Danny Dyer is very proud of his heritage. In 2016, the actor, who stars in the British soap opera Eastenders, was revealed to be a descendant of King Edward III of England (1312–1377) after taking part in the the family history TV show Who Do You Think You Are?. And now he has made another programme in which he discovers he has other prominent ancestors including French king Louis IX who lived from 1214 to 1270 (later canonised as Saint Louis).
Of course, he’s not alone in his claims, with other Who Do You Think You Are? participants including Alexander Armstrong, Boris Johnson and Matthew Pinsent all turning out to be of royal descent. But should we be surprised that someone with a cockney accent can also boast such lineage? It’s actually more common than you might realise.
Statisticians have argued that if you go back far enough, everyone within a certain group of people will have a shared ancestor. And geneticists have found evidence they claim shows everyone of European descent alive today shares enough DNA to suggest they all have the same very large set of ancestors from as recently as 1,000 years ago. This has been used to argue that all modern Europeans can claim to be descended from the famous Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814).
You could apply the same ideas to argue that most people in Britain are descended from William the Conqueror (1028–1087) and Kenneth MacAlpin (810–858), who is contentiously known as the first king of Scotland. But we have to be careful about accepting these kind of statistical projections at face value. For one thing, they tend to be based on models which imagine that people partner randomly and, of course, this is not the case.
Particularly in the days before easy travel, marriage between partners who lived and worked in the same local communities was the common course of events. And marriages between cousins were not uncommon both among the upper classes and within more remote local communities. Both these factors will have limited the number of descendants from someone living hundreds of years ago.
We also know the number of descendants someone has doesn’t necessarily grow evenly and exponentially with each generation. Royal family trees show that it was common for family lines to come to an end when royal descendants were killed by disease or war, or simply didn’t have any surviving children of their own. With this in mind, we believe much more extensive, rigorous research would be needed to show what proportion of the population are descended from royalty.
However, there are still likely to be many people – perhaps millions – who are descended from European royalty. In fact, one of us (Graham Holton) has discovered he is descended from English king Edward I (1239–1307) and, like Danny Dyer, Louis IX, while the other (Alasdair Macdonald) is probably descended from Kenneth MacAlpin. In Scotland, many people claim to be descended from Robert the Bruce (1274–1329), and often those claims may be justified since his grandson Robert II had more than 20 children.
Dyer’s ancestor Edward III had several children who produced many descendants. In 1911, the Marquis of Ruvigny estimated from documented family trees that Edward’s living descendants numbered around 80,000 to 100,000. The number today, after four more generations of children, would be much greater.
It’s easy to understand how many of these descendants may not realise they have royal origins. Younger sons of kings would often become part of the nobility, and their younger children who didn’t inherit family titles would often become part of the wider gentry. Their children might become substantial farmers and the next generation might become smaller-scale farmers, then tenant farmers, merchants, tradesmen and eventually employees.
From around the 15th century, the number of descendants of the ruling classes had increased so much that this kind of downward social mobility probably accelerated. What’s more, many nobles will have had illegitimate or undocumented children, whose social status would have fallen even faster.
Of course, only a very small proportion of people can back up their royal claims with evidence. But genetic testing is starting to make a more significant contribution to efforts to establish the existence of royal relatives.
For example, Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI of Scotland (James I of England) descend from the Scottish royal House of Stewart. Other well documented descendants of the House who are alive today have taken a DNA test to identify genetic markers unique to the Stewart family that are carried by the Y-chromosome, part of the DNA passed down to every male descendant.
So now any man who wants to find out if he is a distant relative (as opposed to descendant) of Mary Queen of Scots can take a Y-DNA test to see if there is a match, although the results will only reveal whether the subject is at the end of an unbroken male line of descendants. The same principles apply to other royal and noble families and clans, and instances of descent from Robert the Bruce have been proved this way.
Both men and women can also take an autosomal DNA test, which looks at the rest of the chromosomes for genetic matches with other people who have taken the test. In theory, this could also reveal you descend from royalty as you may share the same genetic ancestor with someone who has a documented royal ancestry.
As your DNA doesn’t contain genetic information from all your ancestors, you could have a royal forebear who has left no evidence of their family link to you. Despite this, DNA testing has made medieval genealogy for the masses a real possibility.