Great historical families are a mirage

In my last post I wrote about going through our family paper and learning more of my Anglo-Irish ancestors. I mentioned my concern at how much marriage between cousins there was.

There was another thing that struck me, not for the first time. This is that, when you start looking in detail at family histories, the whole concept of families as social units over several generations begins to get a bit shaky.

I came away from studying my grandmother’s (my father’s mother’s) family with the very strong impression that, although she was a Harvey by name, she was in reality the product of a group of families which bore the names of Young, Gage, Hart and Harvey – and probably others which I haven’t come across yet. Within this group, which individuals bore what names was not really that important; it simply depended on which name his or her father had. The mother was just as much a part of their genetic and cultural heritage. The family into which an individual was born and grew up in was entirely a temporary unit lasting for that generation and no longer.

This is of course not rocket science. However, in the UK, anyone with a smattering of knowledge of British history will tell you that some leading families have had a great impact on our history. Winston Churchill, for example, came from a family which had produced great men over many generations. Even when the Churchill dukes of Marlborough had not been prominent in politics, they had been great landowners and had wielded enormous influence over a large locality. The same is true for many aristocratic families.

But who were the Churchills? Or what exactly was that multi-generational social unit which bore the name of Churchill?

When I did biology at school I’m pretty sure that I learnt that a person was descended just as much from his mother’s side as his father’s; so although, being the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston’s surname was Churchill, he had just as many Jerome genes (his mother’s name was Jennie Jerome); and in fact he was just as much an American as he was a British person, at least so far as his genetic heritage was concerned (she was the daughter of an American millionaire). And as for his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, yes, he was the son of John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, but he was also the son of his mother, Frances nee Vane, the daughter of the marquis of Londonderry.

There is nothing revolutionary about any of this. However, it is still worth bearing in mind. The idea of great historic families producing statesmen and generals and colonial governors generation after generation is a mirage. This is as true for ancient Rome (to take a case from world history) as it is for Britain. The Claudii, for example, were one of the great Patrician clans who during the Republic produced consuls (and therefore statesmen and generals and colonial governors) generation after generation. But, of course, the fact that a particular Roman statesman bore the name Claudius was hardly more than an accident. The real fact of his life was that he was a product of a group of Roman noble families who, between them, virtually monopolised the top public offices in the Roman state.

Exactly the same must have been true in Chinese, Indian and other regional histories. Our families are transient; it is the social groups to which they belong which are enduring and stable. These are the real determinants of our individual social and cultural environments.

By Peter Britton