Gateway Ancestors

Alex’s Root to Tip post that I shared a few days ago (what do you mean you missed it? The original is here…) has had me thinking about gateway ancestors.

A ‘gateway ancestor’ is one that links your family to one that is ennobled in some way – landed gentry, some level of aristocracy or – gasp – royalty itself. One perks of finding one of these links (or so you may think) is that these families will have been investigated and documented and pedigree’d many times in the past thus saving you effort and money. Obviously another perk is the added … cachet of having a ‘royal connection’. You can see how this fits in with Alex’s article on mistakes caused by ‘wishful thinking’ – if you had a choice would you prefer to be descended from Boleyn the fish gutter of Stockport or that other Boleyn family of some repute?

Medieval fish gutting was a glamorous job

Medieval fish gutting was a glamorous job once you got over the smell

I take pains to add that there is nothing wrong in being descended from fish gutters, or from Stockport for that matter. (I’m also not saying that there is such a Boleyn family of fish gutting fame. Or that there isn’t. I don’t know.) Whichever line your family came from, its important to remain honest – both to yourself and to your ancestors.

So how do you end up with a gateway ancestor? How do the mighty fall?

Simple. The same way as any family. The family could find itself on hard times, the wrong side of a revolution or religious schism and have lands and titles confiscated. They could run out of sons back in the day when women couldn’t inherit or own property. Conversely they could have had too many sons: the younger scions would inherit neither wealth or a title and some migrated to the New World to seek their own fortune. Of course, there’s also the much harder to prove route of fathering a few children on a mistress (or two – or 14 – I’m looking at you King Charles II) or exercising some droit du seigneur (aka “droit de jambage“, “droit de cuisses” or “jus primae noctis“).

Several years ago everyone’s favourite genealogist Nick Barratt teamed up with historian Saul David to present a show called So You Think You’re Royal. There was also a similar programme called My Famous Family presented by everyone’s favourite twitcher Bill Oddie and historian Guy de la Bédoyère. Various versions of Who Do You Think You Are? regularly often feature celebs with aristocratic connections, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, Olympic rower Sir Matthew Pinsent, actress Brooke Shields and model Cindy Crawford.

Universal Royalty

Much was made in the press regarding Cindy Crawford’s connection to Charlemagne (often misspelt as Charlemange which makes me chuckle). However, in 1999 a study was published by a Yale statistician named Joseph Chang (available here in pdf). In it, he states that if you trace the ancestry of a living population of people then the genealogical lines will not spread exponentially but cross and meet in a series of common ancestors. Moving back in time, the number of these common ancestors grows until you reach the point that:

… all individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present-day individuals.

In 2002 an article was published by journalist Steven Olson in which he went on to clarify that:

… about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today.

The upshot? If you’re European then you’re descended from Charlemagne. If you go back 3,400 years then the entire world has a common ancestor in Nefertiti. Or Confucius. Or Muhammed.

A more detailed write up of this concept was published on the National Geographic blog area by science write Carl Zimmer in 2013 and is available here that includes more recent DNA examinations of these statements. Personally, I have located Charlemagne in my tree as my 34 x great-grandfather … Nefertiti and Confucius remain more elusive – although Odin pops up as a 40 x great-grandfather!

Of course, there are many things to be said for and against published pedigrees of wealthy and royal dynasties (something that I’ll talk about at a later date!) – which echoes Alex’s point in her post regarding check, check, check again when dealing with previously-published material!

So how about it? Have you found any gateway ancestors in your tree?

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20 comments

  1. No gateways for me as yet. Got one line that a lot of researchers seems to think links up to European royalty but I am yet to prove the link. Lots of people taking very silly leaps without noticing how many weird gaps they have!

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      1. It amazes me how some of it is from pretty old research but people read it because its online and think it must be right because it is old, not thinking that even in the 1600s people fudged pedigrees to make themselves out to be grander than they really were! Not to mention the people who think that because the only baptism they can find online for someone by the same name who lived hundreds of miles away must be their man, even if it means he would have been 92 when he got married and had his first child!

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        1. Ha! Yes! Or even dead before fathering a child. Or perhaps he was his own grandfather …

          (And I am posting a post tomorrow morning – interested to hear if R2T would maybe like to do a contributor post regarding the whole visitations/pedigrees thing?)

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      1. From what I recall of looking into it, he was the youngest son of the youngest son, so never in line to inherit anything. That being said he was interviewed for several books about his family and their role in the building of Bedfordshire the year before he died. My mother was livid when she found out he let them publish pictures of her as a child… (she was a big child…)

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  2. I have one line that has been researched by many people in the past and it is loaded with royalty and goes clear back to Adam. Seriously. I do not for one second assume this is accurate and well researched. Nor do I plan to try to prove/disprove that many generations of work. But, my kids think it’s cool to try to find the branches that go back that far. It’s always exciting when they get to Noah, builder of the Ark because then they know the line is going all the way back. 🙂

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