A Question of Identity

A few weeks before my mother died, she asked me if I could find out whether her oldest sister had been conceived out of wedlock. If the sister was illegitimate, it would explain why her parents had been unnaturally reticent about their past. It might also account for their rather Calvinist sense of morality, atoning for past sins.

My mother must have known about it for years, but suddenly had a greater sense of urgency, as if she realised that her time was drawing to an end. Later that day, I went online and discovered how easy it was to track people down, even when their surname was Smith.

Within less than an hour, I was able to confirm that my maternal grandparents had indeed given in to the heat of the moment (actually, it must have been quite a long moment, as those whalebone corsets are a devil to get off). They tried to cover their tracks with a snap wedding, but my great-aunt ruined it all by arriving a month early. It caused a scandal within the family.

I rang my mother and told her that it was all true. I think she was secretly delighted that her family life echoed the plot of one of her beloved romance novels.

After looking up various birth, death and marriage certificates on a family history website, I started being bombarded with adverts for ancestry DNA tests. At first I ignored them, as it seemed a rather frivolous way of spending £100. Then a special offer arrived and like my grandparents, I succumbed to temptation.

I’d always been a little sceptical about the value of ancestry DNA tests, but the technology has improved and I thought it would be fun to see if the results bore any relation to the person I believed I was.

All I knew about my family was that we were all English on both sides, right down to the last third cousin, twice removed. But the phrase ‘pure English’ is, of course, an oxymoron. The latest research suggests that it means very different things, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

The traditional narratives may have claimed that the English were Germanic invaders, who had pushed the native Britons to the western fringes of Britain. However, recent findings point to a more complex picture of continuity and assimilation. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, added to the gene pool, but hadn’t radically changed it.

I expected to be largely descended from the forgotten prehistoric peoples who came here after the ice age, with some Anglo-Saxon and a little Viking. I secretly hoped for something a little more exotic – perhaps even some Neanderthal – but was resigned to being Mr Average.

The results came as something of a surprise:


It was a shock to discover that I was only 21% British (and where did the 11% Irish come from?). However, the biggest bombshell was learning that I was two-thirds continental European. In addition, I was also more Western European than the average Western European. How did that happen?

I dug deeper and learned that my European ancestors were largely from Holland and northern Germany, with a soupçon of Scandinavian and Mediterranean. It would seem that the English were the 5th century’s equivalent of EU migrants.

Further back, I am also descended from a 5,000 years old gentleman in Stuttgart, whose bones were found in a cave. I went through Stuttgart once on a sleeper train, but didn’t have any strange dreams about killing wolves.

As for the smigdeon of Irish, apparenly it could be Scottish, but I think I’ll be like those blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who identify as Native American and invent a new Hibernian identity for myself. Come St Patrick’s Day, I’ll be cracking open the Guinness and singing Danny Boy with the rest of them.

Ancestry DNA tests are just a bit of fun, but there is a serious aspect to it too. I can imagine how the Nazis would have eagerly embraced this technology as a tool to measure racial purity, only to discover, to their horror, that we are all descended from immigrants.

We are ‘the other’. Mr Trump take note.

In the meantime, I shall be deporting myself back to Europe as soon as a vacancy arises for a hunter-gatherer. If you’re aware of any caves going free in the Stuttgart area, please let me know.


    • Steerforth

      Funnily enough, another thing that has emerged from DNA research is that the people in North and South Wales are more genetically similar to their neighbours than each other. But it’s much more fun to be a little impure!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    That DNA stuff is fascinating. And as for your grandparents, I discovered fairly recently when rummaging amongst the various certificates my mother still has that her mother had obviously had to get married, as my mother’s birth was much less than nine months after the wedding date. I guess that was quite common in those days….


    • Steerforth

      Apparently it was far more common than we were led to believe. The other one that has cropped up several times is people discovering that their parents were actually their grandparents.

