Thursday, May 02, 2013

Transfusing A Thousand Years Of Personal History

I am a descendant from a Norman Knight who at the dawn of the 11th century A.D. was the lord of the fortress at Saint-Lô, the little crossroads that was obliterated nine centuries later during the D-Day Invasion of World War II.

He was rewarded with 68 manors just across the channel in Somerset when he accompanied his neighbor to the east, William The Conqueror, on his successful conquest of England.

While there my ancestor William de Mohun established a castle high on a hill at Dunster to guard approaches by sea or land along the River Avill as it flows down from Dunkery Beacon across the Bristol Channel from Wales

Coincidentally, this area was inspiration for the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, penned as his mid-19th century descendants were making their way across the Continental Divide of the Americas.

However, the old Knight’s grandson, another “William,” chose the wrong side during a period of civil war during Norman rule called the Anarchy.  I assume he had grown up with the “Conqueror’s” granddaughter Matilda as they were coming of age during the reign of King Henry I.

When Matilda was named to succeed her father as Queen of England, Mohun became one of her strongest supporters at a time when many other Nobles, stressed by the notion of a female Monarch, chose instead to support the deceased King’s nephew Stephen.

Queen Matilda granted Mohun the title of 1st Earl of Somerset, one of only two given to non-royals.

King Stephen unsuccessfully laid siege to my ancestor’s castle at Dunster but was able to bottle up its army while driving Queen Matilda and her husband Geoffrey Plantagenet back across the channel.

By refusing to use the title Earl, King Stephen apparently tried to demote my ancestors back to being mere barons by ignoring their earldom.

Stephen was the last of the Norman rulers of England but I suspect things improved for my ancestors at Dunster when Matilda and Geoffrey's son succeeded him as King Henry II ending decades of civil war.

The King temporarily took control of Dunster and other manors and then gave them back to my ancestors.

He was the first of many House of Platagenet kings who ruled England for the next nearly 200 years and are credited with helping to establish much of the basis for English law and society today including common law, juries and courts, constitutional governance and the Magna Carta.

This is a period from which we draw much in American custom and law and it is covered brilliantly in a new book by Dan Jones entitled The Platagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

One of my Dunster Castle ancestors died in Palestine while on the Third Crusade with King Richard I, better known as “the Lionheart.”  He was followed by two “Sir Reynold Mohuns” with whom I share my first name, abbreviated to “Reynol.”

It was also my father’s name so early in my life I opted for the shortened version “Reyn” to avoid confusion and it stuck. 

The “Sir Reynolds” spanned the period just prior to John Wycliffe, whose teachings preceded the Protestant Reformation.  He famously translated the Holy Bible into “Middle English” long before the one authorized as today’s King James Version.

I descend from the second “Sir Reynold” through his second wife. This was also a time when the English language began to supplant Norman French and even Latin in official circles.  My ancestors lived in the part of England where they always pronounced the “r’s” in words.

The castle and titles passed to my ancestor’s step-brother Sir John de Mohun.  He fell deeply into debt but not before standing as one of the 26 founders and the 11th Knight of the Royal Order of the Garter under Edward, the Black Prince.

Childless upon “Sir John’s” passing, his wife sold the castle off to pay debt. Thus ended my brush with nobility although I consider the humble circumstances of most of my ancestral roots as even more noble.

Beginning in the early 1600s, inspired by successors to Wycliffe, descendants of these and other ancestors began to migrate to America as French Huguenots (from Anjou, original home of the Plategenets,) Dutch Remonstrants, Quakers, Palatine Lutherans and Swiss Amish, to name a few.  Several fought in the American Revolution for independence from King George III and England.

Following the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints during the Second Great Awakening of the late 1700s and early 1800s in America, many became Mormons and migrated west into the Rockies.

It is fascinating to look back through nearly a thousand years of ancestry and to realize that these roots pass through me to my daughter and grandsons.

As I donated blood platelets this week, it occurred to me that parts of all of these people are in that sticky yellow liquid and are probably already in transfusion to others along with traces of an old Norman Knight.

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