Edward III, Danny Dyer and the Emperor Charlemagne

220px-king_edward_iii_from_npgEdward III is sometimes described as “The Father of the Nation.” According to one of my old copies of Who Do You Think You Are magazine approximately four million people along with the likes of Danny Dyer are descended from King Edward III. Ian Mortimer’s book on Edward III suggests that the actual figure is somewhere between 80 and 95% of the population of England- perhaps ‘Father of Millions’ would have been a better name.

(And wasn’t it a brilliant opening episode of Who Do You Think You Are?– I hope there’re more episodes this series that go back up a family tree as far as possible but I doubt anyone will look quite as stunned as East Enders’ actor Danny when he found himself sitting in Westminster Abbey with a pedigree as long as your arm in his hand – and then there’s the Cromwell link!)

So, where to start if you want to know more about Edward III? Edward III was rather helpfully the son of Edward II. Edward II was married to Isabella of France – the warmly named “She-Wolf” who arrived in England aged twelve to discover that her spouse had a preference for his male companions, in particular Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despencer. Chroniclers of the period are disapproving of Edward’s friendships. To cut a long and complicated story down to size Edward II was deposed by Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer when young Prince Edward was just fourteen.   Edward II disappeared from the scene via Berkeley Castle and a helping hand; though there are some interesting theories that his death was somewhat exaggerated.


Young Prince Edward became King Edward III though the power behind the throne was in the hands of his mother and Roger Mortimer. Edward III became increasingly concerned about his perilous position vis a vis Mortimer who behaved as though he was king. Edward, aged just seventeen in 1330 seized his opportunity in Nottingham when his men were able to sneak into the castle through a network of tunnels, surprise Mortimer and take back power. Edward III went on to reign until his death in 1377; some fifty years plus a few months.


Edward married Philippa of Hainault in York Minster in 1328 and proved a most uxorious monarch though that didn’t stop him having several illegitimate children with his mistress, the avaricious Alice Perrers, after Philippa’s death. The royal pair had thirteen children of whom nine survived to adulthood – I’m not sure what the maths is but to expand from nine (plus a hand full of illegitimate children) to at least four million descendents is jaw dropping. If you want to understand the maths better double click on the picture at the start of this post to open up a new page and an article in the National Geographic which also explains how come you might be related to the Emperor Charlemagne even if you don’t have the family tree and paper trail to prove it.


What do we know of Edward’s children? Let’s deal with the boys first. Edward of Woodstock, the so-called Black Prince and the hero of Crecy was born in 1330. He made a love match with his cousin Joan of Kent (who had a dodgy marital past of her own). They had two sons but the eldest died when he was just six. The second boy, Richard of Bordeaux, became Richard II when his grandfather died – the Black Prince having pre-deceased his father. Richard II had no children. So far so straight forward and no sign of the four million.

Lionel of Antwerp was Edward’s third son but only the second to survive to adulthood. Lionel was married twice. His second bride was Violante Visconti of Piedmont. Lionel died shortly after arriving in Italy and definitely before he had the chance to go doing any begetting. The word ‘poison’ was bandied around at the time and it should be noted that Violante’s second husband was also murdered.  Lionel did have a child from his first marriage– a girl called Philippa who found herself married into the Mortimer family in the person of Edmund Mortimer (a difficult opening conversation might have been “your grandfather was my grandma’s lover and then my dad had him dragged off and executed!”) The House of York would one day base its claim to the English throne on its descent from Philippa. That line was also descended from Lionel’s younger brother Edmund of Langley hence the York bit. There are rather a lot of girls in Lionel’s strand of descent through the family tree.  Reason enough for bloodlines getting lost over time as younger daughters of younger daughters gradually tumbled down the social ladder and that’s before warfare, treachery, bad luck as well as just being plain unimportant get involved in the equation.


The next son to arrive in Edward III’s and Philippa of Hainhault’s nursery was John of Gaunt. John, the duke of Lancaster, through his first marriage to his distant cousin Blanche fathered the Lancastrian line of kings – Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. He had two daughters with his second wife Constance of Castile but they married royalty on the Iberian Peninsula. It is through one of them that Katherine of Aragon is descended from Edward III.


John of Gaunt also had a third family with his mistress Katherine Swynford. This family was later legitimised by the pope and by parliament. This family were called Beaufort after one of John’s castles in France. It is through the Beaufort line that Henry Tudor would one day make his claim to the throne. Students of the Wars of the Roses know that the problem for the House of Lancaster was that there was a shortage of males by 1485, hence the rather dodgy claim of Henry Tudor. However, there were plenty of girls in the distant family tree when you look at it closely – all of them, well at least the ones who didn’t die in infancy or become nuns, contributing to the projected four million descendants of Edward III.


The next prince was Edmund of Langley who became the duke of York. He married the younger sister of John of Gaunt’s second wife Constance of Castile and there were offspring. Edward III had three more sons after that, Thomas and William who both died in infancy and then came Thomas of Woodstock who was created duke of Gloucester. He’s the one who ended up murdered in Calais on the orders of his nephew Richard II – a mattress was involved – but not before he’d fathered a number of children.


Now – for the girls who, it would have to be said, are much more straightforward. Edward III’s eldest daughter was called Isabella. She had two daughters, one of whom married in to the de Vere family – meaning that the earls of Oxford can trace their ancestry back to Edward III as well as to other Plantagenets. The next girl was called Joan and she was one of the first victims of the Black Death that struck in 1349. Her sister Blanche died in infancy in 1342. The next two sisters weren’t particularly long lived either. Their names were Mary and Margaret. So far as history is currently aware none of the last four had offspring.


