I awoke to the sound of a ringing phone. I groggily grabbed it and put it to my ear. "Hello", said a voice on the other end, "this is Tom Bodette." I recognized the man’s voice. He did radio ads for the motel I was staying at. "Congratulations", he continued, "you’ve just won a million dollars! Just kidding. This is your wake-up call." As I slammed the receiver down, I visualized pistol-whipping Tom Bodette. I was in a Motel 6 somewhere in North Carolina. I was en route to Durham to visit an aunt, meet a half-sister I’d never met before, and stay in an ancestral home of the Rice family; a cabin dating back to the days of slavery, now a national landmark. The man who owned the cabin was a genealogist and a family historian, Joe Rice (yet another relative I’d never met.)
The terrain in North Carolina is strange and hilly. I could remember it from when I was four or five years old, and it looked hauntingly familiar. I recognized motels I’d seen in 1961 or 1962. At that time they were at the outskirts of town, in the middle of nowhere. By now they were surrounded by businesses, malls, and fast food restaurants. The town had grown enormously, and yet vast sections seemed relatively untouched by the passage of time. My aunt Eloise (my father’s sister) took me all over town. It was kind of amazing seeing places that I’d remembered, or half-remembered, all my life without quite recalling when or where I’d seen them. The old bus station, now closed. A certain park. A certain lake. An old bridge. I couldn’t look at Eloise without seeing her as she looked at that time. She must have been the most glamorous girl in Durham: blonde and beautiful, and always dressed in flashy clothes. As a child I’d thought she looked like a movie star.
There seemed to be evidence of our family scattered all over this town and the neighboring environs. We passed businesses owned by the Rices: jewelry stores, machine shops, and so on. It looked like there were a lot of Rices in these parts. Soon I met Beverly, a half-sister from my father’s marriage. Beverly was a devout Catholic, and wanted to see the church where she’d been baptized or christened (whatever Catholics do) as a baby. Like me, she’d moved away from Durham as a child, and had come back to pay a visit to the ancestral home, and learn something about the history of the Rice family.
We hooked up with Joe Rice, an affable old gent who looked something like Dave Thomas from the Wendy’s commercials on T.V. We followed him out to the Rice-Pettigrew house, or as he called it, The Old Place. The old place lies at the end of a long winding road way out in the country. In the old days it had been a small scale plantation that had grown cotton, tobacco, and various other crops. They’d raised hogs, cattle and sheep, and seemingly had everything necessary for a totally self-sufficient lifestyle. They even had their own private cemetery on the property, where generations of Rice’s found their final resting place in plain sight of the dwelling in which they’d lived and died.
Although the place is a cabin built of logs, it’s not what you’d think of when the phrase log cabin is mentioned. The place is rented out as a bed and breakfast these days, and Joe has done an incredible job of maintaining its historical feel while thoroughly modernizing it. There’s even a whirlpool tub in one of its bathrooms. There are three bedrooms, two upstairs and one downstairs. There’s a living room with a large fireplace, and an adjoining kitchen. The front of the place has a huge roofed porch, and the back of the place has a larger screened porch. You can sit on the back porch at sunrise or sunset and watch herds of deer wander by. Overhead, huge ugly birds soar about, making a godawful racket. I asked Joe what exactly the birds were, and with typical southern humor, he said, "down here we call ‘em buzzards, but out in California they’re referred to as condors."
Joe really did exude an aura of the Old South. He seemed to evince a mistrust of "northerners", and retained some vestigial hostility over what had happened to the South in the war between the states. Although our family lived in North Carolina, the Rice’s had fought on the side of the rebels. Joe still had a letter, yellowed with age, that one of the Rice boys had sent home to his parents during the Civil War. He read the contents of the letter, which ended with the phrase "until death, I remain your son." The letter had been sent from a field hospital where the boy had been recovering from a strange injury. Before he’d left for the war, his mother had given him a small New Testament Bible. He always carried the book in his left breast pocket, and would read it during lulls in battle. Then one day while charging at the enemy, he was shot. The bullet was meant for his heart, and would surely have killed him, but... it hit the Bible in his pocket. The slug nearly went through the volume, but came to rest toward the last few pages. As Joe related the story, he paused a long while for dramatic effect, and then said "That Bible saved his life!" He’d only suffered some broken ribs, but was incapacitated enough to end up in a field hospital, from which he’d sent the letter. It was a miracle, plain and simple. The hand of God had personally reached out to save this devout rebel lad, my ancestor. The story would have truly been amazing, but then Joe added, "and 21 days after he wrote this letter, he was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg." Whoa! Hang on a minute. Why the fuck would God personally reach out to spare the life of this soldier in a true life miracle, then turn around and allow him to be killed less than a month later? This addendum to the story rendered the whole miracle episode utterly meaningless. But perhaps I’m overly cynical.
