In 1979 we attended the annual Cavel Reunion at Brownwood, Texas, near where my great-grandparents Wm John and Susan Ann (Shave) Cavel settled in the late 1800s. I struck up an immediate friendship with Myrtle Sorrells Russell, one of my Dad's cousins. Myrtle was an absolute storehouse of Cavel knowledge. She and I just "clicked", like we'd known each other forever.
Myrtle caught a ride home with us. She and I sat in the back seat of my brother's Buick and talked up a storm all day. The Cavel's life in Texas was so hard. I wondered out loud why they'd left their families and the green hills of England for such a desolate place.
Myrtle told me that her Grandpa William was a preacher, and he and Grandma Susan had gotten involved in a religion that was forbidden by the king. They were forced to worship in secret, so they would meet late at night, in each others' homes. They would sneak down alleys and back lanes in the dark to get to the meeting place. They had to knock on the door and whisper a password, which was "Cavel".
One member of the congregation was a silversmith. His wife noticed him slipping from bed, dressing and going out after he thought she was asleep. She suspected he had a girlfriend, and she reported her suspicions to her priest. The priest had him followed and saw him go into the Cavel's house. The priest reported it to the king and the whole group was arrested and thrown into prison.
Somehow William John and Susan managed to escape with baby Fred (my Grandfather) but they had to leave so fast that they had to leave the older child, Rose, behind.
When we got to Myrtle's home she showed us some "forbidden" pamphlets the Cavels had brought with them from England, but as I looked them over they seemed pretty innocent to me. They were small folded paper evangelistic tracts from the British Bible Society, "What Must I Do to be Saved?", "For God So Loved the World", and a couple of others.
I took Myrtle's story at face value at the time, but with only a little research I discovered that there was complete religious freedom in Britain by the 1800s. I located Parish records proved that Wm John and Susan had attended their local Anglican parish church, been married there, had their children baptized there, and had two little ones buried in an Anglican churchyard. Then I obtained a copy of my granddad Fred Cavel's birth certificate, which listed his father's occupation as "shepard", not preacher.
I eventually decided Myrtle's story, which was told her by her mother, was a sort of family legend with little basis in fact. It was a great deal different than the story I'd heard all my life, that they bought tickets for America after losing two children to a scarlet fever epidemic months before my grandad was born. They'd been forced to burn everything they owned, leaving them with nothing.
At the same time Texas Agents were traveling through British villages, spinning tales of the fabulous wealth to be had on the American frontier. When they said the streets were "paved with gold" they may have meant it figuratively, but the naive English country kids took it literally and bought four tickets for Galveston, Texas.
Their five-year-old daughter Rose, had survived the scarlet fever but was still too ill to travel when the date came to sail, so with heavy hearts they left her in the care of Susan's parents, promising to come back for her after they'd made their fortune in America. In a year at most.
Of course the tale ended badly. Great-Grandad William sustained a serious injury shortly after landing in Texas, one that crippled him for life. The frontier was desolate and the threat of attack by raiding parties of Comanches ever present. Rose grew up in England and they never saw each other again.
I went back to school at the age of 38. Like all students I had papers to write and research to do. One day in the University of Calgary (Canada) library stacks I ran across a biography of Edith Cavell. It is every Cavel family's tradition that they are somehow related to Edith Cavell, the famous WWI nurse heroine who was executed by the Germans in 1915 for rescuing wounded allied soldiers in Belgium, secretly nursing them back to health and sneaking them across enemy lines to safety.
An 1898 "book of English Surnames" which found its way into my hands as part of a stage prop listed all the spelling and pronouncing variants of Cavel/ Cavell/Cavil/Cavill in Britain and stated that the family of Edith Cavel was the only one in Britain which pronounced the name to rhyme with "gavel", as we do, so I sat down to look at this biography and made a few notes. Edith's sister, Lillian Cavel Wainwright, told the interviewer that the family did not originate in Cornwall, as had been reported in an earlier biography. She claimed that their Cavell family was originally Spanish and the name was Cavella or something very close to it.
I was taking Spanish at the time. Once I was home, knowing that many a Spaniard draws their surname from their village of origin, I got out our big red "Atlas of the World" and opened it to the map of Spain. I went to the index. There was no Cavella, but there was a village called Cazalla, which in Castillian is pronounced very much the same. I found the coordinates on the map, laid my finger on them and called Tony to come see.
