from him, only to see John renege on his promises. He even held a love-day with the king. I can only recommend you read the whole ripping yard.

As I have mentioned, in 1203 Fulk was finally reconciled with John and able to take possession of Whittington. He remained in the king’s peace for some years. In fact he “accompanied the king to Ireland in 1210 and was frequently with him during the next few years, including the king’s interlude in France during the summer of 1214. However, in 1215 Fulk joined the barons who were rebelling against the king, and although by February 1216 he was reconciled to the crown, mistrust of him lingered”.

The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine

There have been attempts to present Fulk senior as a type of Robin Hood; taking from the rich and giving to the poor, while fighting the tyranny of an evil king.

At the literary level they are many similarities between the early stories of Robin Hood at the romance of Fulk, they seem to have arisen in the same cultural milieu. But Fulk was no Robin Hood. He was just another Norman French thug fighting for local dominance and more land, not only with his local adversaries but also with the arch-thug- in-chief – in the person of the (French-speaking) King John. Even in the romance itself, which does of course try to cast its hero in the best possible light, there is nothing that implies that Fulk had any benevolent aspirations towards the poor and oppressed, or wanted to change an inequitable and repressive system nor indeed had any other motive than to get back his estates. What else should we expect? It would be completely anachronistic to suggest any of this for a Norman marcher baron such as Fulk.

Kisses of Peace and Monty Python

That was and is in some partial way the real history of England, and not just the history of the thirteenth century! The rulers of England might occasionally meet for a love-day in a field in England’s green and pleasant land and exchange a thuggish kiss of peace, but they never have been concerned with the bulk of the English people except insofar as they can squeeze them just a little more.

I leave the last words to the inimitable Monty Python. A scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: I didn’t know we had a king. I didn’t vote for you.

Arthur: People don’t vote for king.

Woman: How did you become king?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake. Her arms clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by divine authority that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

Man: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from a farcial aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet.

Man: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

Arthur: Shut up.

The English didn’t shut up, but it didn’t seem to make much difference for many hundreds of years. A E Housman concluded one of his poems in The Shropshire Lad as follows:

And God will save the Queen.


Sources and References

Alan Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge, 1993; Robert William Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, J.R. Smith, 1858; Janet Meisel,  Barons of the Welsh Frontier: the Corbet, Pantulf and FitzWarin Families, 1066–1272, 1980; Winston Churchill, A History Of The English Speaking PeoplesVolume I, 1956;  John of Oxford, La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron, 1265; Michael Clanchy, Law and Love in the Middle Ages, in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West edited John Bossy,Cambridge UP, 1983; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Translation by Alice Kemp-Welch, Cambridge, Ontario, 2001; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Thomas Wright, London, 1855;

Many of us are interested in where our families come from as well as who our ancestors were. What and where are our ‘roots’? Some of you might even have researched your genealogy or family history. Yet have you ever seriously considered how many direct ancestors you really have? Obviously it’s a lot, but how many? You might have even heard statements to the effect that all Europeans are descendants of Charlemagne in the eighth century or that all people of English ancestry are descended from 86% of the people living in England at the time of William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago. If you live in North America and have English or European ancestors the same questions apply. Indeed wherever you live and whatever your ethnic ancestry the questions of descent and ancestry are the same. This short article attempts, in a non-mathematical way, to answer or at least elucidate some of these issues.

Exponential growth – an explosion of ancestors?

On the surface the question of how many ancestors you have might seem simple to answer. After all you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents do you not? The number of your ancestors doubles every generation. Surely you just need to do a simple mathematical calculation to work out the number of your direct ancestors who were living and breeding so many generations ago? The numbers surely just double in each generation: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on. They would a form a pyramid – with you at the top of course!

After 10 generations you ‘should have had’ 1,024 ninth great grandparents. When was ten generations ago? Throughout this paper I will assume that you were born in 1947 (such a date has been used extensively in population studies) and that the average length of a generation is 30 years (this is an average inter-generational length not the age at which our ancestors had their first child – which is lower). So ten generations prior to 1947 takes us back to the mid seventeenth century – to around the time of the English Civil War and to the early days of British settlement in North America.

