How to tell if you’re related to the aristocracy

If you have one of these surnames, it could be you

It’s still common to find people who claim they’ve got noble blood. Remember that guy in your year at Bristol who said he was related to William the Conqueror? Yeah, turns out he was probably lying.

We spoke to Anthony Adolph, professional genealogist and author of Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors, to see just how likely it is that you’re a duke and don’t even know about it.

Look for ancestors with aristocratic names

Looking in your ancestry for ancestors with aristocratic-sounding names is your best bet. The Dukes of Somerset are Seymours, the Dukes of Norfolk are Howards, the Dukes of Northumbria are Percys. All the family trees of these prominent families are very well-recorded, so it shouldn’t be too hard.

By tracing back someone with an aristocratic-sounding name you might find a link to a titled family. But don’t take that for granted or just make up a link because you believe one must exist. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of Howards around, and not all of them are related to the Duke of Norfolk.

Charles Howard, the 11th Duke of Norfolk

Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk

Here are some surnames which may link you to British barons and earls:

Maxwell (Baron de Ros)

Astley (Baron Hastings)

Russell (Baron de Clifford)

Frankland (Baron Zouche)

Kenworthy (Baron Strabolgi)

Herbert (Baron Herbert)

Robertson (Baron Wharton)

Dormer (Baron Dormer)

Byron (Baron Byron)

Clifford (Baron Clifford of Chudleigh)

Stanley (Earl of Derby)

Herbert (Earl of Pembroke)

Hastings (Earl of Huntingdon)

Courtenay (Earl of Devon)

Howard (Earl of Suffolk)

Capell (Earl of Essex)

Lumley (Earl of Scarbrough)

Coventry (Earl of Coventry)

And some of the surnames held by British baronets:

Abercrombie, Affleck, Anderson, Andrews, Austen, Baker, Banks, Barker, Beck, Bernard, Blackwell, Blake, Blunt, Boyd, Bridges, Bromley, Brown, Buxton, Cavendish, Chaplin, Chapman, Clayton, Cornish, Curtis, Dallas, Danvers, Denis, Douglas, Duncan, East, Elliott, Farmer, Fleming, Foley, Gardner, Graham, Green, Hamilton, Hawkins, Hayes, Holland, Horton, Hulse, Humphreys, James, Johnson, Jones, Kent, King, Lamb, Leigh, Lloyd, MacGregor, Mackenzie, Mann, Martin, Miller, Moore, O’Carroll, Page, Palmer, Parker, Paul, Payne, Peele, Prescott, Pringle, Robinson, Rycroft, Sloane, Smith, Stephens, Stirling, Sykes, Taylor, Thomas, Thompson, Turner, Vaughan, Warren, Williams, Wilmot, Wolff, Wright, Young.

Alternatively, look for ancestors who had a lot of money

You should also be looking for ancestors who were just clearly well-off. As you work back, you have to look for the line which may have come from wealthier or grander ancestors.

So you might start off with a shopkeeper, and find that his wife was the daughter of a merchant. Then the merchant’s wife might have been the daughter of a minor knight, and the knight’s wife might have been the daughter of an earl, who was descended from a duke, and so on.

Finally, you might find your way back into the extended family of Edward III, who produced enough descendants to cause the Wars of the Roses. Many of his descendants married into the aristocracy, which is why royal blood can be traced down to so many people.

This is Edward

This is Edward

Don’t only look at your posh relatives

You’re actually quite likely to be descended from the royal family, but you’re unlikely to be descended in the way that your family story might have told you. It’s the unlikely side of the family that will most often bear fruit – my grandmother came from a very unassuming background in Croydon, but she turned out to be descended from Edward III through the same line as the Duchess of Cambridge!

It’s the unlikely ones that sometimes turn out to be right. You could have lots of posh people without any royal blood at all, and then the person with the working class accent down the end could look at their family tree and find they’re descended from royalty.

Don’t be tricked into thinking having royal blood is rare

Statistically, we’re all descended from the royals. A professor at Yale University worked out that if anyone living in the year 1200 left any descendants who are alive now, then that person is statistically an ancestor of every single person on the planet.

King John was on the throne in 1200, which means we’re all descended from King John. But we’re also all descended from King John’s servants, and King John’s pig handler.

Probably your granddad

Probably your granddad

And don’t expect a title

Don’t go in looking for a title, because you’re probably not going to end up with one. It would be incredibly unusual to find you had a title you didn’t know about. In almost all cases, the titles are with the people who are actually entitled to them.

That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Once in an absolute blue moon, you tracing your family tree will find you’re actually the rightful heir to a title. I can only think of a couple of instances though.

…Or £8.3 billion

Face it, the Duke of Westminster’s son knows perfectly well who his father was. If you look up your family tree and find out you have noble blood, it doesn’t mean you should expect financial gain or grand titles. 

You will learn a huge amount about who you are and where you come from though, so it’s definitely worth doing.

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