Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors: a guide for family historianstracing your aristocratic ancestors bookcover

Pen & Sword Books Ltd (21 Feb 2013)

224 pages, paperback

ISBN-10: 1781591644

ISBN-13: 978-1781591642

Price £14.99

best seller‘an excellent book…. highly recommended’, The Genealogists’ Magazine (journal of the Society of Genealogists), June 2013

Awarded a Seal of Approval by Your Family Tree, May 2013.

‘thrilling’ – David Hill.

‘well illustrated and witty’ – The American Genealogist, July 2016.

‘Adolph’s prose glides easily and informatively across the subject’ –  Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

‘Fabulous… a must not only for genealogists in the UK, but certainly also for those in the United States who are researching their family history’, Max Blankfeld, Vice President, Family Tree DNA.

‘This book should appeal to every family historian’ – Nick Thorne,

The book was the subject of a half-page article by Ian Read in the Sunday Express on 24 February 2013

Buy the book:  

You can buy this book in  Amazon and Pen and Sword

Watch the author  talking to Nick the Nosey Genealogist ( about Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors, live at the book’s launch at the Who Do You Think You Are? Show at Olympia, London, 23 February 2013.

And here is a short film which I made about heraldry for Channel 4’s Revealing Secrets right back in 2001.

Do you believe you are descended from the aristocracy, or even from royalty?  Or do you have a line of descent from a blue-blooded family, but want to know more? How far back do noble and royal lines go? How do coats of arms work, and how can heraldic records tell you more? How can genetics help you find your aristocratic origins?

In Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors leading British genealogist Anthony Adolph explains how to decode family stories, to find the truth and prove your descent from blue-blooded forebears. His book shows you how to expand your aristocratic pedigree sideways and backwards, incorporating heraldic records and printed pedigrees such as those in Burke’s Peerage.

In a series of concise, fact-filled chapters he explains how to find out about and prove aristocratic ancestry, defines who is blue-blooded, and describes all the sources that researchers can use to explore this fascinating subject.

Under Adolph’s guidance, you will travel back into the distant past, using cutting-edge DNA technology and arcane genealogies, back to the evolution of the human race, and the point where real ancestors fade into mythical ones – Adam and Eve, the heroes of old and, ultimately, the very gods themselves. 

This is not just a research-guide. This is a ground-breaking journey into origins of genealogy and our modern fascination with tracing lines of ancestors back into the past.

I revealed a dose of blue blood in my CHannel 4 show, Extraordinary Ancestors once, too.


A note about family trees

How pedigrees arose and how they got their name.

The likelihood of finding an aristocratic ancestor

Cardinal Pole

Meeting my own ancestral uncle Cardinal Reginald Pole in Lambeth Palace in 2010. I went with my cousin Elizabeth English to be given cuttings from the magnificent fig tree he planted there – our very own ‘family trees’!

If you have any British ancestry at all, then it is virtually impossible for you not to have at least a small dose of aristocratic blood. This chapter examines the reasons for believing so, including Chang’s theory of Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals which argues that we must, statistically, be descended from anyone alive in the 1200s who left descendants who are alive today – from the descendants of King John, for example, and also logically from King John himself. The chapter looks at the routes by which blue blood filters down, through younger sons, illegitimacy and so on, to everyone alive today.  Now, it’s just a matter of finding the right lines to trace back…

False starts

This chapter looks at the many family stories which boast of aristocratic ancestry, and the reasons why most of them will not be true. It is a psychological journey into the minds of our ancestors in a heavily class-conscious society. In general, the routes back to aristocratic ancestry are seldom the ones identified by family tales.

Finding and proving aristocratic ancestry

How to pick up the correct clues and find the right route back to blue blood.

Clues from surnames

It is always sensible to look at the origins of a surname before starting genealogical research. Some surnames contain strong hints of aristocratic ancestry, not least those connected with places and many Scottish and Irish Mac and O’ surnames which denote descent from clan-founders who were of royal blood.


