Genealogy has fascinated me ever since I was a child. My parents told me stories about their parents and grandparents, and they even knew a little about their great-grandparents, so when my children had school projects that involved drawing a family tree I was able to give them enough info for several generations. It surprised me to learn that most people don’t even know their grandmothers’ maiden names. In my family, details like that were snippets of lore we took for granted.
I yearned to fill in the details of the missing great-great-grandparents, at least, so when I was in England in 1996, I went to St Catherine’s House, where the records were then kept, and examined registers from the nineteenth century. What a sense of awe that created in me! I imagined a hard-working Victorian clerk dipping his quill into an inkwell and then carefully inscribing the record of the birth of Jane Suffill in the Ecclesfield Registration District in the June quarter of 1840, or the marriage of Emanuel Flavell to Martha Allen in the Dudley Registration District in the last quarter of 1881. I handled those red-leather-bound volumes with the reverence due to holy relics. This was, after all, as close as I could get to my ancestors. And what of that clerk, and all the countless other clerks that must have worked in the Register Office? They probably have descendants living today, too. Where were they, I wondered, and what were they doing? Did they also want to know more about their ancestors and how they lived?
It was only a step from there to realising that history, my favourite subject in school, was nothing more than family history writ large. In learning about our ancestors we learn about how our world today was shaped by the actions of those ancestors and their contemporaries. It is, after all, interactions among people that create societies, with their religions, laws and political systems, which in turn shape the lives of future generations.
I couldn’t go any farther back than 1838 at St Cath’s, since records only started in June of that year. To research earlier generations would have meant expensive and time-consuming trips to various parts of England to read parish registers in order to find the births, marriages and deaths of my 3x-great-grandparents. So, due to lack of those two most vexing of commodities, time and money, I had to shelve my genealogical longings for the nonce.
But then, in 1999, I discovered web sites where transcripts of some of those old records could be consulted, and mailing lists that put genealogists in touch with distant cousins researching the same lines! Joy of joys! I embraced the new technology with fervour, spending anything up to 12 hours a day researching my ancestors and writing up my findings. I entered each new name lovingly into a database that grew apace, and within a couple of years I had some lines back to the sixteenth century. The farther back I went, the more entranced I became.
Then I had a really exciting breakthrough about one of my 10x great-grandmothers. Her name was Jane Dudley, and that’s all I knew – another researcher passed on the name, and that of her husband, Richard Pershouse or Parkeshouse, but other than that she was a mystery. But thanks to still another researcher, I found out who the families of orgin were for Jane and Richard.
Because of Jane, I now have a plethora of information about many of my ancestors from the fifth to the sixteenth centuries. Not just names and dates, but details of their lives, lands and loves. I know who they married and what dowries were given; what wars the men fought and what their widows did if they failed to return. I can see their arrogance, avarice and cruelty, yet praise them for their acts of kindness and their bravery on and off the battlefield. All this is possible because of that girl called Jane.
Jane was born out of wedlock and by rights her name should have been Jane Tomlinson, but because her father was of the nobility, he was able to insist that Jane be known by his name. Or rather, his names, for until she married, Jane was known as Jane Sutton or Dudley.
Once a genealogist has a link into the medieval nobility, the research is relatively easy. It is, after all, written up in Debret’s.
It was not hard for me to discover the history of Jane’s paternal line, right back to William the Conqueror and beyond, back to Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and Cerdic the Saxon, who, it is said, took the throne that by rights should have belonged to the last great Celtic warlord, King Arthur. And, if Arthur ever existed, his blood must also flow in my veins.
Furthermore, friends, if you are of British or even European descent, those are your bloodlines, too. Statistics demonstrate that if you had ancestors in Britain after the terrible plague known as the Black Death, you are almost certainly related to everyone else who has similar ancestry. From the two million-odd people who survived the Black Death of the 1340s springs almost the entire population of those countries in which English is the first language. And if we look at the continual intermarriage among the nobility of Britain and the countries of mainland Europe, it’s easy to see that we are all cousins. In fact, some scholars suggest that statistically, it is almost impossible not to be descended from the following people:
- Cerdic the Saxon (ca 470-534)
- Charlemagne (742-814)
- Alfred the Great (849-899)
- William the Conqueror (1028-1087)
- King John (1167-1216)
- Edward III (1312-1377)
If you are of even partial European descent, all those men are your relatives, if not direct ancestors. So, for that matter, was Jack the Ripper, and so is the drug addict begging for a ‘couple of dollars’ in the street.
If we go back far enough – some say as little as 70,000 years – all the people in the world are cousins. Some people say this makes genealogy meaningless. Far from it! I believe it demonstrates that family history is simply world history in minute detail and world history is just the summation of all family histories; the sum total of who and what we are. What subject could be more worthy of study?
How are we related? Check out my list of surnames and get in touch if you’re researching any of the same lines!