Connecting to the ancestors. A personal Journey

For some of us, growing up in contemporary western culture has left us distinctly disconnected from our ancestors. The reasons are many. We could talk about the industrial revolution or the christianisation of Britain as reasons for this among many other factors, but it doesn’t change the fact that we experience a disconnection. We no longer tell the old stories or remember the old days.

Growing up in a west Nottinghamshire mining village, I felt just about as disconnected as is possible. I felt I was not from the village, as I was aware I was born in Birmingham, and my family moved to the village when I was small. My mother’s family had long lived in the area, but in my mind, I was from Birmingham. My farther, was not a miner and I was not really into football, which compounded the feeling of isolation and that I was different somehow to the other kids. The magical realms of Stonehenge and other monuments and links to our past seemed half a world away, and I felt stuck in a corner of the country no one even seemed to know existed.

The reality of course was somewhat different.

One way that has helped me peruse this ancestral connection is this; About a year ago my parents and I all had our DNA tested and started work on a family tree. More about the tree in a moment, but first the DNA is quite interesting, in that it confirms what I always suspected. Some interesting things to note about ancestry DNA testing before I get to deep into this, is that it is an autosomal DNA test. Autosomal DNA is mixed together in each generation, with a child getting half of his or her autosomal DNA from one parent and half from the other. That means with each generation you go back, the portion of your DNA from a particular ancestor drops by about half. So about 1/4 of your autosomal DNA comes from each of your grandparents, about 1/8 from each of your great-grandparents, and so on. By the time that figure drops to 1/32 or 1/64, it becomes difficult to accurately connect people, so autosomal DNA is only useful for five generations or so (sometimes as many as ten, but usually less).

Going back five generations takes me to ancestors born around the 1840s-1850s, whereas 10 generations is as far back as 1670s-1690s. The Roman invasion of Britain was around 63 generations ago, so ancestry doesn’t give you the depth of history you might hope for. Having said that, there is still much to be gained from looking at the data, and a little understanding of British history.

My father’s DNA estimate shows that he 91% British, with a little Scandinavia thrown in for good measure. Ancestry look at around 700,000 locations in your DNA for specific DNA markers that can be connected to geographic locations. Because populations that live in the same area over generations interbreed, they tend to share DNA makers. So a specific set of markers is a good indication as to where your ancestors lived going back many generations.

What this 91% British means is that it is very likely that My father’s DNA has been in the UK for a very long time. Much longer than the 5 or so generations back that ancestry are able to test, because even at that far back enough DNA markers were found to give such a high percentage chance of being from this area.

It is no surprise to find a small amount of Irish DNA in my father’s family, mainly due to the fact that people have traveled among the British islands for centuries. Nor is it any surprise to find Norwegian DNA in anyone from the UK, given the many Norwegian Viking raids, although interesting that there appears to be no Danish DNA. It is disputed whether the Normans were of Danish or Norwegian origin before they invaded Britain.

Another interesting point is that the test has identified migrations from the south of England and from Wales to the West Midlands where my farther is from. This has always been suspected as the family name is Jones, a well-known Welsh name and my father’s mother’s maiden name was Lloyd, another common welsh name.

My mother’s DNA estimate doesn’t have quite so much variety. With 96% British and the remaining 4% Irish, my mother is about as British as you can get. Her family have lived in the midlands for a very long time, and the test has suggested that there have been migrations in the family from the North of England and from Wales to the East Midlands.

With this information alone, I have a pretty clear picture of what my DNA estimate will look like, but for completeness sake, lets us have a quick look

Firstly, the percentage I have for Irish is higher than either of my parents (farther: 6%, mother:4%). I can only presume that some of these genes are recessive, and do not surface in every generation. Suggesting that either of my parents or both have more of the Ireland/Scotland/Wales DNA than the tested DNA markers suggest.

Next there is the 6% Swedish which seems to be different from the 3% Norwegian that my farther has. Again, I can only assume this must be the result of recessive genes, and the fact that both me and my farther have so few of the DNA markers from this region means that I have ended up with a slightly different set of markers to my farther.  The headline I guess is that there is definitely a little Viking ancestry there, though again, no Danish which is a surprise as it was the Danes that made up a big part of the invading Vikings. And also, from this area of the world came the Angles and the Saxons. So, to share no genetic markers with that part of the world is very interesting.

The final thing of note here is how the data has narrowed down the areas of the UK that I have genetic markers for.

Here I can clearly see the genetic migrations from the North and West and into the Midlands where I currently live. As stated above however, the DNA test is actually reflective of roughly the last 5 generations or so. This means that although I can’t prove my ancestry right back into ancient times is British, the evidence is very strong. Partly because 5 generations ago the industrial revolution was in full swing, and my ancestors would have been moving from rural communities of Northern England and Wales to the new industrial centres of the Midlands. Before the industrial revolution, populations did not move around as much, and the vast majority of ancestors from this time would have lived and worked on the same land their ancestors had before them. With this knowledge I can be confident that my ancestors are in fact the ancient Britons. Confident enough at least that I can accept this in my heart and inform my understanding of who my ancestors might have been, and who I am.

The Family tree.

After having my DNA results, my interest was of course captured and I spent a fair amount of time researching my family tree. I started out by simply talking to my parents, and writing down everything they told me.  I then entered these details into the ancestry site and began trawling through their records.

Now I feel that you can’t be 100% certain all the time on some of the records, and while I tried to remain as accurate as possible, I feel that some mistakes may have crept in. You also have to accept that genealogical records have a certain margin of error anyway. It is very common for the wrong farther to be recorded on birth certificates for example. And aristocratic families had a habit of inventing genealogies in order to prove the antiquity of their lines. Even still, I do not feel it invalidated for me what I got out of doing my family tree.

