The Grandfather Effect

As I worked on this month’s lost kingdom, my mind wondered on to the grandfather effect. There is this trend for the dynastic founder to be the grandfather of the first great king. This is not to say that the grandfather wasn’t an important king in his own time, but he could have easily become an intruder in the status quo which returns as soon as he falls. The real success of a king is whether or not he can pass the kingdom peacefully on to his heir. Perhaps most importantly the grandfather defines the nobles of the great king — his brothers and first cousins — and his potential heirs. Sons are not always the heir of a great king; it may be his brother or cousin, but the dynasty endures and his sons or grandsons depending on the local system are eligible heirs of his successor, if they don’t directly succeed.

In time the grandfather becomes a figure of legend and must be puffed up to make him a suitable founder for the great dynasty built primarily by the grandson. So we hear in the Historia Brittonum particularly that Ida of Bernicia once ruled the left side of Britain (ie also Deira) or that Octha of Kent was the son of Hengest who was the first in Britain. Bede tells us that Wuffa was the founder of Raedwald’s dynasty and although some have contended that Anna and his brothers were unlikely first cousins of Raedwald, all sources claim Anna was the great grandson of Wuffa. There is no confusion as there is among the genealogical sources for Cynegils of Wessex; his pedigree is a mess. The sources can’t even agree on Cynegils father. As usual Mercia is an exception. It is clear that Penda was the effective founder of Mercia but Icel is considered the founder (but where is the source?). Icel can’t be explained by later kings needing to be traced to a common ancester since all the later kings trace thier descent to Penda’s father Pybba. (Does anyone know where the Icel is first named as a dynastic founder? I have a feeling that it may be an early Anglo-Saxonist!)

Here is a partial list of the dynastic founders and their more impressive grandsons:

Ida grandfather of Æthelfrith — Idling dynasty (Bede V.24, HB)

Oeric Oisc grandfather of Eormanric father of Ætelberht of Kent – Oiscing dynasty (Bede II.5)

Wuffa grandfather of Raedwald of East Anglia – Wuffing dynasty (Bede II.15, HB)

Cunedda grandfather of Cadwallon Long arm father of Maelgwn Gwynedd  – dynasty of Cunedda (Historia Brittonum)

Charles Martel grandfather of Charlemagne — Carolingians

Well, two dynasties have great grandsons as who we recognize as the first great king, though we don’t know much about their fathers. Cadwallon Long Arm is credited with uniting the core of Gwynedd, probably securing all of Angelsey and oddly removing all the Irish. The Irish in 5th century Wales are a fascinating topic but one for a later day. Maelgwn appears to be the first to dominate his neighbors and create ‘greater Gwynedd’ much of which was later annexed, not unlike Æthelfrith being the first to create a proto-Northumbria. Yet, there are hints that his father Cadwallon Long Arm was an important king. The other great grandson is Æthelberht of Kent, but we should recall that his father Eormenric was probably the first Kentish king of note (stripping out the Hengest legend) who married a Frankish princess. If Æthelberht came to the throne later than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims (as some historians believe), then his father may have have built a far greater kingdom. Indeed we have no idea how Æthelberht gained his extended hegemony given that no where is he credited with military success. It is quite possible that Eormanric was able to pass an extended hegemony to his son, perhaps with Frankish help. The only battle Æthelberht is mentioned in on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one in which Ceawlin and the men of Wessex drove Æthelberht into Kent and killed two ealdormen in 568. Most historians now believe that Æthelbert came to power after 568 (30 years before Augustine arrives). If this is a misplaced entry for a real battle, then it shows Æthelberht loosing to Wessex. I have always had the feeling that Æthelberht is parlaying hegemony won by someone else and bolstered by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Canterbury’s support of Kent’s hegemony is probably a direct result of his father Eormanric’s connections to the Franks in the previous generation and connections that continued with his son Eadbald, who married the daughter of a Mayor of the Palace. To take it one step further, Eormanric has a name that is common among the nobles of the Franks, so one wonders if the royal dynasty of Kent were not Frankish colonists.

I got a bit off topic here but my main point is that the declared founder is most often the figure that unites the heirs of a first major king who sets nobility for a century or so. In the time of the ‘founder’ no unbiased observer probably expected him to be the founder of a great dynasty, as much as they may have hoped.

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4 thoughts on “The Grandfather Effect

  1. I’d say Alfred the Great belongs on your list of Grandfathers- although his memory by far eclipses that of his grandson AEthelstan (is it AEthelstan) it was AEthelstan who actually achieve that with which Alfred is credited, ie, being King of all England.

  2. Though they’re both fabricated, and the line ultimately fails, Arthur and his grandfather Constantine probably fit this bill, too, since Constantine is brought over from Brittany to restart the British dynastic line (in Geoffrey of Monmouth anyway) after it dies out.

  3. I’m watching Barbarians II: The Franks on cable at the moment and it occurs to me that Merovech grandfather of Clovis is a good example of the grandfather effect. Merovech is considered the founder of the Merovingian kings, but Clovis is the real maker of “the Franks”.

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