You might also be interested in working out how many direct ancestors you might have had in total between a certain date in the past and now. You can just add up the numbers for each generation. For instance from the time of your great great grandparents you could have had 30 direct ancestors in total: 2+4+8+16=30. Going back ten generations the total is 2,046 direct ancestors.

If you have ever had an interest in family history and genealogy you will very likely have quickly discovered how the number of your own direct ancestors does seem to explode the further back you look. You might even, as I did, have had to buy a software package to keep track! So 1,024 direct ancestors going back ten generations might not seem too many.

Given the available records, being able to trace our family back ten generations, down every line, would for most of us be a notable achievement. But let’s extend our calculation yet further back – to twenty and thirty generations – a mere blip in our genealogical and genetic history. Twenty generations ago, in the mid-fourteenth century at around the time of the Black Death in Europe and about 150 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ America, a simple doubling of the number of your direct ancestors in each generation would imply that you had 1,048,576 nineteenth great grandparents at the time. In Britain at that time the total population was probably no more than three million – and that even before the Black Death reduced the population by a third or more. This suggests that if your ancestor numbers always doubled in each generation by the mid-fourteenth century they would account for one third of the total British population. A lot but not inconceivable.

But the number of people alive at any one time didn’t just consist of one generation. Depending on your own age you are likely to have parents and grandparents who are still alive and/or children and grandchildren of your own. So in any individual’s ancestry the number of his or her direct ancestors, in any generation, alive at a particular time is only a fraction of the total number of direct ancestors alive at that time. The precise fraction will vary from location to location and through time. It will also vary somewhat between different individuals’ ancestry. Overall for Britain over the last thousand years it has been estimated that the fraction of the total population comprising ‘one’ generation has been, in percentage terms, somewhere around 40%. Putting this another way, this means that on average in any individual’s ancestry there are about 2.5 ‘generations’ alive at any one time. I will use this assumption. But you should be aware that within reason the analysis that will follow would still be valid if we were to use even quite different assumptions. Looking back 20 generations to the mid-fourteenth century, if the maximum population of Britain at that time was, as mentioned, about three million, this means that there were only roughly 40% of this number, i.e. about 1.2 million people who could in fact have been your direct ancestors – compared to the 1,048,576 we theoretically need – still credible but only just.

So let’s see what the doubling of our ancestors leads to after 30 generations, i.e. going back to around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. After thirty generations we would seem to have needed 1.1 billion direct and distinct ancestors! Yes more than one thousand million direct ancestors at the time of William the Conqueror! Obviously this is impossible as the total world population in the eleventh century has been estimated to have been only about 250 to 300 million.

So the number of our ancestors can’t really have kept on doubling in an exponential manner as we go further and further back. Consider just one additional fact: it has been shown that the human race, homo sapiens, went through at least one population bottleneck during our history. At certain times it appears that humankind almost went extinct. Around 70,000 years ago scientists have suggested that the total world population dwindled to only a few thousand – the so-called Toba catastrophe. So sooner or later the number of your ancestors must have stopped exploding and had to have started to shrink, and shrink fast.

Such a phenomenon is called ‘Pedigree Collapse’, a phrase coined by Robert C. Gunderson. The mathematics of this are quite complex; I will attempt to explain what it all means without using maths. Essentially there are two interrelated reasons why the number of your direct ancestors does not keep on exploding and why their number will sooner or later start to contract. The first has to do with ‘cousin marriage’. When you look back at your ancestry you will find that again and again your ancestors married, or better said, bred with their ‘cousins’. This is not a conjecture, this is a fact. Although there will be much to say on the level of cousin marriage. Second, we need to understand the nature of the available ‘breeding pool’ that our ancestors had; and this means considering issues of migration.

The first factor, cousin marriage or inbreeding if you like, can help us explain why the number of your ancestors first grows and then will eventually shrink. The second factor, migration or ‘outbreeding’, helps us to understand why the onset of this narrowing and shrinkage is sometimes pushed farther back in time.

