In 2004, on assignment in Saudi Arabia, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner was shot six times by terrorists. “I’ve got to survive for the sake of my family,” he remembers telling himself. The attack left him partly paralysed and reliant on a wheelchair.
It’s perhaps no surprise then to discover that Frank values bravery and stoicism, virtues he associates with his late mother, Grace. “She was only the third woman to get into the Foreign Office, and she had to fight a lot of sexism and prejudice,” he says. But although his mother was his “hero”, Frank knows surprisingly little about her family history. Did her forebears really come over to England with the Normans as she claimed?
Before Frank even attempts to go so far back in history, he first learns more about the life of his great-grandfather, Professor George Rolleston, a man Frank’s maternal grandfather, John, never talked about. George, it turns out, is an illustrious ancestor to have, a professor in physiology, anatomy and zoology who corresponded with Charles Darwin, and whose bust can be found at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Yet, as Frank puts it bluntly when the 1881 census records show George absent from the family home, “Did he do a runner?” The truth is far sadder. Grievously ill and convalescing on the continent, George returned home because his wife, Grace (for whom Frank’s mother was named), was ill. Letters suggest he wasn’t strong enough to travel. He died in 1881, but even attempting the journey suggests stoicism and bravery.
As for Grace, she suffered from mental illness and spent the latter part of her life in different institutions. Records from an asylum in Chiswick shows her as suffering from the delusion that she was covered in dynamite. The same documents also show Grace’s son, without anyone’s permission, visiting his mother as a teenager. “This explains why [John] never talked about his family,” says Frank.
Next, Frank meets another ancestor whose final days were tragic, but for very different reasons. Frank’s 10x great grandfather was Sir Michael Stanhope, a staunch supporter of Henry VIII at the time of the break with Rome. Via marriage, Michael was related to Sir Edward Seymour, who was the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane (who died following childbirth).
When Jane’s son, Edward VI, ascended to the throne as a boy, his uncle became Lord Protector of England. Michael was appointed Groom of the Stool. Today, the idea that spending time in the toilet with royalty might be a privilege seems strange to us, but Michael would have been Edward’s intimate confidant, which gave him real power.
Michael’s good fortune didn’t last. When the Earl of Warwick ousted Seymour, who had appointed himself Duke of Somerset, Michael was accused of treason. The charges were flimsy, but he was sentenced to death and, in 1552, Michael was beheaded. “That sends a shiver down my spine,” says Frank, sitting in the chilly environs of the Tower of London, where Michael met his end.
Finally, Frank traces Michael’s lineage to see if there’s any truth in his mother’s stories of her family coming to England with the Normans. The truth is even better. At the College of Arms, Frank is delighted to learn that he’s directly descended from William the Conqueror, his 29x great grandfather. “Maybe mum’s looking down on us… she’ll be pleased,” Frank says.