Surprisingly, even though it has been several months since the last episode of Who Do You Think You Are? aired on TLC (in May 2016), I really was unprepared for this new season. The first episode was broadcast the day before I went out of town for a week, so I was unable to rewatch it until this past weekend. And that, of course, has put me behind already, because the second episode has aired before I could write up my commentary on the first. I hope I can catch up soon.
That said, I'm a little more optimistic about this season than the past couple, as I recognize the names of more than half of the celebrities featured. Progress!
The season began with Courteney Cox. The teaser at the beginning said that she would unveil a web of mystery and intrigue on her mother's family line. She would learn about scheming ancestors with big ambitions. One ancestor paid a grisly price ("drawn and hanged?"), while another was a big name in history.
The opening shots show Cox walking on a beach but do not identify where she is. It was California; my best guesses for the specific location are Malibu or Santa Monica. She says she is excited about the journey she will be taking and doesn't know what is ahead. Something "a little naughty" might be ok. She jokes about Buckingham Palace and then says that isn't possible, because her family would have been shouting it from the rooftops. (Naw, no foreshadowing here, none at all, right?)
Cox didn't really expect to become an actress, because she is originally from Alabama, not known for having produced many well known actors. After moving to New York to pursue her dream, her big break came when she appeared in Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" video (1984). Highlights of her career mentioned are Family Ties (1987–1989), Friends (1994–2000, and from which I recognize her), the Scream series of movies (1996–2000), and Cougar Town (2009–2015). She directed ten episodes of Cougar Town and two feature films. (I don't now why everyone always wants to direct. Directing is not all it's cracked up to be. I much prefer working audio.)
Cox says she is thankful for her career and her family. She is the youngest of four children. Her father, Richard Lewis Cox (who died in 2001), was the youngest of five. Sundays were spent at family gatherings with her father's relatives, and family history was talked about. It was very different with her mother's side of the family, as her maternal grandfather died when her mother was only six weeks old. Cox knows his name — Bruce Bass — and that she is supposed to have English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestry, but that's about it. Now that she's getting a little older (one day younger than my sister!), she wants to know more about that side of the family. She hopes her ancestors made some kind of a mark but that they didn't murder anyone (more oh-so-subtle foreshadowing).
Her "journey" begins in her own home with the ever-popular Joseph Shumway, who on this episode is credited simply as "Genealogist" (thereby downplaying his position as an Ancestry.com employee). The first thing he does is open his laptop and jump onto Ancestry, which apparently has decided that subtlety is for fools. He tells Cox he has built a family tree using vital records and other documents and shows her the online tree he has created. No photos are shown for Cox or her parents (Richard Lewis Cox, 1931–2001, and Courteney B. Bass, living), but there is one for her grandfather Samuel Bruce Bass, Jr. Cox has never seen the photo before and asks where it came from; Shumway says it is from the family member she suggested as a contact. So even though we never see or hear from any family members during the entire episode, at least one person was involved in some way.
According to the tree, Samuel Bruce Bass, Jr. was born July 18, 1907 in Richmond, Virginia and died November 3, 1934 in Richmond. He was married to Dorothy Godwin, who was born in 1911 in Calera, Shelby County, Alabama and died in 1986. Cox comments that Dorothy would have moved to Virginia to be with Bruce Bass after they married. The photo of Bass has a handwritten inscription: "To Dot, with all my love, Bruce."
From Cox's grandparents Shumway slides quickly up the tree (too quickly for me to read most of the names) to her 4x-great-grandparents, Thomas Bass (1752–1832) and Mary Moseley. I did manage to see that Cox's 3x-great-grandparents on the Bass line were Richard Bass and Martha E. Gates. We hear that Mary Moseley's parents were Richard Moseley (1724–1781) and Mary Bass (1737–1791), which confuses Cox quite a bit. Shumway says that she has deep Virginia roots and that Thomas Bass and Mary Moseley were related, which garners a "That's terrible!" from Cox. Shumway tries to soften the news by explaining that they were only half-cousins and adds that in those days there was a smaller population and therefore people did not have as many options available for whom to marry (Virginia tidewater genealogy, a notoriously endogamous group).
Shumway then gives one of those mini history lessons that is normally provided by the narrator. The period during which Ligon came was known as the Great Migration. It began with the Pilgrims in 1620 and went through the 1640's. Ligon would have been one of many young men looking for economic opportunity. The Puritans and others going to New England were seeking religious freedom, but the tens of thousands of people, mainly young men, going to Virginia were looking to make their fortunes in land and tobacco.
