Despite being dead for over 500 years, King Richard III just keeps on delivering scandal, and now he’s even brought the Queen into the spotlight! A new report on Richard and what we can learn from his DNA initially began with headlines that it is “99.999%” certain that the body is that of Richard III, with the inevitable spoil-sport rejoinder that, on the other hand, they still might not be Richard. However, this was soon upstaged by the revelation that, somewhere in Richard’s family tree, there are confirmed instances of illegitimacy, bringing into question a good five-hundred years of royal succession and even whether the wrong person now sits upon the throne.
Richard III is one of the most famous and notorious characters in English history and to fully appreciate the context of his reign, it’s best to pop back a few generations to Edward III. Edward was Richard’s great-great grandfather, a highly successful king who started the Hundred Years War with France (with victories such as Crecy and Poitiers) and didn’t get killed by the Black Death. Unfortunately, he also had a lot of sons (5 who lived to adulthood) and lived for a long time. Usually this would be a good thing, but in Edward’s case it meant that his reign ended in physical incapacity and military failure while lots of sons meant lots of rival claimants to the throne.
After Edward III, the high number of rival claimants would become problematic. Having proved himself something of a narcissistic dud, Richard II was kicked off his throne by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), the son of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt (one of Edward III’s sons). While the military glories of Henry V at Agincourt helped keep things steady, when Henry VI out not really to be up to the job of kinging, things got really problematic. The next most senior man at court was Richard (no, not “him” yet!) Duke of York, descended from the second and fourth sons of Edward III. When he found himself ostracized, Richard decided to make good his claim and so began the Wars of the Roses. Initially, things went well when he captured Henry VI in battle. Things then took a bit of a turn for the worst when he was ambushed at the Battle of Wakefield and had his head put on a spike over Micklegate Bar at York with his body placed further away than is medically advisable. Thankfully for the Yorkists, his tall, handsome and charismatic son, Edward, won victory at Towton, became Edward IV and (barring the odd dethroning incident) ruled securely for the next twenty years.
When Edward IV died in 1483, however, he left a teenage son, Edward V, thus requiring a regency, and there was no one better suited for the job of Lord Protector than his faithful brother, Richard of Gloucester (yes, “him”!) What happened next is the source of much controversy and ultimately led to one of the most intriguing mysteries in English history. What we do know is this:
- Richard took control of Edward V, executed his mentors and came to London
- Richard persuaded his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, to give her second son into his protection
- Richard declared Edward IV’s marriage (and thus Edward V) illegitimate due to an earlier union and thus himself became king
- Edward V and his brother (the Princes in the Tower) disappeared from sight and were thereafter to be considered missing presumed not in the best state of health
Whether or not Richard was responsible for the deaths of the princes (or, even, if they died) is a matter for extensive debate elsewhere. More important is the fact that he struggled to win the loyalty of his nobles and, when facing the somewhat tenuous Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, in the Battle at Bosworth, found himself hung out to dry by the Stanley family and, consequently, was killed at Bosworth. Henry VII thus began the Tudor dynasty, bringing to an end the Wars of the Roses.
The King in the Car Park
However, that was not the end of Richard’s story. For one thing, as the new ruling dynasty, the Tudors needed to present themselves as the solution to the nation’s ills and as such, they needed someone to blame. Thus, Richard was presented as history’s ultimate baddy – initially by Sir Thomas More but most famously by William Shakespeare, who portrayed him as a devious murderer with a hunchback and a withered arm. In more recent times, however, the Richard III society has dedicated itself to improving his reputation, with a focus on his good laws and loyal service (particularly during his brother’s reign) and debunking some of the falsehoods propagated by Shakespeare. As such, he remains a figure of great debate – was he really such a bad guy? Did he kill the Princes in the Tower?
So, there isplenty of debate as to who Richard was but not an awful lot to go on in terms of where he was. He had no marked grave and it was not entirely clear what Henry VII had done with his body, so for the next few hundred years he would remain a lost king until he was found by a somewhat eccentric enthusiast (Philippa Langley) and the guy who plays Death in Horrible Histories (Simon Farnaby). Oh, and some actual archaeologists as well. He had initially been buried without pomp at the Augustinian Greyfriars Friary but his resting place became even more pompless when the Friary was knocked down and Richard found himself buried beneath the car park for social services at Leicester City Council. This is where he would remain until 2012 when he was exhumed by Philippa Langley et al. and found himself on the front pages and news headlines across the world.
Naturally, as soon as Richard III was above ground once more, the scandal started to spread. There was some debate as to whether it definitely was Richard or just another man from that period who happened to match have curvature of the spine, have been killed with horrible injuries in a medieval battle from the late 15th century, be buried where some chroniclers said he was buried and have a definite match with a modern day matrilineal descendant, Michael Ibsen.
