A family history in footnotes

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The Independent Online
SOONER or later most of us find ourselves trying to trace our family tree. We'll ask older relatives things such as: 'By the way, where did Auntie Dora come from?' and: 'Did my parents have any other children they forgot to tell us about?' Yes, there is something strangely alluring about tracing your genealogy back into the mists of time, or at least as far as your Victorian great-great-grandmother.

It is, you might say, one of the basic human rights to have a family tree. But do you have the patience for it? Before you set out on the search for your ancestors, do you know if you have the determination to fight your way through the small print and footnotes that will smother your path like ground elder and without which you will never build that family tree?1

1 Unless you are the Queen, of course. In that case, not only will your Victorian great-great- grandmother be Queen Victoria herself, but you will already know your family tree back as far at least as King Harold. If you are the Queen, in fact, your family tree is on sale in tourist and heritage shops all over Britain, so if you ever forget how Charles I links up with King Harold,2 you can pop out and buy a copy to look it up.

2 When I say King Harold, it might be safer to say King William I. King Harold was related to William the Conqueror,3 otherwise the Duke of Normandy would never have had a claim on the throne of England, but I don't think the link was very strong. (Perhaps the Queen could help on this one.) If Harold and William were related, of course, it does make it all the more unforgivable for one to shoot the other in the eye. At least, that's what I feel.

3 When making family trees, there is no need to mention people's nicknames, such as 'the Conqueror', as there usually isn't enough room to write them in. This may explain, incidentally, why nicknames for English monarchs have dropped out of use in recent years. There was a time when Ethelreds were all Unready, Herewards were always Wake, and most Richards were Lionheart. What has there been since the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I? I think William IV was called Sailor Bill before he ascended the throne, but nothing since then. 4 It's about time we brought back royal nicknames.

4 One partial exception to this is the modern nickname sometimes given to the Duke of Edinburgh, namely Phil the Greek. The Duke must have resented this, as I seem to recall he is not actually Greek, but more Danish than anything. It must be remembered, though, that the royal families of any country are almost always foreign in origin - the successful ones, anyway. The British Royal Family is basically German. The Swedish royal family is French in origin, being descended from one of Napoleon's marshals. 5 Maybe that's the real reason why Louis XVI had his head chopped off. He was too French for the job] Ten years later, after all, they had a Corsican on the throne of France.

5 Marshal Bernadotte. 6

6 Bernadotte was not the name he used on the Swedish throne, of course. I can't remember what it was offhand, but it seems to be one of the rules of the monarchy game that once on the throne you discard the name you are known to the family under, and take another one. Was not George VI known to his chums as Bertie or Eddie or something? Or anything but George VI? I rather fancy he was. Unfortunately, my copy of What Kings are Called, and Why is out on loan at the moment. 7

7 A lie, of course. Most of my books at any one moment are lying on the floor where I last consulted them. Or misfiled on the shelves. Only the other day I looked under my bed for a book I seemed to remember having been reading at bedtime, only to find 30 or 40 half-read books under there, many of which I had been looking for for a long time, and one of which the London Library8 has also been looking for for more than 10 years.

8 This is not the library's true name, which has been changed in order to protect the guilty (ie, me).

Well, by now you must know for certain whether you have the patience to wade through all those footnotes as you pursue your family tree. If you haven't, and I don't blame you, don't worry] Just send me your name on a postcard saying: 'I would like you to leave no stone unturned to discover my family tree,' together with a signed blank cheque, and leave the rest to me.