And with that tiny piece of information (keep in mind that we saw absolutely no documents, not even online), Shumway tells Cox that to learn more she will need to go to England. (I"m sure there are absolutely no records in Virginia or elsewhere in the United States that could tell her anything more about Ligon.)
Ligon sounds like a posh English surname to Cox, and she loves English architecture. That's it before she heads off to England.
A map shown on screen indicates that Cox is in Gloucestershire, but nothing more specific is said. The building she enters looks like a library but had no identification that was shown on camera. Inside, she is met by Nick Barratt, credited as a genealogist and professor of public history. He tells her he has found more information about her ancestor. He begins to explain that the Ligon family had lots of land in the agricultural heart of England, when we discover Cox and Barratt are two people separated by a common language. Barratt pronounces the name "lie-GONE", while Cox (and Shumway) has been saying "LI-ghin." Cox concedes the point and starts saying it the other way.
Either way, the Ligon family is a wealthy one from Warwickshire, and families with status leave lots of records. Because of that, Barratt has been able to put together a tree for Cox, and he unrolls one of the lovely calligraphed lineages we are accustomed to seeing on this program. It begins on the bottom with Thomas Ligon and Mary Harris and immediately proceeds back nine more generations, with a stunning lack of detail.
The scroll is titled "Ligon to Berkeley." Thomas Ligon, born 1623 or 1624 in Warwickshire, died 1675 or 1676 in Henrico County, Virignia, married Mary Harris, born about 1625, died before 1703. Ligon's parents were Thomas Ligon and Elizabeth Pratt (I could not see the birth and death info for either). This Thomas Ligon's parents were Thomas Lygon, born 1545 in Worcestershire, died 1603 (I think) in Gloucestershire; and Frances Dennis, born unknown, died 1623 in Warwickshire. Thomas Lygon's parents were Eleanor Dennis, born unknown, died 1535 or 1536 in Gloucestershire; and William Lygon, born about 1512 in Worcestershire, died 1567 in Worcestershire (another cousin marriage?). Eleanor's parents were Anne Berkeley, born and died unknown; and William Dennis, born about 1470, died 1533 in Gloucestershire. Anne's parents were Maurice Berkeley, born about 1435, died 1506; and Isabel Mead, born 1444 in Gloucestershire, died 1514 in Warwickshire. Maurice's parents were James Berkeley, born in Monmouthshire (I couldn't read the year), died 1483 in Gloucestershire; and Isabel Mowbray, born unknown, died 1431 in Worcestershire. James' parents were James de Berkeley, born 1354, died 1405; and Elizabeth Bluet, born and died unknown. This James' parents were Maurice de Berkeley, born 1333, died 1368 in Gloucestershire; and Elizabeth de Spencer, born unknown, died 1389. Maurice's parents were Thomas de Berkeley and Margaret Mortimer, at the top of the page.
Barratt says that one of the names jumps out at him. He latches onto Anne Berkeley (she of the unknown birth and death dates) as a particularly important name. (If she's so important, you'd think they could have narrowed her birth and death dates down somewhat; at least her Wikipedia page makes an effort.) They have another discussion about pronunciation: Cox immediately says "BER-klee", while Barratt says "BAR-klee", and Cox again concedes. He then jumps to the top of the page and points out Thomas de Berkeley, who married Margaret Mortimer; they lived in the late 1200's and early 1300's. They were Cox's 18x-great-grandparents.
|Thomas de Berkeley's arms*|
The narrator steps in to give more of an explanation. High-ranking British aristocrats were wealthy landowners. Some were also political advisors to the king. They helped enforce the law, collect taxes, and build armies. They were essential to the king's ability to rule.
(This is a total aside. I'm a voice geek — my mother taught me to recognize voices on TV and in movies. When I heard this narrator's voice, I thought it sounded different from the previous seasons. It's similar, but not quite the same. It took a little effort to find the names, but the narrator this season is Ken Rogers, while the one in previous seasons appears to have been Mocean Melvin.)
Barratt says that someone in Berkeley's position would have had to attend court. He had to be around the king, whether good or bad things were going on. Nothing would have escaped the attention of the Berkeleys. From this Barratt segues to a copy of a 1327 document written in Latin. It has many details about the Berkeley household — financial items, errands, costs, etc. One particular item mentioned on the page is important, and he hands a translation to Cox.
