Saturday, July 22, 2023

Gathering the Bones, XXIX: Sons and Daughters


A little something for a lazy Saturday afternoon, before we get back to exploring the dark and stagnant depths of the Eisenhower Administration. (I honestly had no idea! How that man must have been eaten by imposter's syndrome . . . ). The first image is of Bonnie Prince Charlie raising the standard before the Men of Mordaunt. The second, probably instantly recognisable to people just a bit older than me, is Tom Jones the singer, as opposed to Tom Jones the Foundling. 

It's about my theory that the novel is a comment on the whole "warming pan baby" scandal, and specifically a reference to a theory that people had at the time that the baby, the future Old Pretender, James III, father of Charles Edward, was actually the son of James II's younger daughter, Anne. It's a theory that explains a great deal that is anomalous about the 1688--1714 period, the only drawback being that I have yet to find a contemporary spelling it out in any more detail than knowing nods to Anne's whereabouts over the previous few months. (She was in seclusion in Bath for some time for health reasons, then went to assist her step-mother, Mary of Modena, in the birth. Then, of course, she went on to have multiple miscarriages with her husband, like an Rh-mismatched pair, a condition that contemporaries perhaps already understood required a successful pregnancy, even if they did not know that the reason was that the mother needs to develop antibodies by exposure to the baby's blood, which normally does not happen before delivery. See? See?) But I am only putting these two up here for the thumbnail, because this post is taking off from Samuel, Sieur de Champlain. 

Samuel Champlain was born of non-noble parents in a town in southwestern France, and was never ennobled, so should not be referred to as the Sieur de Champlain, as contemporaries began to do as early as his twenties. From this, the obscurities of his birth, the absolute rocket of patronage his family rode from his youngest years, and the residence of the young Henri IV in the region at the time of Champlain's birth, one might infer that Champlain was the illegitimate son of the notoriously gallant Bourbon princeling even if Champlain had not indirectly admitted it in an aside. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography rehearses the theory with, I  think, more skepticism than is warranted. 

The interesting thing here is the national divide. Noblemen have illegitimate children in every nation. Acknowledged ones, like the Duke of Monmouth, may be acknowledged generally. But when it comes to individuals where even the strongest claim can be made, but with some tincture of doubt, we find the biographer recoiling in horror from British cases while being intrigued by French cases. Ooh la la! Thus Arthur St. Clair, in spite of being acknowledged as a bastard of the noble house of St. Clair/Sinclair by the editor of his letters on the basis of Eighteenth Century accounts, is assigned middle-class parents by the Dictionary of American Biography following a Nineteenth Century family history,a nd the extraordinary case of the Howe brothers is left for me to stumble over this year. It's not even a secret, just something that We Don't Talk About. (Understandably, to be fair.)

So: The question here, is who else? Let's speculate!

--Christopher Columbus had a remarkable ability to attract patronage in his lifetime for a  man whose family shunned the high life of Genoa in his youth and made their way to Savona. You know who else passed his youth in Savona at the same time? Giuliano della Rovere, better known as Pope Julius II, "the Fearsome." Pope Julius, the father most famously of Madonna Felice, was not one to let clerical celibacy get in the way of a good time. He was too young to be Christopher Columbus' father, but Christopher's sister, Bianchinetta, is perhaps more an obscured than an obscure figure, and there is a nephew, not one of the offspring of Ferdinand or Diego, placed in a prominent position in the expedition of 1494, the one for which the Treaty of Tordesilla prepared the way.  Giuiliano delle Rovere was still only a cardinal at the time, but Pope Alexander owed the della Rovere interest, and of course the Spanish cause was in the ascendance in that year as the Gran Capitan tore through Naples.

--Kiliaen van Rensselaer (1586[?]--1643[?]) was an "Amsterdam diamond and pearl merchant" and founding director of the Dutch West Indies Company. Family biographies utterly butcher the mans' antecedents, Wikipedia inventing something called the "States army of the Duke of Upper Saxony" for his father to serve in. American historians who should know better find the idea that the old Dutch Republic could have had a Jonkheer ("Junker") class inconceivable, and might benefit from reading Henk van Nierop. All of this attention is due to the fact that van Rensselaer took alacritous advantage of an initiative establishing "patroonships" in the territory of the WIC to create the "Manor of Rensselaerswyck" around Albany, New York, in 1630. Whereas the story of this sort of feudal experiment in America is usually told as complete and inevitable failure, the Manor was still making its holder one of the richest men in America when its provisions were set aside after the Anti-Rent War. Without getting into the details of that, the Manor was  defined as a strip twenty-four miles deep on either side of the Hudson River from Barren Island to the mouth of the Mohawk, four Dutch miles as the surveyor understood this distance to be, in fact 22.5 English miles and a whopping thousand square miles of New York, and possibly Connecticut, with Albany cut out of the heart of it by the laws developed in the Netherlands to facilitate the creation of urban fortresses. No-one ever pressed the full extent of the Manor to the limits of its patent in the first instance because even in 1843 there were not enough people in New York to inhabit the whole of it, and second because the Schuyler Fats were informally cut free of the Manor at an early date. 

