Translating Family Stories: Europe’s Ducal Families in Focus


By Jonathan Spangler, Senior Lecturer in History, Manchester Metropolitan University


Obsessive list making is often a key generative force for a historian. I have always been a list maker, and a categoriser. It started with plastic dinosaurs in the basement of my notebookparents’ house and evolved from there. As a historian today I still make a lot of lists, about people from the past, about their parentage, marriages, jobs held, property owned. Comparing these lists, I can group historical people by various categories and draw conclusions based on patterns that emerge. Professional historians call this ‘prosopography’. But how can prosopography be useful as a tool for public history? In this blog, I will share my story about turning information accumulated as a hobby into a useful dataset for analysis, and how more recently during lockdown, I have kept myself busy by turning this dataset into something more palatable and (hopefully) interesting for a wider audience. The fruits of these long hours spent indoors has blossomed into a website called ‘Dukes and Princes’ ( ) which will continue to evolve and grow over the summer. The website is an effort to combine genealogical ‘lists’ with informed narrative histories about some of the most prominent noble families that shaped European history, and with virtual visits to properties and residences built by these families, some extremely grand, others fairly obscure; some which we can visit today, and others which have disappeared forever. For an example that might be of interest to the public history of Manchester and its environs, see last week’s blog post on the Dukes of Bridgewater, builders of the Bridgewater Canal:

My lists are essentially genealogical, and genealogical histories have been one of the driving forces behind public history since its emergence as a sub-discipline in the 1980s. But only in the last decade or so have academic historians begun to recognise that a key tool for understanding the past had been in front of their noses for some time. French and German historians have been leading this charge, and some really exciting work has emerged in print recently on how genealogical data, or even published genealogies themselves as historical artefacts, can provide useful information about the evolution of the family, marriage practices, legal and social customs surrounding inheritance, but also methods employed for creating and preserving identities (see for example recent work in English by Stéphane Jettot or Catherine Richardson). Much of history writing in the past thousand years has been about creating a past that suits the author’s (or his or her audience’s) needs, not necessarily truth—‘truth’ in history writing is a relatively recent concept, but that’s a topic for a different blog!—and family history writing is of course no exception. This is one of the reasons it was so often dismissed by academic historians and merely ‘antiquarianism’.

The recent academic interest therefore, has focused on historical texts used to present family histories in the past, in particular their methods and their aims. Some of these resulted in absolutely enormous projects, representative of the aspirations of aristocrats of Old Regime France or Victorian Britain, and in the interests of their readership. As a teen-ager, I became an avid reader of some of these dusty old books. The spark of that interest forms my opening brief blogpost on the new website:

I can start with an example of an early inspirational source. I discovered and was immediately enthralled by an absolutely enormous book I discovered in the Library of Congress in my home city of Washington DC, sometime when I was in high school. This was the sort of gilded monstrosity only the Victorians could have produced with such panache: Frederick D. Hartland’s A Genealogical and Chronological Chart of the Royal and Distinguished Houses of Europe, from the earliest periods to the present time, with the arms, flags and principal orders of knighthood belonging to each (London, Charles & Edwin Layton, 1854). I spent several days copying its various family trees in a series of spiral notebooks, which I still have (so photo above).

The book, when open, covered the entire desk, and the coats-of-arms were hand-coloured and gilded. I was especially drawn to its blending of history and mythology, and its seemingly complete lack of concern about blending Christian and non-Christian origin narratives. Most prominently displayed of course was Queen Victoria herself. At Screenshot 2020-05-05 at 18.20.46the top of the page for her, there are two points of origin for the British royal family: one is the Germanic god Woden and his wife Fricka, reached through Victoria’s Saxon mother; and the other is the Hebrew god Jehovah, reached more circuitously via the ancient kings of the Britons (including, with great prominence, ‘Old King Cole’), Joseph of Arimathea, and the House of David all the way back to Adam and Eve. I was intrigued that the supposedly religiously conservative Victorians would so boldly blend Judeo-Christian and pagan mythologies. But I think Hartland’s overall point was that however you look at it, Victoria’s family was as ancient in the British context as it was in the German, and in fact truly Biblical, even divine. This certainly would put it on par with genealogies long produced for the imperial families of China and Japan—descended from the Sun, the Moon, or other celestial deities—then coming increasingly into context with the British Empire, but as I later came to see when studying these books more professionally, there had been little taste for such things in the era of absolute monarchy in the centuries before.