Joe showed us around the old place and spun further tales of the family history. Portraits of my ancestors adorned the walls, and the rooms were decorated with various antiques (spinning wheels, butter churns, and so on.) Since the place dated back to the days of slavery, I asked the obvious question, did the family own any slaves? "They owned 27 slaves at one point", he answered matter-of-factly. "That’s the most we’re aware of at any given time. They could have owned more." Where the Hell did they all sleep, I wondered aloud. "The room we’re now in was the slave quarters. They entered and exited through that window going up and down a ladder. I’m sure they didn’t all sleep here. There were probably shanty shacks scattered throughout the property." The room was quite large, and it was easy to imagine that 27 people could indeed sleep in this single room. I’d certainly prefer sleeping inside on the floor with 26 other people to a shanty shack, except perhaps, during summer months. That night I slept in the slave quarters. When the lights were out, I gazed around in the darkness, seeing the same sights those slaves saw every night centuries ago. Except I was in a huge, four poster bed, and not on the floor. My eyes eventually came to rest on the window. I tried to visualize people entering and exiting through it as I drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke I lit a cigar and wandered over to the small cemetery. As I surveyed the markers it was hard to believe that the odd old names on the tombstones each represented a forebear of mine. The blood that flowed in my veins had once flowed in theirs. Now they were dust, and had long been dust. We later drove several miles down the road to another cemetery comprised entirely of Rices, this one even older. Some of the graves were so old that they weren’t even fitted with proper tombstones, just huge misshapen rocks bearing neither names nor dates. One aging tombstone bore the name of a woman that had married a Rice, who’d originally come from a family named Boyd. Is this where my father chose my name from, a grave in the family cemetery? It certainly seems so. After all, Boyd is generally a last name. In 40 years I’ve only met one other person with Boyd as a first name.
And speaking of cemeteries, I heard a wild tale that my grandmother was born in a cemetery on Halloween. How did it happen? Well, the house where my great-grandmother lived was situated in the middle of a graveyard, and she was walking home one night in her ninth month of pregnancy. As she neared the house, some holiday mischief maker leaped out from behind a tombstone and screamed at the top of his lungs. She was so terrified that the shock sent her into premature labor, and my grandmother was born right there in the boneyard.
At any rate, when we returned, Joe produced stacks of genealogical materials. They had documentation that traced our family to a Thomas Rice who’d come to Virginia from England. Thomas was the descendant of an ancient prince of South Wales, Griffith Ap Rhys. Rhys is the original Welsh spelling, and the prefix Ap denoted distinction or nobility. Furthermore, Griffith’s wife, Catherine Howard was descended from William the Conqueror, Kings Henry I and II, King John, and King Edward I. Thus, claimed the documents, our branch of the Rice family could claim royal descent from the Plantagenets. But wait: an unrelated article makes the claim that Griffith’s father, Rhys Ap Thomas was the "natural son" (bastard son?) of Geoffrey Plantagenet, so there would seem to be Plantagenet blood on both sides. Furthermore, Griffith’s mother Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, is said to be another Plantagenet connection. What, if any, was Mary’s relation to Catherine? Are they from the same family of Howards? It all starts to seem more than a bit incestuous, somehow, albeit thoroughly royal. If allegations concerning the earlier Rhys’ Plantagenet parentage are true, this opens the door to the fascinating possibility that all subsequent Rices may in fact not have so much as a single drop of Rice blood in them. Could it be that for centuries my family has gone by the name Rice and we aren’t even Rices? That in fact, we are Plantagenets, by blood if not by lawful name?