Heraldry has been called ‘the handmaid of history’ and its records are a fabulous way of unlocking clues about aristocratic origins. Having a coat of arms in the family can be a red herring – it may simply have been picked up in an antique shop – but finding an ancestor making genuine use of arms is a sure way back into the gilded world of aristocratic ancestors. The chapter also includes a case-study concerning Catherine Duchess of Cambridge and the pitfalls and surprises in researching her blue-blooded origins.

Who were the aristocrats?

This chapter looks at the different ranks of the aristocracy and their origins – essential things to know if you want to prove links back to them successfully – and how titles are inherited and how dormant ones can be claimed today.

Records of the nobility and gentry

Most blue-blooded families have been well researched and recorded, and this chapter explains where to find the best storehouses of information in print, both in libraries and on-line. It also explains the history of how printed pedigree sources came about.

The visitations

Heralds’ visitations are the backbone of English and Welsh genealogy, recording many younger sons from whom ‘ordinary’ families are descended. This chapter looks at the origins and stimulus for the visitations and explains how to find and use the fantastic records which the visitations generated.

Burke’s Peerage

The very best sources for aristocratic families and finding connections to them are the Burke’s publications. This chapter explains their history and pitfalls, and how to find and use these extraordinary records.

Original sources

This substantial chapter is a directory of archive sources for researching back to and connecting to aristocratic families. It is arranged under topics, mainly concerning records to do with birth, marriage, death, inheritance and land holding.

Genetics and DNA

Genetic testing has become a formidable tool for proving links between people: for many people who are descended from the illegitimate offspring of aristocracy or royalty DNA tests are the only way of proving it – and they are an amazingly good and clear way of doing so. Through deep ancestry testing of SNPs you can also find your genetic descent from ancestors who lived thousands of years ago and find your direct connection back to the so-called Genetic Adam and Mitochondrial Eve, who are arguably the most aristocratic ancestors possible. This chapter provides a clear explanation to an otherwise bewilderingly complicated subject.

Me with Princess Maria Sviatopolk-Mirski at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Olympia. Princess Maria grew up in poverty not knowing she was a princess, but has now rediscovered her origins and traced a great many very aristocratic ancestors indeed.

Me with Princess Maria Sviatopolk-Mirski at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Olympia. Princess Maria grew up in poverty not knowing she was a princess, but has now rediscovered her origins and traced a great many very aristocratic ancestors indeed.

Routes to royalty

This chapter explores our prevailing fascination with royal blood and explains how to find some for yourself. The main focus is on Gateway Ancestors, those people who left many common descendants yet who had royal blood in their veins and thus open a genealogical pathway back to the best-recorded family trees in the world. The chapter explains how Gateway Ancestors came about, how to find them and goes into detail over the printed sources which chronicle them in both Britain and America.

Royal roots abroad

Maybe you are directly descended from foreign royalty – this chapter explains the sources available – or perhaps you have British royal blood, in which case you will find foreign royal coming down through the queen consorts of the English and Scots kings. This chapter maps out the main connections which are possible and shows how you can deduce your ancestry from the likes of Charlemagne, Pharnabazus I of Georgia who died in 234 BC, and even perhaps from Alexander the Great, who claimed descent from the Greek hero Achilles.

The clans and kings of Scotland and Ireland

Many Scottish and Irish clans were founded by scions of royalty, whose immediate male-line descendants populated the clan territories and bred many vigorous male lines, spreading their Mac and O’ surnames far and wide. This chapter explains how to research Scottish and Irish clans (including using DNA) and how to connect back to the clan’s genealogical roots in the ancient past. The chapter includes an explanation of the ancient Irish origins of the kings of Scotland and the mythical Milesian origins of the High Kings of Ireland.

Welsh and Ancient British roots

The Welsh kings left numerous well-recorded lines of descendants from which most and perhaps all Welsh families now are descended. This chapter explores the Five Royal Tribes of Wales and the ‘Fifteen Noble Tribes of Wales’. Most lines lead back to Rhodri Mawr, the great unifying king of Wales, whose ancestry is a mixture of genuine Welsh Dark Age pedigrees and claims made by the bards concerning descent from the heroes of old such as Vortigern, Macxen (Magnus Maximus), Coel Hen (‘Old King Coel’) and Cunedda, about the time of King Arthur. Claims went back even further to the time of Cassivellaunus, the Catuvellauni king who opposed the invasion of Caesar. This chapter includes the author’s ground-breaking analysis of the oldest British pedigrees of Beli Mawr and Bran the Blessed, including several lines of Iron Age tribal kings going back several centuries BC.

Saxons, Viking and Normans

Anyone who can trace back to the English royal family can find lines back to the Dark Age kings of the Germanic and Nordic peoples who invaded Britain after the end of the Roman period. This chapter explores the different dynasties concerned and their ancestry, real and imagined, stretching back to the great deities of the north, Freya and Odin and the claims made in the late dark ages to their own origins in the myths of Troy.

Alexander the Great. He believed he was descended from Achilles, so anybody who is descended from Alexander can lay claim to the same mythical ancestry. All is explained in the book!

Alexander the Great. He believed he was descended from Achilles, so anybody who is descended from Alexander can lay claim to the same mythical ancestry. All is explained in the book!

My ancestor was a god

Most old royal pedigrees tend to lead back to mythical heroes and gods – Odin and Freya in the north and Zeus and Hera in the south. It is something which provokes scorn from many genealogists now, and it is certainly not true. The chapter pays particular attention to the myths of Troy and to the story of Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of Britain – a mythical king who appeared at the top of all British royal pedigrees until the seventeen the century. This chapter breaks completely new ground by exploring both how such pedigrees came to be and also why – what was our ancestors’ the deep-rooted psychological motive for making such claims? The answers lead us to the very root of our fascination with genealogy and particularly with aristocratic ancestors and show how this subject was the chief mechanism by which our forebears rooted themselves in the great expanses of space and time.


I bumped into Simon Fowler at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Olympia last year, and out of a conversation came the idea of my writing ‘something on the aristocracy’ for Pen and Sword. As soon as he suggested it I knew it was the right book for me to write, as I have been fascinated with this aspect of genealogy right from the start. Indeed, I am far from alone in having become interested in genealogy because of family stories of blue blood and distant links to royalty. The book also gave me the opportunity of writing about the links that exist from real family trees back to mythical ones, something I have been studying for years. It is a mysterious and intriguing world, and one that has a lot to teach us all, now.

Buy the book

You can buy this book on Amazon and Pen and Sword


WDYTYA review

Steve Thomas wrote in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine (issue 70, February 2013, p. 89), ”This is certainly an interesting book, especially if it is read as a preliminary to research whichever route to the aristocracy you choose. Adolph’s prose glides easily and informatively across the subject… like many research guides, it is getting to the records that really matters and on that count the work definitely serves its purpose, being, as it is, packed with useful sources throughout every chapter’.

Max Blankfeld, Vice-President of leading genetic testing company wrote, ‘One of the most reputable genealogists in the United Kingdom, Anthony Adolph has put together a very well documented and detailed guide for all those interested in ‘Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors’. With information obtained from various historical sources and including the use of DNA testing to verify ancestral connections, this book is a must not only for genealogists in the UK, but certainly also for those in the United States that are researching their family history’.

Sunday Express article about Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors

Sunday Express article about Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors

The book was the subject of a half-page article by Ian Read in the  Sunday Express on 24 February 2013 (p. 34). The full text is   The article focussed on Richard III’, whose body was found recently in a car park in Leicester and was identified using DNA. It pointed out, based on my book, that although the Tudors killed off various key members of the Plantagenet dynasty, including my own ancestress the Blessed Margaret Pole, many families carrying Plantagenet blood survived. As a result, many hundreds of thousands or even millions of ancestors have a drop of royal blood in their veins, including Richard Dawkins and Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, who share my descent from Margaret Pole, and also most American presidents, from George Washington onwards.  Richard III may be dead, but his family’s genes live on in all of us. If you do not know how your family is connected to the Plantagenets then my book Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors will show you how to might be able to seek a link for yourself!

