“Who Do You Think You Are?”: J.K. Rowling’s French Family Tree

By Diane Haddad

Let our “Who Do You Think You Are?” correspondent Shannon Combs Bennett take you inside last night’s episode with J.K. Rowling, author of the famous Harry Potter books (which originally aired as part of the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”).

Photo: Andrew Montgomery

Sunday’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC took us on a European adventure through J.K. Rowling’s maternal line. The author wanted to learn more about her mother’s roots in France and why her great-grandfather Louis Volant received the Legion d’Honnuer in World War I.

Rowling visited stunning places, from the French national archives in Paris to the ancestral village of her second-great-grandmother on France’s border with Germany.

Her first stop included a treasure box of family history and helped to set the tone of the show: Sitting in her aunt’s home in Edinburgh, Scotland, Rowling gathered clues to Louis Volant’s life. We learned that she shares Louis’s birth date, the same birth date she gave her much-beloved character Harry Potter.

At the national archives, a bit of Rowling’s world seemed to crumble as she realized the Louis Volant who received the Legion d’Honnuer wasn’t her Louis. The birth date gave it away, along with a handwriting comparison. But further research revealed that Rowling’s great-grandfather was nonetheless a hero who performed duties above and beyond what was expected as a member of France’s 16th Territorial Infantry Regiment in World War I.

The men in the Territorial Regiments were 35 to 40 years old and were charged with guarding roads and bridges, not fighting. Rowling discovered in military records how, in Courcelles-le-Compte in October 1914, Germans attacked Louis’s unit during the “race to the sea.” Louis Volant received the Croix de Guerre for his actions during this battle. To many, this honor was even greater than the Legion d’Honnuer, an award only officers receive.

If you have roots in France, don’t miss the French genealogy research guide in the September 2015 Family Tree Magazine. It’s authored by About Genealogy‘s Kimberly Powell, a French research expert who wrote about J.K. Rowling’s French ancestry and the Louis Volant mixup.

Records next led to Louis’ mother, Salomé Schuch. Rowling traveled to her small village, Brumath, on the border with Germany in Alsace, where she saw the family home where Salomé was raised.

This segment is a reminder of the importance of knowing historical boundaries: Alsace had been part of France for only 300 years when Salomé was born. Many people from this region had ancestry in Switzerland, France and Germany. In 1870, at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war, Prussia reclaimed the area, making its citizens no longer French but Prussian. The official vital records in Brumath switched from French to German.

Use contemporary maps as tools to learn more about changing historical borders and how they’ve changed. The Family Tree Historical Maps Book: Europe is a helpful collection of old maps of European countries over time.

Next Sunday, Aug. 9, at 9/8 Central, we’ll explore actor Alfre Woodard’s paternal lineage and learn how her surname came to be.