Royal ancestry is one of the most exciting discoveries most people imagine when they start their family tree – and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Many thousands of people can claim a legitimate connection to the British Royal Family, especially if we also include illegitimate children.
The 13 monarchs who reigned between 1066 and 1485 fathered at least 40 bastards between them. Henry II leads the field with around 20. On his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Danny Dyer discovered that he’s descended from Edward III – but he’s not alone, as the king’s legitimate and illegitimate descendants of Edward III 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 have royal ancestry. This may not be from the direct, legitimate line so you may be at some remove from the throne. If the chances of royal ancestry 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 of royalty 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 clergymen and their youngest children in turn might find their marital opportunities limited to farmers and tradesmen.
How to start finding royal ancestry
To find royal ancestry, 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. 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.
If you have Caribbean ancestry and you can trace your family to a white plantation owner there is a good chance that you can also claim royal ancestry, as sons of gentry often emigrated to the Caribbean to seek their fortune.
You may also have royal connections through an American ancestor, as many sons of gentry travelled to the New World. 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 can also contain mentions of relatives of the British living in America. Many American families documented their British family connections and large numbers of printed pedigrees can now be found on websites such as the Internet Archive. Findmypast also has many pedigrees in its Early American Families index.
Once you have located what is known as a gateway ancestor, one who links your family to nobility, the door opens upon a world of recorded and published pedigrees that can lead back to royal ancestry.
Finding royal ancestry online
When you find a connection to gentry, you can look for the family in the Heralds’ Visitations. From the early 16th century to the late 17th century, heralds travelled from county to county to regulate the use of arms by the nobility and gentry. These visitations resulted in pedigrees being produced which can be really useful to family historians. However, it is important to keep in mind that the information may not always be accurate as there was a great desire to be descended from nobility and limited ability to check what the heralds were told. There are links to some collections of Heralds’ Visitations here.
Subscribers to TheGenealogist can also access its large collection of printed antiquarian books covering Heralds’ Visitations in its ‘Peerage, Gentry and Royalty’ section. These books, mostly published by the Harleian Society, can also sometimes be found freely on the Internet Archive. Try searching by county with the word ‘visitation’.
The College of Arms in London also holds an extensive archive of records, including pedigree rolls, which allowed the researchers to trace the connection between Danny’s Tudor ‘gateway’ ancestors and his 22x great grandfather, Edward III.
There are lots of other online sources you can consult in the search for royal ancestry once you have established a link to the gentry.
Some of these are more suited to find your royal ancestry than 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. You can access all the recent editions of Burke’s if you take out a subscription online. Prices start at £10 for 48 hours.
You may also find printed pedigrees of your gentrified ancestors in digital collections. Books freely available on the Internet Archive include a number of volumes of The Pedigree Register, which was an early publication of the Society of Genealogists in London, as well as many books covering the family history of specific families. You can also find older copies of Burke’s Peerage as well as useful books such as The Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal, listing the descendants of Edward III.