Comedian Josh Widdicombe doesn’t know much about his family history at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The only thing he remembers is hearing as a child about the collapse of Barings Bank and being told that he was related to the Baring family.
“My hope is to find out something exciting, that’s the dream scenario,” he says at the start of his episode. “My fear is that I come from a really boring family.”
Josh goes to see his parents, who confirm that there is a connection to Barings. Josh’s great grandmother’s maiden name was Mary Irene Baring-Gould.
To find out more, Josh goes to the luxurious Lewtrenchard Manor, the former home of the Baring-Gould family, where he meets historian Professor Helen Berry. She tells him that the rumours are true – his 5x great grandfather Charles Baring established Barings Bank with his brothers. However, documents show that Charles was cut off from the bank by his family because they disapproved of his lack of business skills.
A family tree takes Josh’s family even further back, to his 10x great grandparents Henry Rich and Isabel Cope – the First Earl of Holland and Countess of Holland. Josh next goes to Holland Park, Henry’s aristocratic seat, to find out more about him. He discovers that Henry was a leading aristocrat of the day and a senior adviser to Charles I.
At Hampton Court, where Henry would have waited on Charles, Josh learns that his ancestor held the rank of Groom of the Stool – his job was to accompany Charles to the toilet. Although this sounds like a terrible job, it was a very desirable position, and Henry could have made a profit from selling access to the king.
However, the good times didn’t last. In 1642, the English Civil War broke out. Henry fought on the Royalist side, but was captured at the Battle of Surbiton and beheaded in 1649.
Josh is shocked to read the account of his ancestor’s execution: “It feels pretty horrible to think what that must have been like.”
Josh then traces Henry’s ancestry even further back. At the Church of St Nicholas in Henley-on-Thames, Josh sees a plaque to his 13x great grandparents – Sir Francis Knollys, a treasurer to Elizabeth I, and Lady Katherine Knollys, her chief lady of the bedchamber. Their daughter Lettice was also one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, but she displeased the queen by secretly marrying her favourite, Robert Dudley. Contemporary reports state that Elizabeth was so furious that she boxed Lettice’s ears!
Historian Dr Elizabeth Goldring tells Josh that it could be worse – Elizabeth could have sent Lettice to the Tower of London. She suggests Elizabeth was lenient because of her fondness for Lettice’s mother Katherine.
Katherine was even buried in Westminster Abbey – traditionally the burial place for royalty and the aristocracy. Seeing her plaque in the Abbey, Josh discovers that Katherine’s mother was Mary Boleyn – the sister of Elizabeth I’s mother Anne Boleyn and another former mistress of her father, Henry VIII. When Josh meets historian Dr Owen Emmerson, he learns that some historians even think that Henry VIII was Katherine’s real father.
Even if that’s not true, Josh also learns that he has another royal connection. His 23x great grandfather was Edward I, and Edward’s wife Marguerite was the daughter of King Philippe of France, meaning Josh is descended from the royal families of both England and France.
At the end, Josh is astonished by all he’s learned.
“I would 100% recommend to anyone,” he says. “If you do want to trace your family tree, that’s an amazing thing to do. But I would say that, I’m King Edward I’s great grandson so I’m obviously delighted with how it’s gone.”
Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine