The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black
Well, this is certainly a lovely nest of possibilities. I have had a perverse fascination with this crew ever since I first read about them in the fifth book. (And that house—what a treasure trove a place like that would be for a devotee of Victorian architecture and décor.) Even though official canon is closed, enough mystery and possibility still exists about the family of Black to warrant an essay.
First off, let me say that I am not going to try to repair the muddle of dates on the Black family tapestry sketch that Rowling created. Even if we avert our eyes from the disturbing teenage or even preteen parents, the dates on it simply do not add up with much of anything that is in the books. To make matters worse, apparently, the thing was altered by the filmmakers for the fifth movie, for no apparent reason (they certainly didn’t correct some of the more egregious date-related problems). It is an exercise in futility to attempt to sort this thing out. Chalk it up to its being a rough draft. Fans of the Star Wars series, when confronted with things in the novels that contradict what is in the films, place the films first. Fans of Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien work place the professionally edited finalized works ahead of Tolkien’s notes. I am choosing to say that what is in the books, is in the books, and what is not, is not, and the books take precedence when there is a conflict—unless out-of-book material is specifically stated to be a correction to something that is in a book. The Black family tapestry is not part of this essay, though I will be referring to dates when they are not problematic and I need to have a point of reference.
Where to begin? The basics, perhaps. We can state what we already know as a starting point:
- This is a family that has a long tradition of the Dark Arts.
- They have produced some very unpleasant-sounding characters, including a distant relation who actually, within the past century and a half or so, was lobbying the wizard government to legalize “Muggle-hunting.” This relation, “Araminta Meliflua,” was a cousin of Mrs. Black, and she does not show up on the tapestry, so she may not have actually been a Black herself, but a cousin on Mrs. Black’s mother’s side.
- They are pureblood isolationists.
- While members of some side branches got involved in Death Eater activity, we have it on authority from Sirius Black that the main line did not, at least until Regulus Black’s ill-fated adventure.
- The genealogy has been maintained back to the 1300s, at a minimum, a time when many Englishmen were not literate. Presumably, in this alternate universe, people educated in Scotland as wizards would be.
- They have had a vault in Gringotts Bank with a substantial amount of gold.
- They own a row house in London that is decorated in Victorian fashion, with an emphasis on Gothic and morbid-looking artifacts and décor.
Let’s start with the house. This may just be an indication that Rowling did not think things out thoroughly, but fortunately, nobody has apparently asked her about it in an interview and given her the opportunity to say something to make a mess of the matter. That house, however, is most definitely not from the 1300s. I know a little something about architectural history, and houses of that type were not built until the 1700s at a minimum, and more likely the 1800s. The Black row house could have been built in the 1700s, but I’m more inclined to date it from the 19th century because its exterior is not described as having been of the Classical brick-and-white-trim “Adam” style, but rather, more like the brownstone of the 1800s. These houses were not typically associated with extremely wealthy families, though it could just as easily have been that the Blacks did not care whether Muggles interpreted their house as being aristocratic, since wizards knew who they were.
Even though that is the residence of the primus line, the tapestry was obviously moved there. This would indicate there having been another house that they moved out of. According to the final book, wizards went into hiding in 1689. As stated, I am uncomfortable dating the row house that far back. Close-standing city buildings in the late 17th century existed, but they did not look anything like that. It’s just possible that an older house could have been later added to and renovated, but I’m not even sold on that. The house is given a number, and from the point of view of Muggles, that number is skipped. There are not two number 12s on that street. This means that number 12 was assigned to a house that was visible when the rest of the street was built. We must determine whether the house likely became invisible only with recent owners, or whether long-deceased Blacks such as Phineas Nigellus were the ones who removed it from Muggle view.
It may have become invisible only when Sirius Black’s father or grandfather inherited it. If so, then yes, the house could be older than everything around it. The Black family could indeed have moved into the original structure in 1689 and lived with the house visible until the mid-20th century, and it was simply renumbered along with the rest of the block when it got a brownstone facelift in the 1800s. But I’m not finding this hypothesis that credible. I am inclined to say otherwise, that the house was built as part of a block of such houses intended for Muggles, and that the Blacks just bought it in the 1800s after it was already numbered. These are pureblood wizard isolationists and practitioners of the Dark Arts. Why on earth would they keep their house visible to people whom they hold in utter contempt, let alone possibly renovating and renumbering it to match the Muggle dwellings? And they definitely resided in that house in the 19th century; the style of the interior décor proves it. It’s old décor, too. Wizards seem to embrace reconstructed anachronism quite openly, but it is usually medieval anachronism rather than Victorian, and there is not a jot of historic authenticity to it. The wizards’ anachronistic objects are quite obviously reconstructions and are usually very poor ones, whereas the furnishings in the Black house are clearly authentic antiques.