Inbreeding with your cousins

Nowadays we rarely marry or breed with a close relation. In some societies it is either illegal or societally unacceptable. In England since the time of Henry VIII there has been no law restricting who you can marry (remember he wanted to marry Catherine Howard and thus abolished religious consanguinity restrictions so that he could), but this is not the same everywhere in the world. In England today cousin marriage is very rare indeed, yet as we will see this was decidedly not the case in the past. In fact not only was ‘some form’ of cousin marriage likely, it had to have been extremely prevalent. Without it we couldn’t even attempt to make sense of the development of human numbers over the centuries and millennia.

The first effect of cousin marriage is to reduce the rate of growth of the actual number of our ancestors, as compared to the theoretical maximum.

Before we look at a simple example let me explain a little of the genealogical nomenclature involved. When you think of your cousin you are usually thinking of your so-called ‘first cousin’. This means that you and your cousin are related because one of your parents and one of your cousin’s parents are or were siblings. And that means that you share one common pair of grandparents. A second cousin just pushes the relationship back another generation. You and your second cousin share a common pair of great grandparents.  And so on through third, fourth and fifth cousins. In terms of relationships, we can even quite easily take into account such relationships as a ‘third cousin once removed’ or even various types of ‘half cousins’ or even, God forbid, intergenerational marriages with nieces and grandnieces etc. Mathematically and genealogically these relations can be expressed as the equivalent of first, second or more cousins. For example a third cousin once removed is mathematically equivalent to a fourth cousin.

So what happens to the number of your ancestors when cousins marry or breed? Let me build this up one step at a time. The first steps will no doubt be obvious, subsequent steps perhaps less so.

In the unlikely event that your own parents were first cousins we know this means that they shared a common pair of grandparents – this in turn means some of your ancestors are ‘duplicates’. Think about your own family for a minute.  Rather than your parents having the maximum of 8 grandparents they would in fact have had only 6! This is a 25% reduction in their grandparental ancestry – i.e. 6 is 25% lower than the maximum of 8. Now even if that were the only case of cousin marriage in your entire ancestry it would start to reduce the number of your distinct or non-duplicated ancestors. Starting from your great grandparents (‘Generation 3’ in the terminology I am using) your ancestors would double in every generation back from there. This means for you that you would have 6 great grandparents, 12 great great grandparents and so on. You can quickly see that the number of your ancestors decreases by 25% in each and every generation back from there. Note that for you this reduction, stemming from one unique first cousin marriage of your parents, only starts with the generation of your great grandparents. You still would have two distinct parents and four distinct grandparents but only 6 great grandparents.

On the other hand, if your parents were only second cousins the reduction in the rate of increase in the number of your ancestors would start one generation earlier and would be less severe. They would have a common pair of great grandparents. This means that you would have two parents, four grandparents and eight great grandparents, but only 14 rather than 16 great great grandparents. This is only a one eighth or 12.5% reduction. Such a one eighth reduction would then continue throughout your own ancestor line. Are you still with me?

But still the relentless doubling of the number of your ancestors would proceed apace, even if the start of the doubling is pushed back a generation or two. If your parents were first cousins then you would still theoretically have about 802 million distinct direct ancestors 30 generations ago, or 936 million if they were second cousins. Still far too many for it to be true. So I guess it’s pretty clear that the occasional marriage of cousins can’t explain the problem of ‘missing ancestors’.

Let’s take the next step and, perhaps rather extremely, assume that every single one of your ancestors married a second cousin. This seems extreme because historically the level of second cousin marriage was nowhere near as high. What would such 100% second cousin marriage mean for the number of your ancestors? Could this explain our conundrum of having too few ancestors? It turns out that it can’t. Remember than if your parents were second cousins this would lower the number of your distinct ancestors by one eighth in each generation – so you would have 14 great great grandparents rather than 16 and so on. Now if all your grandparents were also second cousins then rather than you having 28 great great great grandparents (i.e. 14 great great grandparents x 2) you would have only 24, that is one eighth lower than 28. Each generation reduces the number of your ancestors by one eighth and these reductions cumulate as we go back. Once we look back thirty generations to around the time of the Norman Conquest, although 100% second cousin marriage reduces the actual number of your direct ancestors by a staggering 96% from the theoretical maximum of over about 1.1 billion, it would still mean that you should have had about 4,356,616 distinct direct ancestors (from one generation) alive at the time! Still well more than the estimated total British population – even without taking account of the fraction of the population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people alive at the time who had no descendants or whose descendant line died out.

