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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson - how we did it

Grandmother: Yvonne Irene Eileen Johnson (née Williams)

Boris grew up with stories about his Granny Butter's posh ancestry and the significance of the name de Pfeffel, which forms part of Boris' own name. She claimed that the name derived from an ancient line of French nobility. Boris and his siblings had always thought her stories were hilariously far-fetched. However, they did have a distinct childhood memory of a large wooden chest containing 'the de Pfeffel silver'.

Step 1 - Family Archive

As always, the family archive was a great starting point for our investigation into Granny Butter’s posh past. Boris' Aunt Birdie had boxes of photographs, documents and artefacts which we hoped would yield several clues.

The photographs and documents did indeed reveal that Granny Butter's mother was Marie Louise de Pfeffel (1882-1944), and that her great-grandparents were Baron Charles de Pfeffel (1843-1922) and Caroline de Pfeffel (1862-1951). Her aristocratic pretensions appeared to have some substance!

One of our key discoveries among Aunt Birdie's archive was a death notice for Charles de Pfeffel. In the past, bereaved relatives would issue very formal notices announcing a death, detailing the former role of the deceased, the bereaved family members and the location of the funeral.

Charles de Pfeffel's death notice was especially exciting as it was issued by a long list of titled relatives from all over Europe. The counts, countesses, barons and baronesses listed on the notice prompted Boris to conclude that Charles must have been 'kind of serious Euro toff'!

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Boris discovers the death notice for Charles de Pfeffel

But the death notice also revealed that Charles had died in Germany and at some point had been Chamberlain to the King of Bavaria. So, realising that the 'French aristocrats' of Boris' grandmother’s stories were actually German, we headed to Germany to find out more.

Step 2 - Local Genealogy

In order to conduct a thorough and effective search, we decided to find a local genealogist to help us navigate our way through the different archival systems of Germany.

Finding a local genealogist can be vital in discovering how and where to look for information abroad. State archives and national archives often have lists of researchers who may be associated with the archives. Family history societies can also be useful in linking British researchers with foreign genealogists and historians. For example, in Germany, the Anglo-German Family History Society may be able to help (see Related Links).

Step 3 - German Archives

To trace further back down the de Pfeffel line, we had to build upon the significant clues found in the death notice. We had discovered that Charles was part of some kind of German nobility, and that Munich seemed to have been his home, at least during the latter part of his life. With the help of our German genealogist, Sabine Schleichert, we started to investigate the de Pfeffels in Munich.

Boris met Sabine in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. German state libraries and archives are great sources of detailed information (see Related Links). In Germany any genealogical research for the period after 1876 should generally begin with records kept by the local authority of a person's residence. For the period before 1876, research should start with the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials kept by the ecclesiastical archives. Further research at the state archives can only be done with exact information gained from these ecclesiastical sources. It is also worth knowing that in Germany probate files seem to start at the end of the 19th century.

Sabine found more details about the de Pfeffels from a section in the archive that stores information about noble families. Some countries have nobility registers that set out the lineage of noble families: for example, one of the German sources used in Boris's search was Genealogisches Handbuch des in Bayern immatrikulierten Adels. In the UK it is possible to search peerage registers (see Related Links).

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Boris finds out about the nobilitation of the de Pfeffels

Using several documents within these nobility files, Sabine explained to Boris that the de Pfeffels were actually only 'nobilitated' in 1828. So rather than being long-established aristocrats with roots in the Middle Ages, as Granny Butter had suggested, we were discovering that the de Pfeffels were in fact relatively recent, minor members of the nobility.

Step 4 - Existing Research

But further research soon unearthed a whole new investigation, this time into the lineage of Charles de Pfeffel's wife Caroline, Boris's great-great-great-grandmother.

Within the nobility files, we discovered that another of Boris' relatives had undertaken his own family history search in 1869: Charles and Caroline's son-in-law, Count Tauffkirchen. But when he looked into Caroline's background and her maiden name, von Rothenburg, he was told by the then Bavarian nobility register that no such family existed within their records.