My mothers’ line was much more interesting and easier to follow back, helped along by the fact that other distant family members had filled in some of the blanks for me. So, I was able to rely on the previous work of other people to build out an awful lot of the tree.

Early on I noticed just how local to my current home my mother’s family had been for so long.

Going back to my great-great-grandparents, I have only been able to identify 14 out of 16 of them, but I can start to see the migration I saw in the DNA results. On my father’s side, of the 6 ancestors I have identified, 3 of them were all born in the Birmingham area. The remaining 3 came from Tottenham, St Pancreas and Gloucester.  The surnames are also interesting at this point, with the names Jones, Lloyd and Lewis. Jones and Lloyd are definitely of Welsh origin. Lewis could originate from a number of different sources, but one possible source is the anglicisation of Llywelyn into Lewis. There is a recorded example of this in the 1540s in Glamorgan.

My paternal line from which I get my surname Jones, I have only been able to extend 3 more generations before I come to an abrupt end with a Maurice Tomas Jones who was born in North Wales some time around 1770.

There were also a few notable lines that were very interesting to follow back. One of my great-great-grandparents’ names was Mountford, and this name allowed me to go back rather a long way, ultimately running out of information with birth of Thomas Peniston in Cornwall around 1066. A 34th Great Grandfather. I was not able to follow back any part of my father’s line further than that.

On my mother’s side I quickly realized just how local to where I live now my mothers family have been. Of the eight great-great-grandparents, 5 were from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, all within about 10 miles of each other bar one who was from just the other side of Derby. The remaining three were from Lancashire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire.  Between the years of 1730 to around 1850,there were 6 generations of families going by the names Dove, Betts, Bridget, Barratt, Berry, Revel and Fell who all lived in Sutton-in-Ashfield where I live now. Back then of course, Sutton was a much smaller place than it is today. The area in which I now live would have been known as Sutton Woodhouse back then. I also found a family around the same time living in Pleasley Hill, where I lived for ten years going by the name Humphrey/Homfray.

There are other place names that keep coming up. As I stated in my first article, I grew up in Rainworth and Blidworth, so it is good to know some of my ancestors, the Flints were living there in the late 1700s. Then there are people from Eastwood where I now work. Many more from Mansfield, Clowne, Chesterfield, Bolsover, Nottingham, Hucknall. All the places I have spent my life traveling between. When I now drive down a country lane I can’t help but wonder how many of my ancestors traveled this lane before me.

The first really interesting line I found on my mothers side was down my maternal grandmothers ancestry. Fourteen generations ago I find a John Beckwith, who I was easily able to trace as he was a member of the aristocracy and the grand child of Lady C Baskerville. The Baskerville family was very easy to trace back, right the way through the Norman invasion, allowing me to identify William the Conqueror as a first cousin 34x removed. I was even able to follow this back to the Vikings that populated Normandy, ultimately ending with Fornjot “the ancient Giant”, Mythical King of Kvenland (Finland).

It is also down this same line that I find the daughter of the Welsh prince Rees ap Griffiths, my 30th great-grandfather. Again, being an aristocratic or royal line this is extremely easy to follow back, and I was able to follow the story back, discovering such characters as Old King Coel Hen,King of Northern Britain. He allegedly lived 100 years between, 340-420. This would place him in the vicinity of Hadrian’s wall at the time of the roman withdrawal. I also found several Tudurs/Tewdwrs, who would go on to become the Tudor dynasty of English monarchs. Then, Suddenly as I followed the geneology back further I hit a very interesting name. Afallach ap Lludd ap Beli Mawr.

Now to suddenly find names from the Mabinogion/Welsh mythology in your family tree can be quite a surprise. And I have to point out that, I am aware this is most likely a flight of fantasy. But the fact I have been able to follow my family tree to around 100 BC, and find the Welsh pantheon of gods is very exciting! Beli Mawr as my 67th great-grandfather, LluddLlaw Eraint as my 66th and Afallach as my 65th……….. Go on then, I will bite.

This of course doesn’t quite match the Mabinogion, where Afallachis a son of Beli Mawr not a grandson. But this genealogy would also make Caswallonwho according to history led the British defense against Julius Caesar in 54BCmy 67th great-uncle! In fact, at this point I can pull the entire Welsh pantheon of gods into my family Tree.

Of course, as I stated above this is all fantasy. And with these characters in my family tree I can follow back the supposed genealogies all the way back to the story of Brutus, the fall of Troy and the founding o fBritain. The truth is, I suspect that anyone who spends enough time working through the records of the various genealogy sites will discover much the same thing. As soon as you find an aristocratic family it is pretty likely they will have had some ego stroking genealogical research done at some point and you will be able to find and follow that back to the legendary and mythical kings of old.

In conclusion, it has been an interesting experience digging into where I am from. I have certainly discovered how limited the majority of commercial DNA tests are, and how inaccurate and fanciful genealogical records are. But that is not what I set out to do! My intention was to learn more about my ancestors and I have certainly done that. I have studied histories and places I never would have looked at otherwise. The records I have been able to find regarding the recent past I have no reason to doubt. But the further back you go, the more likely you are to get into mythology. But on another level, we look to these services in order to recapture a sense of ancestry, a sense of belonging to a people and a place. And in that regard these services deliver. It captures for me a sense that my ancestors have been a part of the same lands for millennia. It captures for me a sense that the gods of the land and my ancestors are one in the same.  And most of all, it helps me to feel rooted in the land where I live. That I am a part of it. And it is not just the mythological links that do that. It is seeing the that my ancestors lived and worked and played in all the same places that I do to this today.

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