Dick Turpin or Henry VIII – Who Would You Prefer in Your Family Tree?

Do you really and honestly want to know who hides in your past, dear reader? Assuming the answer is yes, given the obsession with family trees, I have to ask, why? What is it you are hoping to find?

Would your life be enhanced to find out that you are a descendent of Henry VIII? Would you feel shame or exultation to find you had the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, hiding in your family tree?

Before you answer these last two questions, pause a moment and think about the reasoning behind your reaction. Henry VIII may have been royalty, but what kind of a person beheads his own wife because she can’t give him something he wants? Dick Turpin may have been a highwayman, but was he bloodthirsty and fearsome or just a coward who preyed on lone women?

The truth is that you don’t know and you’ll never know because you weren’t alive when they were and you don’t know anything about them personally. There may be events in their pasts which formed the men they became. The truth is, all we have is the history books and these are based on conjecture, opinion, speculation and assumption, all based around the factual evidence that has been unearthed.

The experts say our obsession with our family tree is due to our innate need to belong and to understand why we behave in a certain way and why we like or dislike certain things. I mean, how many times have you heard ‘you get that from your father’ or, how many times have you said ‘I know where I get that from’?

Yes, DNA and genetics form a big part of who we are and are used to explain a great deal about why we have some of the personality traits we do and why certain illnesses affect one side of the family, but not the other. But DNA and genetics are not the only thing.

Our environment, our culture, our social class and our ability to carve out our own future also play a role. Think about it, are Henry and Dick really all that different – both treated people abominably – or is it the class and privilege they were born into that separates them? Is it this said class and privilege, or the perception thereof, which would have you bragging about being related to Henry and brushing your link to Dick under the old carpet, unless you’re me of course? After all, they are both alleged killers…

Two people with the same DNA and the same family tree could end up with completely different lives, if they had been separated at birth and placed in different environments. So, while DNA and genetics may help answer somewhat who we are, it is not the full picture. This explains why some orphans need to seek out their birth parents, while others don’t. It explains why sometimes you may feel like a stranger in your own family, yet know you are not adopted.

This leads us on to the creation of a family tree and how my last comment, about not feeling part of your family, may help. Not all traits etc. are passed from generation to generation, some skip a few i.e. multiple births. But a family tree isn’t usually drawn up because of this, as grandparents can often fill the void of wonder you may have.

Family trees are drawn up to try and find out where we come from, who we might be related to and whether we have someone famous lurking in our past. The other night, I was at a party and one of the guests I was talking to commented that a member of her family had the surname Cope and was related to the clock-making Copes. She then asked if I’d done my family tree to find that link. I haven’t.

The need to build a family tree is linked to our innate sense of needing to belong to something, to feel part of something. It all goes back to a time when communities were smaller and close knit, and families were large. Everyone knew everyone and they all looked out for each other. Industrialisation and, more definably, the technologies of the modern age have largely shattered this. We can live and work miles apart. We don’t need to be in the same room to talk to someone and families are now spread across the globe. Communities are largely disappearing as people lose trust in fellow man and withdraw into their own world. In essence, we are becoming isolated and singular, rather than part of a whole. Building a family tree helps to give us the sense of belonging that today’s world is eroding.

Yet, how reliable are family trees anyway? Not very, is the honest answer. Think about it. There haven’t always been accurate records, ID cards or honesty – scratch the last one as there still isn’t. There was a time in the not too distant past when people were able to change their name at will – if running from the law, a spouse or a creditor, when people lied about their age – either deliberately or because they didn’t know their date of birth, when names were misspelled due to literacy issues, and when people were more transient. Records were also pretty scarce. So, think before you jump for joy when you find that elusive census record because, chances are, it isn’t the person you are looking for. Also, don’t forget, the census is a point in time and probably wasn’t completed on a set date as it is today. This could result in the same person appearing on two census records in the same year, if they changed location.

I am not knocking genealogy, believe it or not. It is always interesting to explore the depths of the past, regardless of whether it’s really yours or not. If drawing up your family tree gives you that sense of self and belonging, then fill your boots.

But, take heed dear reader, for if you go back far enough, you will find that we are all related to each other. After all, doesn’t the good book (said in jest) say that Adam and Eve started it all???

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

‘Til next time.