I Love Downton Abbey, Because the Granthams are (Essentially) My Ancestors
Pearl Duncan, a New York author, was granted her noble ancestors’ coat of arms in 2005. She is completing a book about using DNA and genealogy to search for ancestors, and one about the identity of the eighteenth-century merchant cargo ship discovered in the summer of 2010 in the foundations of the World Trade Center.
Downton Abbey is great television. Besides the drama, family conflicts, elegant Edwardian costumes, scene-stealing acting, and stratified class hierarchies of its upstairs/downstairs characters, the BBC import, written by Julian Fellowes, has a major dominant character at the center of the moral and historical conflicts: the fictional Downton Abbey itself, the real-life Highclere Castle in Hampshire.
The human characters are also memorable: the scheming, speak-her-mind Lady Violet Crawley, grandmother and Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith); Sir Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville); Mr. Carson, the honorable butler (Jim Carter); John Bates, Sir Robert’s heroic valet, (Brendan Coyle), and the others. Their world is almost totally alien for most Americans (the largest self-identified ethnic group in the United States, according to the 2000 census are German Americans). But those who've dabbled in family history, and those who have done more serious genealogical research (like myself), may be surprised at how close to home Downton Abbey truly is.
Shirley MacLaine will be joining the caste for the upcoming third season as the American mother of Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Sir Robert’s wife, and thus the drama the drama may be gaining scenes and storylines set in the U.S., or at least with American themes. I predict a dramatic twist -- remember, the show is set in the 1920s. Prior to that era, according to the British laws of primogeniture, only the firstborn son could inherit, and if he perished, the next son in line or the next male heir inherited, so Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), Sir Robert Crawley’s eldest daughter, cannot inherit the castle and its 1,000 acres. Her grandfather left an entail, a will stating how the property should be inherited, and how it cannot be divided up or sold. The lords of the era did the same; they followed the law of primogeniture, which was very strict when it came to how property could be inherited. Marriages were designed to protect inheritance and property. Romance, if present at all in a marriage, was very much an added thought. Introducing an American grandmother, where there were no laws of primogeniture, ought to add sparks. Lady Mary’s American grandfather’s fortune is what now funds the estate, so why shouldn't she inherit the abbey and the property?
The dramatic turn I predict in Downton Abbey is the law of primogeniture in England and Wales was abolished in 1926 (Scotland was late to the game, only doing away with it in 1964). Should the granddaughter inherit after 1926, regardless of what her British and American grandfathers’ wills say? These wills that lay out primogeniture and entails are something to read. I saw similar documents and wills when I researched my British ancestors; one lord’s will said his castles and estates can only be “inherited by the male heirs of my loins.” Primogeniture and marriage were made to protect titles, inheritances, and estates.
As I watched Downton Abbey, I saw scenes dramatized that I'd discovered in my research -- just as I had when I watched Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and dozens of other British period dramas. I tend to watch for the human drama, but I noted when Sir Thomas Bertram said he was leaving on business to tend his plantations in the West Indies. That touched my own Jamaican ancestors’ history. Highclere Castle itself strikes a personal chord -- it's one of the most beautiful estates in England, designed by Charles Barry, and was built by my ancestors in is one of the most beautiful estates in England, designed by Sir Charles Barry (who also designed the Houses of Parliament) and built in the 1830s by my Carnarvon ancestors to replace their earlier houses.
The Earls of Carnarvon of the Herbert Family had interests in the British and Dutch West Indies colonies. When I found American and Caribbean documents leading to my British ancestors, I wrote to their descendants who are modern lords. I heard from an earl whose castle and estate are larger and grander than Highclere Castle. The British earls and dukes who are my ancestral cousins still own numerous castles.
I heard from the Earl of Carnarvon’s older brother, a duke whose castle and estate are so grand, kings and queen visit regularly. Their status is higher than Lord Grantham’s, because their ancestors fought family conflicts with their relatives for the Crown. There is an unclaimed castle, now owned by the National Trust, that should have been inherited by the descendant of the noble who was their American relative, but it wasn't. Another one of these lords, with a very twisted family history (he does not get along with the other lords, his relatives, and they’re always in conflict) telephoned me one morning to compare ancestral documents. He lords over a whole village where his castle stands, as do the other lords.
So Downton Abbey strikes some personal chords for me. I was sad to watch the scene from the second season about the death of the maybe/maybe-not legitimate Grantham heir of the Downton estate and fortune. He was a man who’d lost his memory after being rescued from the Titanic, a man who’d returned after living in North America. Two heirs may have perished on the Titanic. I’m hoping in the future to see a firstborn son of this mysterious stranger from the Titanic return to add drama. Since that son will have been born in America, the writer can give him blended ancestry, and blended ancestry is always dramatic, whether it’s blended class, race, religion or ethnicity.
My own ancestors from the 1690s and 1720s had blended ancestries, of British nobles and colonial free people, maroons, who were once slaves from Ghana. Their British noble father left his children’s colonial birth and baptism records in Presbyterian church files that were later collected by the Anglicans for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and preserved in Church of England archives.
That's why I screamed in delightful recognition when I saw the scene in Downton Abbey, where Lord Bryant dramatically declared to Ethel, the maid, that she should give him the son, Little Charlie, a child she bore with the lord’s only son, Major Bryant, now dead, (making this son the firstborn who would inherit). Why? Because Lord Bryant said if he the lord raised the son, the boy would be educated and would become a gentleman, but if she, a housemaid raised him, the boy would be nothing, a bastard, the son of a poor lowly maid. He screamed at her that with her, the child was “the nameless offshoot of a drudge.” The one-liners in this drama, especially the Dowager Lady Violet’s, are priceless, but this was a classic. Someone ought to do a book.
How can the same person be a bastard or a gentleman, depending solely on who raised him? That is what gives this period drama teeth -- the interplay of actions, behavior, statements, personal character, and class. At the time, the laws of primogeniture said the firstborn son inherited all, but sex being what it is, these lords and their families had to deal with illegitimate children, struggle with who could marry whom, and deal with the deaths of legitimate heirs.
The first person I heard from when I was researching my British family was a descendant of an upstairs lord and a downstairs maid. Her noble ancestors did not acknowledge the child. There are no records in the lord’s family, only in the maid’s. She wondered how the British family and grandmother could have acknowledged a child born to one of the nobles and a free maroon woman in the colonies, and not recognized one born to one of the lords and a maid in England. I told her the British family did not recognize the American child then, but I found the secret records left by the rebellious noble who emigrated.
When I hired a British genealogist, I uncovered other records in our ancestral family like hers, records that had the aristocratic father’s name but no mother’s name on them. The mother was listed as "Mrs. lord’s surname," without any first name, or would be missing completely if she was unmarried. There were records like these for several generations. One of these mothers was her ancestral relative, a housemaid. She and I compared records, in amazement at this shared social history.
My colonial maroon ancestor was a firstborn son in the British Jamaica Colony. The castle and estate he should have inherited is no way as grand as Downton Abbey. As his descendants, we can reclaim the castle only if his parents, a British noble and a free maroon woman, were married and their marriage records recorded in a government’s civil file when he was born on March 20, 1726.
But colonial laws said they were not allowed to marry, neither in a civil or in a church “banns” ceremony. These colonial ancestors were such rebels, they may have married in secret in the church. His British grandmother’s relatives inherited the grander estates. Their modern descendants, lords in the House of Lords, and I have been in touch. The laws of primogeniture no longer apply, so if I find a Colonial American marriage record....
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