Many people descend from either royalty or nobility. Of course, figuring out if you’re one of those people, and how you connect, is the challenge. Ancestors who have been proven to connect to royalty or nobility, often across the pond, are known as gateway ancestors.
Back in 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop, in a paper in Nature, showed that almost all Europeans are descended from the same ancestors. In essence, everyone who lived in the ninth century and left any descendants is the ancestor of almost every living person with European heritage today. That includes Charlemagne and many noble or royal families who collectively have millions of descendants.
Before we talk more about how to find and identify gateway ancestors, let me tell you about the Vernoe/de Vernon family who lived in Vernon, France in the 1000s and 1100s. If you recall, in 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy became the English King following the Battle of Hastings. Many of the French nobles, especially from Normandy, subsequently became the new noble class of England. England and France are inextricably connected.
William de Vernon, or, “of Vernon,” (born circa 1021 – died before 1089,) lived in Vernon and had his children baptized in the local Catholic Church, the Collégiale Notre-Dame de Vernon, dedicated in 1072 to “the Holy Mother of God.” William’s sons fought with William the Conqueror, and I descend from two of his children, Adela and Richard.
I recently returned from a trip to France where I was fortunate enough to visit the churches where some of my noble families were baptized, worshipped, or were buried.
I was very excited to visit Vernon, a beautiful, quaint village in Normandy on the Seine River which was the main “road” of western France. Come along with me!
We’re visiting the medieval church in Vernon, but many of the churches in the villages scattered throughout Europe hail from this period and have many of the same characteristics.
This glorious Gothic church stands sentry just up the street a block or so from the banks of the Seine.
Being able to literally walk in my ancestor’s footsteps was incredibly moving, as was sitting in the church where they sat, or stood, depending on their status.
The incredibly beautiful Gothic church beckons parishioners and visitors alike.
If you’re fortunate and time your arrival correctly, you may hear the church bells summoning worshipers, just like they did all those generations ago. I was extremely lucky.
Close your eyes, and you can hear the local peasants and nobility alike, hurrying along the cobblestone streets to services.
The church may be open, or a service may be getting ready to commence, and you can join in, just as your ancestors did.
These historic structures have withstood the ravages of time, and the passageways remind us of those who walked these steps hundreds of years ago. Their descendants still climb them today.
Much of the stained glass is original, at least for the churches that escaped both fire and the bombings of WWII.
While most of the churches remain Catholic, everyone is welcome to light a candle for goodwill and say a prayer, if you’re so inclined. I like to participate in the customs that my ancestors did. It connects me to them in a spiritual way. Often the side chapels have candles burning on altars, with the flames flickering beautifully, harkening back to distant times.
The small donation for the candle contributes to the maintenance of the church.
Fonts, holding holy water, and piscinas are in evidence throughout the church, especially in the little side chapels and near the doors.
Piscinas are usually shallow basins or decorative divots in the wall used for washing communion vessels or disposing of holy water or consecrated sacramental wine. There is a hole in the bottom allowing the liquid to drain into the earth inside the sheltering walls of the church, so that the sacred liquids remain in consecrated ground.
The church was always located in the center of the town, as it was the center of the life of the residents. Baptisms, marriages, communion, confessions, and funerals all took place there, as did regular sermons, given in Latin by the priest, encouraging their flock to remain true to the tenets of the Catholic faith.
Small streets, sometimes only a few feet wide, separated the neighboring houses from the church.
Many of the beautiful Medieval half-timbered buildings still stand, especially in the small villages like Vernon. The street in front of the church leads uphill to the remains of the castle, including the keep.
If your ancestor lived here, they walked these uneven cobblestone streets and were very likely in these very buildings, although some structures, like the castle, are in ruins today.
This is known as Philippe Auguste’s Keep. He was the King of France from 1180-1223. The French Kings prior to Philippe were known as the kings of the Franks.
We could see the castle and walls from a distance, but we had difficulty finding it among the maze of ancient streets, some of which are closed to through traffic today because they aren’t wide enough for vehicles or because modern buildings have been built across some ancient pathways.
The land along the old city wall has been reclaimed for vineyards, along with their ever-present roses that alert vinedressers to the presence of pests. Much like the canary in the coal mine.
I’m sure that at the time my ancestors lived there, all homes were within the protective city walls, and the hillsides were lush with vineyards. Wine was much safer to drink than water which could easily be contaminated by either animals or humans, delivering dysentery and cholera.
Many times, you’ll find portions of the old city wall built into or closely adjacent current structures. In some locations, the old walls are incorporated into the interior of contemporary buildings. This practice isn’t unusual, but normal in Roman-age Medieval towns and cities.
The walls were defensive, of course. Notice how thick the walls were, some as much as 10 feet thick.
