A royal descent is a lineal descent from a past or present monarch. Royal descent is sometimes claimed as a mark of distinction and is seen as a desirable goal of genealogy. Pretenders, impostors and those hoping to improve their social status have often claimed royal descent and some have fabricated lineages. The importance of royal descent to some genealogists has been criticized.
Due to the incompleteness of records, the number of people who claim royal descent is much higher than the number who can actually prove it. Genealogists and geneticists have attempted to estimate the percentage of various populations that have royal descent.
Millions of people are estimated to be provable descents from medieval monarchs, according to Mark Humphrys, a genealogy enthusiast and professor of computer science at Dublin City University in Ireland. The number of people with unprovable descents must be massive.
However, logically, for every royalty in a person's family tree, there are bound to be thousands of undocumented individuals whose births, deaths and lives went completely unrecorded by history. A truism that would naturally apply also to someone who is per se a living royalty.
There has been a long tradition for royalty predominantly to marry those of their own class. As a result, the ruling houses of Europe have tended to be closely related to one another, and descent from a particular monarch will be found in many other dynasties – all present European monarchs, and a great many pretenders, are descendants of William I of England, for example.
The practice of restrictive marriages has been noted as increasing over the years until the 20th century: the passage of time strengthened the conviction that royalty only allied with royalty, and from the 16th century marriages between royalty and commoner became rarer and rarer. This is one reason why descent from more recent monarchs is rarer amongst commoners than from monarchs further back.
Members of untitled families today may be descended from illegitimate children of royalty. Since illegitimate children of royalty were seldom permitted to marry into other royal families (because their status made them unacceptable), these children tended to marry upper-class or middle-class families from their own country.
Another reason for the greater number of descendants from chronologically distant monarchs is that likelihood of descent from a monarch increases as a function of the length of time between the monarch's death and the birth of the particular descendant. Thus, it is theoretically true that "statistically, most of the inhabitants of Western Europe are probably descended from William the Conqueror; they are equally likely to be descended from the man who groomed his charger."
At one time, publications on this matter stressed royal connections for only a few families. One example included James Pierpont and others. Too, there are NEHGS articles on "tycoon" families and US presidents of royal descent that emphasize the discriminating notion. That is, those of royal descent excel (to wit, Roberts' article on eminent descendants of Mrs. Alice Freeman Thompson Parke). Many, too, were at the forefront of social progress, for example, Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her progressive beliefs.
According to American genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts, an expert on royal descent, most Americans with significant New England Yankee, Mid-Atlantic Quaker, or Southern planter ancestry are descended from medieval kings, especially those of England, Scotland, and France. William Addams Reitwiesner documented many U.S. descendants of Renaissance and modern monarchs. Some Americans may have royal descents through German immigrants who had an illegitimate descent from German royalty.
Due to primogeniture, many colonists of high social status were younger children of English aristocratic families who came to America looking for land because, given their birth order, they could not inherit. Many of these immigrants initially enjoyed high standing where they settled. They could often claim royal descent through a female line or illegitimate descent. Some Americans descend from these 17th-century British colonists who had royal descent. There were at least 650 colonists with traceable royal ancestry, and 387 left descendants in America (almost always numbering many thousands, and some as many as one million). These colonists with royal descent settled in every state, but a large majority lived in Massachusetts or Virginia. Several families which settled in those states, over the two hundred years or more since the colonial land grants, intertwined their branches to the point that almost everyone was somehow related to everyone else. One writer observed, "like a tangle of fish hooks".
Over time, opposing factors have affected the percentage of Americans who have provable royal descent. The passage of the generations has further intermingled the ancestry of the English colonists' descendants, thus increasing the percentage who descend from one of the immigrants with royal ancestry. At the same time, however, waves of post-colonial immigrants from other countries decreased the percentage who have royal descent.
Royal descent plays an important role in many African societies; authority and property tend to be lineally derived. Among tribes which recognize a single ruler, the hereditary blood line of the rulers (who early European travelers described as kings, queens, princes, etc., using the terminology of European monarchy) is akin to a dynasty. Among groups which have less centralized power structures, dominant clans are still recognized. Oral history would be the primary method of transmitting genealogies, and both nobles and commoners base their status on descent. The royal blood is among the centralized power of all blood groups.
Proving royal descent
Royal descent is easier to prove than descent from less notable ancestors, because genealogies and public records are typically fuller, better known and well preserved in the case of royal descent than in the case of descent from common people. It is only since the 20th century that family history has been an interest pursued by people outside the upper classes. Hence, the continuous lines of descent from royal ancestors are much better researched and established than those from other ancestors. Until the parish record system in the 16th century, and civil registration in the 19th century, family records are fuller for landowners than for ordinary people.
Between 1903 and 1911, the Marquis de Ruvigny published volumes titled The Blood Royal of Britain which attempted to name all the then-living descendants of Edward III of England. He gave up the exercise after publishing the names of about 40,000 living people, but his own estimate was that the total of those of royal descent who could be proved and named if he completed his work at that time was 100,000 people. His work, however, was heavily dependent upon those whose names were readily ascertainable from works of genealogical reference, such as Peerages and Burke's Landed Gentry.
The English geneticist Professor Stephen Jones estimates that 25% of the British population is descended from the Plantagenets.
The phrase "English descent" does not, of course, mean purely English descent: As soon as an immigrant family marries into an indigenous family, it acquires all the ancestors of its indigenous parent, and is therefore no less likely to be able to claim a royal descent than a non-immigrant family.
- Descent from antiquity
- Descent from Genghis Khan
- Genealogy of the British Royal Family
- Most recent common ancestor
- Royal family
- Medieval Genealogy and Family History
- Conniff, Richard. "Why Genealogy is Bunk." Smithsonian Magazine. July 2007. p.90.
- Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: Sixth Series (Royal Historical Society Transactions) by Royal Historical Society
- Maclagan, Michael, Lines of Succession
- Eleanor Herman. Sex with Kings
- Eleanor Herman. Sex with Queens
- Browning, CH (1891) Americans of Royal descent (via Google books)
- Roberts, GB (1988) Notable Kin Presidents, New England and Kings (via NEHGS website)
- Roberts, GB () #68 Royal Descents, Notable Kin, and Printed Sources: Notable Descendants of Mrs. Alice Freeman Thompson Parke (via NEHGS website)
- Wollmershaüser, Friedrich R. German Noble Descent in American Family Tradition.
- Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States (NEHGS Store description page)
- Roberts, Gary Boyd. The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants. Genealogical Publishing, 2008.
- Lady of Arlington by John Perry
- Richards, A.I. (1961). "African Kings and Their Royal Relatives". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Royal Anthropological Institute. 91 (2): 135–150. doi:10.2307/2844410. JSTOR 2844410.