Tuesday, 16 December 2014

On Richard III and the Genetics of Royalty

I’ve been reading with interest the reports in the press on the doubts cast by DNA analysis on the direct descent of Richard III and the Tudor line from the earlier Plantaganet kings (see especially the report in The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/02/king-richard-iii-dna-cousins-queen-ancestry). I’m presuming that it is the Guardian’s reporters who are at fault, rather than the researchers themselves, but unless my understanding of the family trees involved is awry, there are some mysteries here.

For a start, there seems little doubt that the body in the car park is indeed that of Richard III. The researchers have clearly done their job well in estimating the certainty at more than 99%. It also seems reasonable that the Society of Antiquaries portrait taken 25 years after his death (at a time when he was being vilified by the Tudor dynasty) is the most accurate we have, whether or not the hair has been coloured darker than it really was.

However, some of the Guardian’s comments about royal descent are eyewash, particularly since the researchers make the careful point that the break in DNA – the non-paternity event, as they put it – could have happened anywhere in the 19 generations between Edward III and today’s Dukes of Beaufort, and indeed it sounds as though there may be two breaks, one of them in the Beaufort line itself, as opposed to the Plantaganet line. There is nothing at all to suggest that the break happened between Edward III and Richard III. But if it did, my immediate reaction would be to wonder whether it is that Richard III himself was not the son of his apparent father Richard Duke of York, father also of Edward IV. The mitochondrial DNA is correct – it matches the modern-day descendants of Edward Duke of York through the female line, from Richard’s eldest sister Anne. It has been observed on other occasions that he was not a typical Plantaganet to look at – they were big and strong, vigorous and usually blond haired, well suited to medieval kingship that often depended on fighting skills and charismatic leadership.

Added to that, the report talks about gossip about illegitimacy during Edward IV’s reign. This kind of gossip was a common way of denigrating an unpopular king or one seen as vulnerable to challenge because legitimacy by blood was seen as essential to the passing on of kingly traits and charisma. Richard III declared his nephews illegitimate, but not because they were not the sons of Edward IV – they almost certainly were – but because Edward had not been married to their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, at the time of their birth, owing to a little unofficial bigamy. We don’t know whether Richard III actually believed this to be true, or merely used it opportunistically to put them aside because their presence was a threat to his own kingship, but it is one of the pieces of evidence often cited against the likelihood of Richard III being responsible for their death in the Tower of London. If they had been declared and were believed to be illegitimate, then they were not a threat to him. So this is a different kind of illegitimacy altogether.

Finally, the Tudors did not only rest their claim to the throne on descent from Margaret Beaufort, the legitimised daughter of John of Gaunt and his long-time mistress Kathryn Swynford (in itself rather a weak claim since it came through the female line not a direct male descendant, but certainly not a negligible one). They cemented this through the marriage of Henry Tudor to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV (sister of the Princes who had been declared illegitimate, no less). Added to this, the Stuart line which gave rise to later monarchs (including the Hanoverians through the female line in the shape of a cousin of Charles II, granddaughter of James VI of Scotland/James I of England) was descended  from Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, who married James IV of Scotland. Thus the break in biological paternity would have to have happened in both the York line (descended from both Edward III’s younger son Edmund Duke of York and his second son Lionel Duke of Clarence, via the Earls of March, the latter again through the female line) and the Lancastrian line (descended from John of Gaunt) for there to be no biological link between the Plantaganet kings and our own royal family (see family tree link below - it won't paste directly into the blog unfortunately).


It is all rather complicated, isn’t it?