Tuesday, 4 March 2008

My ancestors include John of Gaunt, William the Conqueror, Alfred the Great and Charlemagne ... and the Norse Gods know who else!

How many of us have wondered how far back we might be able to trace our ancestry? Or whether we are descended from royalty? Or even from the gods?

An Alsatian acquaintance of mine has just died. In her touching, penultimate 'Poetic Sanctuary' Blog post, and knowing she had but a few weeks of life remaining, la douce Marie-Louise Schneider of Colmar explained her sadness at never having known any of her grandparents. Having not long lost my father at the time, Marie's words made me appreciate how fortunate I was that I at least knew my two grandmothers (both my grandfathers having died before I was born), and that my father had fostered my interest in family history.

Every genealogist, amateur or professional, will offer this initial piece of advice to beginners: Start by talking to your grandparents and learn all you can from their knowledge and thoughts, the implication being that these invaluable sources of knowledge will not be available indefinitely and, further, that they may not have troubled to write it all down.

Thank goodness my father did just that, and that I picked up from where he left off while he was still with us and able to guide me. Every advance that I was able to make, and every new related contact - even two 1st cousins of mine he knew nothing about! - was of great interest to him.

The big difference between undertaking family history research now, and when my father embarked on it, is, of course, that modern genealogists have the huge advantage of the Web at their fingertips. Data supplied by established professional sources, as well as by amateurs, is readily searchable to be either relied upon or adopted with caution. Making contact and sharing knowledge with previously unknown relatives, however distant and geographically remote, is now remarkably easy - provided they, too, are playing the same game.

My father's efforts by traditional methods, used periodically over about twenty years, produced sound results, ancestral trees for both himself and my mother comprising a few hundred names. My efforts by modern methods, used over eight years, to extend those trees has resulted (so far) in a tree of about 23,000 names. But whereas my father came to feel he knew each and every person on his trees, I certainly will never gain such intimate knowledge. The vast majority on mine are just names to me, and will remain so. I admit that my father probably gained more satisfaction from his painstaking work, often necessitating exploratory journeys and visits, than I ever will.

All the same, dangle enough bait, or cast the net wide enough and for long enough, and you never know what you might catch. As sometimes happens, a chance contact via Genes Reunited enabled me, very recently, to make an unexpected link with a line descending from royalty. I shall be seeking independent verification of the link.

I imagine that a large proportion of the UK population has a few drops of royal blood in them but, even so, actually finding a link with one of the 'houses' - in my case the Plantagenets - is quite exciting for an amateur genealogist. And from there the rest is easy because the royals have been well researched and documented. What a pity my father didn't live long enough to share my pleasure in making this discovery. All of a sudden the ascertainable number of one's ancestors extending from one particular line makes a giant leap, and any number of famous, and infamous, historical people may be added. But rather than incorporate the 'closest' ones, I set about trying to find the longest ancestral line through the tree. Would you believe 67 generations, back to Geat, "the son of a god", born in about 50 AD in Asgard?


Well, neither might I, because back there we seem to be more in the realms of Norse mythology than reality but, hey! who knows?