In recent weeks, a news story has been making the rounds of all my favorite Jane Austen blogs (I am a huge Jane Austen fan) about the Duchess of Cambridge’s distant relation to Jane Austen. They are eleventh cousins, six times removed. According to Anastasia Harman, a researcher at Ancestry.com, their connection comes from a distant shared ancestor, Henry Percy, who died in 1455. Of the discovery, Harman says, “Given what Kate has done and what Jane wrote about and how those intertwine so much—to find a connection between them is very exciting.”
Not really. Most people are probably connected to Jane Austen about the same degree as Kate Middleton is, which is to say, hardly at all. Ancestry.com users may know that Ancestry.com has a feature that allows users to compare their data with that shared in the OneWorldTree to see their degree of relationship to certain famous individuals (I can’t figure out what algorithm they use, as I have actually been able to prove distant relationships to Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams, and it never shows me as related to them).
In order to use this Ancestry.com feature, click on the profile of the person you want to see, mouse over “More Options” on the right, and select “Find Famous Relatives.” The feature relies on the accurate reporting of the users who have contributed to OneWorldTree, hence it’s not very accurate and should not substitute for research. For example, the first famous relative listed on my own profile is Stephen Hopkins, Mayflower passenger. He is supposedly my 12th great-grandfather. The only problem is that the claim rests entirely on my supposed descent from his daughter Bethia. He had no such daughter. As one might imagine, Mayflower passengers and their descendants are fairly well documented, so this connection is easily disproved and yet can be found in OneWorldTree—or I should say could. Bethia “Hopkins” seems not exist in the tree anymore, but bizarrely is still used as a placeholder for the connection.
According the OneWorldTree data, I am actually more closely related to Aunt Jane than Kate Middleton, as they say we are fifth cousins, seven times removed. Do I believe it? Not really. Our connection supposedly comes from our mutual descent from William Howard and Mary Eure. I supposedly descend from Charles Howard, their son, while Jane descends from their daughter, Mary Howard. I imagine the connection, at least in my own family, involves some leaps, as I cannot trace the line back nearly as far as the OneWorldTree line seems to go.
My point in bringing all this up is that eleventh cousins, six times removed is not a close relationship. In fact, the Duchess’s in-laws, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, are more closely related to each other at seventh cousins, once removed. I found this interesting blog post that explains how the math works when determining probability of relationship between two individuals. The author closes his post: “The upshot of all this: If you discover that you share a common ancestor with somebody from the 17th century, or even the 18th, it is completely unremarkable. The only thing remarkable about it is that you happened to know the path.”
Essentially, the only story behind Kate Middleton’s connection to Jane Austen is that genealogists were able to trace the connection. That the connection exists is not a story.
For more information about distant relationships and how common these sorts of connections are, you might find these articles interesting:
- The Atlantic—”The Royal We”
- FamHist: Everbody’s Related to Royalty
- Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter: Obama Seems to be Related to Everyone
Photo via The London Evening Standard.