Edward III also had a number of known illegitimate children. Alison Weir lists them as John Surrey, Joan, Jane and possibly Nicholas Lytlington who became the Abbot of Westminster but there is uncertainty as to his paternity. He could also have been a Dispenser. I should like to say that as an abbot it isn’t really an issue, except of course being in clerical orders doesn’t seemed to have prevented rather a lot of the clergy from fathering children.


And those are the key names if you’re one of the four million. Of course, it turns out that if you’re from Western Europe and understand mathematics (its true apparently even if you don’t understand the maths) you’re also related to the Emperor Charlemagne – which is mildly disconcerting. If you just want to find out more about Britain’s royal genealogy then the most comprehensive place to look is at Alison Weir’s  Britain’s Royal Families published by Vintage Books.

I’m off to find my gateway ancestor… though I must admit to never having seen a genealogical expert just sitting around, waiting for me to turn up in order to point me in the right direction. Ho hum!




8 thoughts on “Edward III, Danny Dyer and the Emperor Charlemagne

  1. Thanks Julia. This was a great programme, but don’t you think it was remarkable that the researchers just happened to land on the line that took them back to royalty, out of the multitude of lines they could have researched as they went back 12 generations or so? They seemed to be jumping generations and jumping from one line to another. Why would they do this if they had no prior knowledge of this connection to royalty? I found this very puzzling.

    • Over the years I think they must do all the research before hand and then get the guest to follow the most interesting branches – after all its good television they’re after which can be frustrating if you’re wanting the genealogy and the process of how its done which was what the first few series were all about. I still enjoy the series though.

      • Yes, I believe the researchers do many months of research before the celebrity “takes over”. I know this is an entertainment programme and it seems to be the discoveries themselves that are paramount – not the process of arriving there. But it would take me several lifetimes to trace all my lines back 20 generations or more – how many ancestors would that give me? So it must have been a remarkable piece of luck that they were following the line that lead them to Edward III – his 22xgreat-grandfather for goodness sake. A needle in a haystack chance, I would say.

      • There certainly must be luck and a lot of it. I’ve been trying to trace my family tree for years and years (I’ve got back 12 generations on one strand and only so far as great-grandparents on another) I would be delighted to stumble across a so-called “gateway ancestor” as they’re called because once you arrive with that ancestor the trees have already been compiled as the gateway ancestor is deemed to have come from a family significant to society and the hierarchy (enter College of Heralds) is all documented. I’d have to say I don’t think its likely that I ever will. Its the process of looking at records beyond the census I want to know more about – where is all this information? How do you access it without it costing a small fortune and how do you make sense of each tiny bit of information? There was probably enough for an entire series on Danny Dyer’s family tree because of the dramatic shifts and changes in his family’s circumstances. Still I like haystacks and its a reminder for me to commence my annual winter hunt for new needles! I can see why the production team launched with his episode. I wonder if the rest of the series will be as dramatic.

  2. The six families of England chose well their wives. If some men had bastards add them up only. I was told at uni that 12 men would take you back to Hastings and Norman decent. Yes my recorded established family tree shows Geoffrey of Anjou and Kings after that. As this soap star is somewhat famous the TV ratings higher if chosen to sit in Westminster hall. Same when Richards body was found they took an actor with no bloodline back to my family to give DNA.It is English way to dwell on fame to worship the singer the actor the famous.My family deeds and records show who I am but I doubt any proof could show millions related to anyone. Cousins of Kate Parr are no longer related to me so The Queen of England wrote to inform me when I sent a copy of my book to Windsor library.It is situated in Royal building. So if this be so how come millions are related to me??? It is sauce for the gander sort of thing, which is so typically British. According to my tree I am King of England yet the TV charged over to some sheep farmer in Aussie. Hastings Nevill and Fitzhugh on my family tree. No one ever comes to me for DNA so something just cannot be right. You are saying that we are all related but this just cannot be testified or proved as the Mormons tried to link us all up and have failed after a century and half of record checks they have me down 3 times in same page. So I am my own grandfather according to them. It is beyond belief . Bring on the proof before I can say yes or no. Records only please and I might just find someone high enough to marry. Way i feel now after reading all that.

    • It’s the maths I find fascinating – the bulging out of the tree and then the way it nips back in. The National Geographic article was interesting and the science was backed up by several other research articles, not that I fully understood it. It was about crossing points, intersections on the double helix if you will – theoretical because I really can’t see how every one from Western Europe can have a link to Charlemagne but then I’m not a mathematician and have never been any good at working out odds either. I also find the idea of people tumbling up and down the social ladder through the generations an interesting one, especially as after a century or so most folk wouldn’t know how their family’s position might have changed. There’re stories there and drama and humanity in all its diversity – not that those stories’ll ever be told because nine times out of ten there’s not enough of a paper trail. It is of course why people are interested in programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? And probably why there’s a huge industry in family history these days. Most of us can track down industrial workers and agricultural labourers – I’m proud to be descended from people who survived difficult times, building families and lives in situations which to modern eyes were quite frankly rather unpleasant. But equally most of us, if we’re honest, wouldn’t mind the whiff of someone a little more glamorous, famous or infamous in our family tree. I know someone related to a nineteenth century mass murderer and they’re delighted with the information (her mother is absolutely mortified- I think I’m with the mother on that one). Ultimately of course it really doesn’t matter what our antecedents were because we are all ourselves with our own strengths and weaknesses making our way in the world as best we can. Not sure if I’ve expressed myself very well – it’s not I think that we all want to be descended from kings but that we would all like to be a little out of the ordinary or be able to recognise a link to a notable figure in history.

  3. I hope you don’t mind. I ‘ve copied link to this page onto facebook group in answer to someone query. I thought yur article was well-written and not sensationalized as others on subject were.

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