Christopher Lee was a legendary actor who starred in many iconic roles, such as Dracula, Saruman, and Count Dooku. He was also known for his impressive ancestry, which he claimed traced back to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. But was he really related to Charlemagne? And if so, how special was that?
The Ancestry of Christopher Lee
According to his own account, Lee’s mother was an Italian contessa, and through her he descended from Emperor Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire. He also claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and several other noble families of Europe. Lee was proud of his heritage and even released a symphonic metal album in 2010 paying homage to Charlemagne.
However, Lee was not the only one who could boast of such a lineage. In fact, according to geneticists and historians, anyone with European ancestry is likely to be a descendant of Charlemagne as well.
The Mathematics of Genealogy
The reason why Charlemagne is the ancestor of most Europeans is simple: the number of ancestors each person has grows exponentially as one goes back in time. For example, each person has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. By the time one reaches the 33rd generation, which is about 800 to 1000 years ago, the number of ancestors is more than eight billion.
However, this number is more than the total population of the world at that time, and certainly more than the population of Europe. This means that many of these ancestors are not distinct individuals, but rather occupy multiple slots in one’s family tree. In other words, some of one’s ancestors are also one’s cousins.
This phenomenon is called pedigree collapse, and it implies that the further back in time one goes, the more likely it is that one shares a common ancestor with anyone else from the same region. Since Charlemagne lived in the 8th and 9th centuries, which is within the range of pedigree collapse for Europeans, he is a common ancestor for anyone with European heritage.
The Genetic Evidence
The mathematical argument for Charlemagne’s universal ancestry is supported by genetic evidence as well. Researchers have identified certain genetic markers that can be traced back to specific regions or populations in history. For example, there is a marker called R1b-U106 that is associated with the Franks, the Germanic tribe that ruled much of Western Europe under Charlemagne.
By analyzing the DNA of modern Europeans, researchers have found that about 20% of them carry this marker, indicating that they have Frankish ancestry. Moreover, this marker is not evenly distributed across Europe, but rather shows a gradient that matches the historical expansion of the Franks. The highest frequency of this marker is found in Belgium and the Netherlands, where Charlemagne was born and where his dynasty originated. The frequency then decreases as one moves away from this core area, reflecting the diffusion of Frankish genes over time.
Therefore, genetic evidence confirms that many modern Europeans are indeed related to Charlemagne through his Frankish ancestors. However, this does not mean that they are exclusively descended from him or his direct descendants. Rather, they are part of a large and diverse gene pool that includes many other sources of ancestry as well.
So, is Christopher Lee related to Charlemagne? The answer is yes, but so are most other Europeans. Lee’s claim to royal lineage is not unique or exceptional, but rather a reflection of the common heritage that he shares with millions of others. This does not diminish his achievements or his legacy as an actor, but rather puts them in a broader perspective of human history and diversity.
According to Scientific American, “because Charlemagne lived before the isopoint and has living descendants, everyone with European ancestry is directly descended from him.” Therefore, being related to Charlemagne is not a matter of pride or privilege, but rather a matter of probability and mathematics.