To recap so far: I have tried to demonstrate without using any complicated mathematics that the number of your direct ancestors does not double every generation. This is because they tended to marry, or at least breed with, their own relatives. Visualize if you can your own ancestor pyramid. One or a few marriages of cousins (of whatever degree) will have the effect, from a particular point on, of narrowing the pyramid of the number of your ancestors. It will not however stop the inextricable increase in their number. The pyramid starts to become narrower, more pointed, but it’s still a pyramid. Not only that, even though the growth in the number of your ancestors can slow down very fast, for example if all your ancestors married second cousins, it still wouldn’t go into reverse.

So no matter how much individual cousin marriage there was in your ancestry this doesn’t on its own seem to be able to explain why, when you go back far enough, you always seem to need more ancestors than there were people in the country, on the planet or even more than the number of people who have ever lived! Yet we know that sooner or later the number of your ancestors needs to start to stop increasingly, even at a slower pace, and needs to go into reverse and start (quickly) declining. At some point in history the number of your ancestors absolutely must contract.

The reason why the pyramid becomes a diamond is that when your ancestors married or bred with a cousin (of whatever degree) they also very often had more than one cousin relationship with their spouse – sometimes many more.

Let’s use a very simple hypothetical example to elucidate this. Imagine again that your parents were first cousins, so they share a common pair of grandparents. But they could also be second cousins as well, in which case they would also share a common pair of great grandparents. As we have seen, the first cousin relationship would reduce the number of your ancestors in Generation 3 from 8 to 6 and in Generation 4 from 16 to 12. The addition of the second cousin relationship between them would reduce the number in Generation 4 further – from 12 to 10. As we go back in time such multiple relationships between spouses proliferate. Spouses might be second cousins twice over and third cousins and fourth cousins three times over for example. Such multiple relationships have an additive effect on the reduction in the number of your ancestors. The further we go back into your history the more likely you will find that this has been the case – in fact it is absolutely inevitable. At least intuitively for now I hope you can see that with enough multiple relationships, with if you like enough inbreeding, the cumulative effect of removing duplicate ancestors will at some point eventually outweigh the doubling-effect and the number of your discreet ancestors will start to shrink. The pyramid will at some point become a diamond.

Again without using mathematics, one way to illustrate the effect of such inbreeding on the number of your ancestors is to stop thinking about going back in time and consider a hypothetical example moving forward.

Imagine a Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Crusoe abandoned on a remote desert island many centuries ago. (You could name them Adam and Eve if you want). This might seem a very unlikely example, but history and genetics is riddled with such so-called ‘founder events’. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe enjoyed their new environment and happily produced several healthy children. Let’s imagine they produce four children who live to sexual maturity, two girls and two boys. Of course, unless these children want to mate with one of their parents (which is not out of the question) they will need to pair up with each other – possibly (though not necessarily) monogamously – one boy with one girl. All these children’s children will now be first cousins. They will share the same grandparents. Subsequent generations will all be second, third and fourth cousins and so on.  Not only that but as time passes they (the breeding couples) will all be related to each other in multiple ways. Ignoring for the moment the fact that such an inbred family would after some generations quickly start to show genetic degeneration, similar to various Royal families, Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe could have thousands upon thousands of descendants – indeed theoretically they could have millions of descendants after 30 generations. Take any one of these descendants and you would find that his or her ancestry would, by mathematical logic, have at first expanded and then contracted to only two – Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe themselves. This is an unavoidable fact and is, as we have seen, due to the cumulative effects of inbreeding. I think that you might also notice from this illustrative example that the expansion and subsequent contraction in ancestor numbers can even happen more than once. All Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe’s thousands if not millions of descendants would be able to prove that the number of their direct ancestors first increased and then fell to just two. But as the ‘founder’ couple themselves had many ancestors of their own (unless you literally believe in Adam and Eve) then the numbers would start growing again; before reversing yet again as the effects of multiple inbreeding kicked in again, and so on. But that would take us further back in time than I can consider in this short essay.

In the real history of Britain there were certainly many founder effects similar to the Robinson Crusoe example, but most of them happened thousands of years ago in the period after the end of the last Ice Age when Britain started to be repopulated from a number of Ice Age refuges. Once a decent size British population was again established such genealogical (as opposed to older genetic) founder effects were rare.