I can hardly describe what happened to me next. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I was no longer sitting on the floor in front of our fireplace, I was standing in a crowd looking at a scene of incredible horror. There before me were a series of pyres, but my eyes were drawn to one. A haggard man was tied to the stake. He lifted his head and stared into my eyes, and in that moment I knew him entirely. It was if the unwavering gaze of his dark eyes transferred his life's story to me.
Do we have racial memory burned into our DNA? I don't know how to explain it. Tony shook me, asking, "Are you okay?"
I sat there for a few minutes to collect my wits and then called the University Library and asked for them to tell me what they had on file for an Augustin de Cazalla, who was burned by the Spanish Inquisition on the 20th of May 1559.
The next day I went back to the library. The first book I found described, in almost exactly the same words as Myrtle's, how Augustin and his brothers (three priests in one family!) all converted to the forbidden religion of Lutheranism, and established a secret Lutheran congregation in Valladolid Spain in the early 1550's. They met in each other's homes late at night, using "Cazalla" as a password at the door. The congregation had grown to over 60 when the wife of a member named Garcia, who was a silversmith, told her priest she thought that he was going out at night to meet a woman. The priest had Garcia followed and within days the Inquisition moved in and arrested almost the entire congregation, including 16 members of the de Cazalla family.
Several of them, including Augustin, were burned at the stake as heretics on May 20, 1559 outside the city walls of Valladolid. One of the sisters, a recent widow and mother of 13 children, was imprisoned for life. Her children, ranging in age from six months to 17 years, were turned into the streets. Citizens were told that anyone who gave them so much as a crust of bread or a cup of water would be treated as a heretic. Of 10 adult children in the family six were burned at the stake or imprisoned for life. One who lived in a different province was pardoned by the Pope a year later, but three slipped through the net, to turn up in England a year later.
Prior to 1564 it was difficult for refugees from the Continent to settle anywhere but in London, so most refugees who entered England before 1564 went to London. St. Mary's Axe Church was given in 1562 to the Spanish Protestant refugees for divine worship. (Wheatley's London Past and Present, vol. II, p. 493) Photo is of the restored windows at what remains of St. Mary's Axe Church London.
The Spanish group was headed up by Casiodoro de Reina, a former monk who had also converted. He had been a close friend of Augustin de Cazalla's in Spain and had urged him to flee in 1555. Augustin refused, saying the Inquisition wouldn't dare arrest him due to his family's close associations with the crown. (The de Cazalla's father, Pedro, was Royal Treasurer under Charles V, and their mother, Leonora de Vivero, was of noble blood. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel of Spain were married in the de Vivero home and spent part of their honeymoon in the de Vivero Castle at Fuensaldana.)
But the Inquisition followed them to London. In 1567 de Reina had to flee to Germany. The Spanish refugee church in London disintegrated. Many members felt it wise to 'blend' into the population as best they could. Some joined other refugee communities in London. Some left London for other parts of the country. Unfortunately all we have are contemporary accounts of that time, the Spanish refugee church's records were destroyed when St. Mary's Axe received a direct hit from a German bomb in 1942.
At least some of the Cazallas moved and joined the Walloon Church in Bocking, Essex. Those who went to Essex must be Edith Cavell's line if her sister's claim of Spanish ancestry is accurate.
The 'Bocking' Refugee congregational records contain Cavell records which appear to be "foreign" from 1668 onwards. The parish priest made an entry saying he'd done the best he could to turn this family's unpronounceable foreign surname into a similar English one. He said 'Cavell' was the closest he could come!)
Some Cavells went to Somerset, which is where we pick up our lineage with the birth of Caleb Cavel 130 years later in 1689 in Kingston, St. Mary, North Somerset. So it's an easy task ahead of us. We only have to track Caleb Cavel's ancestry back to a Spanish Protestant immigrant - 100 years or so of almost non-existent records.
The story of the de Cazalla family is little known today but very well documented in Spanish literature of the time. They were prominent and wealthy, and of Sephardic Jewish origins. The arrest of the family was as much a political as a religious act. It was all about consolidation of power by the Head of the Inquisition, who had been trying to entrap various family members for years.
|Plaza de la Cazalla in Valladolid Spain|
And to think that this story has been handed down, generation after generation of Cavels, for over 400 years. Like many stories of this type, it was attributed to a more recent ancestor, but the story itself was true, and intact. And in the 21st century autosomal DNA can confirm that of our European ancestry 31% of it is from Spain and Portugal.
Thanks, Myrtle. You saved a family treasure.