Tuesday 6 March 2018

The Divine Right of Kings

Many genealogists search, sometimes elusively, for a connection to Royalty in their ancestral lines. I have had a number of discussions with an experienced and prominent family history expert about whether, or if I can expect to eventually find someone of Noble birth in one of my lines. She is quite sure I will find an individual of such “importance” but, so far, I have not been successful.

A few family researchers very often declare themselves to be related to Charlemagne (742-814). He seems to be the one individual most mentioned by authors of family history stories who try to trace their lines back hundreds of years. I think that is probably due to the fact that he was central to the unification and organization of much of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was a time period when records of the Christian church began to be kept in many regions. Most of the modern royal families appear to stretch back to Charlemagne. If you can find a relative in one on these families then somewhere along the line you must be related to this king.

The singular lack of information on the lives of the general populace lead people to wish to tie their own history to a particular royal family, which inevitably leads back to Charlemagne. In places like the United States, historically without such people, there seems to be a wishfulness to find connections to heroes, celebrities or famous political personages. The idea is the same.

It’s intriguing to think that we might have such people related to us as we plod along in our research of our ancestors. But I wonder if these are individuals we really want to be associated with.

In past centuries, members of the highest ruling classes, in many cases those that were part of the nobility or royalty, nations have been led into conflict, people enslaved and millions killed, all in the pursuit of some “national” objective.

Since the dawn of civilization after the last major ice age, the power of certain individuals or groups in societies has come from their ability to influence economic activities in their local communities. As these collections of neighbourhoods grew in number and population there developed overall organizational and/or governing processes to insure the efficient production and distribution of food. Along with that came the need for protection from other, similar groups who might be bent on taking that food or at least controlling the means of its production and distribution. That would have been particularly true if the marauding groups were unsuccessful in their own food-producing activities.

In the earliest civilizations, in all parts of the world, control was largely in the hands of what came to be quasi-religious minorities who claimed to have the approval of their gods in their undertakings that would insure bountiful harvests and protection from predators. That actually worked for thousands of years, when climatic conditions were favourable for continued and prosperous farming activities. As can be observed in almost every instance, though, there was a marked decline of such power when Mother Nature turned against them, through the imposition of droughts, diseases or famines on the general populace. Those in charge very quickly lost their political or regal power when people realized their leaders were not able to forestall the devastating living conditions that accompanied detrimental changes to their environment.

While religious authority had predominance in most early societies, political power eventually was transferred to those who could control economies – initially food production and later trade as well. These individuals became the heads of the aristocracy. Their influence expanded over the centuries, with political control passed down through generations of their families. Over time “noble” families linked up through strategic marriages or economic unions, firmly establishing a unique ruling class.

In every region and time period where ruling classes developed, the majority of citizens were subjugated. Those higher up in the chain gained support by “granting” certain rights or favours to those below them. This was most rigorously defined in the feudalistic period of the middle ages. Those at the lowest end of the scale were no more than slaves. At the top of the pyramids were those called referred to as Royalty. The concept was to become accepted as the Divine Right of Kings.
Introductory pages to Patriarcha; or the Natural Power of Kings, by Sir Robert Filmer, Baronet, in 1680; book written as a defense of royalty after the fall of the “Commonwealth” under Oliver Cromwell and Royal rule had been restored. 

There is nothing in the history of these people or families that is naturally or inherently noble. Their position was achieved over time through power, politics and the suppression, sometimes by force, of all other elements of their society.

With regard to our genealogical pursuits, would we rather find a relationship to people with courage, intellectual prowess or statesmanship or the brutal suppressors of freedom? Personally, I get a big kick out of finding blackguards among my ancestors, though they are few, particularly if they got what was coming to them. It’s fun discovering a story about an individual who had a conflict with the law or their neighbours. It is even more satisfying to learn that they may have reformed and moved on to greater accomplishments.

I have ancestors who were land-owners and people of influence in their community. What information I have found about them indicates they were good neighbours who recognized a responsibility to assist their community. In that respect they were “noble” but in no case have I found any that were part of the aristocracy.

I am not sure I would want to find out that I was a descendant of a despot! Or a tyrant whose main claim to fame was the infliction of great harm on his subordinates as, unfortunately, many in the royal or noble classes did.