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  • Essay: On Intermarriage Among the Descendants of Charlemagne

    H.M. West Winter

    Published Date : June-August 1989
     In discussing the lively topic of “disappearing and crossbred ancestors”* NEXUS has so far only “gone back,” creating a model pedigree of 20 generations, doubling the number of ancestors in each generation, and then modifying this outer limit by assuming (as did Effilctus) that before our grandparents’ time one in four of our ancestors married a first cousin.

    In the December 1988 NEXUS, Erwin W. Fellows contributed the doubtless correct opinion of the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn that “anyone whose ancestry was Western European could say that Charlemagne was one of his ancestors with a 50% chance that he would be right.”

    These opinions have the virtue that they are immune to factual disproof: they are, however, supported by my own researches in medieval genealogy.  I take up this lively topic by “going forward.”  Since about 1935, I have been tracing the descendants of Charlemagne, adding to and correcting Dr. Erich Brandenburg’s monumental work, Die Nachkommen Karls des Grossen (1935), which, however, covered generations I-XIV only.

    Amazingly, Dr. Brandenburg’s compilation was the first attempt in the 1100 years since Charlemagne’s death to trace his descendants!  Dr. Brandenburg identified 2,840 (proven or likely) through the 14th generation.  But after publication of his book, interest in medieval genealogy increased, and learned societies, particularly in France, published a mass of monographs and archival and cartulary collections.  Basing my own research primarily on these, I have found another 2,435 descendants, bringing the presently known total for the first 14 generations to about 5,275.

    The generational breakdown of descendants is:

     II = 18       VII = 126+       XII = 826
     III = 20       VIII = 168  XIII = 1,247
     IV = 55       IX = 174  XIV = 1,696
     V = 56       X = 302  XV = 2,422
     VI = 63       XI = 511  XVI = 3,575

    From the above, it is obvious that the annual generational rate of increase during the first nine generations is far less than in the next seven.  The key to this is the word “found.”  There were, doubtless, many more descendants but, for several reasons, they simply have not been found. First, documents which identified them have not survived, a condition more pronounced during the earlier period.  Second, during the entire time, family names, or “surnames,” were not in use; but during the second period, at least, family relationships were more often stated in documents. Third, until about the year 1100, property (like office) was held of the sovereign by gift rather than by inheritance, so that during the later period, passage of title to property or office usually indicated blood relationship.  It is of course impossible to guess by how much the above totals would increase if all actual descendants were found, but based on the rate of increase during generations X - XVI, it is likely that generations II- IX would be increased geometrically by a factor of almost 50 percent.

    The increase in the number of individual descendants was, of course, reduced by intermarriages. How numerous were these between descendants of the first 16 generations?  I deduce that, despite the Holy See’s prohibition against consanguineous marriages (between persons having a common ancestor within seven degrees, reduced to four in 1215), they were far more common than conventionally supposed, and mostly without benefit of papal dispensation.  Thus, by the 17th generation most if not all descendants of Charlemagne had multiple lines.

    To illustrate this by means of the kings of England (through whom so many New Englanders trace their own lines of descent from Charlemagne), starting with William “The Conqueror,” each king had these -niany lines of descent from Charlemagne:

    William I (1066-1087) 1 descent

    Henry I (1100-1135) 19

    Stephen (1135-1154) 25

    Henry II (1154-1189) 28

    John (1199-1216) 50

    Henry III (1216-1272) 101

    Edward I (1274-1307) 230

    Edward II (1307-1327) 445

    Edward III (1327-1377) 1,601

    Edward “The Black Prince” (1330-1376) 3,132

    Anyone seeking details of individual lines may find them in my recently published Descendants of Charlemagne: Part I, Brandenburg Updated, Generations I-XIV, available in the NEHGS library.

    *See “On Progenitors and Population” in NEXUS 4(October 1987): 98, and a letter to the editor in NEXUS 5(December 1988): 215.  In addition to the above-mentioned study of the descendants of Charlemagne, H. M. West Winter is time author of several detailed monographs on English and Canadian families (Man(n), Durford, Chiffinch, Hawtayne, West, Saint Lo, Magill and Dunscomb) in the Society's manuscript collection.  Mr. Winter lives in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

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