Since they were living there, it makes more sense—given what we know of the family’s politics—that they would have hidden it from their Muggle neighbors as soon as they took possession rather than keeping it visible for possibly 100 years before finally taking the plunge. Since the house was built in the 19th century and decorated likewise, they were probably the first owners. Clearly some Black ancestor, perhaps the venerable Phineas Nigellus himself, saw fit to deal with Muggles in commerce. I have a suspicion that, for all that he used the word “Mudblood” and disparaged the knowledge levels of Muggle-borns, he wasn’t nearly as extreme as his relations. The family tree does show that he blasted his second son off the tree for “supporting Muggle rights,” but we have no idea what that means. It may have meant “supporting Muggle rights to intermarry with wizards,” and probably the best real-world analogy would have been to support racial intermarriage in the late 19th century. As normal as that is today, we must remember that things were different then. Even many people regarded as liberal and enlightened in their time were against this and used some rather racist arguments, at that. We also have the bit of information from the family tree that Phineas’s youngest sister was blasted off the tapestry for marrying a Muggle. Ted Tonks is also identified by the “blaster” as a Muggle, when of course he was a wizard, but it might have actually been true in the case of Isla Black’s husband. We haven’t heard of any wizards by that name (Hitchens) since then, so she may not have had children, or her children might have been Muggles. It’s vanishingly rare now for wizard/Muggle pairings not to produce wizard children, but it could happen. (See the essay “Wizards Everywhere and When” for further reading.) In this case, it could have been a particularly sore subject for Phineas.
In any case, Albus Dumbledore regarded Phineas with some respect, and as Headmaster, Phineas did not revoke the policy allowing Muggle-borns to attend school. (That said, I highly doubt that the ban on discussion of Horcruxes was in place during his tenure. The character was a Dark wizard, and Albus and Horace Slughorn learned about it somewhere, after all.) We ought to note, too, that Phineas’s tenure as Headmaster very likely coincided with a period in which Albus’s father was imprisoned, censured, and made infamous for the story that he had attacked Muggles. Given that the Ministry of Magic evidently encouraged era-appropriate tolerance and liberalism during this period, it is vanishingly unlikely that they would have permitted someone with the sensibilities of, say, the Muggle-hunter to remain Headmaster of the school. It is even more unlikely that Albus would have respected someone like that in adulthood, for all that he espoused wizard supremacism briefly as a youth. The fling with Gellert Grindelwald has all the hallmarks of a teenage rebellion, and teenagers typically rebel against the religious or political ideology that they view as that of “the establishment.” Yes, I can see Phineas Nigellus Black, who came of age in the 1860s according to Rowling’s dates, buying the newly built #12 from the Muggle developers and starting his family there.
In conclusion, we should abandon the idea that the Blacks moved into that house in 1689 or that the house is any older than it appears to be. A 19th-century move into a new house seems far likelier. Their relocation from their original ancestral residence would then have had nothing to do with wizarding Seclusion. What about financial reasons, then? It is assumed by many fans that they were fabulously wealthy, but this is based on scant evidence. The Malfoys, OK, I can see that, especially since we got to see the Malfoy house at last. But the Blacks? Certainly there is money, and probably they have been comfortably well off for some time. There was evidently more Black money than Potter money, but we have no indication that Harry inherited enough money to make his wealth comparable to Lucius Malfoy’s. I just see no reason to assume that the Blacks were a super-wealthy family. They may have been at one time, sure, but if they lost the ability to keep their original house, this could well have necessitated a move during the 19th century. We got a thoroughly degenerate example of a pureblooded old wizard family having lost its fortune in the sixth book, so such things are not without precedent.
Keeping the analogies within the 19th century, we can compare the Malfoys to families like the infamous “robber baron capitalists” of the Gilded Age. The Blacks were clearly quite well-off, but not on that level. An example I can think of from across the Pond is the childhood home of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who detested the robber barons, incidentally. The Theodore Roosevelt house is a brownstone town house in Manhattan. The interior décor is similar in style, though not especially Gothic and dark, and perhaps somewhat more expensive in make. The family was wealthy, but this type of house is what they lived in.
