v 5.10.00
6 Oct 2018
updated 17 Jul 2019

Yer Doin' my 'Ed In

A year or two ago, a popular UK soap actor by the name of Danny Dyer was the subject of an episode of the BBC program series Who Do You Think You Are? in which the genealogical research team behind the scenes revealed that he was descended from William the Bastard, first Norman King of England, Edward III the warrior Plantagenet monarch, and Thomas Cromwell, son of a pork butcher, who became the chief fixer for the loathsome Tudor tyrant Henry VIII.


In 2016, Dyer's ancestors were the subject of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, a BBC documentary that looks into the family history of celebrities. Research revealed that his family hails from the Poplar area. Census records showed many of them working in the manual occupations connected to the docks on the River Thames. Tracing his ancestors even further back, research found that his 15x great grandfather was Thomas Cromwell. His 14x great grandmother was Elizabeth Seymour, the sister of Jane Seymour, who was Henry VIII's third wife and Queen. Elizabeth married Cromwell's son, Gregory Cromwell and, with the Seymour family's assertion to be descended from Edward III (his 22x great grandfather), the line stretches back to William the Conqueror...

Danny made his mark in the popular daily BBC TV series Eastenders, in which the male characters are reputedly limited to the following four lines

  • Wossup? = is something happening?
  • Yer doin' my 'ed in = stop upsetting me
  • Leave it art = please desist
  • I dint mean t'urtcher Babes = I didn't think you'd ever find out, darling

the second of these being a reprise of his ancestor Thomas's last words on Tower Hill, of course, history repeating itself as always.

Danny, himself a likeable and resourceful character, typifying a great deal of what has kept England supremely buoyant over the centuries, was delighted to hear of his distinguished ancestry.

But of course he shares it with a great many of his fellow Britons, in fact quite possibly a majority of them (including you and me).

Arithmetically, it all revolves around the Pigeonhole Principle, a fundamental (though blindingly obvious when stated) axiom of the so-called 'discrete' branches of mathematics, of which on the whole I'm totally ignorant. Perhaps it's the concepts of pigeons and pigeonholes that are helpful in the present context, rather than the principle itself.

It basically says that if (N+1) pigeons occupy N holes, then some hole must have at least 2 pigeons.

Yes, mathematicians get paid for such profundities!

But the general idea is exemplified by the fact that your every inhalation contains, on average, at least one molecule from Julius Caesar's dying breath. This is because there are about as many molecules in a tidal lungful as there are lungfuls in the atmosphere.

Julius Caesar's last lungful of air molecules got scattered throughout the global atmosphere. By looking up the Girls' and Boys' Giant Book of Facts, you'll find that

  • The atmospheric volume is about 2.5 x 1022 litres
  • The tidal volume of the lung is about 1 litre
  • One litre of air contains about 2.5 x 1022 molecules at 25 deg C

So Caesar's final exhalation of 1 litre contained 2.5 x 1022 molecules, which then got thoroughly dispersed in the atmosphere as a whole, one molecule per litre. And at your next inhalation of 1 litre, in will come one of his molecules!

Effectively, this argument uses molecules as pigeons and lungfuls as pigeonholes and as you've noticed, the fact that you most probably have two lungs has been ignored to keep things simple, though the net result is the same.

Going back to Danny Dyer, he (like almost every creature on earth since sex got started) had two parents, and (nominally) four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great great grandparents, and so on backwards into remotest history.

0Danny Dyer1
-3Great grandparents8
-4Great x 2 grandparents16
-5Great x 3 grandparents32
-6Great x 4 grandparents64
-7Great x 5 grandparents128
-8Great x 6 grandparents256
-9Great x 7 grandparents512
-10Great x 8 grandparents1024

Diagrammatically, this is often represented as an inverted pyramid, each row comprising the requisite number of boxes or pigeonholes, one per ancestor. It soon gets quite untenable, as the headcount doubles at each receding generation, until it becomes larger than the entire global population at that era (reckoning at 3-4 generations per century).

And this is because, from about Generation -3, there are increasingly more pigeonholes with the same pigeons, thereby reducing the head-count. This is because people pretty often marry within the existing family structure, the consequence being that the same direct ancestors feature more than once in the inverted pyramids for the bride and groom's offspring.

For example, if first cousins marry, their offspring have two duplicate grandparents, and if second cousins marry, their offspring have two duplicate great grandparents.

It is generally reckoned, from statistical evidence, that (historically and globally) people tended (with about 80% probability) to marry their first or second cousins. As European civilisation developed, first cousins became a no-no, for genetic reasons (though are implicitly permitted by Leviticus), but second cousins were almost equally likely to have known about, and met, one another whilst growing up. Also, they'd still probably have been of reasonably similar socio-economic status, and not to have lived inconveniently far away!

So it turns out (though actually this does my own 'ed in) that a diamond, or kite, is much the more realistic ancestral pattern than the inverted pyramid. And it's also put paid to the likeable Danny's vision of himself as a distant heir to the throne.


... So what about the most recent common ancestor down every possible line of descent? Statistician Joseph Chang engineered a mathematical model to find out. The model carried out calculations using the number of ancestors each individual possesses and the current population size, while taking into account the fact that people usually reproduce within socio-economic groups and geographic areas. He concluded that the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today lived somewhere in Asia, only 3,400 years ago.

Chang also calculated that everyone of European descent has a common ancestor who lived as recently as around 600 years ago, at the time of Richard II. Bearing this in mind, stories of Danny Dyer's descent from William the Conqueror and Edward III, or Christopher Lee's direct ancestry to King Charlemagne seem like hollow claims. Yes, they probably are descended from these prolific figures, but so are all other white Europeans. To add to the redundancy of such assertions, Danny Dyer may possess all of William the Conqueror's genetic material or none of it, as may anyone ...

To summarise, as both William I and Edward III were direct ancestors of Richard II (please see here for a table of monarchical lineage), then everyone descended in some way from Richard II (ie all of us Europeans) are also descendants of those two predecessors of his. Danny's credentials in this respect are no better than the rest of us!