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Boris discovers that there is a mystery surrounding Caroline de Pfeffel

Twenty years later, after Caroline's death, the persistent Count Tauffkirchen tried again. This time, the nobility register told him that Caroline was the daughter of an actress! But there was still no mention of her father. The 19th century search stopped there, as Tauffkirchen swiftly asked for all his enquiries, and the discovery of an actress, to be kept quiet.

Step 5 - Marriage Certificates

Having embarked upon a hunt for French aristocracy, it now seemed that we were on the trail of a feckless German father. We had to find out the hidden identity of Caroline's father.

Marriage certificates can sometimes provide clues about the paternity of a relative, as traditionally they mention the names and professions of the fathers of the bride and groom. We discovered from the nobility register that Charles and Caroline de Pfeffel were married in a small provincial Bavarian town called Augsburg in 1836.

In Augsburg, we met Dr Naimer of the Augsburg archives, who showed Boris intriguing microfilm records of Charles and Caroline's wedding in 1836. The record revealed that they married in front of VIP guests in the private chapel of the Bishop's Palace in Augsburg. This was highly unusual. It was also noted on the register that the Bishop mysteriously retained all records of the marriage.

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Boris looks at the Augsburg marriage record

The record also revealed that Caroline was five months pregnant at her wedding, and that there was absolutely no mention of her father.

Step 6 - Checking Original Records

Dr Naimer went back to the original record book (as opposed to the microfilm) to double check the details for the wedding of Charles and Caroline. Where possible it is always helpful to go back to original hard copy records to check whether additional information about someone has been added at a later date.

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Boris looks at the original marriage register for Charles and Caroline

In Boris's case, by checking the original hard copy, Dr Naimer discovered that someone had added a simple comment in pencil. It stated that Caroline was the natural (illegitimate) daughter of Prince Paul von Wurttemberg!

Step 7 - Royal Family files

Prince Paul of Wurttemberg was part of the Royal House of Wurttemberg. The Wurttemburg royal family files are held at the Stuttgart archive. In some cases the descendents of the Royal Houses may have private archives relating to their ancestors. But local archives should have some idea of where royal files are kept if they are not stored within their own buildings.

With the help of Dr Keyler from the Archive, we found surprisingly detailed files that explicitly connected Caroline to her father, Prince Paul. One file revealed that Caroline had actually lived with Prince Paul. Another showed that Prince Paul's brother, the King of Wurttemberg, was a supportive and loving uncle.

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Boris discovers that Caroline had lived with Prince Paul and received silver from the King

Amongst the papers, Boris also came across details of a gift that the King gave to Caroline: a collection of silver. When we compared the inventory of silver in the file to a photograph of the Granny Butter's 'de Pfeffel silver', we realised that it matched. So Granny Butter was the proud owner of aristocratic silver, but German rather than French. (The silver was sold by Boris' grandparents many years ago).

Step 8 - The Final Step

Now that we had identified Caroline's father, and established some of the reasons for her highly unusual wedding, we wanted to push back even further along her aristocratic family line.

We had discovered in Stuttgart that Prince Paul was the son of King Friedrich of Wurttemberg. To find out more about King Friedrich, we visited the beautiful ancestral home of the Kings of Wurttemberg in Ludwigsburg, now owned by the German state (see Related Links).

As Germany's complex web of royal family history can be confusing, we asked historian Dr Raphael Utz to meet us at the castle, to help us to trace back King Friedrich's family line.

In some cases, connections can be made between royal characters by examining peerage records (see Related links). An ancestor who provides a link to a royal lineage is known as a 'gateway ancestor'. Once that link is found, as in Boris' case with Prince Paul, tracing further back should be much easier.

At the Ludwigsburg castle, Raphael led Boris through stunning rooms to the aptly-named Gallery of Ancestors, an imposing wide corridor lined with huge portraits of Wurttemberg family members.

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Boris discovers that he is related to royalty

Here, to his astonishment, Boris discovered that King Friedrich's wife was the daughter of Augusta Hanover, Princess Royal of Great Britain and Ireland. Moreover, it was revealed that her father was Frederick Louis Hanover, Prince of Wales, who was the son of King George II of Great Britain and Ireland!

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