Receiver's Account, A4/2/7 [SR 39], face lines 61–66
. . . Gourne going to Nottingham to tell the king and queen of the death of the father of the king with letters of the lord . . .
The lord mentioned in this item is Thomas de Berkeley. He is sending a message to the king (Edward III) to let him know that the king's father has died. Cox wants to know why Berkeley was the first person to know that the king's father had died. Was Berkeley close to the old king?
Barratt shows Cox a map with "Barkley" marked on it. That is the location of Castle Berkeley, a real castle with moats and everything, and it is still around. It has records from when this happened, which will have answers to Cox's questions.
Berkeley Castle is indeed the next stop on Cox's British tour. In the car on the way there, she says she is going to meet a Medieval historian. (She did not drive at all in England but was chauffeured around.) She is excited and wants to find out why Berkeley knew about the death of the king's father.
|the Berkeley Arch**|
Given-Wilson unrolls a parchment, points to a location on it, and then hands Cox a translation of the Latin text:
Reeve's Account, A1/24/126 [GAR 118, Manor of Ham]
. . . For the lord's expenses in Berkeley Castle for 22 weeks from the day after All Saints until the 5th of April which was Palm Sunday this year, on which day the father of the King came at dinner time . . .
A conundrum has occurred to Cox: Why isn't the father of the king the king, if he is still alive? Rather than answer the question directly, Given-Wilson says he has another item. He shows her a second parchment, this one from 1327, and again provides a translation:
Receiver's Account A4/2/7 [SR 39] face lines 24–[could not read on TV screen]
. . . For bolts, rods, bars, and other ironwork bought for the . . . chamber . . . of the father of the king, 14s 12d
(Given-Wilson did not mention this, but if you look at the archival reference for this and compare it to that for the message about the king's father's death we saw with Barratt, they appear to be from the same record. This item, for the hardware, is about 40 lines earlier than the death announcement.)
It's pretty clear from the items that were purchased that the king's father was a prisoner. Given-Wilson clarifies that he was being held prisoner by Berkeley, not by his son, the current king.
This blows Cox's mind. Her 18x-great-grandfather Thomas Lord Berkeley (we weren't shown when she was told about this format for his name, which makes it a rather large non sequitur) was holding the king's father as a prisoner. Just what was going on? Why was the king's father imprisoned?
Given-Wilson begins his explanation by stating that the king's father, Edward II, had been a "remarkably bad king." A few months before he was installed at Berkeley Castle, he had been forced to abdicate the throne.
|Isabella of France|
Returning to Given-Wilson, he says that the reason Despenser was a favorite of Edward was because he was very good with finances, and he managed Edward's money well. Isabella hated Despenser, however, to the point that one chronicler wrote she "loathed Hugh Despenser with a more than perfect hatred." (Now that's pretty extreme.)
The narrator comes in again to tell us that the hostility toward Edward and Hugh eventually led to war in 1321. Queen Isabella sided against the king and joined with Roger Mortimer, who was rumored to be her lover. In 1327 Isabella and Mortimer's forces overthrew the king.
Given-Wilson explains that Mortimer took power for himself after the coup. Cox recalls that the name Mortimer appeared in her family tree. Given-Wilson, who has his own copy of the ten-generation scroll (because Cox didn't bring it with her), unrolls it to show that yes, indeed, there is a Mortimer in the tree: Thomas de Berkeley's wife was Margaret Mortimer. And Margaret was the daughter of none other than Roger Mortimer. So by holding Edward II prisoner, Berkeley was helping his father-in-law.
Cox's mind is blown again. Her 19x-great-grandfather, Roger Mortimer, helped overthrow the king. Her 18x-great-grandfather, Thomas de Berkeley, then assisted after the fact. Mortimer obviously trusted Berkeley.
But why was Mortimer the one ruling? The new king, Edward III, was still only a boy. This means that his mother, Isabella, was officially ruling (probably as regent). Since she was colluding with Mortimer, he was able to do what he wanted.
|Isabella of France with|
Roger Mortimer (15th century)
After assimilating this new piece of information, Cox asks how Edward II died. Given-Wilson asks if she would like to look at his cell. The two walk into the castle courtyard, and Given-Wilson points to a particular window on an upper story, saying that was where Edward was imprisoned. After asking Cox if she would like to go up and look at the room — of course she says yes — they walk toward that wing.
|Edward II's room/cell|
What was aired skipped around from one spot to another; I've transcribed the entire passage below. Sorry for the lack of original spelling from the document. It took me long enough to transliterate it into modern English.
