Genealogical nonsense

Enthusiasts for the writing of C.J. Sansom will be familiar with the tales of  Matthew Shardlake, a barrister in Tudor times pursuing cases against the background of violent conspiracies, royal intrigues and religious extremism.

The tales bring encounters between Shardlake and historical characters, including the Tudor monarchs. Shardlake’s nemesis is a fellow Lincoln’s Inn barrister Sir Richard Rich. Rich was a powerful man who was to become Lord Chancellor of England, it is not hard to imagine him being the ruthless character who appears in the novels.

In Heartstone, Shardlake has been severely beaten. His assailant planned to return and kill him. Shardlake realizes how foolish it is to try to deal honestly with someone as devious as Richard Rich.

I forced myself to my feet, biting my lip against the pain. ‘God’s death,’ Leacon burst out. ‘West must be mad, leaving you in here.’

‘He meant to deal with me last night, but by the time he’d finished getting the stores some men had been stationed on guard. He and Richard Rich planned this yesterday. I thought I had made a bargain with Rich. Dear God, I was a fool.’

Sharply intelligent, the Sir Richard Rich is an immoral Machiavellian figure with regard only for his own personal advantage. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called Rich a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word”.

It was with a sense of alarm, then, that I discovered that the Ancestry website suggested that Robert Rich, the first Earl of Warwick was one of my forebears. The earl was grandson of Sir Richard Rich.

It was baffling. The ancestors whom I was researching were Warwicks, a yeoman family from the village of Farnham in Essex. My great great grandmother was an Ann Warwick, and the family line from her to the early Sixteenth Century was straightforwardly recorded in parish registers. How could the Tudor villain have been a family member?

Where I had Robert Warwick, a yeoman from a small village on the Essex-Hertfordshire border, Ancestry instead suggested the Earl of Warwick.  The family trees suggested by Ancestry included two that connected the Farnham family with the aristocrat. One person had put a red heart after the earl’s name, obviously pleased at finding what they believed to be a famous forebear.

Staring at the laptop screen, I realised what had happened. The computer-generated family tree programme was unfamiliar with the habit of titled families using their titles as surnames and had confused Robert Warwick with Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick. With a smile, I clicked “ignore,” each time the earl’s name appeared.

It is hard to imagine how many spurious family connections that Ancestry makes.

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