This point is driven home in the second formational example that came into my life a few years later, while at university, and has become like a bible to me in my work as a historian of early modern France and the court of Louis XIV. This is a set of nine volumes printed between 1726 and 1733, generally known to French historians as ‘Père Anselme’, which is not really correct, since the monk who took the name Father Anselme de Sainte-Marie had actually died several years before. The Histoire généalogique et chronologique


de la Maison Royale de France, des pairs, grands officiers de la Couronne et de la Maison du roi, et des anciens barons du royaume [Genealogical and Chronological History of the Royal House of France, of the peers, great officers of the Crown and of the King’s Household, and of the ancient barons of the Kingdom] was the culmination of a nearly century-long project by Augustinian monks in Paris. Detailed volumes of royal histories were published starting in the 1620s, with the aim to demonstrate the ancient origins of the Royal House of France, and dispel any claims to the contrary (as had indeed been made in the previous decades of civil war), as well as to highlight the ancientness and honourable service to the Crown of all of its leading families. There’s no mention here of any divine origins of the royal family as in Hartland—instead the emphasis is on the provable links to the Frankish chieftains who originally forged the Kingdom, the Merovingians and Carolingians. For the other leading families, the emphasis is on the soldier ancestors who defended the honour of Christendom by fighting in the Crusades. The emphasis here is on loyalty, and noble rebellions are either ‘forgotten’ or quickly passed over. These massive nine volumes (each volume is about eight or nine-hundred pages) remained in circulation for the 18th century, and were even corrected, reprinted, and augmented with a tenth volume in the 19th century.

What makes these volumes different from genealogical books that went before, and other genealogical histories for other noble families printed about the same time, was a renewed passion for preuves, roughly translated as ‘proof’, that is, primary source material emerging from ancient manuscripts often kept in monasteries, that could verify ancient family traditions and stories. This trend is sometimes known as the antiquarian movement, and spread throughout many works in the 17th century. We can see its influence in the growth of marginalia in many books printed in this period…what would eventually develop into the academic footnoting system we use today. This desire of the antiquarian to rescue knowledge from the obscuring hands of Time (or Chronos, with his scythe) is wonderfully illustrated in the frontispiece of the first volume of Anselme.  But preuves were not needed just for a pure love of knowledge. Almost all noble families in

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Frontispiece to the first volume of the Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la Maison Royale de France (Paris, 1726)

France, indeed in most of Europe, needed these to prove to royal authorities that their claims to noble status were genuine. This was more important in France than in England, since noble status in France brought with it exemption from most taxation—surely something worth holding on to at all costs! You also needed proofs of noble ancestry in order to obtain entrance for your children into the most exclusive nunneries or the orders of knighthood like the Order of Malta. This was even more important east of the Rhine, where monasteries and convents required not just simple noble parentage (mostly your father’s line) as in France, but complete noble ancestry, known as the seize quartiers, or ‘sixteen quarters’. This meant that not just one or two, but all of your great-great-grandparents had to be provably noble. One slip up, say in marrying the daughter of a banker or a farmer, would thus disqualify your descendants for generations. Family genealogies were therefore serious business.

That didn’t mean of course that they are to be treated as infallible records of accurate truth. Vast sums of money could certainly obtain ‘new facts’ about a family’s past. In the 1660s, new government organs were created in most European monarchies, set up specifically to prove or disprove a person’s claims to noble status. In Louis XIV’s France, this was the généalogiste du roi (whose records remain a treasure trove in the National Archives in Paris), while in England, where the stakes weren’t quite as high but still important as part of management of a family’s reputation and of course wealth, disputed claims to titles and rank could be sorted out at the College of Arms, in London, or in special tribunals set up in the House of Lords. In the Histoire généalogique of Père Anselme, we can see some concrete examples of bended truth, particularly in considering this work as an element of royal absolutism: the monarchy must been see to be pure, but so too should its leading servants, the court aristocracy. So it is likely that the Duke of Villeroy, a leading general and intimate companion of Louis XIV, did not have to convince Anselme and his colleagues to ‘modify’ his family story. According to their genealogical history (in volume IV), the family history begins only with a prominent royal secretary and counsellor in the early 16th century—he already owns three lordships (the sign of noble status). No mention is made of the fact that his immediate ancestors were fishmongers in Rouen.