Portions of old city walls or remains of historically significant buildings may simply be free-standing, part of the everyday life of the current residents, many of whom are probably related to the people who lived here hundreds of years ago.
History is in evidence everywhere!
Today, pillars of the old medieval bridge crossing the Seine remain. Historically, bridges were difficult to build across large expanses of water, so Vernon was strategically important, in part because it had a bridge.
The old mill remains perched upon the first piling that connects the bridge to the land across the river from Vernon, very close to Monet’s famous gardens. A newer castle is mostly hidden behind the trees, with the white limestone cliffs soaring above the Seine.
Vernon today, viewed from the Seine waterway at the approximate location of the old medieval bridge near the old mill. The church can be seen at left, and the castle keep, at right, with the flags flying on top.
Controlling passage across the river and defending the village from invaders arriving on the river were priorities.
Whoever controlled the rivers controlled access to everything, ruled the people, and controlled the economy.
Finding a Gateway Ancestor
How do you find a noble or royal link, and how do you know that your connection is accurate?
In my case, my Muncy (Munsy, Munsey) line out of Lee County, Virginia, and Claiborne County, Tennessee, works its way back in time to Sarah Ludlow.
Sarah Ludlow’s father is a gateway ancestor – meaning the first ancestor to immigrate whose lineage is documented to descend from royal or noble lines.
As you can see, Sarah’s line quickly connects with Edith de Windsor, of the House of Windsor. Yes, this is the lineage of Queen Elizabeth II as well as the current King Charles III. The good news is that once you’ve connected, there are many well-documented resources for noble lines.
In this case, I’m using WikiTree to view the direct relationship between Edith (de) Windsor and William (de) Vernon.
You, of course, are responsible for doing the research to connect back to the gateway ancestor(s) whom others have connected back further in line.
In order to connect with a peerage line of some sort, you generally need to work your proven genealogy back several generations. In the US, this normally means into the 1600s or early 1700s.
I caution skepticism about personal online trees. You might want to use those as hints, but copy/paste is far too easy, so don’t. You never really know what the other person did, unless you know them and they are an expert. The good news is that genealogists have several good resources available.
Noble Lineage Resources
There are several resources available to identify or connect with gateway ancestors and noble lineages.
- WikiTree Gateway Ancestors
- WikiTree Magna Carta Surety Barons
- The Peerage
- Baronal Order of the Magna Carta includes Crusaders and Templar Knights
- New England Gateway Ancestors with Proven Royal Descent
- National Society of Saints and Sinners, including disqualified gateway ancestors
- Leo van de Pas’ Genealogics Website
It’s always wonderful when you find a noble or notable connection because it often means the work has been done for you – although – as always, verify.
Research and Reference Books
- Pedigrees of Some of the Emperor Charlemagne’s Descendants Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3
- Ancestral Roots of Certain Early American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700
- Magna Carta Sureties
- Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints
American Ancestors has a nice selection too, including these collections:
Of course, I had to check to see if the Y-DNA of the Vernon family line is represented, and lucky for me, it is.
The Varner DNA Project includes the surname Vernon, and the volunteer administrators have created a James Vernon (born circa 1616 in England) subgroup.
Using that information, plus the other earliest known ancestors, we can determine that this lineage represents the de Vernon family of Vernon, France with haplogroup J-FT118973. Thanks to Y-DNA matching, men today can figure out how they fit into this family.
Using the FamilyTreeDNA Discover tool, we learn that this haplogroup was formed about the year 1569, so well after the lineage was established in England.
The Ancient Connections tell us that other men whose haplogroups are related to the Vernon haplogroup are found in:
- Albania and Serbia, and share a common ancestor about 1350 BCE (or about 3350 years ago) in the Bronze Age
- Montenegro, Yorkshire (England,) and Hungary about 1500 BCE
- Rome, Montenegro, Croatia, and Lower Saxony (Germany,) twice, about 1950 BCE.
Looking at these locations on a map, it appears that the Vernon haplogroup, which of course wouldn’t adopt the Vernon surname for another two thousand years, appear to have migrated along the Mediterranean coastline, then perhaps either worked their way into Germany and England, or followed the coastline all the way around Spain. The new Globetrekker tool which will be released from FamilyTreeDNA soon (you didn’t hear that from me), will provide a LOT more specific information.
Of course, we’ll never be able to follow the paper trail or even historical genealogy much beyond William de Vernon who would have been called by the place name where he lived, which morphed into his surname. However, using his descendants’ Y-DNA haplogroup, available as a result of the Big Y-700 test, we can reach MUCH further back in time, unveiling the distant past of the Vernon male ancestors.
Who are your gateway, noble, and royal ancestors? What can you discover?
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