Royal reward of playing generations game

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Fortunately when I started I had been provided with information dating back to the early 19th century on a couple of family lines in Jersey, and using census records and with the assistance of an experienced researcher from La Societe Jersiaise I was soon heading further back in time using church records of baptisms, marriages and burials.

But if these records only go back to the 17th century in Jersey, how can research be taken back any further? The answer lies in the well documented records of several of the most prominent families in the island in medieval times. These families included the de Carteret’s of St Ouen’s Manor, the Dumaresqs of Samares and several other land-owning seigneurs and their families who made up the Island’s ruling classes and ‘aristocracy’.

As is true of other parts of the British Isles, France, Spain and other European countries, it is the history of royalty, nobility, aristocrats and other land owners which is much better documented than that of commoners.

From official documents relating to property transactions and other court proceedings, elections to public office, their wills and their own records retained down the generations, the lives and history of many families can be traced back generation by generation into the mists of time.

But what benefit is that to those of us with more humble backgrounds? My own Le Gros Bissons were humble farming stock from the borders of St Ouen and St Mary – a good match for the mill workers, shoe makers and publicans to be found in my mother’s family tree in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

It is interesting to note here that although my father’s ancestors styled themselves Bisson from the beginning of the 19th century, their ancestors can be traced back several hundred years as Le Gros Bissons. This was Jersey’s first double-barrelled surname, but it does not derive from a marriage between a Le Gros and a Bisson, in the style of many more recent double-barrelled names. It is more likely that there were two Bissons living close to each other, probably with the same given name, and to distinguish between them the larger of the two became known as ‘Le Gros’ Bisson, and the name stuck.

Rectors and other priests recording baptisms, marriages and burials, usually wrote down exactly what they were told (not always terribly accurately) and it was only when Le Gros Bisson children began to be baptised as plain Bisson in the late 18th century that the double-barrelled name started to die out. While I have distant cousins in Jersey and elsewhere in the world who have retained the prefix, the great majority of my family are known simply as Bisson. A shame that, but if confusion ever leads to a need to distinguish me from another Mike Bisson, I would probably be the one to be called Le Gros, despite efforts to lose those surplus kilogrammes.

As I say, the Le Gros Bissons were humble farmers for many hundreds of years, so what connections can I claim to more illustrious Jersey families? The answer lies in marriages, and is the best possible recommendation for pursuing both male and female lines when tracing one’s ancestors. So many researchers are content to track back along male lines, noting the names of wives and possibly their parents, but stopping short of following those parts of their family tree any further. Indeed, it is very common practice when recording family trees to truncate female lines in this way, even if more information is available to the researcher.

Fortunately I have been able to pursue female lines much further and in several cases the marriages of the Le Gros Bissons and their ancestors demonstrate links into one or more of the prominent Jersey families, including the de Carterets.

The latter are probably the best researched family in Jersey, justifiably so because they have played such a prominent part in the government of their Island over the centuries. The earliest known is Guillaume de Carteret, born around 960 AD in Carteret on the Normandy coast of France. His grandson Renaud, the first of several de Carterets to bear this name, was the first Seigneur of St Ouen’s Manor and his son Philippe was born there around 1090.

This family was one of several highly important Normandy families who were given land in Jersey to add to their Normandy holdings by the Duke of Normandy around the beginning of the second millennium.

If you can trace your ancestry to those who came from Normandy to Jersey, and it is possible, albeit with the considerable degrees of uncertainty which overshadow all genealogical research covering a period 1,000 years ago, then you can probably trace the line back further into true French nobility and royalty. For however well Jersey’s ruling classes may be documented in comparison with the ordinary tenant farmer, the lives of the French aristocracy in medieval times have been even better researched over the centuries by historians specialising in this period of history.

The same is also true of the history of English families both prior to and after the Battle of Hastings, when William Duke of Normandy, accompanied by many of his knights and their sons, including members of the de Carteret family whose descendants would settle in Jersey, took himself off to conquer England.

It is the marriages of female de Carterets, not to other Jersey families but to prominent Englishmen, which give many of us the opportunity to trace our early ancestors through the heavily researched families of medieval England. Two in particular stand out as providing the most valuable links to English aristocracy, nobility and royalty.

A Philippe de Carteret born in 1205 married Marguerite d’Aubigné, the niece of Phillippe d’Aubigné, who was sent by King John to take care of his interests in the Channel Islands and was effectively Jersey’s first governor. Marquerite’s immediate ancestry is a shade uncertain but she is undoubtedly descended from some of the most important families in post-Hastings England and ultimately to the Dukes of Normandy.

Not from the Duke, Guillaume le Conquerant, however, but if we start with another Philip de Carteret, born in Sark in 1552 and a direct descendant of Guillaume, as well as one of my direct ancestors, we discover that his wife, Rachel Paulett, was the daughter of a Bailiff of Jersey, Sir George Paulett, and niece of his brother Amias, who was a Governor of Jersey. Their ancestry goes all the way back to William I of England, Duc de Normandie, via some of his illustrious descendants down as far as Edward III.

So whenever I pass the statue of Guillaume Le Conquerant in the town square of his birthplace, Falaise, not far from where I now live, I reflect that if all the research in the years between 1024 and 1949 is correct, then he might, just might, be my 31x great-grandfather.

The statue of Guillaume Le Conquerant in the town square of his birthplace, Falaise

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