Hey, Jean! Meet genealogy!


A woman called Jean caused a stir when she phoned in to LBC and told David Lammy, the UK’s Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, that he wasn’t English. He was born here, grew up here and all his sensibilities are English, but that doesn’t count, according to Jean. He can only claim to be Afro-Caribbean, just as if she had been born in the Caribbean, she could only claim to be English. She had traced her maiden name back to the Middle Ages, it was Saxon and so she was definitely English. The unspoken reasoning behind this was, “because I’m white and you’re black.” She may as well have come right out and said it, because saying other races were “polluting” Anglo-Saxon lineage was just as bad. If you’ve ever wanted to see an example of grace under fire, David Lammy was it.

As someone who has spent years researching their family tree, contributed extensively to the Dorset Online Parish Clerks project and still helps people around the world with their Dorset ancestry (most recently last night, assisting a man from Tampa, Florida, with his Painter line from Studland), I can tell you Jean was talking a steaming pile of horse poo.

Black and white slaves in the Caribbean

Let’s take the “you can only call yourself Afro-Caribbean” claim first, because that’s the easiest to dispense with. White Europeans were in the Caribbean before people of African descent. They “conquered” the area, originally peopled by the Taíno. We called them “Indians” because the first white people to go there thought that they had navigated to India, sailing West instead of East. Yes, I’m talking about the fifteenth-century voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus and his successors. 

It was the shameful slave trade, to provide a supply of the cheapest form of labour for the white men’s plantations, that brought some of David Lammy’s ancestors to the Caribbean. As David himself delicately alluded to, the White British and African bloodlines became mixed, and not always in a consensual way. One of the reasons we know of the sheer horror of the conditions in which African slaves were shipped to the Caribbean and treated thereafter is because in the seventeenth century hundreds of white men from the South West were also shipped to Barbados as slaves. Among them was Timothy Hawker of Thorncombe (then Devon, now Dorset), an ancestor of mine. Another of these unfortunate souls, John Coad of Lyme Regis, wrote about their experiences.

Hawker and Coad were Monmouth rebels. When the Catholic King James II came to the throne, dissenters of other faiths expected the same religious tolerance he enjoyed They were disappointed. Along came the dashing illegitimate son of Charles II and name-sake nephew of James II: the Duke of Monmouth, James Scott. When the king ordered his arrest, Monmouth felt he had no choice but to rebel, restore Protestantism in England and seize the throne for himself. The ill-fated Monmouth rebellion was easily routed, and brutally punished in what have become known as “the Bloody Assizes” of the infamous Dorset judge, George Jeffreys.

To cut a long story short, many of those condemned to death had their sentences commuted to slavery in Barbados, Jamaica or Nevis. They weren’t the only white men to suffer that fate – plenty of English and Scottish petty criminals and Irish deemed troublesome were also transported into slavery over the years, but the sheer volume of Monmouth Rebels stands out.

Besides white slave owners sexually assaulting their female slaves, might there not have been loving relationships between black and white slaves in the Caribbean? A little over a century and a half later, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) both included wealthy heiresses of Anglo-Caribbean descent. That idea came from a truth in the real world.

Tracing Saxon Ancestry

So much for Jean asserting that David could only call himself “Afro-Caribbean”, not English. Her claim to be Saxon based on tracing her maiden name “back to the Middle Ages”, which is in any case a post-Saxon epoch, does not stand up to scrutiny. Ironically, in researching her maiden name, she probably did so via male ancestors, the names of female ancestors being so frequently omitted from the records. Nevertheless, those nameless women have contributed as much to her genetic heritage as the men bearing her surname.

While it is entirely possible that Jean’s surname is derived from a Saxon word, that in and of itself does not prove lineage. For that to be true, Jean’s Saxon ancestors must have lived entirely separate lives from the Celtic Britons and Romano Britons already living in the country when they arrived, the Vikings and Normans who invaded later, and any other foreigners who came to the country subsequently.

Tax records in the time of Henry VIII, for example, show that roughly 5-6% of Dorset’s inhabitants were foreign – typically French, Dutch or Flemish. One of my own from that period, Giovanni di Angelo, was Italian. The Dorset surname Morris is an anglicisation of Maurice, an old French name derived from the Latin word maurus, meaning Moorish – like a Moor, an African. It could have been a nickname for someone who was swarthy, or indeed for someone of Moorish decent. Amongst the working classes at least, it appears there was no stigma attached to intermarriage with other races up until Victorian times. The idea that we British are 100% pure white is pure nonsense.