Bradley de la More
— fol : 127
The said late king was shut up in a close chamber, where with the –– of dead rats[?] laid in a cellar under him, he was miserably tormented many days together and nigh suffocated therewith, the pain being almost intolerable unto him; but that not sufficing to hasten his death, which was desired and covertly commanded by the Queen and her fautores[?] [supporters], the said John Maltravers and Thomas de Burnay and their accomplices, rushed in the night time into his chamber, and with great and heavy featherbeds smothered him, thrusting a hollow instrument like the end of a trumpet or glisterpipe into his fundament, and through it a red hot iron up into his bowels, whereby he ended his life, with a lamentable loud –– heard by many both in town and castle ——
According to Given-Wilson, the methods described by this chronicler would have left no visible marks on the outside of Edward's body. It's a lurid description, but it was commonly believed at the time to be true. Given-Wilson's personal opinion is that Edward was suffocated.
Why was this done? In early 1327 Mortimer heard of a plot to free Edward from his prison. It appeared that Mortimer and Isabella had Edward killed to prevent an escape.
Cox wonders how big of a deal it was to have the king in your home. Obviously, it was a huge deal. And if the king was killed while he was in your home, yes, you would fall under suspicion. It was the highest treason to be involved in the death of a king in this manner. The king was anointed by God, so an act against him was an act against God and the kingdom.
Cox realizes that someone in her family, whether Mortimer or Berkeley, had the King of England killed. It wasn't looking good for either man.
Given-Wilson points out to Cox that people did not like Mortimer, who was a bully. By the fall of 1330, Edward III was 17 years old and tired of listening to Mortimer. He had Mortimer arrested and launched a parliamentary investigation into Edward II's death. The investigation included both Mortimer and Berkeley. Isabella was removed from power and placed under house arrest but was not investigated. To find out what happened, Cox will have to go to Westminster, the home of parliament.
As she leaves, Cox says that she had hoped her story would not be run-of-the-mill or boring, and obviously this isn't. With her 19x- and 18x-great-grandfathers suspected of killing Edward II, probably one of them actually did it.
Cox's guide at Westminster Palace is Anthony Musson, a Medieval historian at the University of Exeter. He tells her that Westminster is an 11th-century building and oldest surviving part of the Medieval palace. The king would have held court at the far end of the hall they are standing in; he would have been flanked by his senior advisors and administrative council.
After Cox gives a recap of her story to this point, Musson says that Roger Mortimer was bound and gagged, and then brought in. For the crime of which he was accused, the death penalty would be the sentence. Cox wants to know if he had a fair trial. Musson has copies of the trial proceedings for her to look at.
Mortimer was tried first. The original document with information about his trial must be in poor condition, as the copy was dark, blotchy, and almost impossible to read. Musson points out that the document was written in Medieval French, French being the language of government. He reiterates that Mortimer was bound and gagged. He was accused of taking power and of murder; these accusations would have been read aloud in the hall. As he was gagged, he couldn't answer, so Cox concludes it wasn't fair, and Musson agrees it wasn't a "proper" trial. He indicates one area on the page but then offers a typed translation:
. . . render just and lawful judgment on the said Roger as is appropriate for such a person to have who is truly guilty of all the above noted crimes, as he understands . . . and particularly the article touching the death of the lord Edward, the father of our present lord the king. . . . awarded and adjudged that the said Roger be drawn and hanged as a traitor and an enemy of the king and of the realm. . . . which execution was done and carried out on Thursday following the first day of parliament, which was 29 November.
(More of this translation, and a citation for it, can be read in this thesis on pages 240–241.)
It's clear that Mortimer was gone. What happened to Berkeley?
Berkeley was tried the same day as Mortimer. Musson brings out another copy, but this one is much more legible. Berkeley had a more proper trial, and he was judged not guilty. Musson also has another typed translation for Cox and asks her to read just the first paragraph, but she reads from the entire thing anyway.
(I was unable to get the entire text, because the full page was shown quickly and not fully in focus. This version is not the translation used on the program, but it can be read in its entirety and allows you to see what was omitted for the program.)
Against Thomas of Berkeley
Thomas of Berkeley, knight, come before the king and his full aforesaid parliament. . . . safekeeping of Thomas . . . to be kept in the castle of Gloucester, and was murdered and killed in the same . . . .
He wishes to acquit himself of the death of the same king, and says that he was never an accomplice [six missing words] in his death, nor did he ever know of his murder until this present parliament.