That the Manor was so successful when so many others were not, is often said to be down to the first Patroon's active management. In spite of never travelling to North America, Kiliaen showed an intimate familiarity with the region in many letters, and was often a more farsighted manager than the deputies he appointed to govern for him on the spot.  Kiliaen cleared the Mohican and Mohawk claims to the land, establishing good relations with both communities, and oversaw the despatch of a significant number of European farmers and African slaves, if by no means the "hundreds" traditionally described. Even at the end of the next century the Manor's population was still only of the order of 3000 households or so. 

So who was this extraordinary person? At one level, the name says it all: He was the Jonkheer of Rensselaer, a mediatised Imperial Knight. Unfortunately, no fief of Rensselaer is known to have existed in old Holland, or, as the Reverend Maunsell van Rensselaer has it, Guelders. Eugene Scuyler visited Holland in 1879, long after the Dutch branch of the family had become extinct, and tells us that he discovered a Manor of Rensselaer "about three miles southeast of the village of Nykerk," but the site is now only a farm, and was identified as the Manor of Rensselaer by "the gables and weathercocks" of the old manor house, torn down before Schuyler's time, and much of his certainty derives from finds of Van Rensselaer arms on tombstones in churches throughout Guelders. 

An Almanach des Gothas entry this ain't. Now, there's not the slightest doubt that the House of Van Rensselaer existed, was noble, and had at least three generations before Kiliaen, and the various family histories are agreed that Kiliaen was the son of Hendrick van Rensselaer, a captain in the States army, who died at the siege of Ostend in 1602. At the same time, as the Wikipedia article and everyone else says, "[M]uch of Van Rensselaer's early life is unknown," up to, and including, his precise dates of birth and death. This is hardly unknown in the era, but we should understand that it is binary case. We either have very complete records, because the baptismal certificate survives in a parish church, or we have no details at all, because the parish records were lost before their centralisation in national archives in the Nineteenth Century. 

Or, of course, the baptismal certificate was not deposited, because it was irregular. It would very much help if the original manor house still stood, or we could localise "Rensselaer." The name does not, pace Reverend Van Rensselaer, mean "Deer's Lair." "Reen" is offered as an alternative to "roe deer," and I suppose we can get something like "Laer" by being colloquial and folksy enough with "Laag/Laager," but Dutch usage makes little of "Rens-" as opposed to "Rans-" which has many exciting, but few respectable meanings, the best one can make of it being something like "Ransomee." The family historians are reticent, and Kiliaen actually appears in history first as the apprentice to a more substantial uncle, Wolfert van Biljer, a family origin that would have put him in sympathy with Eastern Woodland family law. It is prior to his apprenticeship that there are holes in Kiliaen's biography where we can plausibly find his sojourn in America. Look, I'm not saying that he was the son of some comely Mohegan princess by an early Dutch Hudson trader related to Van Bilger, but it seems like that's the way to bet. 

The French cover? At first glance the story of Pocahontas isn't as romantic as it is made out to be. She shows up twice, saving John Smith's life, and then marrying, not Smith, but some nonentity named John Rolfe. 

Except that everyone calls Rolfe a "London merchant," but he was born in 1585, which also makes Rolfe and Pocahontas much more age compatible than the modern counter-legend implies. Rolfe was 22 when Jamestown was founded, 29 when he married Pocahontas, and only 37 when he followed his wife into the grave. This seems a little young to be involved in whatever skullduggery was required to extract the ancestors of Virginia broadleaf from Spanish America and establish it on Tidewater. His biographers now establish that the respectable bourgeois parents the Nineteenth Century found for him cannot have been his. We are left, again, with no birth records in the national archives for one of the same three reasons as in the cases of de Champlain and Van Rensselaer. I haven't a clue who might have been the natural father who stood behind Rolfe, although Walter Raleigh would seem to fit the bill. Any other suggestions?  


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