(Well, why not make a parallel in the Potter world between robber barons and regular wealthy elite? The Blacks seemed to have appreciated their house-elves. The custom of mounting their heads on the wall was a morbid Victorian-era tradition not unlike the real-world Victorian practices of having taxidermied house pets or posed photographs of deceased children. The Malfoys, in contrast—at least the latest generation—abuse their house-elves so badly that they are driven to go against their basic nature of utter loyalty to their “house.” Dark magic and blood purity ideology do not necessarily imply vicious character. There is ample evidence that the Black family could be better described as “mentally unstable” and “hotheaded” than genetically evil. The only two blood members who could really be described as evil are the Muggle-hunter—if she is even a Black—and Bellatrix.)
Continuing with my suggestion that Phineas Nigellus bought the house newly built, we might propose that his father died when Phineas was a young adult and that the original house had to be sold to pay off debts that came to light after his death—or medical bills, for that matter. Things like this happen all too frequently. There is a vague hint on the tapestry that a medical problem may have happened some time before Phineas came of age; his older brother died at age 8. If the boy had been ill for a long time, it could easily have depleted family funds. The circumstances of the father’s death (and possible illness) could have then made the financial situation bad enough that the original house had to be sold upon his decease. To whom? We don’t know, but we can speculate.
I rather like to think that Malfoy Manor may originally have been Black Manor and that the Malfoys purchased it when the Blacks fell on hard times. In keeping with the model of the 19th-century robber barons, they probably would have given them a pittance, to boot. And something that suited the pride of the Malfoys would probably have been out of the reach of pretty much every other family, so Phineas would have been forced to accept their offer, however poor it was. And, given the family’s almost hereditary tendency to hold on to grudges, the resentment would have been passed down. There is no love lost between Bellatrix and any member of the Malfoy family, after all, regardless of the fact that her own sister married into it. Some of it is probably due to the fact that she went to prison while Lucius didn’t, but there may be more to it. (Lucius did go to prison later, after all.) We also get the impression that Bellatrix thoroughly identifies as a Black rather than by her married name. And there is that comment from her in the opening chapter of Deathly Hallows about Malfoy Manor being “our family’s home.” That’s just weird, especially for a woman who married into a family wealthy enough to have a vault filled with gold. Presumably she did not live in Grimmauld Place; that was her cousins’ home. Whatever became of the place where her family lived? She should have inherited that as the eldest child. Furthermore, one of her sisters was disowned, and the other married into a very wealthy family. Whether through inheritance or marriage, she ought to have her own home. The Ministry didn’t confiscate her in-laws’ fortune when they went to prison. And yet she is referring to her brother-in-law’s mansion as “our family’s home.”
Supporting my tentative suggestion that there is some long-standing rivalry and resentment of the Malfoys on the part of the Blacks (for all that Narcissa’s marriage was acceptable to whoever managed the tapestry), we have the otherwise unaccountable fact that Sirius inherited the house. It was within the power of its owner to change the default heir to someone else. We saw Sirius do it. According to Rowling’s Black family tapestry, Sirius’s grandfather, Arcturus Black, outlived his son and daughter-in-law/great-niece, Sirius’s parents. He is the one Sirius inherited it from. We can’t even say for sure that Sirius’s father ever legally owned the house at all, for all that he lived there. We can guess that when Sirius ran away and had his name blasted off the tapestry by his mother, Regulus was designated as the heir, but Regulus died. Moving down the tree, we have Bellatrix Lestrange, and then Andromeda Tonks, who was blasted off and was presumably disinherited. Next is Narcissa Malfoy, who has a son who is listed on the family tree by name, unlike any other children of female Blacks.
I know it is in the books that Bellatrix supposedly would have been next in line to get the house, but it is just Dumbledore’s speculation, and I’m not particularly disposed to accept the idea. There is evidence on the family tree itself that inheritance of the house, when not designated specially, went to the next male relative in line, not the oldest surviving close relative at all. The elder child of Arcturus Black was not Sirius’s father. It was his aunt, Lucretia Black Prewett. She died a year after her father. As far as readers can tell, she never owned the house. If the house had been set to go to the eldest and closest (non-disinherited) relative of the late owner, she should have had the place for a year. I think the house was set to go to the eldest and closest male blood relative, which would have been… Draco Malfoy. The tapestry designated him by name, unique of all the children of female Blacks, because he was the heir presumptive. And rather than seeing that happen, Arcturus reinstated Sirius as the heir, for all that he was in Azkaban.
