When family history research leads to a royal line, often the focus is on only the names and royal relations. Too little time is spent investigating the actual lives of these royals and nobles whose DNA may be found within us. But by focusing only on the who, we miss out on the what, where, when, and how—and there are some pretty amazing stories in the answers to those questions. One of the advantages of investigating royals is that so many documents from the medieval period have been published in books that are now available online.
Courteney Cox traces her ancestry back to a group of English aristocrats who were all vying for greater power. That political struggle led to outright murder, when her ancestors killed King Edward II, who had been forced to abdicate the throne to his son, Edward III. The story unfolded as Courteney visited Berkeley Castle, the site where the king was murdered, and discovered historical documents that revealed what happened.
Although the original records are available only at the castle, most were compiled and published many years ago. Courteney read an account of King Edward II’s murder that was included in The Berkeley Manuscripts, a compilation of Berkeley Castle records published in 1883. The former king’s horrible death was described as coming after “he was miserably tormented many days” with “the pain being almost intolerable unto him.” His enemies then suffocated him.
Account of the death of King Edward II that Courteney reads on screen, in The Berkeley Manuscripts, Volume 1, p. 291.
A king’s murderers cannot go unpunished, and suspicion fell on Courteney’s ancestors Robert Mortimer and Thomas de Berkeley. It was Berkeley’s own castle where the king was killed. Parliament held trials for both men. Courteney viewed the original trial records in the episode, but transcriptions of the same documents were published in A Complete Collection of State Trials, Volume 14, in 1816.
Roger Mortimer was found guilty of treason for his role in the king’s murder, along with numerous other crimes, and sentenced to death “as a traitor and enemy to the king and realm.” He was “to be drawn and hanged” in a very public execution. Thomas de Berkeley escaped conviction by claiming he was not at Berkeley Castle, but instead was at another castle with a “great sickness” and had “no recollection of what happened.”
Impeachment of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, for Treason, p. 51 (sentencing on p. 54)
Proceedings against Thomas De Berkele, for the Murder of King Edward the Second, p. 55
Courteney experienced the drama of royal power struggles, murder, trials, and executions through the documents written at the time. While it makes for a richer experience to discover documents in the very castle where events transpired, documenting the drama of ruling families does not require traveling to England and digging through castle archives. Published transcriptions of those records are typically widely available, allowing anybody to hear the story in the words of those who were there, albeit without a tour of the castle.
- The most direct way for Americans to document royal ancestry is to find a “gateway ancestor.” These are early colonial immigrants whose genealogies out of royal families have already been thoroughly researched and documented. A good starting point for identifying gateway ancestors is Gary Boyd Roberts’s The Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States (published in 2006).
- To make sure your royal ancestry is correct, rely on the most trustworthy sources. For royalty of the United Kingdom, start with Burke’s Peerage (published and revised since 1826) and George E. Cokayne’s The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct, or Dormant (published in 1910).
- Approach royal lineages in online family trees with caution. Even if they are founded on a reputable source, errors could have been introduced in the data entry process.
- If you want to determine that a royal ancestry is correct, reach out to a professional genealogist. Multiple genealogists at AncestryProGenealogists have years of experience documenting royal lineages, and they are well versed in the current historical scholarship that is so important to this type of research.
Learn more about Courteney’s journey or see videos about other celebrities’ ancestries on TLC.com. Watch full episodes of the show on TLCgo.com. Discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.