Josh Widdicombe - Who Do You Think You Are?

"To say it has exceeded my expectations is the understatement of a lifetime! I was expecting a couple of farmers. I am astonished at what I have discovered."


5th October 2021

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Warning! Article contains spoilers for the programme to be broadcast Tuesday 12th October 2021.

Josh Michael Widdicombe was born on the 8th April 1983 in London. The English comedian and presenter is best known for his appearances on The Last Leg, Fighting Talk, Insert Name Here, Mock the Week and his BBC Three sitcom Josh. He also won the first series of Taskmaster in 2015 and the show's first Champion of Champions special in 2017.

Though he was born in London, and now lives back in the capital city, he grew up in Dartmoor, Devon. In his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (to be broadcast on BBC One on Tuesday 12th October 2021) he reveals that it was such a small rural community that there were only four children in his village class. Once a week the bus called and there was no need for a door key to his parent's home as there wasn't any crime. His parents still live in the county and have moved to an even more remote home on Dartmoor which we see Josh driving to in order to pay them a visit. Filmed during the pandemic, at a time when rules required social distancing, the meeting after many months of regulations will be familiar to many as the urge to hug family had to be suppressed.

In the family there had been a story that the Widdicombe's were related to the founders of Barings bank – the financial institution that had collapsed in 1995. Josh asked his father what he knew about this and is shown a marriage certificate for his maternal great grandparents.

Edmund H Widdicombe and Mary Baring-Gould marriage

The marriage took place in Kensington on 27 April 1921 between the 39 year old Edmund Hannaford Widdicombe, whose occupation was recorded as being of independent means, and Mary Irene Baring-Gould 23. To discover more about what Edmund did for a living we can use the 1939 Register records on TheGenealogist where we are able to find Edmund and Mary recorded in Fetcham, Surrey. At this time, at the beginning of WWII, Edmund's occupation was listed as a Book Publisher and Company Secretary.

1939 Register on TheGenealogist finds Josh's great grandparents

In the TV programme viewers are able to see, along with Josh, that the copy of the marriage certificate gives the bride's father as Arthur Baring-Gould, a Clerk in Holy Orders. Josh is then shown by his father a Parish magazine that records the Rev Arthur Baring-Gould's funeral and gives quite an insight into what type of man that he had been. Josh reads that:

"He had no ambition in the worldly understanding of the word. He refused preferments again and again...he was a humble man who had not a thought for himself. His life was a triumph of sheer goodness."

Josh and his family muse over how this tribute is far removed from the world of banking.

A search of the Educational records on TheGenealogist returns an entry in The Sherborne Register as well as the Winchester College Register. This tells us that in 1889 he originally trained as a Barrister-at-Law (Inner Temple) before taking Holy Orders in 1895. A look at these records also revealed that his parish in 1908 was St Martin, Haverfordwest. The very parish that produced the Parish magazine that Josh's father shows him when talking about the funeral of their family member.

The Sherborne Register from the Educational records on TheGenealogist

Crockford's Clerical Directory 1929 on TheGenealogist

TheGenealogist also has various Occupational Records to consult including Crockford's Clerical Directory 1929. This record as well as the Educational records point to the family home having been Lew-Trenchard in Devon. With this information it is an easy step to the Visitations of the County of Devon found within the Peerage, Gentry & Royalty records on TheGenealogist to find Arthur Baring-Gould in a pedigree.

To the manor born

Photo: Fiona Avis / Lewtrenchard Manor via Wikimedia Commons

Visitation of the County of Devon found within the Peerage, Gentry & Royalty records on TheGenealogist

Josh is advised by his father to go and visit where the Baring-Goulds came from: Lew Trenchard Manor. This former home of that branch of his family is today run as a hotel. An entry in the Burke's A History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain, found on TheGenealogist, provides anyone wanting an explanation as to how the Baring-Goulds came to own Lew Trenchard with more details. Originally purchased by a Henry Gould in 1626 it was inherited by the sister of the last male Gould, whose name was Margaret and who was married to Charles Baring, younger brother of two of the founders of Baring's Bank, Sir Francis Baring of Larkbeer and John Baring.

