Are you descended from royalty?

Whatever your background, a link to royalty might be lurking somewhere in your family's past. Stephen Thomas shows you how to investigate.

Imperial toast between Wilhelm and Franz Joseph

Would you like to find out if you are descended from an illegitimate line of royalty? The power of the mathematics of genealogy is vastly underrated. From just a few royal bed hoppers who lived many hundreds of years ago there are estimated to be millions of descendants walking amongst us today.

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The 13 monarchs who reigned between 1066 and 1485 fathered at least 40 bastards between them. Henry II leads the field with around 20. Descendants of Edward III, legitimate or otherwise, are believed to be in excess of four million. Some experts believe that practically everyone alive with British ancestry will have a connection with this king.

So statistically, there is a good chance that you are descended from royalty. This may not be from the direct, legitimate line so you may be at some remove from the throne. If the chances of a royal connection are good then how do you go about finding out if you are descended from the Kings and Queens of England?

Surnames are not usually a good guide to this. The fact is that descents can be quite convoluted. Illegitimate offspring were sometimes, but not always, recognised. Those that were favoured were fortunate indeed. They were no threat to their father because by virtue of their known illegitimacy they could never claim the throne. They could though often enjoy the privileges of wealth and position.

Those that were not overtly recognised entered the melting pot of the gentry and the middle classes. Quite often, the youngest sons and daughters of once grand families married professional people like lawyers and churchmen and their youngest children in turn might find their marital opportunities limited to farmers and tradesmen.

The paradox in social terms is that high fertility can lead to impoverishment. Thus, the Royal Diaspora made its way into the general population.

1

Extend your search

The local landowners, yeoman farmers and churchmen are one of the keys to locating your Royal connections.

You should be looking to extend your family tree as widely as possible to incorporate as many children as you can. This means that you must research your family beyond the narrow confines of the direct line and look for marriages, especially on the less researched female lines, that include representatives marrying minor gentry.

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You should aim to get at least some lines back to the 17th century. Look for wills if farmers, gentlemen and clerics are found. They often contain references to extended family members.

2

Check your pedigree

When you find a connection to gentry, you can look for the family in the Herald’s Visitations, which recorded many of the gentry.

These have been gathered together into the Armigerous Ancestors Index available to search for free.

Check the information you find because they are not always reliable and look for family collections and pedigrees at The National Archives.

3

Printed sources

There are lots of printed sources you can consult in the search for royal ancestors once you have established a link to the gentry.

Some of these are more suited to our purposes that others. Burke’s Peerage has the benefit that it traces lines back as far as they are known. It does not always though include the marriages and issue of younger sons and sometimes omits daughters altogether.

The pedigrees that form the basis of Burke’s were submitted by the families themselves and are subject to omission and error. Burke’s Landed Gentry is more useful for finding local landowning families. A good online guide, fully indexed, is the Peerage website.

4

Plantation owner links

If you have mixed-race Caribbean ancestry and you can trace your family to a white plantation owner there is a good chance that you can claim a royal descent.

The owners were often the sons of gentry seeking their fortune and living like lords in their tropical fiefdoms. There was a great deal of emigration to the Caribbean islands after the defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War and thereafter. You can find out more about Caribbean family history here.

5

New World links

This spirit of adventure and a degree of religious persecution also sent the pioneering sons of the gentry to the rest of the world, notably North America.

If you have stories or knowledge of an American ancestor, it may be worthwhile concentrating on this branch of your family tree. Burke’s Colonial Gentry can be searched by name on Ancestry.

American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857 by Peter Wilson Coldham (you can read more about the title here) can also contain mentions of relatives of the British living in America.

6

Gateway ancestors

Once you have located what is known as a gateway ancestor, one who links your family to a known noble ancestry, the door opens upon a world of recorded and published pedigrees that can lead back to royalty.

He may be a vicar or a tradesman perhaps; he will probably stand out against the background of more humble contemporaries. Any mention of “Esquire” or “Gentleman” should be pounced upon and fully investigated.

Search widely and stay vigilant for the right signs and you will give yourself the best chance to find a royal ancestor.