When somebody enters into a partnership with a family historian he might be forgiven for wondering whether his partner is casting covetous glances towards his ancestors. Therefore, when the researcher begins asking questions, albeit ones carefully designed to hide the extent of her interest, he should not be surprised. And so this adventure through family history began.
I am a great believer in the value of people knowing and understanding their roots. Many of us live long distances from our geographical roots, sometimes the other side of the world or at least across continents. Indeed, there may be no one left in the family who can tell us from where the family originated, what the family used to do, what they experienced.
A true story, which happened to a friend of mine before I became a family historian but which I never forgot, illustrates what can be gained from knowing our roots.
Gary’s family came from what we would now call an inner city area. All that his siblings, parents, grandparents and great grandparents knew was life in the town. But Gary wanted more, wanted something different. He regularly bunked off school to go to the local market, absorbing knowledge from the farmers, learning about the good and bad points of cattle. In time he became a cattle farmer. It was quite beyond the understanding of his family and he was viewed almost as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’. In time, he came to think of himself as an outsider.
And then came the day when he was invited to a family reunion which had been arranged by a distant cousin, someone whose existence nobody in his immediate family had known about. She had been researching the family tree and tracked down relatives. At the reunion, every person was presented with a family tree printed on a rolled up scroll, tied with red ribbon. The generations went back to the time of King Henry VIII, the early 1500s. And it showed that generation after generation of his family had been farmers, in an area of the county which he loved and in which he had actually started his training.
It was not Gary who had been the cuckoo in the nest but recent generations of the family who, for whatever reason, had moved to the town and established their life there. Gary, albeit unknowingly, had gone back to his roots. The knowledge that he was no longer the odd one out but was following the farming footsteps of his ancestors made a tremendous difference to Gary.
Our genes are the basic physical and functional units of heredity. They carry the DNA which determine the sort of person we are, our height, our skin colouring, hair colouring, even the shape of our nose or chin. It all runs in the family. But I believe that our genes carry more than the physical characteristics of the family, that generations of our ancestors and their way of life, have imprinted themselves on us via our genes. And so it is that, standing where my own farming ancestors stood, looking at the same view that they would have looked at, plus or minus a few trees and hedges, I understood my love of rolling English hills.
And so I began hatching my plot to research Henry’s family, to discover what influences David was carrying in his genes.
Next: Who was Henry?