For much of the past three weeks I’ve been feeling guilty.
At the beginning of September my lifelong interest in genealogy—more an obsession, really, than a hobby, but the one avocation that fostered my love of history and taught me how to research it—sucked me down a rabbit hole. Suddenly a long-stymied lineage opened up, and the vortex pulled me in. The discovery was thrilling, but it pulled me off latest writing project, March to Nicaea, second novel in my Siege Master series, which recounts the real history of the First Crusade and the very good reasons for it—now that the entire world has suddenly realized an urgent need to rid Earth from Islam’s latest murderous outbreak. And therein lies my sense of guilt, grown stronger with each passing day.
Even as I followed new clues back in time I fretted, knowing I ought to be writing instead of pursuing this new lead. After all, I’ve been digging up my dead family for 50+ years now—since I was 12—and while it’s personally satisfying, it’s never found more than Swabian peasants and Lutheran-reformed Vikings. Besides IT’S NOT WHAT I AM SUPPOSED TO BE DOING. Even now, my Muse urges me to GET BACK TO WORK! [just so you know, that’s how she sounds inside my head, especially when lashing me with guilt].
But the intrigue kept growing; all these new records I found on Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com kept reaching back in time, whispering as they led me on that just a little further lay all the answers to the preposterous puzzles in my DNA—oh, yes, I’ve had that analyzed, too—but their molecular hints of European royalty and strange ethnicities are wholly at odds with my solid lineage of Swabian peasantry.
Back I went through the centuries: 1600’s…1500’s…1400’s…1300’s…1200’s! Then, without warning, the surname prefix “Von” appeared, which marks German nobility. These led to barons in Switzerland who owned real castles you can see via Google Earth. Very cool! And they were followed by counts all over modern-day Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.
When I reached the eleventh century, I got a surge of euphoria. MAYBE I would find a family Crusader of my own, someone I could write into the Siege Master series as I did with my wife’s ancestor, Baron Jean de Bethencourt, a real First Crusader.
But that didn’t happen. I did find a boy of seven, of whom I could make an interesting character, but another truth came quick, one even stranger and much, much better.
For the one maternal line I started with had become several, and then many. And as I followed those other new great-grandparents back, I suddenly found that my ancestors had ruled Swabia … and Saxony … and Germany.
And then there he was! Charles “the Hammer” Martel, Duke and Prince of the Franks, Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia, and de-facto king of the Franks, was my 37th great-grandfather. From him and my 35th G-GF, Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, I descend.
Charles Martel! The savior of Europe, who at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD so badly thrashed the Islamic army of invaders led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Governor-General of Al-Andalus that he drove them completely out of France, back over the Pyrenees into Spain. His was the first repulse of Islam over Christendom since Mohammad’s followers had begun, a century before, seeking to bring the entire world into submission beneath Islamic hegemony by means of the sword, using a campaign of conquest, terror, violence, murder, rape, slavery, extortion and forcible conversion. Does that sound familiar?
I thought then that I could not have been given a better gift of heritage, and I still do. But in one sense I was wrong, for it was not over. Charles’s own lineage descends in an admittedly-confusing sequence through the Merovingian kings and Germanic rulers from the Roman Empire itself, but his bloodline sired all of Europe’s royalty. I am, like no doubt many others, an unrecognized and undistinguished heir to that lineage, so I do not say this to boast, rather to wonder. But let me finish this tale before I do.
As I said, from Charles’s bloodline came all of Europe’s royalty; and so it was that I discovered another, my 32nd great-grandfather, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex. And that changed everything!
You see, in writing Call to Crusade, I had researched the lineage of Alfred and knew that many of my historic characters had blood ties to him: Queen Margaret of Scotland is a distant great-granddaughter, and with her, her children. Also, to legitimize their rule of England, William the Conqueror’s children married their Anglo-Saxon rivals and produced descendants who in turn intermarried with other royal and noble houses; and, voila, their stew of DNA eventually ended up in my veins and cells.
Big deal, you say—so what? Show us your crowns and castles. Sorry, ain’t got none—the Black Death took care of those in the 1350’s. And that’s not why I write all this. Something else is at work here.
