Having now guaranteed, via that headline, that none of you will read this post, I’ll continue…
Several times in recent days, I’ve posted something about one or both of those prequels that are now streaming on Prime and HBOMax — the Tolkien one and the Game of Thrones one. I’ve done this even though I’m not interested in watching either. My attention has been grabbed by side issues. I go on these digressions sometimes.
Anyway, today The Post had yet another story on the subject of the GoT one, and it managed to grab my attention with this headline: “‘House of the Dragon’ is based on this real medieval civil war.”
Then I really got interested when I found the inspiration was allegedly inspired by the Anarchy — that period in English history when Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen were fighting over the crown — which should have been Matilda’s, but too many nobles weren’t ready to accept a queen as their sovereign in the Year of Our Lord 1138. I didn’t know about the Anarchy until several years back, when I was researching the Norman lord known to history as “Strongbow.” Strongbow went over to Ireland — and started all these centuries of English oppression — because he had lost his land titles, which were stripped away by Henry II (Matilda’s son), so he felt he needed to branch out and diversify his holdings.
Anyway, I got into all that because according to my family tree, I am directly descended from every one of those people — Matilda, Stephen, Strongbow, and Henry II (who forgave Strongbow and restored him after Strongbow let him in on his Irish venture — countries were run kind of like the Mob in those days).
Am I really directly descended from them? Who knows? It seems highly unlikely, because we’re talking 27 generations, which means more than 27 opportunities for a mistake. Having my DNA done has shown me how many people out there don’t really know who their fathers are. Not me — I was happy to find that people on both sides of my family who I thought were first cousins actually were first cousins, meaning that my parents were my parents. But some people quite close to me — within a generation or so — were mistaken. So imagine how many times that happened in 27 generations, no matter what official records said — especially the way those medieval folk carried on.
So why do I pursue hobby, devoting so much time to it? Two reasons, or maybe one reason with two parts:
- What does it matter whether Empress Matilda was, precisely, my “25th-great grandmother?” If a modern person of British ancestry goes back that far, that person is related to her, and probably pretty closely — for mathematical reasons related to why everyone of European descent is descended from Charlemagne. Making the connection and setting it down makes me conscious of how close we all are to each other, and to all people who have lived. I like that. And I don’t worry about whether I have the relationship exactly right. I’m not planning on going to court to try to get the family castle back. (And I’m also conscious that even if I had all the documents in hand that proved my case in some hypothetical court of law, it wouldn’t mean that all those people in the lineage really were the sons of their “fathers” as designated on the documents — so I still wouldn’t know.)
- I love history. And tracing my tree back into the Middle Ages makes me learn about it. As I said before, I knew nothing about The Anarchy. In fact, as I recall, when I learned several years ago that Strongbow lost his titles because he had backed King Stephen, my initial reaction was “King STEPHEN? There was no King Stephen of England!” Except yes, there was. And I really dig learning things like that this way.
In other words, I like the stories, and I like feeling related to them.
OK, now I’m going to tell you a second story that may be more interesting because it falls within living memory — and also because it’s about somebody really, really interesting, who was written about last week in The Washington Post.
A little after reading that stuff about The Anarchy, I got a call from my first cousin Patty in Maryland, who is also into genealogy. In fact, she was calling in regard to some emails we had exchanged about research into the first Warthens (actually, Wathens at the time) who came to this country. So we talked awhile about family trees. I told her about the Anarchy thing, and she told me about something way cooler, which she had learned about at a meeting of an organization called Montgomery History.
It was the story of a fascinating guy who lived, within our lifetimes, in Montgomery County — the part of Maryland where our branch of the Warthens settled several generations back. His name was Herman Rabbitt — which grabbed my attention because our great-grandmother was named Rebecca Jane Rabbitt before she married A.C. Warthen. This Herman was a fascinating guy. As the Post, writing about this lecture, described him:
- He was a cattleman in a part of the country better known for dairy — if you think of that area as agricultural at all.
- He was not a typical cowboy. He was known for driving his cattle down the road on his motorcycle.
- He was a huge landowner, holding property all over the county, including the spot where the Montgomery County Fair is held.
- He had a couple of million dollars put away in the usual way, but he didn’t entirely trust banks — and buried at least $500,000 in cash on his property, in milk cans and an oil drum.
- When he died in 1972, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork to lay claim to his property, including the woman who said she had helped him bury the money.
- In the end, the legal battle ate up about half his estate. But there might still be some out there. As the Post reported, “Though $500,000 was dug up, Bessie Mills, the housekeeper, claimed she buried $700,000.”
- Herman has a local craft brew beer named after him. The can features of a rabbit in overalls — the real Herman’s usual attire — being chased by a bunch of other critters while money spills out of his pockets.
Within a minute after getting off the phone with Patty, I had Googled this guy, and found two things: That Post story from last week, and his Findagrave page. Two clicks later, I knew that his grandfather was already on my family tree: The uncle of Rebecca Jane Rabbitt, the brother of her father, Thomas Henry Rabbitt (yes, everyone on that branch of my tree sounds as though they were named by Beatrix Potter).
So Herman was my second cousin twice removed. He’s on the tree now. And even though he was a big-enough local character that people are giving lectures about him 50 years later, I had never heard of him until today.
I love finding out stuff like that…