And on this it was asked of him, that since he is lord of the aforesaid castle, and the same lord king was delivered into the keeping of Thomas . . . to be kept safely . . . that he should be answerable for the death of the king. And the aforesaid Thomas says . . . that at the time when it is said the lord king was murdered and killed he was detained with such and so great an illness outside the aforesaid castle at Bradley that he remembers nothing of this.
Both Cox and Musson agree that Lord Berkeley "doth protest too much." But what did parliament think of his protestations? The jurors apparently gave him the benefit of the doubt and decided he was not guilty:
[. . .] therefore the jurors came thereupon before the lord king in his parliament at Westminster . . . who say on their oath that the aforesaid Thomas of Berkeley is not guilty of the death of the aforesaid lord king Edward . . . And because the aforesaid Thomas placed keepers and officials under him, namely Thomas de Burney and William Ogle [Ockley], to carry out the keeping of the lord king, by whom the same lord king was murdered and killed, a day was given to him before the present king in the next parliament to hear his judgment etc.
Musson points out to Cox that if Berkeley had been found guilty, she wouldn't be here. (We saw earlier that Cox's ancestor, Maurice de Berkeley, was born in 1333, and the trial took place in 1330.) She seems startled to realize this.
Musson then tells Cox that the story is not finished. Thomas' son Maurice married Elizabeth de Spenser (which we saw previously) — and she was the daughter of Hugh Despenser the Younger, making Hugh another of Cox's 18x-great-grandfathers. But wait a minute — wasn't Despenser executed by Isabella and Mortimer, and therefore on the side against Berkeley? Why would Berkeley's son marry the daughter of his enemy? Musson tells her she must find the answer to that question at the College of Arms.
And so Cox travels to the College of Arms, where she meets Peter O'Donoghue, credited here as the York Herald (whereas on the Valerie Bertinelli episode his credit read Herald of Arms, and his Wikipedia entry says York Herald of Arms). The first thing Cox asks O'Donoghue is why Maurice de Berkeley would marry Hugh Despenser's daughter. The answer, not unexpectedly, is politics. Berkeley wanted power, and the Despensers were still well placed. The marriage would actually have helped both sides.
|Edward I effigy|
This is another mind-blower for Cox. Her 20x-great-grandfather was the king of England! She is going to call the family about this! O'Donoghue points out (as he did on the Bertinelli episode, because that's the same king to whom he traced her ancestry) that Edward I was one of the very best Medieval kings: charismatic, exciting, and an all-around great guy (except for that bad habit of expelling Jews, of course).
In the wrap-up, Cox comments that everyone will pay more attention to history after this. She is amazed to have learned that her 19x-great-grandfather killed Edward II. She's much more interested in Medieval times now. History is a living thing: If even one thing had occurred differently, she might not be here.
She's still coming to terms with the fact that William the Conquerer was her 26x-great-grandfather. She remembers the year 1066 from school and was sure she couldn't be descended from royalty. She's really looking forward to telling her family about what she has learned.
This episode was a great illustration of how many descendants royal monarchs can have. I'm sure it has been several generations since anyone in Cox's family had any idea William the Conqueror was their ancestor. The flip side of that, however, is that once you have the first important name, the rest of the information is all over the Web. It took some effort to drag out the revelations and fill the episode, although seeing the original documents is still cool, at least to me.
The episode also demonstrated one problem that WDYTYA is running into: bigger and better hooks for stories. We have already seen Valerie Bertinelli get excited about learning her ancestor was King Edward I, so how does the show top that? Ok, this time they take it back a few more generations to William the Conqueror. Obviously, O'Donoghue knows that anyone descended from Edward I is also descended from William the Conqueror, but that was not shown on the Bertinelli episode. I suspect he told her but that it wasn't included in what was aired just so that they could show it in a future episode with another descendant. Maybe this will encourage them to showcase more celebrities with ancestors not from England? Or for the next descendant of Edward I and William the Conqueror, we'll go back to their Norman roots?
It's always been amusing how often the celebrities on this program just "happen" to mention at the beginning something that turns up later in the episodes, yet the show insists that they are not told ahead of time what the information is. I don't know why I've been so dense about how they are doing this or why it finally dawned on me with this episode. I suspect that the featured celebrity is asked several different questions in the intro, and the only ones shown in the final edit are those that match the storyline.
*Tomasz Steifer (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
**David Stowell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons