Thursday, January 24, 2019

My Welsh Connection

When I first decided to write a historical romance, I instantly knew where it was going to be set—Wales. My love of this intriguing little Celtic country was sparked by two books:  Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave (the first of her Arthurian series) and Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. I was enthralled by the way these authors captured the ancient mystical allure of Wales, its dramatically beautiful landscape and fiercely independent people. 

As a result of my affinity for Wales, my first book, The Dragon of the Island, featured a historical Welsh king named Maelgwn the Great. Since then I’ve written six other books that have a some connection to the country, including the  medieval romance I just finished. Something about the place inspires me and gets my mind spinning with stories.
I’ve visited Wales four times and often referred to it as my spiritual homeland. A few years ago one of my friends developed a ancestry chart for me that revealed I was descended from King Edward I. For a “Welsh-o-phile” like me, that was kind of unsettling, as Edward was famous for oppressing the Welsh...and the Scots (he’s the evil king in Braveheart).

Along with Edward, my chart features several other names I recognize from my research in the medieval era. I was especially intrigued by the listing of my 22nd great-grandmother as “Elen of Wales”. Since I’ve been getting back into genealogy lately, I decided to look her up on the internet. And there she was, Elen of Wales, the daughter of Llywelyn the Great, who is called Great because he came very close to uniting all of Wales and earning the country sovereignty in its own right. 
Llywelyn the Great statue in Conwy, North Wales

I was thrilled to find out I am related to the ultimate Welsh hero. Except….the date was wrong. The Elen of Wales on my chart lived too much later to be Llywelyn’s daughter. But I didn’t give up. Instead, I looked up her husband, and then her husband’s mother, and I found her. My Elen wasn’t Llywelyn’s daughter, she was his granddaughter.
For me, it’s sort of like hitting the genealogy jackpot. Although there is another (English) fly in the ointment. Elen is Llywelyn’s granddaughter by Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John, who was Edward I’s grandfather. So, in a sense, I am twice royal, although it also means I am related to two of the most sociopathic kings in European history. It’s kind of like finding out you’re related to Tywin and Joffrey Lannister in The Game of Thrones.
But the connection to Llywelyn the Great is worth it, as Llywelyn is pretty much the Ned Stark of Wales.  He’s also the main character in Penman’s Here Be Dragons. In the book, he’s not only a heroic figure, but a romantic hero, who loves his wife Joan so much that he forgives her even after she is unfaithful to him and mourns her deeply when she dies. Incidentally, the man she was unfaithful with, William de Braose, is the father of Isabella de Braose, who is the wife of Daffyd, Llywelyn the Great’s son, who is the father of my Elen of Wales. So, bizarrely, it would appear that I am descended from both Llywelyn and his wife’s lover. (Although he forgave Joan for her infidelity, Llywelyn had her lover William de Braose hanged. That must have been difficult for Isabella, to marry the son of her father’s executioner!)

We talk about a "small world" and "sixth degrees of separation", but it really was true in the medieval era, especially among the circles of the nobility. That was part of the reason the Church has such strict rules about who you could marry. The other thing to remember is that lots and lots of people alive today are related to the kings, queens and nobles of Europe. These powerful people had the resources to ensure their offspring survived.
I have another misgiving about my royal connections. John's father Henry II invaded Ireland and established a Norman-Anglo power base there that would result in England dominating and oppressing the Irish for nearly 800 years. Since my husband is more than half Irish genetically and 100% spiritually, my Plantagenet lineage (as Henry II's royal line is known) makes us blood enemies. Oh, and the main noble who invaded Richard de Clare II?  I'm related to him too. The only saving grace is that he was part Welsh. 
So, there's my Welsh connection. Maybe. I've found one link in the genealogy chain where not all the sources match. Who knows if I've related to Llywelyn or Edward or any of them. But it doesn't matter. My love of Wales is soul deep. I don't need genetic proof for it to be real. 
Dolwyddelan Castle, built by Llywelyn the Great