I discussed the book and the tracing of blue blooded ancestors with comedian Fred MacAulay on the Fred MacAulay & Co. show BBC Radio Scotland on 28 February 2013. Fred’s family are the MacAulays of Bernera and Harris, who come from the MacAulays of Uig in Lewis, all in the Western Isles of Scotland. ‘MacAulay’ means ‘son of Aulay’, and the claim is that this Aulay was in fact Olaf the Black, King of the Western Isles, descended from a powerful Norse dynasty who had ruled in Scandinavia and claimed descent from the goddess Freya.

“A comprehensive guide… describes all the sources that researchers can use to explore this fascinating subject…’ – Family Chronicle, May/June 2013, p. 47.

Singing copies of the book on the Pen and Sword stand at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Olympia, February 2013 (photograph courtesy of Nick Thorne 'the Nosey Genealogist').

Singing copies of the book on the Pen and Sword stand at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show at Olympia, February 2013 (photograph courtesy of Nick Thorne ‘the Nosey Genealogist’).

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors was chosen as a prize for a competition on leading family tree website Genes Reunited on  9 April 2013.

‘Fellow regular Family Tree author Anthony Adolph steps on to the scene now with his new guide to researching and interpreting records relating to aristocratic ancestors. With advise on how to ‘decode’ family stories of blue roots and prove descent, this entertaining volume will show you how to grow your noble, even royal lineage back in time. Indeed, through the use of DNA technology. he explains how you can trace your roots into the distant past, where flesh and blood ancestors disappear into mythical ones, from Adam and Eve to heroes and gods! You’ll find details of heraldic records and printed genealogies, and more. It is a modern examination of our age-old fascination with the gentry and royalty – could you be in the clan?’ – Karen Clare, Family Tree Magazine April 2013, p. 69.

‘If you have any British ancestry then it is virtually impossible not to have a small dose of blue blood in your veins and this book will guide you through the processes of proving descent from blue blooded forebears’ – FFHS, Malcolm Shearwood, member of Suffolk Family History Society.

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors‘s chapter on DNA was quoted (next to a picture of the book, and another of Eddie Izzard) in Christopher Wright’s article on DNA in April 2013’s Your Family Tree, p. 31.

‘We’ve encountered royalty, or at any rate, aristocracy, in our search for our own ancestors at, and until our subscription runs out, we intend to double check everything, just in case it turns out my maternal grandmother (and therefore I) wasn’t really descended from Charlemagne! Seriously, this is a valuable insight into what to look out for in going back through the centuries’ – Books Monthly.

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors is now the basis of lesson 28 of the Beginning English Family History course run by Nick Thorne’s Family History Researcher Academy at, May 2013.

‘Your Family Tree writer and expert genealogist guides us down a right royal pathway… helps sort the wheat from the chaff and conduct proper research if your bloodline starts turning blue…’, Your Family Tree, May 2013, issue, 129, p. 85.

‘Congratulations on your excellent book Tracing your Aristocratic Ancestors. I found it thrilling and very informative…’ – David Hill, via e-mail, May 2013.

‘This is an excellent book… The book explores not only how to trace upper class ancestors but the probability of finding such people anyway. Gateway [ancestors] are explored in detail. The approach is always down-to-earth but still enjoyable. This book is highly recommended’. The Genealogists’ Magazine, the journal of the Society of Genealogists, vol. 31, no. 2, June 2013, p. 73.

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors was the subject of my regular column in The Highlander magazine (July/August 2013) and it was the prize in a reader offer in the same magazine (p. 51).

‘Describes all the sources that researchers can use to explore this fascinating subject…’, Family Chronicle, September/October 2013, p. 47.