Given the many gaps in the available genealogical records, and the fact that in Britain systematic records of births, marriages and deaths only started in the sixteen century and only achieved a reasonably full coverage a century or so later, it would be extremely hard, and in most cases impossible, to demonstrate for your ancestors or mine when exactly your ancestor ‘pyramid’ reversed to become a ‘diamond’. As I suggested earlier, accurately tracing your ancestry back to the middle of the seventeenth century (i.e. 10 generations from 1947) following only some of your lines is itself a major achievement. Doing it with any certainly along all your lines is for most of us impossible. To the extent that you have managed to do so you will have undoubtedly found that some families keep marrying each other. But can you precisely identify all the cousin relationships? More importantly, can you always spot when some of your ancestors in a particular generation were the same people? To the extent that you can then you could also probably show how the rate of increase in the number of your direct ancestors had already started to slow down somewhat over the last three hundred years, but it is very unlikely that you could demonstrate an actual shrinkage in ancestor numbers over such a period – although it is theoretically conceivable that there was one. The major problem is that 10 generations isn’t very long in genealogical terms and it’s only a blink of the eye in genetic terms.

Over a longer generational time-span we can illustrate how inbreeding will lead to pedigree collapse by considering the case of breeders of pedigree horses and dogs. Because both horses and dogs both live much shorter lives than humans and start to breed at a much earlier age, breeders of ‘pedigree’ animals often have detailed ‘stud books’ recording parentage – sometimes going back thirty generations or more. They are therefore often able to definitively and graphically demonstrate how pedigree collapse has played out. Not only how ancestor numbers first expanded and then contracted but also how this can happen more than once. Such studies demonstrate unequivocally that inbreeding on its own, if severe enough, can and will lead to pedigree collapse.

The main problem with applying this analogy to humans is that animal breeders are usually consciously trying to breed pedigree animals; they are artificially and deliberately restricting the opportunities for dogs or horses to breed outside a very restricted group. Just as in a similar way how the inhabitants of our hypothetical Robinson Island have also been restricted in their breeding – by geographic separation.

Migration and outbreeding

How could this narrowing of the ancestral base have been attenuated? To put it another way, how could the available ancestor pool have been increased between the present day person and Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe, so that their descendant alive today has more than just two ancestors thirty generations back? Here we have to address the issue of the available ‘breeding pool’ at different points in the past – and how migration leads to outbreeding.

Perhaps some time over the past few hundred years another man or woman arrived by canoe on Robinson Island and bred with one or more of the people there. Or perhaps a Viking came and raped someone. The immediate effect would have been to expand the number of actual ancestors represented in the Robinson Island population. Every time this happened the number of ancestors for the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe would have increased significantly. If an immigrant came from Africa or a Viking from Scandinavia he or she would inject the genealogical inheritance of countless people in Africa or Scandinavia. Every such immigrant or migrant adds considerably to the pool of collective ancestor diversity and the numbers of possible ancestors of future generations.

Every time that one of my or your ancestors moved, into or out of one of their ‘ancestral’ areas, whether a few miles or hundreds or thousands of miles, they brought or took with them an untold number of ancestors of their own. These ancestors have become your own. If people hadn’t moved at all we would all be able to trace our descendants to one ‘Adam and Eve’ founder couple in the not too distant past, just like in our Robinson Crusoe example.

In the British or English examples I used earlier I was implicitly assuming that the total available pool of a British person’s ancestors was limited, throughout the generations and within a particular generation, to all the people alive in Britain. Of course this is not necessarily true. It might be that the available breeding pool of your family was less than this or more than this. For any individual’s ancestry this will depend on how often and how far your ancestors tended to move from their ancestral homes. If for many centuries your ancestors really were somehow hermetically sealed within a closed community (a walled village or district similar to Robinson Island) then the narrowing of your ancestor pyramid could have been quite fast and it might be that their numbers started to shrink sometime in the last few hundred years. In reality, however, such a degree of cousin marriage, and therefore resultant inbreeding, was probably quite rare. 

