Are you descended from royalty like Danny Dyer?

By Jon Bauckham, 24 November 2016 - 11:38pm

Believe it or not, there’s every chance that kings and queens could be lurking in your family tree. Laura Berry, genealogist on the Who Do You Think You Are? TV series, reveals how you can trace your royal ancestors like Danny Dyer


In his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Danny Dyer discovered that he was a 22x great grandson of Edward III (Credit: Getty Images)

For centuries, the royal family has been under constant pressure to reproduce to ensure the crown passed from father to son. And with power and privilege – and marriages arranged as political unions – came temptation and adultery.

Henry I fathered over 20 children, possibly as many as 29 – some the fruit of marriage, but many more born to mistresses. Edward III and his wife Philippa had 14 children together, while Charles II acknowledged 14 illegitimate offspring.

Their descendants have multiplied with each new generation, watering down the blue blood over the course of hundreds of years. Little wonder, then, that it is estimated that millions of us now have royal blood, even if it’s just a smidge.

The key is to find a ‘gateway ancestor’ in your family tree – someone from the middling ranks of society, perhaps in a respectable profession like an army officer or a clergyman, who could have descended from a younger child of a nobleman, or a daughter who married below her station and didn’t inherit a title or much wealth, so that subsequent generations are totally unaware of their illustrious roots.

This ancestor often acts as a gateway to a long line of aristocratic forebears who are far better documented than their descendants. The ultimate goal is to find a royal connection further up the tree.


The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can be a very revealing source

Gateway ancestors

Gateway ancestors tend to be fairly well documented in their own right – they might have been successful in the business world, or purchased an army commission, and could be described as ‘gentleman’ or ‘esquire’ in parish registers and on civil registration certificates.

Searching for marriage and death announcements and an obituary in The Times Digital Archive or at British Newspaper Archive could tell you more about this person’s immediate forebears. Biographical publications like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Who Was Who might shed light on their achievements and social standing, and specialist occupation-related biographies are also worth seeking out.

If your gateway ancestor descended from a landowning family, then the answer may be found in estate papers, which often include family trees and other genealogical records. The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue is useful for establishing the whereabouts of family papers, and has a finding aid here.

Records relating to prominent individuals are also dispersed among special collections held in university libraries, or in the Parliamentary Archives. Use the AIM25 database at aim25.ac.uk to search the catalogues of over 100 institutions around London.

Similarly, Archives Hub searches the collections of over 300 institutions nationwide at archiveshub.ac.uk.
 


Dorothy Jordan (c1790), who had ten illegitimate children with King William IV (Credit: Getty Images)

Illicit affairs

If you suspect that your ancestor was born out of wedlock to an aristocratic parent, then proving the link may be tricky. The ten illegitimate children borne from the actress Mrs Jordan’s relationship with William IV when he was Duke of Clarence were well documented, but unfortunately this was a rarity.

If you’re lucky, the child could have been recognised in their parent’s will, or in the will of a grandparent or aunt or uncle, since they would not have automatically been entitled to any portion of their parent’s estate. They might be described as a ‘natural child’, meaning they were not legally recognised as legitimate offspring. The child’s baptism record is also worth seeking out – even if the father’s name is not given, an aristocratic godparent may offer a clue.

Where there’s a family rumour of an ancestor being the child of a particular titled person, you can try trawling their diaries and letters in search of evidence and construct a timeline of their movements to see if the proposed parents’ paths could have crossed. Personal archives can be found using the ‘Record Creators’ tab on The National Archives' Discovery catalogue, and the published Court Circular is also useful for keeping track of royal engagements.

DNA tests are increasingly being used to try to fill in the documentary gaps in family trees, and might prove successful if a DNA match is found with a distant cousin who has been able to verify their connection to a royal ancestor, but this strategy isn’t foolproof. The International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki contains informative guides for getting to grips with the subject and finding out which test would best suit your needs.
 


Publications such as Burke's Peerage are useful as a quick point of reference

Pedigrees

If you can find someone with a title in your direct line it’s fairly easy to locate elaborate pedigrees going back many generations, since genealogy used to be the preserve of the aristocracy who wanted to keep a permanent record of their legacy.

Peerage publications like Burke’s Peerage and Debrett’s are useful as a quick point of reference, and can be found in most County Record Offices and some libraries, and were updated regularly with new volumes. A free online index at thepeerage. com was created using these publications and others like The Complete Peerage volumes.

The Society of Genealogists’ Library has a vast collection of unique family trees, as well as peerage publications. The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies’ library in Canterbury is open to the public and contains printed family histories and pedigrees, peerage and gentry directories and many other sources, including heraldic dictionaries and armorials. Click here to find out more.
 


An extensive archive of scrolls is kept at the College of Arms in central London (Credit: Alamy)

Heraldry

Some of the earliest genealogical records come from the ‘Heraldic Visitations’ created when heralds who were appointed by the Crown travelled all over the country visiting noble families in the 16th and 17th centuries to regulate the use of coats of arms.

The heralds’ original role was to organise tournaments where participants were recognised by the coats of arms displayed on their shields, and so heralds also became responsible for keeping a record of coats of arms. They maintained genealogical pedigrees to keep track of the descendants that were entitled to bear arms, and as a consequence there’s an extensive archive of scrolls at the College of Arms near St Paul’s Cathedral.

The heraldic visitations have been printed in a series of volumes, county by county, which can be searched among the peerage collections at TheGenealogist. Some volumes will also be found at Ancestry and there is a free digitised collection online here.

The Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh is the official heraldic authority in Scotland. Its public register of coats of arms can be searched at ScotlandsPeople.

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