The Perils of Rattling Family Closet Skeletons

In a media investigation worthy of the character Benedict Cumberbatch plays in the BBC series, “Sherlock!”, the media has been working overtime to drag the skeleton’s out of the handsome and successful actor’s closet, just as his star is ascending.


The rumor-mongers began here across the pond when it was revealed that Stacey Cumberbatch, New York City’s new commissioner of administrative services and Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor known for playing Sherlock Holmes in the popular BBC series, and for his turn as a plantation owner in the Oscar-nominated film, “12 Years a Slave” may have a common ancestor.

Stacey Cumberbatch told The New York Times that her ancestors were slaves in Barbados, and probably took their distinctive last name from their white owner.  That owner may have been Benedict Cumberbatch’s fifth great-grandfather, Abraham Cumberbatch, who founded the family fortunes on a sugar plantation in Barbados.

The actor has talked in interviews about his paternal ancestor’s ownership of a plantation in Barbados in the 18th Century.  Benedict described his role as emancipation campaigner Pitt the Younger in Amazing Grace as an “apology” for his ancestor

His grandfather, Henry Carlton Cumberbatch, was a decorated submarine officer of both World Wars and a prominent figure of London high society.  His great-grandfather was Queen Victoria’s Consul General in Turkey, Henry Arnold Cumberbatch, who was a member of the Order of St Michael and St George for his services to foreign and Commonwealth affairs.

Additionally, Benedict’s great uncle, Henry Ventham, a farm hand, was accused of stabbing to death his friend, Frederick Betteridge.  The story appeared in the Hampshire Advertiser on Saturday, 18 November 1893, with the headline The Romsey Stabbing Case.

It details how Henry, 14, was defended by a barrister called Bullen, the Recorder of Southampton, on the instructions of the judge, Mr. Justice Hawkins.  

Henry and Frederick were out gathering nuts and blackberries one afternoon when it was thought they had an argument – and Frederick was stabbed.   Henry’s story, supported by a third boy, was that there was no quarrel and that Frederick suddenly ran against him and the knife went into him.

A jury accepted Henry’s version that it was an accident and found him not guilty of both murder and manslaughter.  The Hampshire Advertiser concluded its report with the comment: ‘His Lordship … was quite content with the view they had taken of the case (applause in court).’  The comment in brackets suggests the jury’s verdict was a popular one.  The intriguing story was unearthed by family history website,

The 21st Century Benedict has worked in theatre, television, film and radio. His breakthrough on the big screen came in 2004 when he portrayed Stephen Hawking in the television movie Hawking (2004). He was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Actor for his performance. In 2010, he became a household name as Sherlock Holmes in the British television series Sherlock (2010), which is in its 4th season here in America, receiving his third BAFTA nomination. In 2011, he appeared in two Oscar-nominated films – War Horse War Horse (2011) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Star Trek:  Into Darkness, as the villain, Khan (2013), and he provided the voice of Smaug and the Necromancer in The Hobbit series, which stars his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman.


Cumberbatch has offered the requisite apologies.  He has made no secret of the fact that five-time great-grandfather in the 18th Century owned slaves on a Barbados plantation and has atoned for it dramatically in two different films and at least one interview?


Will that be enough for the ravenous paparazzi and White-Guilt media?  Cumberbatch’s family is also quite wealthy and well-connected.  He’s also extremely talented, a talent he has inherited from his parents (who play Sherlock’s parents in the BBC series).  This is an actor who is in his prime.   A fan of extreme sports, with chiseled good looks, and a tall, athletic frame, he could well be in line to become the next James Bond (if he wants to).


Prince Charles suffered a similar dilemma of ancestral prejudice.  He would have married Camilla long ago, but the Queen Mother, Elizabeth, objected because one of Camilla’s ancient ancestors was said to be the king’s mistress.  Such a bloodline put the otherwise very eligible Camilla out of the running for the future Queen of England.  The result was the disastrous marriage between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, pretty, seemingly quiet, and virginal, but too young for the royal responsibilities for which she was not raised and not trained, and as it turned out, unsuited in temperament to be a Queen. 


Poor Diana herself was the issue of a broken marriage.  Initially shy and, as it also turned out, willful, she disliked being in the public spotlight.  Hardly a trait for such a very public role.  Her ancestry was of an English family even older than the Windsors and purer in English blood, which undoubtedly caused some resentment on the part of the Spencers.


Peering too far into the past caused nothing but misery for Diana, Charles, their children, the Windsors, the Spencers, and is still causing for the unfortunate Camilla who was not responsible for the actions of some grandmother in the 15th Century.


In the entertainment world, it would be unfortunate for our culture if Mr. Cumberbatch’s career was scuttled for the sins of some long ago great-grandfather.  In a time of decadent American cultural idols like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and ridiculous reality-show fare like “Here Comes Honey-Boo-Boo”, it’s refreshing to tune into the better-written stories and shows coming from England like “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock!”, and watching actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and company.


Here in America, we have a saying, “TMI – too much information.”  It’s actually very rude to open closets and cabinets in other people’s homes.  Cumberbatch has nothing to hide and nothing to apologize for.  The other day, I was poking around YouTube and came across an episode of the Sixties’ comedy, “Gomer Pyle, USMC” where Jim Nabors gives an incredible performance of “The Impossible Dream.”  His vocal range was so tremendous that the song went through several key changes in order to take advantage of that range.  Nabors had a marvelous voice.  But he was also gay (he married his partner last year when Washington State legalized gay marriage), knowledge of which probably hindered his singing career.  He did record several albums but by that time, the standards of music had changed.  The only standards singer to survive the times was Frank Sinatra, who was determined to do it his way (“My Way,” one of the last songs he recorded).  Sinatra was known to have ties to The Mob and organized crime.


As Christians, we want to adhere to the teachings of the Bible.  As humans, we seek beauty in art and music as a refuge from the horrors and evils of the world.  The Dadaist progressive movement in the early 20th Century turned all that on its head.  What are we to do as humans, in our weakness and poor judgment when a gifted singer whose voice makes the hairs on your arm stand on their heads turns out to have what is considered one of the worst human failings?  When another, popular singer – since deceased – is also associated with criminals and murders?  When the future queen of England, initially banned from consideration for the sins of an ancestor, commits sin herself, but then finds herself in line to become Queen (Consort) after all?  When a new, young actor, talented and handsome, takes to the screen, only to be hectored for the racist acts of a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather?


Do we forgive?  Do we forget?  Do we make the sons pay for the sins of their great-grandfathers?  Do we discard God-given talent for the private weaknesses of the bearers of that talent?  Shall the English spit on a future Queen who, in all likelihood, will make a better queen than her predecessor because she wasn’t as virtuous as that predecessor?  Do we boycott a marvelous television series in an Age when good writing and acting are wonting for something its star didn’t do yet revere the blatantly and publicly obscene whose talent is as questionable as their taste?


There’s a difference between admiring talent and revering the talented as though they were gods when, in fact, no matter how much money – or talent – they have, they still have feet of clay, just like the rest of us.





Published in: on January 27, 2014 at 1:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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