Burke's A History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain on TheGenealogist

The Merchant Bankers

In the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Josh is able to meet Professor Helen Berry at Lewtrenchard Manor Hotel, the house that was once his ancestor's home. She tells him that the family story is indeed true and that Josh is related to the Barings of Baring's Bank via his 5x great grandfather, Charles Baring. Charles was the younger brother of John Baring and Sir Francis Baring who built up a huge fortune based on very shrewd deals to do with merchant shipping, trading in coffee, tobacco, sugar and so on.

Sir Francis Baring (left), with brother John Baring and son-in-law Charles Wall, in a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Public Domain

Josh sees a painting from 1806 that shows two of the three brothers, but does not include his ancestor Charles. Professor Berry explains that Josh's ancestor was excluded from the partnership and is handed a document from 1805 which he struggles to read as the old handwriting script is not easy to decipher. With help he understands that it talks of Charles's unfortunate business acumen. Not one of his businesses had proved successful and so his older brothers cut him out of the bank.

"Uber Posh"

Josh then gets to see a family tree scroll that has been drawn up for the television programme which takes him back to Henry Rich 1st Earl of Holland (1590-1649) and his wife Isabel Cope (d 1655). Their daughter, Lady Frances Rich married William Paget 1609-1678 5th Baron Paget and Lord and Lady Paget's daughter was the Hon Frances Paget from whom Josh is descended. He is taken aback to discover that his 10x great grandfather was 1st Earl of Holland and the owner of Holland Park in the 1600s. Josh is told by Professor Helen Berry that he is "Uber Posh'' which causes much amusement. When he recovers from his hearty laughter he begins to worry that all his street cred has now gone with this revelation.

We can find a record on TheGenealogist that shows Josh's ancestors as recorded in the Royal Blood of Britain, The Plantagenet Roll – The Isabel of Essex Volume

Holland Park owned by Henry Rich in the 1600s was badly damaged in the Blitz in 1940 losing much of its upper floors. Today only the east wing and some ruins of the ground floor and south facade remain, along with various outbuildings and formal gardens. In spite of the damage in 1949 the ruin was designated a grade I listed building. In the television programme Josh is shown, by the historian Dr Anna Whitelock, a line drawing of what the house once looked like. A search of the Image Archive on TheGenealogist finds us an alternative picture of the once great house.

Holland House at Holland Park from the Image Archive on TheGenealogist

Josh is then shown a portrait of Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, as well as one of Isabel Cope, his wife. Josh discovers that Rich was extremely high up in the court of Charles the first and would have attended the King at Hampton Court. In September 1634 Henry Rich was one of those at the Privy Council – King Charles I had not called parliament for the last five years as he believed in the divine right of kings and so he depended on trusted advisors like the Earl of Holland and the rest of the Privy Council.

Josh is advised to go to Hampton Court Palace if he wants to find out more and there he is able to meet historian Prof Tracy Borman. The palace has changed over the years and only some of it is still how it was in Charles's time. In the 17th century Charles I's grandson, William III began a lavish new extension to the palace. The layout of the king's apartments, though built after the time when Josh's ancestor would have been at the palace, would have been much the same as it was then. The further you were allowed to go down the corridor into the interior rooms, the more important you were. The King's bedroom was the ultimate inner sanctum and Henry Rich had access to all areas.

Not only did the Earl serve on the Privy Council but had a role in the King's Private Household. Josh is shown a document from 1640 that details his ancestor as the Groom of the Stool – this means that Josh's ancestor accompanied the King to the toilet to which Josh bursts into laughter. However, he is told that this was actually one of the most sought after positions in the whole of the court. With such close access to the king Henry would be able to make a nice profit from people paying him to put questions to the sovereign and to ask for favours, such as bits of land, titles and so on.

The change came in 1642 when a bloody Civil War broke out. By the year 1646 the Parliamentarians were winning the war and Henry Rich was on the wrong side.

Beheaded!

