Diary Winners

The winners of the Family History Diary 2005 up for grabs in issue 18 were: WAB Goudge, C Todd, T Boland, LC Crew, M Forsman, C Drake, JH Hopkins, C Everett, L Vernon, J Stern, G Henderson, D Wilberforce-Eke, VI Horsley, K Pickering, D Smith, A Neilson, EF Cannon, DA Chambers, G Wright, C Downs, E Butler, J Dolon, Y Huntley, JG Amos and J Maddison. Congratulations to you all.

DNA testing is great news - in theory

Genealogists are becoming aware that DNA analysis may help in establishing ancestral connections but it's unlikely we'll be able to exhume our ancestors to confirm research

Family Historians are familiar with church courts in that they hold the records of wills probated before 1858 and granted licences to marry in church without the formal calling of banns. However the church courts still operate today and even though they've lost their control over matters of morality and, to some extent, the employment of church officials, the courts are still very active in the issuing of faculties or permission to disturb the body and fabric of the church and its grounds. I have been following one case over the last two years through its travels from a local consistory or Bishop's court to the highest ecclesiastical court of appeal, the Court of Arches of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In October 2004 the Church Times reported on the ruling of the Rt Worshipful Sheila Cameron QC, Dean of the Arches, Chancellor Peter Collier QC and Judge Samuel Wiggs QC for the Court of Arches which upheld a decision of the Chancellor of the Rochester Consistory Court in November 2002, refusing a petition for a faculty to exhume a body from the graveyard of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, and extract enough bone from the remains to enable DNA testing to be carried out.

In this case the petitioner wanted to establish whether there was any scientific evidence to support the belief that the deceased was the illegitimate son of Princess Louise (1848-1939), a daughter of Queen Victoria. Rumour of this connection had by Else Churchill persisted in the family for some years and the petitioner argued that exhumation should be granted for historical interest.

The petitioner contended that enough information about the mitochondrial DNA of descendants of Queen Victoria was now in the public domain to enable comparison with the remains in the Sevenoaks churchyard. The murdered Russian Tsarina Alexandra, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was identified by comparison of the mitochondrial DNA taken from her remains and from a sample of blood supplied by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Mitochondrial DNA passes only from the mother to child. A son cannot pass on his mother's DNA and hence no analysis could be made of the children of the man buried in Sevenoaks.

The court decided that, in this instance, family stories and other circumstantial evidence was not enough to warrant disturbing the remains and set down guidelines which would influence any decision to exhume remains. Genealogical interest alone could not justify exhumation for what might be a speculative exploratory expedition. The desire, in the absence of records, to investigate a possible descent using DNA did not engage the right to respect of private and family life which is contained in

In this instance... genealogical interest alone could not justify exhumation for what might be a speculative exploratory expedition"

the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Historical grounds for exhumation should be based on well founded reasoning and there should be a factual basis to the supposition involved. Other examples where reasonable grounds for historic interest had lead to exhumation were the investigation into the disease of porphyria in the descendents of King George III, for which purposes material was removed from the coffin of Princess Feodora, the eldest grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and the successful DNA testing that lead to the identification of the heart believed to be that of the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

It was accepted by the Church that exhumation for medical history or for forensic science may benefit the public. The police might be curious to discover whether a person died from unnatural causes and the coroner or consistory court might be asked for permission to exhume remains so they could be tested and re-interred. Archaeological investigations may lead to examination of remains if they should be disturbed after work in undertaken on the fabric of the church or grounds. In each case the court should be satisfied that the circumstances were special enough to justify the removal or disturbance of the remains. Skeletons should be disturbed only for sound reasons. But speculative genealogy, according to ecclesiastical case law, is not a good enough reason.

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