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Judi Dench discovers her ancestors had multiple links to William Shakespeare himself

Judi Dench, 86, discovers her ancestors had multiple links to William Shakespeare himself… as the Oscar-winner digs into her heritage for Who Do You Think You Are


Having won an Oscar for her role of Queen Elizabeth I in 1998 for Shakespeare In Love, as well as treaded the boards for decades in roles written by the playwright, it seems apt that Dame Judi Dench has discovered historical connections to the man himself.

Taking part on the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are, the actress, 86, has been told that her maternal ancestor was at the court of a castle with links to Hamlet.

In addition to this, another ancestor attended performances by a travelling English actor who happened to be one of Shakespeare’s favourite players.

Delving deeper: Judi Dench dug into her heritage for TV show Who Do You Think You Are

‘I hope my maternal eight times Grandmother liked Shakespeare otherwise she might have given the evening a miss!’ Judi quipped. ‘But knowing that Will Kempe visited the castle and presumably performed there does make me feel that I have got a step nearer to my beloved Shakespeare.

‘The Castle was Kronborg Castle and was the Castle of Elsinore in Hamlet, a place I have always wanted to visit and now I have!

‘Not only have I visited it but I now have a link to it too.’

During the episode, Judi also discovered links to Scandinavia and royalty – with one a lady in waiting in the Danish court.

Connections: The Oscar-winner has discovered her ancestors had multiple links to William Shakespeare himself

Connections: The Oscar-winner has discovered her ancestors had multiple links to William Shakespeare himself

Links: Judi won an Oscar for her role of Queen Elizabeth I in 1998 for Shakespeare In Love

Links: Judi won an Oscar for her role of Queen Elizabeth I in 1998 for Shakespeare In Love

'Beloved Shakespeare': She has treaded the boards for decades in roles written by the playwright [pictured in Romeo And Juliet in January 1965]

‘Beloved Shakespeare’: She has treaded the boards for decades in roles written by the playwright [pictured in Romeo And Juliet in January 1965]

‘I had no idea about any of that,’ she said. ‘Or even that we had any Danish connections but this I have found out is my Mother’s family and now of course I want to explore it further.

‘And now I believe there are Swedish connections too, this may well prompt a visit there as well!’

Asked why she wanted to take part in the show, Judi cited her mother as a driving factor.

‘Not knowing anything about my mother’s side of the family I was very interested to find out more,’ she said. ‘​​I know that we have the head of a unicorn as our family crest and I was very interested to find out whether it had a motto below it.

Thespian: Judi is seen in The Winter's Tale by Shakespeare at the Garrick Theatre, London, in 2015

Thespian: Judi is seen in The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare at the Garrick Theatre, London, in 2015

RSC! A longstanding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Judi is pictured at the Aldwych Theatre with Michael Williams in London Assurance in 1970

RSC! A longstanding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Judi is pictured at the Aldwych Theatre with Michael Williams in London Assurance in 1970

‘In the course of the programme, I found out about two family mottos but I’m not sure if one of them goes with the unicorn crest. I would like to find that out.’

On whether she had any worries when coming onto the show about what she might uncover, Judi added: ‘I am sure that investigating anyone’s past would have parts that could surprise or even shock you.

‘The work that researchers do is so thorough that there are bound to be some surprises to be found. Naturally, I was concerned about the possibility of what I might be told.’

She also found out about her father, and the harrowing experiences he went through.

Pictured: A young Judi dances with friends in 1938

Pictured: A young Judi dances with friends in 1938

Mr Dench: Judi's father, Reginald, is pictured, either when he signed up in 1915, or after the war in 1919

Mrs Dench: This is a portrait of Judi's mother

Mr and Mrs Dench: Judi’s father, Reginald, is pictured, either when he signed up in 1915, or after the war in 1919; her mother is also pictured

‘I had known, of course, about his Military Cross and bar but being told the details and actually seeing a photograph of where it had happened was deeply moving for me.

‘Of course, when you find out things like this you just wish they were still about and could add their own reminisces. My father, like so many men who survived the 14-18 war and the Second World War, rarely spoke about it.

‘He and my mother were incredible parents. Both had great senses of humour and always encouraged my brothers and me in whatever we wanted to do. There has always been a great deal of laughter in our family.’ 

Judi Dench’s Who Do You Think You Are? episode airs on October 19 on BBC One. 

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