To find out what happened next Josh is in the City of London to meet Civil War Historian Prof Mark Stoyle. He gets to learn that Henry Rich was defeated in the Battle of Surbiton in 1648, went to bed that night in an inn and was then captured where he was staying. He stood trial and was condemned to death. Josh is shown a pamphlet that explains how his ancestor was taken out on to a scaffold wearing a long gown of silk that he had worn to his trial. He was then kept on the scaffold for an hour before he was beheaded. Josh is very moved by the leaflet that described how the Earl took off his hat and gave a speech to the gathered crowd. Then, as tradition required, he forgave his executioner, said his prayers and gave the sign for the axeman to end his life with one blow. Henry Rich had been 58 when he was beheaded leaving a widow, Isabel, and his eight children.

1st Earl of Holland 1640. Public Domain

Josh continues his research in the historic market town of Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire. Here at St Nicholas's church he meets historian Dr Nicola Tallis and they go to see the monument to his 13x great grandparents Sir Francis Knollys K.G. and his wife Katherine. Sir Francis had been Treasurer of the household of Queen Elizabeth and was born in 1514 and died 1596. While Sir Francis Knollys is actually buried in a vault in the church, Dr Tallis explains that Katherine was not. She, as Chief Lady of the bedchamber, had been buried in Westminster Abbey and her funeral had been paid for by Queen Elizabeth I. Around the monument are their 15 surviving children. One of which is Josh's ancestor, his 12 x great grandmother Lettice Knollys. Lettice was a Lady in waiting and one of the Queen's favourites – her daughter Lady Penelope Devereux was the mother of Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland.

TheGenealogist has a fully searchable Dictionary of National Biography in its Occupational records that can provide even more information about Josh's ancestor, Sir Francis Knollys

Dr Tallis then takes Josh to nearby Grey's Court, a Tudor manor where Lettice was born. He sees an image of his ancestor and also the Queen noting how alike they were, except that the Queen was older. He finds out that Lettice Knollys would have dressed the Queen and being at court would put her in a good place to marry well. It is not a surprise that, aged 17, she weds Walter Devereaux, the Earl of Essex.

Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex and Leicester

The Queen's favourite

In July 1575 Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in his attempt to woo the unmarried Queen Elizabeth, staged a party at his home in Kenilworth Castle near Warwickshire. Lettice, Countess of Essex, accompanies Queen Elizabeth to Kenilworth at this time.

Kenilworth Castle from TheGenealogist's Image Archive

Josh now travels to the castle where he meets the historian Dr Elizabeth Goldring who explains that it was 19 days partying in Dudley's attempt to persuade Elizabeth I to marry him. The endeavour was to fail, but it seems that the young Countess was more interested, notwithstanding that she was already married. In 1576 Lettice came back to hunt at Dudley's castle without the Queen and at a time that her husband was away in Ireland. When the Earl of Essex dies of dysentery, his widow, Lettice, then marries Lord Dudley in secret and without the Queen's permission. How will Queen Elizabeth react? The answer will surprise Josh when he is shown a document that tells of the consequences. The Queen boxes Lettice's ears and bans her from the court.

But the question remains as to why Katherine was buried at Westminster Abbey? Josh thinks it would be really great to go to Westminster Abbey and the producers of the programme oblige. He is told that his ancestor is in St Edmund's chapel and here the ultimate revelation of just how well connected were his ancestors is revealed. As he enters the Abbey where normally it is only Royalty and the elite of society that are buried here he says:

"To say it has exceeded my expectations is the understatement of a lifetime! I was expecting a couple of farmers. I am astonished at what I have discovered."

In the chapel Josh finds a plaque to his 13x great-grandmother which will leave him speechless. His ancestor is the daughter of Lady Mary Carey, sister to Anne Boleyn! Josh is stunned when he realises that this means his 14x great-aunt is Anne Boleyn and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I.

Hever Castle, Kent, Illustrated London News Nov 24 1849

Josh's next visit is to Hever Castle, home of the Boleyns and here it is revealed that he has even more staggering connections to Royalty. There is an illegitimate child of King Henry VIII to be investigated and finally Josh gets given a scroll that traces his line back even further to be topped by two more kings, one of England and another of France!

Quite a revelation for a comedian who thought he may be from a boring family with perhaps a few farmers!

Sources:
Press Information from Multitude Media on behalf of the programme makers Wall to Wall Media Ltd
Extra research and record images from TheGenealogist.co.uk
BBC/Wall to Wall Ltd Images
Wikipedia Commons
www.flickr.com/photos/60861613@N00/3371590308


5th October 2021

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