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Dunkirk woman has family ties to democracy’s origin

When people boast of their ancestors fighting in the Revolutionary War, or even better, coming over on the Mayflower, Helen Waite Burlett could argue that no, it was her family who planted the earliest seeds of democracy.

And they did it 400 years earlier.

Now 74, the Dunkirk woman has few peers when it comes to the depth of her family’s roots in the rights and freedoms that became the foundation of America and so many other democracies across the world.

Burlett, after all, can trace her father’s lineage all the way back to King Edward I of England and, perhaps, even more important, back 20-plus generations to a 13th-century baron named Henry de Bohun.

De Bohun, who was also the Earl of Hereford, was one of 25 property owners who rose up against the throne in 1215 as part of a tax revolt that became known for the settlement it produced – the Magna Carta.

“It makes you feel like you’re part of history,” Burlett says of her ties to the landmark document.

At a time when the Magna Carta is being celebrated across the world – it’s 800 years old this year – Burlett wants people to know that Western New York has ties to a document many consider the most important in history.

The truth is there are thousands of Magna Carta descendents across the country and hundreds in New York. De Bohun alone is estimated to have 475 descendents.

Many of them are members of the National Society of Magna Charta Dames and Barons and, like Burlett, had to produce birth, death and marriage certificates documenting their link to one of the original signers.

For Burlett and her family, the effort was all about family pride.

“If we didn’t have the Magna Carta, we wouldn’t have the government we have today,” said Jordan Cooley, Burlett’s 13-year-old grandson.

Widely viewed as the foundation for such fundamental legal principles as due process and trial by jury, the Magna Carta is perhaps best known for the core notion that no one man, or government, is above the law.

For Burlett, the 800th birthday is just the latest chapter in a journey that began when she and her mother started researching their family’s history as part of an effort to qualify for the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mayflower Society, two other groups of descendents. She succeeded in tracing both sides of her family back to the American Revolution.

“It’s a real study of living history,” Burlett said of her research. “It’s something you start building on. Being a history buff, it seemed so interesting to see what else is out there.”

De Bohun was one of the gems she came across.

Born in Warwick, England, in 1176, de Bohun was a nobleman who rose to power in a region that straddled the border between Wales and England. He was one of several barons elected to enforce the Magna Carta and, in the civil war that broke out after it was signed, de Bohun sided with King Louis VIII of France and was later captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217.

De Bohun later died on a pilgrimage to Palestine.

For Burlett, who has traveled the world, her connection to de Bohun is part of a family legacy that she’s already passed on to her daughter Amanda and, more recently, her two grandsons. She says all three are proud of their deep roots here and in England, but it’s Alex, her 9-year old grandson, who may have the genealogy bug.

“I find it cool and amazing,” said the fourth-grader, “that you can go back so many years and see what your family was doing.”

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com