Then he became the subject of a court case when the Plantagenet Alliance unsuccessfully challenged the decision for him to be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral (rather than some might see as his more spiritual home, York Minster). At the time of writing, Richard III is still above ground and not due to be re-interred until March 2015. Even with it settled that he will be laid to rest in Leicester, the controversy still has not been abated, with news that his burial would be preceded by a ceremonial march from Bosworth (the site of his death) being seen by some as inappropriate.
In the meantime, while the historians and enthusiasts continue to debate various aspects of Richard’s life, death and after-death, scientists at Leicester have been learning a lot about Richard by studying his DNA. He was roughly 5″8 (174cm) tall and while he was not a hunchback as portrayed by Shakespeare, he did suffer from curvature of the spine (Scoliosis) which would have led to him standing shorter than his full height. He did not have a withered arm, however, and would have been able to fight in battle despite his condition, which tallies with accounts of his heroic death at Bosworth. He had blue eyes and fair hair, though this may have darkened after childhood.
The study also revealed that in the final years of his life (i.e. after he became king), his tastes grew rather more extravagant. In his final years, he was drinking something like a bottle of wine per day and started feasting on more exotic foods such as swan, egret and heron! Intriguingly, those who wish still to view him as the Shakespearian villain would have been heartened by the news that he ground his teeth, perhaps due to stress and paranoia in his final years!
However, Richard had not finished delivering on the scandal front and his most recent play for the headlines came with the revelation that there is evidence of infidelity in his family tree. In other words, DNA passed down the maternal line matches the modern descendants whereas the DNA through the male line does not match. But who was the guilty party?
The short answer is, nobody knows. However, from the 5th Duke of Beaufort onwards (1744-1803), the legitimacy of the succeeding generations is not in succession so wherever the break happened, it came before 1744. In all probability, it may well have come after Richard III (i.e. some time from 1500 to the mid-1700s) but what if it came earlier?
The biggest spanner in the works in terms of an infidelity quagmire would be if we had to go all the way back to Edward III and his son, John of Gaunt. There were malicious rumours at the time suggesting he may have been illegitimate and if he were then frankly that would be somewhat inconvenient for the royal family because it was not just the Lancastrians (Henry’s IV, V & VI) who were descended from Gaunt but also the Tudor dynasty, and by implication the Stuarts, Hanoverians and Windsors right up to Elizabeth II. In other words, he is the dynastic domino by which all the others fall!
Why the Queen is definitely the Queen
Firstly, it might not be John of Gaunt who was illegitimate – and, in fact, this rumour was almost certainly made up by his enemies (this was not an uncommon slur at the time), and the line of royal succession through John of Gaunt is probably intact. There were several centuries of potential illegitimacy after which the noble family in question was no longer part of the royal family.
Secondly, even if it was John of Gaunt who was illegitimate, the royal family would not be entirely without royal blood. Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York married the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties, meaning that Henry VIII was descended from three of Edward III’s sons (of whom, one presumes, at least one was legitmate!) Indeed, Elizabeth of York was also descended on the maternal line from one of the daughters of Henry III (1207-72) – rather tenuous but still!
Thirdly, even if you were to dismiss John of Gaunt as illegitimate and agree with Richard III that Elizabeth of York was illegitimate (thanks to the marriage of her parents being illegal), this does not mean that the Queen needs to be collecting her P-45 anytime soon. As far as the law of succession goes, the fact that John of Gaunt (or anyone else for that matter) was considered legitimate meant that in legal terms, they were legitimate (regardless of what science might reveal several hundred years later). Henry VII’s claim was pretty tenuous already (ironically via an illegitimate marriage) and he had as a good a claim by right of conquest as by family descent. And, finally, the 1701 Act of Succession where Parliament very specifically laid out the line of succession, is the legal document from which the Queen’s claim to the throne can be drawn and the bedroom antics of her medieval predecessors is not enough to shift something as legally binding as this.
So, despite Richard III’s best efforts, the Queen is still the Queen, the clock still stands at ten to three and there is honey still for tea. We have learnt a lot about Richard but not quite enough to bring down the monarchy. It’s fascinating to imagine what we might learn from DNA testing of other monarchs (what exactly was wrong with Henry VIII and George III? What happened to the Princes in the Tower?) but perhaps the experience of Richard’s post-unburial controversy suggests that it would be better to let sleeping monarchs lie. If this is what an undead Richard III can do, imagine what chaos Henry VIII could stir up!
For more on the science of Richard’s discovery and what they’ve found out about him since, check out this dedicated website at Leicester University – http://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/science.html