The only people who ever believed that Sirius had been a traitor, after all, were the “good guys.” (And that says something very uncomplimentary about them, incidentally. One really can’t blame Harry for shrugging off the Order of the Phoenix when he left school to hunt the Horcruxes.) There was no doubt in the Death Eater ranks that Pettigrew had been the traitor—among those who knew of his involvement, that is, because not all of them did. And Arcturus Black had watched Bartemius Crouch, the very man who put Sirius in prison without a trial, cut a deal with Igor Karkaroff—who definitely was a Death Eater—in exchange for his freedom. Previously unknown Death Eaters were outed as a key part of this bargain. Arcturus may have known already, perhaps from within his own extended family (such as Bellatrix Lestrange and the Malfoys) that Sirius was innocent, but he couldn’t prove it since Pettigrew was presumed dead. However, he may have been expecting Sirius to be released if other Death Eaters cut deals with the Ministry and someone let slip that Pettigrew had been the one to betray the Potters to Voldemort.
Obviously not every Death Eater knew it; Snape didn’t, unless his hatred for Sirius was so great that he just never told Dumbledore what had really happened. Unfortunately, I can’t completely rule this out. (How much hate would you have to hold for someone to want to see their soul destroyed?) On the other hand, it does seem unlikely that Snape could have known that Pettigrew was the spy and traitor and never tell either Dumbledore or the Ministry about it. What would he have had to lose? Everyone, including Sirius himself, assumed that Pettigrew was dead. He certainly wouldn’t have laughed about it in the middle of the street if he’d had an inkling of his escape. Outing Pettigrew wouldn’t have had the repercussions for Snape that Karkaroff suffered; the Death Eaters had no love lost on the man who they believed led their Lord into a trap.
However, if Arcturus expected his grandson to be released and cleared, his hopes were in vain. It would seem that the Death Eaters didn’t regard Pettigrew, a dead man as far as they knew, even as one of their own, and they certainly weren’t going to clear a blood traitor like Sirius out of the goodness of their hearts. It may also have been that if anyone did posthumously name Pettigrew as a Death Eater, Crouch could scoff at it, as he did when Karkaroff named Snape, and say (wrongly, this time) that Sirius Black was already “known” to be the spy.
Running with the (admittedly unsupported) idea that Phineas Nigellus, Arcturus’s own grandfather, who survived until Arcturus was 24, had had to sell the original family house to the Malfoys for less than its true value, I can further suggest that the idea of seeing the rest of the family holdings go to those people was so unpalatable to Arcturus that he would reinstate a known blood traitor as the heir rather than die with the knowledge that a Malfoy would finally get it all. The insult would have been compounded by the fact that the boy’s father served the “Dark Lord” who got Regulus killed, and lied and probably bribed his way out of Azkaban, at that. If we go with the idea, which is outlined in the essay “Indiana Regulus and the Cave of Doom,” that Arcturus also knew of Voldemort’s half-blood status, we have yet another reason why he might have been determined to keep the family property away from anyone who had supported the foul half-blood imposter. There is plenty of potential for a theory of long-standing Black family resentment directed at the Malfoys. But this is just wild speculation that will never be confirmed. Fortunately, that means we can have fun spinning theories around it.
Speaking of the Malfoys, was Cygnus Black—Narcissa’s father—a Death Eater, or an open supporter? Sirius and Regulus’s parents shared beliefs with the Death Eaters, but they were not members. We don’t know about Cygnus, and the evidence is scant and inconclusive. It’s definitely conceivable that he could have been drawn into the organization; two of his daughters were connected to it. His wife, Druella Rosier, was quite possibly the sister of one of Tom Riddle’s original Death Eaters. He is surrounded by people who are connected to the Death Eaters. And there is the fact that, when Draco was told that Horace Slughorn wasn’t “interested in Death Eaters,” the relation that he tried to use to cozy up to the man was his grandfather Abraxas Malfoy rather than his grandfather Cygnus. We can conclude that Abraxas was probably a pureblood supremacist in the mold of Orion and Walburga Black rather than a Death Eater, or he wouldn’t have been mentioned. Again, it is inconclusive; Draco could easily just have identified more strongly with his father’s side of the family, but we cannot rule out that his maternal grandfather was involved with the organization and Draco ruled out mentioning him to Slughorn on that basis.