Ancestors — A Hidden Hand in Play

My family originated the Anglo-Irish schism

Simon Heathcote
6 min readNov 11, 2023
Photo by Paweł Furman on Unsplash

‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Henry 11

Fifty years ago, when I had just started high school, I was given a copy of The Plantagenets, a sumptuous look at the warrior kings and queens who forged England.

Something in it stirred my blood and it rocketed my flagging 11-year-old history student from last in the term at my new school to first in the end of year exam.

I had no clue back then I was reading about my own bloodline or that I was a direct descendant of Henry 11. But such things are not as uncommon as you might think.

It was only in the past year that I discovered my real name is Purcell, from the Norman knights sent to Ireland in the 12th Century as a direct consequence of one of the most famous murders in British history.

I had to connect with my half-brother Adrian to get that piece of information, but until 2018 had no idea of his existence, or that he was a lecturer in mathematical philosophy at Sydney University who had done the hard work of tracking our shared paternal lineage with typical scientific rigor.

In the past 12 months or so he discovered the name of our paternal grandfather, Patrick Purcell, and of his direct descent from Sir Walter Purcell, who first went to Ireland in 1185 with Prince John, before his son Sir Hugh Purcell, became first Baron of Loughmoe in Tipperary.

My own interest in ancestry was sometimes half-hearted, my interests more spiritual, although I was of course curious to discover my Irish grandfather had died aged 53, as did my father, whom I barely knew, almost exactly nine months before my father’s birth.

It seems Adrian solved one mystery only to unearth another. His namesake, Pope Adrian 1V, illegally handed Ireland to Henry 11 in 1155.

But how and why did Patrick die at such a young age and what is the connection with our father’s birth? These questions remain unanswered.

Illegitimate children abound of course and although early reports suggested our direct ancestor was Richard the Lionheart, Henry 11’s son, something about that never smelled quite right as although he shared a birthday — September 8 — with both my parents, he was almost certainly homosexual.

But this week, during a rather desultory search online, I discovered three separate sources stating Sir Hugh Purcell’s mother was an illegitimate daughter of Henry 11 and sister to King John of Robin Hood fame, brother of Richard.

Manuscripts in both the British Museum and the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin assert this claim as fact, even though it may have only travelled by word of mouth. Another source claims Sir Walter married one of Henry’s offspring although her name has faded into history as illegitimacy often does.

Why does any of this matter? In one sense, it doesn’t, yet there is something about rootedness and knowledge of where we come from that does.

We need to know our place on the Earth; it helps us reach the Heavens, as well as providing needed psychological scaffolding for our journey here.

It also helps contextualize our lives and reveals we are a single knot on a thread that makes us one with those who came before. Nobody stands alone, even if they feel isolated and bereft.

I first started looking at genealogy websites just before I met Adrian and soon discovered that everyone wants to be linked to someone famous (although I remain unsure about being tied to a gang of serious English bullies), and was surprised to learn the stigma of illegitimacy remains; one has to approach others with care.

Who wants to find out their father had an affair and produced further offspring, after all, as in our own case?

The murder I mentioned earlier was of Thomas Becket, famously struck down on December 29, 1170, inside Canterbury Cathedral by four Norman knights who had heard the King, once close friend of Thomas, ask the question of the title: ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’

Becket, although a political appointee of his erstwhile friend, was originally made Lord Chancellor then Archbishop of Canterbury, but had made the mistake of finding a conscience and was no longer willing to obey his patron’s every word.

Four knights went into the cathedral while Ranulf de Broc, whose real name was Purcell and — to my dismay — another ancestor, waited outside for the dire deed to be done.

He had received the assassins, who had come from the continent to his home, Saltwood Castle, the night before the murder and although he did not play an active role in the killing, was clearly culpable.

It is probably not a coincidence that he had been excommunicated by Becket after various acts of malice toward the priest, including dispossessing Becket’s household in the dead of winter and attempting to stop Becket returning to England from exile in France, where he had been for six years.

The plan was to persuade Becket to rescind this and other excommunications but matters soon spiralled out of control and the priest was killed by blows from the knights’ swords, his brains spilling across the cathedral floor.

Becket, history testifies, was made a saint after the shockwaves of revulsion at his murder on church soil reverberated across Europe , while many miracles were soon attributed to his name. The following year Henry invaded Ireland to both serve as a sign of loyalty to the Pope and diversion from the murder. But matters soon worsened.

The king famously atoned for his knights’ crime nearly four years later after his family had turned against him, walking barefoot as a pilgrim through the Canterbury streets before being whipped by some of the very same monks and priests who had witnessed the murder.

But the consequences of the vicious act continued and decades later, Sir Hugh and others could be found saying prayers and performing rituals in atonement for Ranulf’s instrumental role in the martyr’s death.

The cult of Becket the Martyr gathered force and the Purcells lost any power they had as karma swung around to bite them when the scourge of the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, descended on Ireland to plunder and destroy five centuries later. The castle at Loughmoe remains but as a ruin.

We all know of the turbulent and beleaguered history of Ireland thereafter, but how many knew it was linked with the death of a ‘turbulent’ priest?

I certainly did not and cannot help but wonder whether the sacrilegious murder of a holy man on hallowed ground had a direct impact upon all that followed in Ireland, including the myriad troubles in my own family line.

Anyone who has worked with Family Constellations will know the impact of forgotten ancestral memory on contemporaneous individual lives.

When we feel stuck and weighed down for no obvious reason, it is worth recalling the larger, hidden context of our lives. A rich history stretches into the distant past and we are caught up in its ripples without knowing it.

It is no surprise to me therefore that my mother’s father was an Anglican priest, and my parents shared a birthday with an ancient Plantagenet king (who happened to be a relative) and came from warring faiths that still hold sway in Ireland.

The English-Irish catholic-protestant schism goes on and I felt it severely when my parents separated when I was just two. Sometimes, the past is too much to hold and we might all consider what we drag in our wake as we embark on relationship.

There are no coincidences. Everything has its reason and in all likelihood that weight you feel does not belong to you.

No man — or woman — is an island and none of us stands alone.

Copyright Simon Heathcote



Simon Heathcote

Psychotherapist writing on the human journey for some; irreverently for others; and poetry for myself; former newspaper editor.