The man who is now the British Foreign Secretary had, a few weeks before his appointment, written about the President of the United States of America having an ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’ (see the Independent, 22 April 2016). Anything about Ancestry gets the instant attention of a Genealogist, so Boris Johnson’s über-provocative phrase made me ask “Do we really have ancestral likes or dislikes?” How much do any of us really have in common with our ancestors?
Countries are sometimes asked to apologise or make retrospective reparations for crimes done by the long-dead predecessors of their office holders. It’s the same idea, that we are somehow identified with our ancestors and even the people who did our jobs before us. Year by year I think that that concept seems more and more bonkers: it is sometimes hard to be reconciled even with our younger selves, isn’t it? I’m sure ‘Boris’ must think so daily; I certainly do.
English Common Law Canons of Descent and the Statute of Quia Emptores (1290) used to put a landowner in the shoes of his or her predecessors. Before 1290, a purchaser of land automatically became the feudal vassal of the seller, who in turn became a Mesne Lord (pronounced ‘mean’ but meaning intermediate rather than vicious). Monarchs and Peers may appear to wear the regalia of their ancestors, but History tells us they are all individuals. Consider the Second Viscount Stansgate for example.
‘Meeting the ancestors’ for me was a journey of discovery to alien lands, even though most of mine had lived on mainland Britain or its offshore islands for the past 300 years (and that’s still about as much as I know). One of the pleasures of family history must be discovering a blend of otherness and sameness. If we are lucky enough to collect more than just names and dates, we might detect traits of character that we recognise. If an English ancestor was in the 19th-century Militia – regarded then as unlucky because it meant they had not been able to buy exemption – we might conversely be lucky enough to discover that he or she shared our stature, complexion, hair or eye colour. But what if we met? What would we see when we looked into their blue (or brown or green) eyes? A meeting of minds? Conversation might be tricky with some of them: I’d come up against a solid enough language barrier with my monoglot Gaelic-speaking ancestors in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, but would I even understand (say) Early Modern Yorkshire? And I’m sure none of them would understand me. Think of all the things your children or your parents say that sound like a foreign language, and multiply by ten generations.
I was appalled to discover the text of a speech made by my much loved and respected grandfather in the 1930s vehemently against the idea of a National Health Service (he then favoured ‘the principle of Voluntarism’ – Charities rather than the State running hospitals – not a view he ever expressed when I knew him as an OAP and ‘frequent flyer’ in the local NHS hospital). An uncle using the ‘N-word’ when writing home from the East African Expeditionary Force during the First World War shocked me less, because, having worked alongside the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary when I was Archivist of the OUP, I can make allowances for such ‘then and now’ word choices. The same pleasant young man habitually wrote about his fiancée as ‘the Girl’; doubtless if he’d survived she would have been ‘the Wife’.
DNA analysis has revolutionized Genealogy. No longer does it only reveal ‘x’ and ‘y’ lineages. One of its most refreshing effects is now that individuals taking the test are surprised by the breadth of their ancestry. Narrow pride in surnames gives way to a fresh discovery of diversity: maybe we’re 5% Neanderthal or Pictish or Hottentot. We are all descended from one or more of the seven ‘daughters of Eve’. East Coast ‘Codfish Aristocrats’ now celebrate their Native American roots alongside their European entanglements. We learn that we are all fundamentally human.
If I were to base my views and prejudices on those of my ancestors, which would I choose? Fortunately, I don’t have to, and there would be too many to choose from (and they were all of their times and cultures and not mine; I’ve got plenty of likes and dislikes of my own without adopting theirs). Meet your ancestors; don’t attempt to be them or to think like them. Let’s marvel at just how different we all can be – even within our families.