You see, I’ve just discovered that almost all of my historic characters in Call to Crusade are actually my cousins! HOW IN THE HELL CAN THAT HAPPEN?
TWO YEARS AGO I dreamed up Godric MacEuan as a Scottish boy and decided I wanted to use him to narrate the story of the First Crusade as his recollections. He would be one of that Crusade’s siege masters, a military engineer expert in the highest technology of his age, and eyewitness to all the important events of that epic saga. It hasn’t been done before—I know, I looked—and it’s a thrilling tale.
Well, the demands of a plot to make that work required substantial research, and no little effort to weave a plausible fictional thread through the real history. Only one man could get my Scottish lad to the one place in the world he could learn cutting-edge siege warfare in an age when all the castles in Europe were wooden, while those in the Holy Land were stone: Count Robert I the Frisian of Flanders, who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem via Constantinople a decade before the First Crusade’s start.
Two days ago, I discovered that Count Robert the Frisian is my 6th cousin, 27 times removed.
Fair enough. But Godric needed to be a knight and a noble to get the job, and that required a well-placed family patron. He could have been English, French or Flemish, but I had already decided Godric was Scottish, so the only suitable patrons were King Malcolm Canmore III and his wife, Saint Margaret of Scotland, whom I made his godparents.
And Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, is my 5th cousin, 27 times removed.
I gave Godric a privileged start amid Margaret’s royal children to give him a rare education and page’s training before I wrenched it away and replaced it with one that taught him iron- and woodwork so he could design and build novel siege engines. That also instilled a little egalitarian leavening to placate my Swabian peasant ancestors. I am, after all, American because my father’s ancestors became so tired of the leadership flaws in my mother’s ancestors that they gave up and left Europe in disgust to come to America where merit ruled, and started afresh, re-leveling the playing field in the process.
All of Queen Margaret’s children—Edward, Edith and Mary, and their siblings who will become the monarchs of Scotland and England— are also my 6th cousins, 26 times removed.
Well enough, you say—interesting, but coincidence. Perhaps, but there is more.
Call to Crusade sets the stage for the First Crusade, introducing the historic characters who began it, and relating the events leading to it, and the reasons why and how it came to pass. I published it in February 2014, and you can read it in print and e-book form if you are so inclined.
I am presently two-thirds through drafting its sequel, entitled March to Nicaea, which continues events from the end of Call through Pope Urban’s exhortation to rescue Eastern Christendom and the Holy Land from the Infidel, and the Crusaders’ efforts to do that with the Siege of Nicaea and the Battle of Dorylaeum. And March to Nicaea stars the princes who led the Crusading armies:
- Count Robert II of Flanders, my 7th cousin, 26 times removed
- Duke Robert of Normandy, my 7th cousin, 26 times removed
- Count Stephen of Blois, my 7th cousin, 26 times removed
- Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, step-son to my 3rd cousin, 27 times removed
Even a villain of the book, King William II Rufus of England, is my 7th cousin, 26 times removed.
To paraphrase my English cousins, I am gob-smacked.
I set out to write an interesting book series about an important and thrilling chapter of world history. Without any foreknowledge, or even suspicion, I craft my tale using real people who all turn out to be members of my family. MY grandfather throws Islam out of France, and my cousins regain Jerusalem for a century. HOW THE HELL CAN THAT HAPPEN?
One thing I now understand. When I published Call, I gave it the marketing tagline: “The book is fiction, but the story is true.” By that I meant that the core of the story and many of the people and events are real, actual history—my author’s notes make clear what is fiction and what is not. But now I’m wondering what larger forces are at work here. I DO NOT believe in reincarnation, so I don’t expect to find I am Count Robert reborn. But now, when I see a battlefield in my mind’s eye —before, during and after battle—I’ve got to wonder:
Am I writing this from imagination, or some form of actual ancestral memory?
I don’t know. Perhaps in time I’ll find out. I do know this. Whether this earns me my own personal fatwa or not, I have to keep going.