Bissons in battle

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Mike Bisson looks back at the role played by some of his (alleged) ancestors in conflicts of the past

Names are all important in family history research. Who were our grandparents and great-grandparents? And having identified our immediate ancestors, what were the names of those in preceding generations? How far back can we go and how many dozens, hundreds or thousands of our ancestors can we put a name to?

But quantity is not everything, and eventually the quest widens. What did our great-grandparents do, how did they live, where did they live? It also becomes interesting to tie our ancestors to a particular event (or events in history). As far as Jerseymen are concerned it is immensely satisfying to discover that they played a part in the Battle of Jersey, for example.

I can tick that box, but I can also identify several probable ancestors (nothing is certain that far back) who took part in the Battle of Hastings. And although, despite an accident of birth, I consider myself a true Jerseyman, able to trace my family roots back through many generations and more than a thousand years in the island, I am quite contented to know that I had probable ancestors on both sides of the battle which was one of the most important events (if not the most important) in the history of that country across the channel with which our tiny island has since been inextricably linked. But I can also point to Bisson ancestors who took part in some of the other major British and European battles of history. And if you throw in Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun, the odd Roman Emperor or two, Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) to most of us, then there was probably a Bisson ancestor on the world stage at most times in recorded history.

Battle of Jersey

Of course, I can’t prove it, but it is all possible. And if we start with the Battle of Jersey, then no lesser a body than the Jersey Archive indentified a Bisson ancestor's role in that brief but important conflict when they researched the family history of my brother for part of their own version of the Who do You Think you Are? series a couple of years back.

Now you might think that brother John being, at the time, chairman of Appelby, the law firm which is a major Archive sponsor, they might have discovered that our joint ancestor played a key role (alongside Major Pierson) in resisting the French invasion, but sadly it was not quite as dramatic as that.

Nicolas Hamptonne was our 4x great-grandfather and he is mentioned in the States minutes of the year 1806 as seeking reparations for an injury sustained in his right leg on the night of 6 and 7 January 1781. It appears that Nicolas was helping move a cannon from the Battery of Elizabeth Castle to a vessel that was going to be patrolling the waters of Jersey for any enemy movement when his right leg was injured by a lever.

Apparently the injury continued to affect him through his life but it was 25 years before he submitted a claim on the basis that at the age of 68 the pain meant that he could not earn enough to look after himself.

Battle of Hastings

The Bisson ancestors’ involvement in the Battle of Hastings was a lot more dramatic. Well it had to be when you consider that one Guillaume Le Conquereur is quite probably a direct ancestor – my 27th to 31st great-grandfather depending on which line is followed. Impressed? Well there’s no need to be because most people who can trace their ancestry back multiple generations through Jersey families will probably also reach William I of England, as Guillaume is also known.

On the other side of the battlefield, King Harold of arrow-in-the-eye fame appeared in my family tree for a long time as my 1st cousin between 31 and 35 times removed, and then as my many times great uncle. Further research revealed, however, that he could have been my 30x great-grandfather, so I really was in charge on both sides at Hastings.

Now every man and his brother alive in Normandy in 1066 is credited somewhere with having accompanied William the Conqueror on his invasion fleet. They can’t all have been, but there must have been more than the 13 or so who some historians suggest are the only proven Companions of William.

I seem to be descended from most of the Norman army at Hastings, including Roger de Montgomery, who provided 60 ships for the invasion fleet and then commanded a wing of William’s army, and William Malet, who allegedly buried Harold’s body when the fighting was over.

It seems quite probable that Onfroi, Mauger and Roger de Carteret, three sons of Godefroi, who was born in Carteret around the year 1000, were at Hastings, but even allowing for the inaccuracy of birth dates for those living a millennium ago, it seems unlikely that teenagers Hugh de Beauchamp, William de Braose, Robert de Stuteville, eight-year-old Ralph de Mortimer and babe in arms Robert de Beaumont played any part. Some of the warfaring Bisson ancestors suffered much worse fates than did Nicolas Hamptonne on the eve of the Battle of Jersey. William Peverell and Henry de Bohun were taken prisoner at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, although William de Warenne was on the winning side.

Rollo's cousin

Viking warrior Olaf II of Norway, who converted to Christianity at Rouen then went home to die at the age of 35 at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Another King of Normandy, Harold Halfdansson, a second cousin of Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, was more successful at the Battle of Halrsfjord in 885.

Hugh Le Despenser was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 but his son of the same name survived the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, only to lose his head 11 years later after falling out with the powers that were. John de Grey was also at Bannockburn

Battle of the Standard

There were any number of Bisson ancestors at the Battle of the Standard in 1138, including King David I of Scotland, the aforementioned William Peverell, Robert de Ferrieres, Robert de Stuteville and Bernard de Balliol.

We were represented at Crecy in 1346 by Roger de Mortimer and Sir John de Willoughby, whose son, also John, was at the Battle of Poitiers, and at Agincourt by my 17x great-grandfather Thomas de Camoys who commanded the left wing of the English Army.

Charlemagne

Now, bearing in mind that everyone of European descent alive today is said to have been descended from Charlemagne, you will be pleased to hear that his grandfather Charles Martel defeated the Spanish muslim invaders at Tours in 732, and Martel’s father Pepin d’Heristal won the Battle of Tertry 45 years earlier.

Not so successful was Prince Sviatopolk II of Kiev, who lost at Stugna River in 1097. His 2x great-grandfather Sviatislav seems to have been perpetually at war some 150 years earlier, as was Atilla the Hun, for whom life seems to have been one long battle after his birth around 400.

Perhaps its best not to mention the activities of various Irish kings, Welsh princes, Roman emperors and the belligerent Queen Boudicca, and certainly not Genghis Khan, but if you believe what experts in Medieval and earlier genealogy tell us, you will see that the Bissons and other Jersey families who can trace their ancestry back to Normandy appear perpetually to have been at war from the dawn of history, a tradition continued with honour when my mother served in the WAAF in the last global conflict and was involved in the Battle of Britain, although at RAF Headquarters, not up in the air.

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