If you haven’t heard by now…Queen Elizabeth is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee…sixty years on the British throne. It’s been interesting to see how many Americans have joined in the celebration. I will readily admit that I myself sat in front of the “telly” this past Sunday to watch the BBC broadcast of the Thames Jubilee Pageant. I mean who wouldn’t want to own a Royal Barge with which to parade down the Thames? Later that afternoon my husband and I walked to Rittenhouse Square to the apartment of a friend for a potluck dinner. Walking up Pine Street we came across the window at Blendo. “It’s good to be Queen” the window proclaimed. I think I have to agree.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the host of the dinner we attended was a woman who is actually a “Lady” herself… not British by birth, but born into a well-heeled Philadelphia family, she was sent off to England to marry a Lord. (Think Downton Abbey…although I’m not sure her British estate was quite that big…but surely grand. And she has her own incredible stories to tell.) She returned to Philadelphia a number of years ago and re-created a proper English apartment high above Rittenhouse. Her daughter, a lady in her own right, was actually in London celebrating the Jubilee with friends. I hadn’t seen Lady B and some of the others in attendance for quite some time, so I was happy to report on my recent genealogical journey and the fact I’d uncovered some of my own royal roots… “I share a grandfather with Queen Elizabeth,” I said. (granted…it’s something like a 23 x great-grandfather…but still) “Who doesn’t?” my friend Brian replied. Not the reaction I expected, but then I hadn’t really looked into how many other people might also have similar ties. It makes sense that if each of us went back far enough, especially those of us with colonial family ties, we’re all related somehow. Discussion ensued. Brian attempted to look up a statistic on his smart phone…he thought that perhaps as many as 1 in 10 Americans has ties to the British Royal family. So…could our fascination with the Queen and her family actually have something to do with our DNA?
The next day I did a bit of Google searching myself to see if I could come up with some more statistics. There is a lot of information out there on the web…I’m not sure if any of it actually answered my question though. I found several people blogging about “the conspiracy” that all of our American Presidents (and Presidential candidates) have royal genes. At some point Burke’s Peerage declared that the Presidential candidate with the most royal genes has won every single election. Is it really a conspiracy? Or something more simple? One statistic I found stated that 150 million Americans have traceable Royal European descent…(direct line from a monarch.) I’m not sure I’m doing my math correctly…but wouldn’t that mean that half of all Americans descend from European Royalty?
I located a quote from back in 1984 from someone representing Crown Genealogical Services in Los Angeles:
“…The answer is not that American Presidents have been people of exceptional ancestry; but rather that they have been people whose ancestry has received an exceptional degree of attention from skilled genealogists. The underlying truth is that medieval royal descent is very widespread among Americans, although this fact is not widely or clearly understood by most American students of genealogy…”
There is a theory out there that everyone in the Western world is descended from Charlemagne. Most of us have a difficult time locating information about our great-grandparents, let alone know anything about multiple generations (or centuries) previous to them. So if we are all descended from Charlemagne or William the Conqueror or some other important figure… can we prove it? That’s the key. And that’s the game of genealogy.
Genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts states that individuals with significant roots in 17th and 18th Century New England, Mid-Atlantic or Southern plantation states, have a high chance of being descended from the Medieval Kings of England, Scotland, France, and perhaps even Germany. Massachusetts and Virginia especially were two places that the younger children of English aristocratic families came looking for land. Once in the colonies, several of these land-grant families intertwined their branches so tightly that virtually everyone was related.
The recent proliferation of available digitized records on the internet and websites like Ancestry.com (and many other genealogy-centric sites) certainly make it easier than ever to discover ones roots. Yet still, most genealogical lines cannot be traced back beyond the middle of the 16th Century. But a royal descent is another story…for the simple fact that gentry, nobility, and royalty were better documented. Once you find that gateway person on your family tree, you can add a thousand years of family history, at least along one or several family lines. And once you bump into one or two VIP’s on your tree, chances are someone else (and sometimes an expert) has spent a good amount of time researching your ancestor. Your ancestor might even have his or her own Wikipedia page.