The Plantagenets were kings of Britain during the 12th and 13th centuries. It is widely reported even in scholarly works that the name Plantagenet came about due to the fact that the earliest member of this line made it a habit to wear a sprig of a broom in his hat, and the name derives from the French word for broom. In fact, what he wore in his hat was a bloom, the bloom of a plant called the planta genesta. This is a small yellow flower that grows wild in the fields of Europe, where it is commonly known as the Rape Flower (as in the Death in June song, "Fields of Rape.") At any rate, under the Plantagenets, the British Empire stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees, at one time constituting the totality of the westmost end of Europe. The first of the Plantagenets was Count Geoffrey of Anjou, whose father, Fulk of Anjou had been King of Jerusalem, and had fought to drive the Saracens out of Europe. According to legend, these Angevin counts and Kings were descended from the daughter of Satan, and it was said of them, "From the Devil they come, and to the Devil they will return." In later years, Richard the Lionhearted would refer to his family’s supposedly Satanic pedigree, citing it (perhaps humorously) as being responsible for the fact that they seemed to "lack the natural affections of mankind."
Though the Angevin men were feared, the women were said to be far worse, and modern histories of the period relate the rumors which were at the time accepted as fact. One of the women was named Melusine, and is said to have been taken by surprise one night by her husband, who was shocked to discover that she had shape-shifted into a form in which her entire bottom half took on the appearance of a blue and white serpent. She keeled over dead at the horror of being discovered, but her ghost (in half-serpent form) haunted the site thereafter. Another woman known as the Witch-Countess had gained local disrepute owing to the fact that she refused to attend Mass on Sundays. Her husband had four of his knights take her forcibly to services on day, and during the consecration she dematerialized, leaving only her gown and the overpowering smell of brimstone. (In another version of the tale, she leapt screaming through the window, never to be seen again.) From what little I know of history, it seems likely that these nobles simply had their wives murdered, spreading the wild tales to frighten off superstitious locals, and keep the disappearances from being scrutinized too closely. It wasn’t an uncommon practice, for instance, to let it be known that the Devil lived in your wine cellar, as a means of keeping local peasants from stealing bottles of wine. In fact, there is still a wine available today from South America, whose name translates to The Devil’s Cellar. Unfortunately for the Angevins, tales such as these would prove to be a P.R. nightmare. In the book The Conquering Family, it is said: "The Counts of Anjou and their lovely but wicked wives gained such an unsavory reputation over the centuries that the people of England were appalled when they found out that one of them was to become King of England." They needn’t have worried. The Plantagenet years were the glory days of the British Empire. It’s certainly been all downhill ever since.
It seemed hard to believe that six of seven hundred years back my family had connections to William the Conqueror or were royalty in Wales. Further reading turned up the amazing factoid that King Edward III has over 100 million living descendants, which helps put the whole matter into somewhat clearer perspective. Nonetheless I read everything I could put my hands on that dealt with these people. Virtually any book that even vaguely pertained to the Plantagenets contained some passing reference to either Rhys, the Angevins, or both. I felt certain that I’d only scratched the surface thus far in my research, and couldn’t shake the feeling of some strange sort of deja vu, that this all seemed oddly familiar for some reason.
On a hunch, I dug out an old book I hadn’t read since the early 80’s, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Sure enough, the Angevins were featured prominently throughout the book. According to the text, Fulk the Black’s father-in-law had also been King of Jerusalem, a man called Godfroi de Bouillon. Bouillon, it is said, could trace his genealogy back to Dagobert II, Parsifal, and beyond that to the Grail family of Christ. The book’s premise had always seemed quite straight-forward and believable to me. But now, in light of the implication that I might possibly be a descendant of the Grail family via the Plantagenets and Angevins, I re-read Holy Blood, Holy Grail with a far more critical eye. In re-reading the book some 15 years on, its premise seemed sound. It was based on solid scholarship, and tried to steer well clear of unfounded speculation. In short, it presented what I found to be an altogether convincing scenario of what might be an alternate history of Europe.
