Researchers have discovered that Benedict Cumberbatch is distantly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created Sherlock Holmes, a role the actor has recently made his own.

According to the website Ancestry.com, Cumberbatch, 40, and Conan Doyle, who died in 1930, were 16th cousins, twice removed. Their common ancestor was John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, fourth son of King Edward III and father of Henry IV.

John of Gaunt, who died in 1399, was Doyle’s 15th-great-grandfather and Cumberbatch’s 17th-great-grandfather, the website said.

Sherlock returns to screens on Sunday night, for three new episodes broadcast in the UK by the BBC and by PBS in the US.

With Cumberbatch and co-star Martin Freeman having achieved Hollywood stardom – Cumberbatch in Marvel’s Doctor Strange and other films, Freeman in the Hobbit trilogy – the new episodes could be their last together onscreen as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.

Mark Gatiss, co-creator of Sherlock with Steven Moffat, told a gathering of journalists and fans this week: “We would love to do more, but we are not lying, we absolutely don’t know.

“It’s up to all kinds of factors, scheduling. Willingness to do it is all all here, but we are just not sure.”

Speaking to the Daily Mail on Saturday, Cumberbatch said: “This new series goes to a place where it will be hard to follow on immediately.

“We never say never on the show, but in the immediate future we all have things we want to crack on with, and we’ve made something very complete as it is. So I think we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Ancestry.com was not asked to research the backgrounds of Cumberbatch and Doyle, said a spokesman who added that its researchers love both the series and historical puzzles. The company has not told the actor of the connection.

“Making family history connections is similar to piecing together a mysterious puzzle, one that the great Sherlock Holmes himself would be intrigued to solve,” said Lisa Elzey, a family historian with the website.

Holmes and Watson first appeared in A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887. The last Holmes short stories were published in 1927.

In its report of Conan Doyle’s death three years later, the Guardian wrote: “The fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was at one time a politician and latterly a spiritualist will count for nothing compared with his fame as a writer of detective fiction. For detective fiction has flourished exceedingly, and he is its father.”

He was also a medical doctor and first-class cricketer.

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