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Friday, February 22, 2013

Contemplating Royal Genealogies

It seems to be a common thread among some genealogists that connecting to a royal line is big deal. It has always seemed strange to me that in a country, like the U.S., that fought to rid itself of a king, so many people would be interested in connecting to royal families. I guess it is in the same vein as knowing how you are related to famous or popular people. Connecting to royal families is not particularly remarkable but the real question is once you believe you have such a connection, how reliable is that information.

I find, almost without exception, that royal lines are accepted almost on blind faith. During some of my earliest research, over thirty years ago, I found family group record after family group record claiming I had royalty in my pedigree. After years of further research, I have yet been unable to document even one connection to a royal line, not that I have consciously tried to do so. Meanwhile, I have concluded that looking for a royal line is a pretty good motivation for some people to get started in genealogy and it is mostly harmless. In Arizona, we have the same kind of thing with people looking for proof of American Indian ancestors, only there the main motivation is tribal membership and benefits.

It is interesting to see how many online societies and organizations there are dedicated to membership of those that can "prove" royal descent. One of the oldest of these is the Sovereign Colonial Society Americans of Royal Descent founded in 1867 and located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There is also quite a library of books documenting the royal descent of the American colonists. With even a superficial search online, you can find dozens of books and websites dedicated to royal genealogy. Here are a few examples:
  • Roberts, Gary Boyd. The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States: Who Were Themselves Notable or Left Descendants Notable in American History. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co, 2004.
  • Richardson, Douglas, Kimball G. Everingham, and David Faris. Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2004.
  • Weis, Frederick Lewis, Walter Lee Sheppard, David Faris, and Frederick Lewis Weis.Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700: The Lineage of Alfred the Great, Charlemagne, Malcolm of Scotland, Robert the Strong, and Some of Their Descendants. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1992.
  • Browning, Charles Henry. Americans of Royal Descent. Philadelphia: Porter & Costes, 1883.
These and many other books often have what appears to be extensive documentation. Unfortunately, some of that documentation is simply to other compilations of a similar nature. There is a good explanation of the issues involved in doing research back into the royal lines on Ancestry.com's Pro-genealogists website. Begin with an article entitled, "Medieval British Isles Families" and look for similar articles. Quoting from that article, the author, Gary T. Horlacher, cites some of the problems with doing this kind of research:
When tracing medieval genealogies one should be aware of some areas where difficulties and errors are found. Difficulties and errors that you will want to be careful of include:
  • Accepting undocumented pedigrees as truth. 
  • Separating fact from fiction.
  • Unverified or incorrect pedigree links.
  • False information.
You should be especially careful in the following cases:
  • Genealogies back to Adam.
  • Ancestry of Colonial American Families.
  • Fabricated lineages.
  • Lineages through illegitimacy.
This is only the barest beginnings of the issues with establishing royal lines. Of course, documenting a line to a modern royal family may be much more reliable, if there are cited sources. If you want to get an idea of the controversy and scholarly discussion of royal pedigrees, I suggest the website Some Notes on Medieval English Genealogy. Although this website talks about England, the same issues exist in any European country's royal genealogies. You will, of course, also want to look at the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy.

Even though I write about this topic from time to time, I still find that the issues of connecting to royal lines to be current in the genealogical community. In past posts on this subject, I get comments explaining to me that the commentator's lines to royalty have been verified and questioning my skepticism. I acknowledge that kings and queens had children and descendants just like anyone's ancestors, but a word to the wise is that you have to shovel through a lot of dirt to get to the gold in royal genealogies.

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