Given anti-European feeling and the origin of the Saxons, it tickles me that people like Jean are so proud of being Saxon. Each to their contradictory own. Perhaps she dreams of dishy Jamie Fraser (played by Sam Heughan) in Outlander calling her ‘Sassenach’, the Gaelic term for Saxon, as a term of endearment. It’s what he calls his love interest Claire Randall (played by Caitriona Balfe). Be that as it may, the fact remains that it is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to establish that they are one hundred per cent Saxon merely by researching their family tree.

Not for nothing is the Saxon era known as the Dark Ages. Few written records survive, and most of those that do are charters granting rights, like permission to hold a market on a feast day, for example. Unless you are descended from a royal line, or your land continued to be owned by a Saxon after the Domesday survey (rare) and there is an unbroken record of land transmission to named descendants (even rarer) up to the time when individual records were introduced, you will be hard-placed to trace your ancestry to a specific Saxon person.


Before the Norman conquest, we Brits did not use surnames. We used patronymics, a name derived from a person’s father. To give the example of one of the most famous Saxons, King Harold was Harold Godwinson – Harold, the son of Godwin. The practice continued in Wales until the Wars of the Roses, when King Edward IV insisted that his Welsh nobles choose a name of one of their ancestors and stick with that as their surname, and the lower orders gradually followed suit. Still today the people of Iceland use patronymics, while Russians use them as a middle name.

It was the Normans, then, who introduced the idea of surnames. People were allowed to choose what their surname would be. Some chose to fix a patronymic (Johnson, Williams, etc), others chose a place of origin (Tewkesbury, Gillingham, etc.) and still others their occupation (Fletcher, Hellier, etc). A few chose nicknames as a form of protest against the whole exercise: Merriman (cheery), Bellamy (from the French, bel ami, good friend), Blunt (stupid), Cockayne (idle dreamer), Oliphant (elephant-sized), and so on. In the first few centuries of their use, they were fluid and could change if someone moved to a different region, or became noted in a given occupation. One of my Cumbershall line became known as Richard Lock, for example.

Even after surnames come into use, research into the lineage of non-noble families is exceedingly difficult. It was not until 1538 that Thomas Cromwell persuaded Henry VIII to introduce parish registers to record baptism, marriage and burials. The law must have been respected more in the breach than the observance, because twenty years later Queen Elizabeth I had to pass another law, essentially repeating that of 1538.

Broken Records

Not many of these parish registers have survived. Kept on parchment by law from 1597 on, some have rotted away, been lost, or destroyed in fires, like the great fires at Blandford Forum, Wareham and Sixpenny Handley in Dorset in the 1700s. Others were deliberately destroyed by the anti-hero of genealogists, the great vandal Oliver Cromwell, or his followers. Where a register survives, there is typically a 25-30-year “Commonwealth” gap during the Civil War period and subsequent Cromwellian years, making it difficult to link ancestors alive prior to 1642 to those two generations later —unless there is a Will, manorial court book, or other document on which to draw.

In my family tree I have a Keynes line from Hazelbury Bryan. They may be connected to the Keynes of Compton Pauncefoot in Devon somehow, in which case they are descendants of one of the companions who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, Guillaume de Cahaignes. It was his grandson who challenged King Stephen to a duel and captured him at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, paving the way for the (temporary) return of the rightful heir to the throne, the Empress Matilda. That’s something that has always made me proud, as I am very much #TeamMatilda, but there is not enough surviving documentary evidence to prove the link. It’s hard, but you just have to accept that there are limits to research and you may never know.

Despite everything I’ve said to this point, there is a way to establish Saxon ancestry without recourse to patchy historical records: a DNA test. It would be instructive for Jean, and indeed for anyone else who shares her views, to take one. While there may be a Saxon element in her biological history, no way will she be one hundred per cent Saxon. I would hope that the results would trigger an epiphany and change her attitude to race, as it did for these people who took part in the Momondo experiment in 2016:

Momondo says an open world begins with an open mind. We could adjust that for Brexit Britain’s context and say: global Britain begins with a global mindset, and as Jean proves, we are very, very far from that. If British people don’t even know their own history, how can they possibly understand that of others?