I’ll try to illustrate this by referring to my own ancestry. I am English. In fact I am so English it is somewhat embarrassing. For at least 400 years that I know of, my ancestors almost all originate from very specific locales in the English counties of Shropshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Norfolk. During all this time I had no known ancestor who came from outside the British Isles – and just a few from Wales plus a couple from Scotland and Ireland. The great majority of my ancestors were born and were raised in a very limited number of specific areas – a village or a few villages. For hundreds of years most of them married others from within only a few miles radius. Generally of course couples married in the parish of the woman; but they tended to live thereafter in the husband’s home. But move they did. They had access to a breeding pool much larger than that available to the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Crusoe. In fact from time to time they moved further away. Why else would my own family (and probably yours too) originate from several places? In the 19th century my ancestors moved from Norfolk, Shropshire and Cumbria to Lancashire, to join other ancestors already settled there since at least the 17th century.

If I were able to go back another ten or twenty generations and identify all the connections, it’s pretty clear that because people moved I would find some of my ancestors from nearly everywhere in Britain (or at least England) and probably quite a lot from abroad as well. Although there is a lot more to be said on the issue of migration, I think for now it is true to say that even for an English person such as myself, having recent ancestors from only a few specific and limited locales, over say a thousand years my ancestral’ breeding pool’ did probably encompass the whole of the country and possibly some of Europe as well.

When did the reversal in ancestor numbers happen?

There is a general rule involved here, based on the mathematics of genealogy and demographics:

When and how the number of your direct ancestors stops growing and starts to shrink is determined by the  interplay of the cumulative negative effects of inbreeding and the positive effects of expanding the ‘breeding pool’ – via migration or so-called outbreeding.

How do these two opposing forces play out in reality? More particularly at what point in history did this inevitable reversal in the number of ancestors happen – in your family and in general?

Over a period of about ten generations in my family tree I can certainly notice that I had some ‘duplicate’ ancestors because of cousin marriage, and there are surely many more I haven’t spotted. Yet I think it is clear that over this ten generation time period the degree of inbreeding in my family was is no way large enough to have had a very significant effect on the dramatic increase in my direct ancestor numbers, and it certainly wasn’t enough to reverse the process. 

But let’s look at the numbers again. Depending on our assumptions regarding generational length, historic population numbers, the percentage of a population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people who have left no descendants, then at some point in Britain or England, probably in the High Middle Ages as we shall see, the cumulative effects of inbreeding must have become large enough to reverse the tendency for anyone’s ancestors to double in each generation. As I demonstrated earlier, this can be seen by the simple fact that at about this time the maximum number of an English or British person’s direct ancestors would exceed the possible pool of their ancestors in the country.

At this point I would like to highlight one of the seminal articles on this subject, called Ancestors at the Norman Conquest, published in 1980 by Kenneth W Wachter, a Berkeley statistician and demographer. Wachter assumed that ‘England’ was a closed society, with basically no international immigration. He uses the example of a hypothetical, strictly English, person born in 1947 (let’s please not open a debate on what ‘English’ means) and assumes an intergenerational length of thirty years. He then makes some assumptions about the average degree of cousin marriage based on an analysis of his own family tree – such cousin marriage being in fact quite rare. He then uses these assumptions in a mathematical model which calculates a probability distribution for the actual numbers of distinct (or unique if you like) ancestors in each generation. Such distributions obviously have an average or ‘mean’ value. He could then compare this average number with both the theoretical maximum number of any individual’s ancestors (i.e. the simple doubling in each generation) and the estimated total population in England at different points in time. The results are illuminating to say the least.

For example, even 15 generations ago in 1527 the mean calculated number of distinct ancestors is still 31,438, not much less than the theoretical maximum of 32,768, and only about 1.5% of Wachter’s estimated English population of 2.2 million at the time. To put this in another way, fully 96% of this person’s ancestors in the 15th generation are distinct people and only 4% are duplicates or ‘non-distinct’. This seems to accord quite well with my earlier observations regarding my own ancestry. But then something peculiar starts to happen.

