The Human Side of Genealogy

Royal Bloodlines: Often a Bloody Matter


Just as some knowledge of history can help us to regain the context within which to understand the genealogical records that we unearth, so can genealogical records help us to comprehend the historical record. True for the family trees of each of us, this is also true of royal family trees. I have forgotten how I compiled many genealogical charts in a composition notebook some years ago, but I somehow set down the most important data for English royal families from William the Bastard to Elizabeth II.

This notebook astonishes me now, with its pages of crabbed but still legible detail. It reminds me of some interesting or pathetic facts: that George III sired nine boys and six girls upon Queen Charlotte; that Queen Anne survived 19 dead children; that Bonnie Prince Charlie (the Young Pretender) had a younger brother who became a Cardinal, Henry Cardinal Duke of York.

More importantly, visualizing the English royal bloodlines adds some depth to my understanding of English history. I may know a fact, but seeing that fact embodied in a family tree deepens its significance. Princess Victoria's governess, wanting Victoria finally to perceive her own significance to the royal succession, gave her the Hanover family tree to read. The young Victoria finally understood, replying "I will be good." In much the same way, my reading the royal charts drives home facts that I already "know," fleshing out their continuity and context.

I must have started this notebook when I studied Shakespeare's English history plays and tried to puzzle out the densely tangled competing claims to the throne that inspired the fratricidal struggle called the Wars of the Roses. My notebook begins with energetic attempts to explain to myself the Lancastrian and Yorkist bloodlines. Paging through these charts chronicling a murderous royal house, I now perceive the symptoms of the rise of the House of Tudor, like a parasite battening on a dying tree.

The Tudors had an obscure origin and the flimsiest of claims to the throne. After the warrior king Henry V died, his French widow married a Welshman named Owen Tudor and bore him several children, including their sons Edmund and Jasper. Edmund died young but stays on the chart just long enough to father the first Tudor usurper, Henry VII. The Lancastrian Jasper eventually married the Dowager Duchess of Buckingham, widow of the Yorkist ally of Richard III and sister of the Yorkist Queen Elizabeth Woodville, a detail that fills me with curiosity about their chances of marital happiness.

The charts illuminate several later dynastic struggles that determined much English history. Just like the Lancastrians and Yorkists, the Tudors and the Stuarts, as well as the earlier Hanoverian sovereigns, recurrently contended with rebellions based on disputed bloodlines. Lady Jane Grey reluctantly displaced Queen Mary for a week and a half, and an ardent Mary Queen of Scots threatened Elizabeth's security for decades. Seeing from the trees that these great-grandaughters of Henry VII were second cousins—Jane Grey being the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart being the granddaughter of their sister Margaret Tudor—somehow clarifies what I already know.

Exhaustion of the womb of the last Stuart sovereign, Queen Anne, led to the acquisition of a king for England who never learned any English, the Elector of Hanover who became George I. He might not speak English, but at least he was Protestant (unlike the legitimate heir, Anne's younger brother, the Old Pretender).

Puzzling out how George possessed a claim becomes easier when I look at the chart of his grandmother, Elizabeth the Winter Queen of Bohemia, who began life as Princess Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I and granddaughter of Mary Queen of Scots.

After several failed challenges to the Hanoverian kings from the Old Pretender and his son Bonnie Prince Charlie, the protracted reign of George III introduced a new dynastic crisis. The charts show nine sons with rights to succeed, but only one had produced a legitimate child, the Prince Regent. Nerved by much alcohol to the dread deed, he had reluctantly begotten his daughter upon a detested and bigamous bride, but his heir, Charlotte of Wales, died in childbirth in 1817. Her and her baby's deaths caused several princes in late middle age to abandon their mistresses, embrace matrimony, and seek to beget children. Not the only royal baby born in 1819 but the one who eventually succeeded, Victoria owed her very existence to her first cousin's agonized death.

An amorous woman unenthusiastic about pregnancy or babies, Victoria nevertheless became Europe's grandmother by virtue of the dynastic alliances formed by her descendants. The Kaiser Wilheim II held his dying grandmother in his arms 13 years before the Great War. Other German relatives in Victoria's tree had a powerful impact on her royal house, renamed Windsor as a result of popular anti-German hysteria.

The Battenbergs took a small role at first. A morganatic branch of the House of Hesse and by Rhine, the family included Henry, who married Victoria's daughter Beatrice. His brother Louis wed Victoria of Hesse, the old Queen's granddaughter and the sister of the Tsarina Alexandra. Louis and Victoria had a son named Louis of Battenberg, renamed Louis Mountbatten during the Great War, later Earl of Burma and the Viceroy who relinquished India. They also had a daughter, Alice, wife of Prince Andrew of Greece and mother of Prince Philip of Greece, renamed Philip Mountbatten to emphasize his mother's bloodline.

Eventually Elizabeth II's husband, Philip Mountbatten is related to everyone. His father was the Tsar Nicholas's first cousin, as was George V. Thus, on his paternal side, Philip is his wife's second cousin, once removed. In his maternal bloodline, Philip and Elizabeth share Victoria as a great-great-grandmother, which makes them third cousins. The tragic Tsarina was Philip's Great-aunt Alix (and Elizabeth's first cousin, twice removed). Philip provided the DNA evidence that identified her and her daughters' desecrated and battered bones.

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