Robert the Devil, a Norman duke of yore, probably was not one of my direct ancestors. But our families were close, and his castle ruins are visible from the river Seine, between Paris and the Atlantic beaches of Normandy. In March, from the new, 128-passenger riverboat Avalon Tapestry II, my wife and I set off on a private excursion so we could check out the castle and my ancient homeland near Rouen, France.
Records show and a recent DNA sample of mine tends to support family lore that we were among the Viking hordes that left Denmark in the ninth century to settle in what became known as Normandy. When Robert the Devil’s son, William the Conqueror, launched the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, my family joined him in battle and was granted land near Liverpool. They moved forever from the Norman village now known as Moulineaux, France, where my ancestors had operated a water mill (moulins a eau), supplying flour to the victorious army.
What great fun it is to wander about the past, especially if a castle is involved; Europe has plenty of those.
Thanks to new research into family paths and information now available online, opportunities to explore ancestry and origins never have been more rewarding. Today, we have access to records of government and religious institutions, steamship manifests, census surveys, and in some cases even faded photographs that can be digitally enhanced, revealing history in ways many of us never imagined were possible.
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For some people, even more exciting is the DNA testing that can reveal wanderings and connections of distant relatives over thousands of years, including families whose recorded histories have been erased in disasters both natural and the tragedies of man’s inhumanities to man.
With information provided by organizations doing DNA testing (I joined National Geographic’s terrific Genographic Project now totaling more than 700,000 people) and background research by such websites as ancestors.com and 23andme.com, interest in searching for past family members, their paths and their life stories is growing steadily.
The Internet may provide factual information or at least hints, but often a visit to city museums, courthouses and places of worship can add exciting details, such as what I have found at port stops on ocean and river voyages.
Shipping records in ports of the Netherlands revealed the ocean liner on which my mother’s German family sailed across the Atlantic more than 100 years ago.
From the cruise port of Liverpool, England, a hired guide located court records of my great-great-great-great grandfather Molyneaux. His marriage certificate was in Warrington, England, on the banks of the River Mersey where he was a sailcloth maker before he was kidnapped into the British Navy in the late 1700s, jumping ship in the Chesapeake Bay. (Yes, the Molyneauxs in my branch of the family sneaked into the United States.)
In far north Queensland, Australia, museum documents included a distant cousin, Robert Molyneaux, who was ship’s master on Captain Cook’s Endeavour in 1770. It was a thrill to walk on the same land.
Though my Molyneaux family left the village of Moulineaux about 950 years ago, curiosity about the preserved castle remains led me to the local stories about Robert the Devil.
My wife and I were cruising out of Paris on the Avalon Tapestry II, catching views of historic towns, cities and countryside from the innovative cabins that set the bed facing floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open to the outdoors up to seven feet across.
Knowing the vessel would stop for a few hours in Rouen, I asked the cruise director to help me find a car and driver. We set out for Moulineaux, rejoining the riverboat at a later stop farther down the Seine. (We paid the driver about $200 for three hours.)
Though the driver spoke little English — he carried a cellphone with an app that would translate our simple conversations — we got along easily, stopping at the Moulineaux town hall for a map and local history book (in French). Turns out, all that’s left as a reminder of my ancestors is the name of the town.
We drove up to the castle for a slow, casual walk around the ragged, cold stone ruins. Markers written for visitors play up the villainous references of sadistic cruelty by Robert the Devil, which may be true or a case of mistaken identity, as history is not clear. One book on Norman history refers to the duke as Robert the Magnificent, perhaps as a result of an early, successful public relations effort.
For me, for now, the thesis is that the man who led my family in the Norman Conquest was the son of Robert the Devil. That’s another piece of my written Molyneaux family history that my grandchildren might appreciate when they round that magic age 60 or 70 and begin to wonder where they came from, how they traveled through the ages, and with whom.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com