Going back only five more generations (to Generation 20), or to about the year 1377, the number of distinct ancestors has grown enormously, to 628,576, but this is now ‘only’ 60% of the theoretical maximum of 1,048,576 – meaning that 40% of the theoretically available ancestor ‘slots’ are now duplicates or better said non-distinct. Also if the English population at the time was about 2.25 million as Wachter assumes (remember the Black Death decimated the English population starting at about this time) then this individual’s ancestors in 1377 (and only in one generation) now account for fully 28% of the total population alive at the time.

25 generations ago, in about 1227, this individual would seem to have 2,012,114 distinct ancestors; or 80% of the estimated English population of 2.5 million. Not only that but only about one sixteenth of his/her ancestors are distinct people, this rest are at least duplicates.

Going back 30 generations to around 1077, to just after the Norman Conquest, we saw earlier that the maximum number of ancestors in that one generation was just over one billion (i.e. 1,000 million). Wachter’s model calculates that this individual would have 952,279 distinct ancestors in 1077 – only around 0.09% of the maximum but representing fully 86% of the total estimated English population of 1.1 million. This is ultimately the basis for the assertion highlighted at the beginning of this essay that everyone with English ancestry today is descended from 86% of people alive in the country at the time of William the Conqueror.

In terms of the theme of ‘Pedigree Collapse’, the important point to notice is that between 1227 (i.e. generation 25) and 1077 (generation 30) the number of distinct ancestors more than halved, from just over two million to just under one million – and that means precisely and unequivocally that the ‘pyramid’ became a ‘diamond’! In his model the reversal point takes place somewhere around 1200. So even with an extremely modest level of historical cousin marriage this model clearly shows that such marriages of relatives will first narrow the pyramid and then put it into reverse – i.e. it clearly demonstrates the phenomenon of Pedigree Collapse.

You might ask, as I did, how can this be so? I showed earlier that even if every single one of your direct ancestors married a second cousin this couldn’t explain the seeming lack of ancestors. By 1077, under this scheme of 100% second cousin marriage, you should still have had around 4.3 million ancestors, way more than the population at the time. So how is it that with only very limited assumed cousin marriage Wachter’s model reduces the number of distinct ancestors to just under one million over the same period? The answer is logically (and mathematically) the result of the cumulative effects over many generations of the effects of multiple cousin relationships between couples. After a few hundred years these cumulative effects really start to bite – the remorseless effect of knocking out potential ancestor ‘slots’ does actually outweigh the generational doubling. The problem with the hypothetical 100% cousin marriage example wasn’t that the assumption was unrealistic (which it was) but rather that each marriage was independent and had only one effect on the number of ancestors, whereas in fact it would likely have had many.

Just as an aside, according to anthropologist Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, in his 2011 book The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, it is in fact likely that 80% of all marriages in all of history have been between second cousins or closer. In the context of our present discussion, and for now, I take this to mean not that during the time period we have been considering (and this is important) more than 80% of couples really were second cousins or closer (which they weren’t) but that the cumulative cousin relationship effect was equivalent to this.

In a very interesting and informative series of popular articles, based partly on Kenneth Wachter’s analysis, Brain Pears, a genealogist and physicist, argued that in general ‘the number of ancestors in any generation will be little different from that obtained by our simple doubling scheme’, (mitigated only slightly by a relatively modest level of cousin marriage) back to a point, around 1300 in his analysis, at which you are descended from almost everyone alive in the country at that time. He argued that further back from there the number of your ancestors would then have followed the (declining) total population (to be strict the total population per generation). Given the evidence for the limited degree of cousin marriage in Britain or England over the course of the last few hundred years, and even allowing for the fact that it no doubt was more prevalent further back in history, this would seem a reasonable conclusion.