Besides being King of Jerusalem, Godfroi de Bouillon was also founder of the Priory of Sion, and the Knights Templar. I’d never known quite what to make of groups like the Templars or Cathars. Everything I’d read about the Templars had been utterly contradictory, and predicated, it seemed, more upon the biases of particular authors than on anything tangible. Were the Templars Knights of Christ, or worshippers of Baphomet? Or could they be both? Much of the information relating to various members of the Grail family seemed equally paradoxical. If Dagobert II was a descendant of Christ, why was the capitol of the Merovingian dynasty in a place called Satanicum? That same territory was later ruled by Rene d’Anjou, Duke of Lorraine. Rene was also a Merovingian descendant, and designed the Cross of Lorraine, an emblem said to signify both the arms of Christ and the arms of Satan. Rene d’Anjou was alleged to have been influential in helping Lorenzo De Medici create Europe’s first library. It is rarely mentioned, however, that most of the books contained therein dealt with alchemy, hermeticism, gnosticism, and related occult/esoteric doctrines.
Many of the references I gleaned from Holy Blood, Holy Grail provided points of departure for further research. And almost without exception, what I uncovered was just as strange and rife with paradox. For instance, Catherine De Medici was later Queen of France (her son Francis married Mary Queen of Scots), and she was said to have stated that she was interested in "neither heaven nor hell, but only magic." She is known to have performed what is said to be a black mass. It purportedly involved a nude altar, the consumption of blood, and dual hosts (one white, one black), representing the co-equal powers of good and evil. A woman reported to have been a student of Catherine’s was later to become the leader of an all-girl crime syndicate that very nearly succeeded in toppling the government of Louis XIV. Her name was La Voison, and she was called the Witch Queen of Paris. She was an abortionist, fortune teller, and purveyor of rare poisons, who moonlighted by conducting the Medici mass for France’s most rich and powerful families. Louis XIV’s mistress was a member of La Voison’s inner circle, and was about to participate in a plot to poison the monarch when police intervened at the 11th hour. Upon her arrest it was discovered that many of Paris’ leading clergymen were playing an active role in her criminal activities, and dozens were burned at the stake alongside her. If this seems to be wandering far afield from the Grail family, please bear with me. Because two of La Voison’s most noteworthy patrons and avid supporters were the Duke and Duchess de Bouillon, heirs of Godfroi.
I could go on at length, citing similar cases. These aren’t a few isolated examples which stand out in contrast to all the rest of the Merovingian history, but rather a small sampling of incidences which seem to me emblematic of the sort of paradox that typifies the whole saga. Some will no doubt think that I’ve scoured the material with a fine-toothed comb, focusing fetishistically on any oddities that I could conceivably interpret according to my own inherent predilections. But such is not necessary. All those elements which might at first glance seem to be the perplexing inconsistencies that plague this tale are in fact so inescapably consistent that they seem to constitute the defining ethic of it all. If this persistent dual vibe is representative of the secret gnosis that’s the unique inheritance of the descendants of the Grail, I’ve been there all along.
While the story of the Rice’s ancestors in England, Wales and France reads like a history of Europe, their time in the New Country was not without intrigue. They were Indian traders, plantation owners, gunfighters, vaudevillians, and many, many priests. Thomas, the descendant of Griffith who’d journeyed to the States, returned to England to collect what was said to be a large inheritance. He had a plantation in Hannover County, Virginia and had sired 9 sons and 3 daughters. On the voyage home he died at sea. It is assumed that he was assassinated, and that his inheritance (which was never recovered) was stolen. Of his 9 sons, one was named Thomas Jr., who in turn had a son named Thomas III, and it was he, I believe, who built the cabin in which I was staying (thus beginning the Caswell County, N.C. branch of the Rice family.) The family, having survived the loss of its first U.S. patriarch and his fortune, managed to prosper despite the economic ravages of the Civil War and abolition, only to lose everything in the great stock market crash.
Upon returning home, I sent Joe and his wife Avis a note of thanks along with an old C.D. I’d done with Rose McDowall. They’d waited to hear some music that I’d done, and this was the only thing I’d ever done that folks like this might possibly relate to. They wrote back saying that they’d enjoyed the album, but that it was a shame that someone with my obvious talents wasn’t using his gifts in the service of God. But Joe, that’s exactly what I am doing.
(NOTE: the preceding article has been edited from a much longer text, due to the constraints of space. The complete text will appear in a book of essays, interviews and aphorisms, which will hopefully be completed in the not too distant future. B.R.)
Read the Non/Boyd Rice entry in our Musick section.