      I wonder how many people were trapped in loveless marriages because of a moment of youthful indiscretion?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. travellinpenguin

    My mother always thought her mother had been illegitimate and that was why she was raised by a distant relative. It turns out though her mother (my gran) really lost her mother when the mother was only 28 of a medical condition such as an aneurysm and when her father remarried the woman also had sons and they just didn’t want to raise a girl. My mother had believed the illegitimacy of her mother until she was almost 85 when I explained the whole family history to her from Ancestry. She was quite surprised. Such fun surprises await those who look for them.


    • Steerforth

      It’s extraordinary how the older generation wouldn’t talk about certain things. My mum didn’t even know what job her mother did before marriage – any questions were treated very dismissively. It’s strange that your family kept the whole thing a secret for so long, but at least you were able to tell her the truth in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dale

    You’ve got my rather feeble blood bubbling with excitement now. I’ve been contemplating a DNA test for some time, but thought my fair complexion and blue eyes told most of the story. But you never know when love laughed at borders, or women were treated as trophies of war.
    My family history research has turned up uninspiring centuries of English ag labs and their ilk. Let’s see if my blood is keeping a different record of its own, and having a laugh at the paper version.


    • Steerforth

      You must do it – I’m sure you’ll be surprised. I also thought that my family was 100% English peasant stock, as everyone has blue eyes and a rather endomorphic face. But an English peasant in Kent is a very different thing from one in Cumbria – we’re a mongrel nation, thank goodness.

      My wife had hers done recently and she is more typically British, with a mixture of Western European, Irish/Scottish and native Briton. She was slightly disappointed as she’d heard stories about Italian sailors, or even a Jewish connection. However, she is 1% Karelian and has a match with the area between Russia and Finland. Nobody knows why.

      At the very least, you’ll have your ideas confirmed. At best, you’ll discover an intriguing link that makes no sense at all.


  4. Annabel (gaskella)

    My maternal great-grandmother had to get married in haste too, which I only found out from the census then getting birth certs. I’d love to do a DNA test to find out how Irish I hope I am. It’s all fascinating stuff.


    • Steerforth

      If I encourage you, people will begin to think that this is a sponsored post, or I’m getting commission, but I would urge you to do it. What I got out of it was a sense of being connected to more places than I ever imagined, but also the realisation that it didn’t matter that much – home is definitely where the heart is, if you’ll forgive the cliche.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kid

    What I want to know is how you’re so familiar with these whalebone corsets? I sense a ‘News Of The World’ type story at the back of it. Spill the beans. (Confession is good for the soul.)


    • Steerforth

      All I can say is that after discovering that I had an allergy to PVC, I had to switch to natural fibres and found that damask dresses and whalebone corsets didn’t irritate my skin.


  6. zmkc

    I should be very careful if I were you, as my husband started dabbling with family history 20 years ago; the ensuing addiction came on extremely fast and out of a clear blue sky. ‘All consuming’ barely begins to describe his subsequent interest in the subject.


    • Steerforth

      It’s a relatively harmless pursuit that afflicts men in middle age. It can become dangerous if you have illustrious ancestors, as the paper trail can go back centuries. Fortunately for me, my father’s obsessive research revealed that our more distant ancestors were illiterate peasants and nobody had bothered to record their existence before the 1740s. I shall have to find another hobby.


  7. Maria

    My maternal great-grandparents did not marry in haste, they produced seven children first. We found out from marriage and birth certificates when their youngest daughter died at 88.


  8. Lucille

    I succumbed too when the price dropped dramatically. My husband’s results came back first and he was disappointed to discover that despite having an Ivinson in his immediate family there was only a smidge of Scandi in him. I however had 23% and as an exotic addition, 27% Asia South, equal amounts of Iberian Peninsula and Irish, and a dash of Brit. I have revised my holiday plans.


    • Steerforth

      Now that’s more like it – something really exciting! Were you completely surprised by the South Asian, or did you expect it? Re: the Vikings – their DNA imprint is stronger in northern coastal areas, but they don’t seem to have made much of an impression further inland.

      One fact that intrigued me was that during 400 years of conquest and government, the Romans left virtually no DNA footprint in the British population.


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