However, a point worth highlighting is that this ‘reversal point’, in about 1200 in Wachter’s model, can only have happened because of inbreeding, there in no other mechanism – notwithstanding periodic bouts of the Plague. Pears states: ‘I accept that every couple will be related distantly many times over but not to anything like the extent necessary to limit the number or distribution of our ancestors significantly – it would only affect the timing. As we go back through the generations the number and distribution of ancestors will always increase until they cannot increase further. That limitation occurs when the ancestry encompasses the whole population. In earlier generations we would expect the number of ancestors to follow the population size.’ But again remember that the reversal of the pyramid to a diamond can only happen due to inbreeding, indeed being ‘limited by population size’ and ‘inbreeding’ amount to exactly the same thing. In fact assuming only limited cousin marriage (as we all do) but not accepting the cumulative effects of multiple relationships would leave us, I suggest, in a tricky position. If our ancestors really did keep on ‘nearly’ doubling until a ‘population limit’ was reached, then when that limit is reached what then? Wouldn’t we need a sudden and massive change in the pattern of inbreeding from very little to enormous to put the trend in the number of our ancestors into reverse? I don’t find this credible. In fact Wachter’s model clearly showed that before the point of reversal our ancestor pyramid had already narrowed enormously. For example, by the year 1227 the width of the bottom of the pyramid after 25 generations (when the number of distinct ancestors reaches a peak) is only one sixteenth as wide as if would be if doubling or near doubling had occurred!

Conclusions and what about our descent from Charlemagne and so on?

So how many direct ancestors do you have?

The answer is I am afraid that you will never be able to calculate a precise number. On the one hand the number might be more than you imagined, as the seemingly relentless doubling goes on. Yet on the other hand we have seen that sooner or later your ancestor numbers will start to decline. It might be, though it is extremely unlikely in the time frames we have been considering, that your ancestry goes back to only one locale at a certain point in history or even to one ‘founder’ couple.

At the beginning of this article I highlighted just two of the many bold assertions that have been made about our ancestry: such as that everyone in Europe is probably descended from Charlemagne and that every person in England can trace their ancestry to 86% of the people alive in the country at the time of William the Conqueror. Are such claims really true? For 100% of the people presently living in either Europe or England today they are obviously not. For example many English or Europeans are very recent, or even first generation, immigrants – from Asia or Africa and elsewhere. Even though everybody’s lineage will have significantly reduced at some point in the not so distant past because of inbreeding, it is not mathematically self-evident that every English person will be descended from 86% of people in England at the time of William the Conqueror nor that not every European is descended from Charlemagne. Even if we ‘exclude’ such recent immigrants from our analysis and only consider ‘indigenous’ English or Europeans (whatever that might mean) such descent is still not completely certain in every single case, though it has to be said that it is highly probable. Such statements are about probabilities and averages not certainties!

Let’s finish by returning to the question of migration and our supposed common descent from Charlemagne. England, Britain or any other country are obviously not, nor ever were, ‘closed’ or hermetically sealed countries such as the hypothetical Robinson Island. People always moved ‘internationally’ – although the concept of ‘international’ becomes anachronistic as we go further back. At any point to the extent that international migration took place it would have had the effect for any individual we are concerned with today of increasing his or her pool of ancestors. As the whole science of ‘Small World’ networks shows us it only takes a few ‘long leaps’ to connect us in fact with the rest of the world – hence the term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. So without being able to explore this issue further here (maybe another time) because breeding across borders (i.e. migration) happened over the 1,200 years separating us from Charlemagne it is quite conceivable that the bulk of people in Europe might be able to ‘claim’ ancestry from him.

So overall and ‘on average’ it has to be maintained that both these statements are probably true! We are all much more related than we might think.

But let’s look at things another way. If you or I are indeed descended directly from Charlemagne then we are also inevitably descended from his gardener and cook as well. Maybe one of our zigzagging lines will take us back to Charlemagne, but 99.99% or more of our ancestry lines will show that we descend from countless numbers of simple, poor and exploited people – living in Europe around the year 800. People who ploughed the fields, built the ships, served in the armies or simply looked after their families. Whether we want to highlight the one or the many of our ancestors is a personal decision. For me what I find inspiring and humbling is that the vast majority of my ancestors were just simple people trying to make a living as best they could and trying to care for their families – often in the face of severe economic, social and political exploitation and repression. That they managed somehow to do so well enough so that I came into the world is, I would suggest, a testament to the greatness of human perseverance and the human spirit.


Kenneth W. Wachter, Ancestors of the Norman Conquest, in Genealogical Demography, ed. B. Dyke and W.T Morrill, Academic Press 1980; Brian Pears, Our ancestors, conceptions, misconceptions and a paradox, The ancestor paradox revisited and The ancestor paradox yet again,(available on internet); Douglas L. T. Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 2003; Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, Harvard 2011.