So sources like Hartland and Anselme, while inspirational to a budding young historian of the high aristocracy of Europe, can certainly not be taken as gospel truth for the genealogist. These books can be analysed as artefacts, as part of the emerging field of book history, but I have used Anselme as a means of collecting family stories, not just genealogical data. So I call these ‘genealogical histories’, taking the name from Anselme’s title itself. One of the things I have always found most frustrating about printed or online genealogies is that their primary concern is often merely numbers or ‘stats’, like on the back of the baseball card. I am much more interested in the stories beyond birth and death dates: how they achieved (or did not achieve) fame or fortune, what offices they held in the royal household, what interactions they had with others of their peers, and so on. So I have been translating the material in these nine volumes, reformatting them in a more user-friendly manner as a chart rather than text. I then correct and annotate them with more modern, scholarly genealogical projects (for example, the ‘Medieval Lands’ website, by the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy,, which is useful for the very earliest of material, a period in which most genealogies move from the factual into the legendary).

Anselme itself is also useful in this regard in that each family entry is preceded by a number of printed sources, evidence of early family activity, royal letters patent creating the relevant titles, and other family papers that are relative to the title or to succession issues more generally. Many of these can be found in the original in the National Archives in Paris, but others have been lost at some point in France’s turbulent past—the Revolution, or, even more destructive from an archival point of view, the Paris Commune of 1871. So Anselme’s publication of these now lost documents becomes crucial for research.

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An example of a page from Anselme, volume IV, showing a ducal family’s documentation of its peerage.

My research interests are on more than just the French aristocracy however, and those that I find the most interesting, and on whom my academic publications focus (for a recent example, see, are those who cross boundaries, who existed in a pre-nationalistic world that survived well into the 19th century often fully at odds with prevailing centripetal trends of nationalism. So I have compiled data sets for aristocratic families right across Europe, including Britain, but also from Portugal to Russia. Looking at the whole of the European aristocracy is of course too much of a sample to be meaningful, so I have focused on the group at the top of the noble hierarchy, the dukes and princes. Numbers then become manageable: rather than thousands of counties or baronies, there are numbers usually less than 100 for France, Britain, Germany, or Spain. Southern Italy is an exception, where dukedoms and principalities grew like grapes on a vine in the 17th century; and so too is Scandinavia, where there are virtually none at all.

And why dukes and princes? This is partly to be inclusive of the Holy Roman Empire (roughly modern Germany plus some territories now in the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Italy and so on), where dukes had come to mean something more than just high aristocrats, but near sovereigns, so a new category was created in the early modern era, fürsten, princes who were not junior royals or territorial rulers (though they were, in a sense, over quite small territories—the best example today is Liechtenstein). See an introductory page on the new website for a more full explanation: .

For my own research, I use this material to make analytical comparisons, using marriage patterns, average numbers of children, typical career pathways, and so on. But I also wanted to present this material to a wider audience in a way that could be enjoyable and useful. Most people like to travel, and many love visiting country houses or urban palaces. So each family is presented in the context of the space it occupied—where were their lands? what houses did they build? do these still exist? I am not an architectural historian, so I do not attempt to present an analysis of ducal residences from that angle; instead, I try to place these heritage sites in the context of the stories of the families who built them. I have also added, for a bit of flavour, some ‘travel logs’—journeys I have taken in the past to visit ducal residences. So far there is one for Scotland, tracing a tour I did of four Scottish dukes’ houses  ( ), and an account of a choir tour in England I did when an undergraduate in which we meet two duchesses and the Queen of England! The next one planned is a much more recent driving tour I made in southern Ireland, where I visited the seats of the dukes of Leinster and Ormonde (the only two Irish dukedoms) and the Irish seat of the dukes of Devonshire. Others will include tours in the south of France (dukes of Uzès and Puylarent) and southwest Germany (princes of Hohenzollern, dukes of Teck).


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Sigmaringen Castle (photograph by the author)

What is a little bit of a struggle is making sure that there is a gender balance in these accounts. Due to the nature of peerage creations at this level, dukes and princes were a very male institution. There were some dukedoms created for women, and these present an intriguing subset (often for royal mistresses), but they are fairly rare. And although almost every duke had a duchess, I was conscious that these blog posts should not much more than 3,000 words, so brevity and concision were always kept in mind. I think I have enough material to keep me busy for about ten years…