My grandfather kept a small herd of Jersey cattle. One of my vivid childhood memories is of skimming delicious, artery-clogging cream from his rich Jersey milk. I also remember the fat red volumes of the Jersey Cattle Herd Book that sat on his shelves. This is the Debrett’s of the dairy cattle world, which records in meticulous detail the lineage of every Jersey bull. My grandfather was equally interested in tracing the complex descent of his herds of relations. Years later, I found myself unrolling huge sheets of paper on which he had set down everything he could discover about his ancestors. I seem to remember that one sheet traced his descent right back to the 14th century and John of Gaunt, father of Henry IV. I sometimes idly wondered how many different turns history would have had to make so that I could now be King of England. Fortunately, history did not oblige.
The National Trust is as much about people as it is about historic buildings or beautiful landscapes. So a great deal of my work for the Trust has been concerned with researching the histories of the families who created and conserved these special places. Some have been connected with their homes for an astonishing length of time. So, for instance, the Wyndhams can trace their ownership of Petworth in West Sussex back to the mid-12th century, and they are still living in the house. The traditional and clearest way of explaining this descent is with a family tree. The tree in the Petworth guidebook manages to squeeze 25 generations of its owners onto a single page. The family tree is an early and particularly successful example of what is now known as infographics – explaining complex relationships in diagrammatic form (the London tube map is perhaps the most famous case).
The family tree has its own intriguing history. It seems to start with, and indeed to take its name from, the Biblical Tree of Jesse. In the Old Testament Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be descended from Jesse, father of King David: ‘A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.’ By the 11th century, Christian art was representing this relationship as a tree growing from the loins of a reclining Jesse with Christ sitting in the leafy branches above. Particularly early and beautiful examples can be found in the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral in northern France and in the illumination that introduces the Book of Isaiah in the mid-12th-century Lambeth Palace Bible. National Trust visitors can see a handsome tree of Jesse carved into the overmantel in the Library at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, home of the devoutly Catholic Bedingfeld family.
From the late Middle Ages, family trees appear with increasing frequency among the papers of the land-owning classes. They were usually produced to support the English system of inheritance by male primogeniture (i.e. by the eldest-born son). For this reason, the ancestry of younger sons and women is rarely recorded in the same amount of detail, and that of their servants hardly ever. But of course they all have their own ancestors, and it is one of the particularly exciting aspects of Ancestry.co.uk’s link-up with the National Trust that it will enable us to research all these ‘hidden histories’ more easily.
Family trees can be organised in many different ways. Chronologically, from bottom to top (like the Tree of Jesse); or, more usually, top to bottom. From left to right or right to left, or both. They can be shaped like fans or bow ties, or even be circular. Each has its particular advantages, depending on your aim.
Family trees generally record past relationships, which assumed the primacy of marriage, but how are they going to cope with the complexities of our present-day world, in which we live longer and marry later or not at all, divorce more often, and have more children out of wedlock, and more step-siblings? One response is the genogram, which was devised in the 1980s to help not only genealogists, but also doctors, geneticists, psychologists, social workers and therapists. To the traditional format of the family tree, it applies a comprehensive array of symbols and colour-coded lines to represent almost every conceivable shade of family, emotional and social relationship. It even enables you to include the family pet on your tree!
And what of the future? Digital family tree software, of the kind helpfully provided by Ancestry.co.uk, enables you to extend your research as far as you could possibly want in any direction. But now that cinema and television are once again exploring the possibilities of 3D, we may one day be able to animate our family tree in all the dimensions of space and time.