Who do I think I am?

When my cousin’s wife, a family historian, sent me a lineage chart to certify that my brother and sister and I are 30th-great-grandchildren of William the Conqueror I was astonished and I must admit at first rather pleased, even though he was a known bastard. Once you have been told you are a descendant of William the Conqueror there are plenty of family trees and other stories that allow you to trace back even further to yet more illustrious ancestors – from the Vikings, Normans and Franks to Charlemagne and Clovis and, using the Old Testament, even to Adam and Eve. If you go down another line you find that you are descended from Woden. It’s big business. 

My cousin and his wife had traced my ancestry from kings to the commoner that I am. But I subsequently had a sobering conversation with a molecular geneticist who told me that it was very unlikely that I could confidently trace my ancestors back that far, because very often the paternity of a child was not what it seemed to be. She told me that in modern times about 25% of people don’t have the father they think they have! Documents do lie and, from a molecular point of view, it is only the mother’s mitochondrial DNA that can really be traced. This highlights the difference between history and science. It is a shame that humans, following usual patterns, traced only the male line and the wife and mother were more rarely documented – if at all. They were too unimportant to be mentioned even in records of childbirth, and were frequently forgotten. An exception was when a king or peer’s daughter was bartered for family advantage: in that case her parentage was of great interest, though again not necessarily correct. It is for such reasons of parentage that I am a commoner, as most of us are. In England after William, heritage laws ensured that property and title passed from father to eldest son and to the next son only if the firstborn died. Rarely did daughters get a look in: it usually only happened if all the eligible men had died. It was so rare for women to own property or make a will that it was often remarked upon as something special. So, in general, the younger sons or daughters in the English system of heredity were the last to inherit the earth – the land and its titles in a feudal system. I am supposedly a descendant of King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s youngest son, but Henry slept around and my next ancestor was not a legitimate son but Henry’s bastard – Robert, Earl of Gloucester. So what could I possibly have expected!

Perhaps I cannot be as sure of my ancestry as I might have liked. But then perhaps that doesn’t matter as we are all more interconnected than we realise or care to admit; our genes are re-shuffled and shared around with every generation. So I am a relative of both rich and the poor, successful and unsuccessful, depending on how you look at it. And, if you follow Richard Dawkins you will be amused and perhaps amazed that your 185-millionth-greats-grandfather was not “An old man with wispy hair and white sidewhiskers”, but a fish. “So was your 185-million-greats-grandmother, which is just as well or they couldn’t have mated with each other and you wouldn’t be here.” What has come out of all this is much more valuable. It has given me an insight into the study of civilisations from a personal point of view, imagining my ancestors living in their times and having a much better idea of my place in the long arm of the history. The past comes alive when you think an ancestor was living in it and as you start to delve into their life your study takes on a life of its own. Exciting, actually riveting, it is every bit as good as the best of fiction.

Reference: Dawkins, Richard. The Magic of Reality, Bantam Books, 2011

–AEA 2020


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