This was the case for me. My “gateway” person is my great-great grandmother Elizabeth Jane Briscoe (1849-1907). Elizabeth’s paternal grandparents were John Briscoe (1785-1850) and Susannah Woods (1790-1869). When Gary Boyd Roberts talks about tightly-twined Colonial families…well, he might have had this family in mind. It appears that John & Susannah were cousins, as John’s maternal grandparents Captain Andrew Wallace and Margaret Woods were the brother and sister of Susannah’s paternal grandparents Susannah Wallace and William Woods. Further it appears that that Andrew and Susannah Wallace’s mother was Elizabeth Woods the sister to Margaret and William Woods’ father Michael Woods. Confused yet? Let’s just say it seems that the Woods and Wallace families got along very well… especially those who found themselves in Virginia in the early 1700’s. Margaret and William Woods’ relatives have quite a number of important connections. Their paternal grandmother was Isabella Bruce, a descendent of Sir Alexander Livingston, Baron of Callendar, counselor to King James I (and executed by James II at Edinburgh Castle). And if I ever go back far enough, I think likely descended from Robert the Bruce. (Which is actually redundant, as I’m already connected to him through another branch.)
Their mother was Mary Catherine Campbell, one of thirteen children born to Sir James Campbell, a Baron of Auchinbreck, and Susan Campbell. Susan was a Campbell by birth, her father had his own castle (Cawdor Castle) and her mother came from a Welsh Baronet. This particular branch leads to a very long line of Campbells, Buchannans and Stewarts (among others)…and a list of titles…Ladies, Lords (Lairds), Baronets, Earls, Countesses, Viscounts…and an equally long list of “family” castles…Stirling, Cawdor, Sween, Balnagown, Lennox, Falkland, Balloch, Birr, Edinburgh…to name a few of the more significant ones. A number of these castles are still in existence as tourist attractions and have their own websites and some even have genealogy pages listing the descent of their inhabitants and the important events surrounding these individuals. Very helpful when building a family tree.
It is through these various and intertwined lines that I have found some serious Scottish roots…especially to those who battled for Scottish Independence… it appears I am directly descended from the Kings of Alba—including King Duncan I (infamous for killing his cousin Macbeth)—as well as the Scottish houses of Bruce & Stewart. My descendency follows from Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), Marjorie Bruce, Robert II and Robert III. My direct line seems to have run into a bit of trouble sometime in the early 1400’s…when James I became King. I’m not sure my relation to James, but he didn’t appreciate the fact that Murdoch, Duke of Albany (my direct line) had a claim on his throne. Murdoch had served as a Governor of Scotland during the time that the English had held James captive as a child. Once he was returned to Scotland and officially crowned King, he decided it wasn’t wise to have Murdoch and his offspring around. (Don’t forget that other branch of my tree…Sir Livingston who was counseling James I at this time.) Murdoch’s wife, Isabella Elizabeth Stewart, was taken prisoner by James I as her father (Duncan Stewart, Earl of Lennox), her husband, and two of her sons were taken from Stirling Castle and executed. Isabella raised her grandchildren as a Royal hostage for eight years. James I was later murdered and James II eventually restored Isabella’s titles and estates (and had Livingston executed!)
I look forward to the day when I can visit Stirling Castle. Will I be able to feel an ancestral connection after so many hundreds of years? Present day Stirling Castle interprets 16th century life in the castle… especially as the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots. And it is during this period I find yet another direct ancestor… Sir David Lindsay (1503-1558.) A Wiki-page provided the following information on Sir David:
“The ‘True Renaissance Man’ of the royal court; a diplomat, poet, writer, artist, and producer of satirical plays. He began his royal service under James IV and continued on under the reign of James V. When the King was still young, Lindsay essentially became his surrogate father. By 1530 he was officially appointed Snowdon herald, eventually becoming the senior herald and Lyon King of Arms of all Scotland. In this role he observed and influenced the behavior of the court, organizing great state occasions such as weddings, funerals and christenings. He was also given the privilege of helping to organize the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots at Stirling Castle.”
Perhaps it is this association that helps to explain my girlhood fascination with Mary Queen of Scots? I read any and every book about her life… non-fiction or fiction…and was always taken with the film portrayals of her…that 1936 version with Katherine Hepburn playing Mary? Obsessed. We both descend from the Houses of Bruce and Stewart… but the Lindsay connection is also interesting. I believe my “connection” to the current Queen lies somewhere within that Lindsay family as well, but also somewhere in the House of Stewart.
I still don’t know how many other Americans have these same connections… but whether it’s one thousand or 150 million… it’s still…well…it’s still incredibly captivating, no?