“While the subject of this book is the search for aristocratic ancestry, the author’s ambitions — and the wider implications of the subject — are more expansive still. By “aristocratic,” Adolph is apt to mean traceable via a paper trail left behind by people with property to dispose of or protect; property ownership leads in turn to a variety of ancillary records, and a lengthy land tenure begets aristocratic pretensions. The reader of this review might take a moment to underline the charged words in the preceding paragraph: aristocratic, property, pretensions. The author has taken on a subject — aristocratic beginnings leading to discussions of heraldry, the nobility and the gentry, royal ancestry, and his epilogue: “My Ancestor was a God!” — that is as likely to annoy the reader as to amuse [an odd comment, AA]. Yet this book is actually a useful introduction to genealogical research, British in focus but useful to American readers as well. Intrigued as a youth by the prospect of socially prominent connections, the author has worked to prove or disprove an assortment of family legends, and in the process has proven a descent from the Blessed Margaret Pole, Henry VIII’s unhappy cousin. The framework of the book assumes people are recorded and traceable, since the genealogical alternative — obscure and unrecorded — does not lend itself to research breakthroughs. Adolph uses this framework, once he has readers’ attention, to guide us through variety of records and strategies that add up to a crash course in genealogical research.  As he notes in the epilogue, having ranged back through recorded history to “kings and queens who claimed descent from Adam, from heroes, from gods,” their “aura of divinity . . . created a golden light that bathed them and their descendants in glory: a light that continues to shine down their long pedigrees, to this very day — right down to us.” It is this reflected glory that draws many to genealogy. Adolph explores the psychology of that fascination while also offering the tools to prove, or disprove, connections to kinsmen prominent enough to have left records by which to be identified”. – Scott C. Steward, New England Historical and Genealogical Register (2014, p. 303)

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors was cited as a recommended reading in Colin Waters’s article “Do you have royal blood”, Your Family Tree, February 2015, p. 33.

“Your book, Aristocratic Ancestors, arrived while I was out of town, and I just started dipping into it day before yesterday… I enjoyed your discussion of the reasons why people might be especially interested in their aristocratic ancestors, other than snobbery. The idea that notable ancestors might be inspiring to the present generation particularly caught my attention… thank you again for an enjoyable and really useful book. You bring a definite savoir-faire to the whole topic that is quite refreshing”. – Dr Paul Coverdale Bartlett, organiser of the Coverdale DNA project, May 2015.

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors was cited by Christopher White in “The Complete Guide to DNA for family historians”, in  p. 30. of Your Family Tree in April 2013.

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors was “Expert’s Choice: websites for aristocratic ancestry”, Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, April 2015, p. 58.

“When I first started my Blakiston genealogical journey in 2014, I happened by accident to find Anthony Adolph’s website on the internet and bought his book, Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors.  It now has a prominent place in my library” – Jeff Seemans, genealogy writer, Delaware, U.S.A.   

Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors was one of the recommended guides on Genguide in January 2016.

“well illustrated and witty…   a general introduction to genealogy with the added focus that it speaks to our near-universal interest in elites. An early and inevitable chapter warns about the pitfalls of wishful thinking and ‘name’s-the-same’ connections. General advice about wills, parish registers, monumental inscriptions, DNA testing, etc., is balanced with chapters on sources and institutions concerned (at least in Britain) with aristocrats, like heraldic visitations, reference works on the peerage and gentry, and a chapter on heraldry. Like Sir Anthony Wagner’s still-useful book English Genealogy,  this book offers an overview of the demographic history of the aristocracy in Britain , noting the near-certainty that all of us with any British ancestry descend from premodern gentry, royalty, and of course the ancient Armenians, who scholars agree are the earliest royal dynasty which can be concretely connected genealogically to modern people of European descent with any degree of confidence. [Its] last chapter exploring ancient genealogical connections (what Wagner had called ‘Bridges to Antiquity’), is a fitting precursor to Adolph’s next book, In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors, which pushes our genealogical connections further back into the remote biological past.. ” – Nathaniel Lane Taylor, FASG, The American Genealogist (‘an independent quarterly journal dedicated to the elevation of genealogical scholarship’ founded by Donald Lines Jacobus in 1922), July 2016 (released December 2016), p. 237.

Royal family tree 001An example of the sort of unusual, indirect and thoroughly unexpected blue-blooded family connection which can emerge whilst tracing your family history. This chart is from my children’s book Who Am I?