By Matt Crenson
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Actress Brooke Shields has a pretty impressive pedigree -- hanging from her family tree are Catherine de Medici and Lucrezia Borgia, Charlemagne and El Cid, William the Conqueror and King Harold II, vanquished by William at the Battle of Hastings.
Shields also descends from five popes, a whole mess of early New England settlers, and the royal houses of virtually every European country. She counts Renaissance pundit Niccolo Machiavelli and conquistador Hernando Cortes as ancestors.
What is it about Brooke Shields? Well, nothing special -- at least genealogically.
Even without a documented connection to a notable forebear, experts say, the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another.
"Millions of people have provable descents from medieval monarchs," said Mark Humphrys, a genealogy enthusiast and professor of computer science at Dublin City University in Ireland. "The number of people with unprovable descents must be massive."
By the same token, for every king in a person's family tree there are thousands and thousands of people whose births, lives and deaths went completely unrecorded by history. We'll never know about them, because until recently vital records were rare for all but the noble classes.
It works the other way, too. Anybody who had children more than a few hundred years ago is likely to have millions of descendants today, quite a few of them famous.
Take King Edward III, who ruled England during the 14th century and had nine children who survived to adulthood. Among his documented descendants are presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, both Roosevelts), authors (Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), generals (Robert E. Lee), scientists (Charles Darwin) and actors (Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Brooke Shields). Some experts estimate that 80 percent of England's present population descends from Edward III.
A slight twist of fate could have prevented the existence of all of them. In 1312, the close adviser -- and probably lover -- of Edward II, Piers Gaveston, was murdered by a group of barons frustrated with their king's ineffectual rule. Later that year, the beleaguered king's eldest son, Edward III, was born.
Had Edward II been killed along with Gaveston in 1312 -- a definite possibility at the time -- Edward III might never have been born. He wouldn't have produced the lines of descent that ultimately branched out to include all those presidents, writers and Hollywood stars.
Of course, the only reason we're talking about Edward III is that history remembers him. For every medieval monarch, there are countless long-dead individuals whose intrigues, peccadilloes and luck have steered the course of history simply by determining where, when and with whom they reproduced.
The longer ago somebody lived, the more descendants that person is likely to have today. Humphrys estimates that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, appears on the family tree of every person in the Western world.
Some people have tried to establish a documented line between Muhammad, who was born in the 6th century, and the medieval English monarchs and, thus, to most if not all people of European descent. Nobody has succeeded yet, but one proposed lineage comes close. Though it has several weak links, the line illustrates how lines of descent can wander down through the centuries, connecting famous figures of the past to millions of people living today.
The proposed genealogy runs through Muhammad's daughter Fatima. Her husband Ali, also a cousin of Muhammad, is considered by Shiite Muslims the legitimate heir to leadership of Islam.
Ali and Fatima had a son, al-Hasan, who died in the late 7th century. About three centuries -- 11 generations -- later, his descendant Ismail carried the line to Europe when he became imam of Seville.
Many genealogists dispute the connection between al-Hasan and Ismail, saying it includes characters invented by medieval genealogists to link the Abbadid dynasty, founded by Ismail's son, to Muhammad.
The Abbadid dynasty was celebrated for making Seville a great cultural center at a time when most of Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. The last emir in that dynasty is thought to have had a daughter named Zaida, who is said to have changed her name to Isabel upon converting to Christianity and to have married Alfonso VI, king of Castile and Leon.
Yet there is no good evidence demonstrating that Isabel, who bore one son by Alfonso VI, was the same person as Zaida. So the line between Muhammad and the English monarchs probably breaks at this point.
But if you give the Muhammad-Ismail connection and the Zaida-Isabel story the benefit of the doubt, the line leads, eight generations later, to Isabel's descendant Maria de Padilla (though it does encounter yet another potentially fictional character in the process).
De Padilla married another king of Castile and Leon, Peter the Cruel. Their great-great-granddaughter was Queen Isabella, who funded the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Her daughter Juana married a Hapsburg, giving rise to a Medici, a Bourbon and long line of Italian princes and dukes, spreading the Muhammadan line of descent all over Europe.
Finally, 43 generations from Muhammad, you reach an Italian princess named Marina Torlonia.
Her granddaughter is Brooke Shields.