The mystery of Richard III’s DNA: are the royal family who we think they are?

Richard III - definitely legitimate

The discovery of Richard III’s body in a car park in Leicester two years ago has created a saga. First there was the dispute about where the former king should be buried, and the question of what church; now it has taken on a new twist, with the revelation that somewhere along the line there is an aristocratic cuckoo in the nest.

Previously, DNA tests on a direct descendant of one of Richard’s sisters revealed that the corpse must belong to the Plantagenet king, with the leader of the study at Leicester University calling the evidence “overwhelming”. (Mitochondrial DNA, which runs down the female line, hardly changes from parent to offspring, which is why it is so useful in determining descent – scientists were able to use it on Cheddar man, a pre-Indo-European Briton who died a hideously violent death around 7150BC and was discovered in 1903. In 1996 Prof Bryan Sykes carried out tests on nearby residents and found that two of them shared the caveman’s mDNA, suggesting a common maternal ancestor).

However, tests have now been carried out on DNA that runs down the male side, and it showed a surprise. Richard III was a descendant of Edward III through the male line, via Edward’s fourth surviving son Edmund of Langley; so too are the Beaufort family, through Edward’s second son John of Gaunt. But DNA samples taken from Richard III and the Beauforts do not match – and so one of the 16 men linking them was illegitimate, perhaps one of the figures from the War of the Roses.

There were always stories of infidelity flying around at the time, unsurprising in such a vicious political culture; Edward IV was rumoured to be illegitimate, as was Henry VI’s son Edward of Westminster. The former is very unlikely, given the nature of his parents: Richard of York was an aggressive, highly intelligent alpha male, and by all accounts happily married to his wife Cecily Neville, who was religious to an almost extreme degree – she went to Mass eight times a day. The latter is conceivable, as Henry VI was basically an imbecile even when not catatonic and went into a stupor during his wife’s pregnancy, failing to recognise his own child for months. But that line died out at Tewksbury, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.

If this all sounds familiar to Game of Thrones fans, then that is because Henry VI’s wife Margaret of Anjou was the inspiration for Cersei Lannister, who cuckolds her husband Robert Baratheon in the series; Cecily Neville is undoubtedly the model for Catelyn Stark. Like Catelyn, Cecily had to care for her two younger sons while her eldest battled against the people who had beheaded his father. And here of course is a chance for me to shamelessly plug my ebook on that subject.

One reason that the illegitimacy is likely to be later than the War of the Roses era is that in primates, including humans, high-status males are rarely cuckolded; on top of everything else a king could have his wife beheaded if caught, something your average man couldn’t get away with. More importantly, as one geneologist pointed out, the aristocratic society of the 18th century had far more opportunities for mischief than the 15th century.

There are 16 points where the line could have been broken and it is unlikely we’ll ever know where it is, although we could probably rule out some of them just because the sons strongly resembled their fathers. Richard III, for instance, was described at the time as looking very much like Richard of York.

One of two reports have speculated that this could have implications for the royal family, although one cuckoo centuries ago makes little difference to their ancestry; pedigree collapse means that all royals would descend from the same people multiple times and if you’re reading this in your native tongue, the chances are you are descended from Edward III.

And besides which, as we all know, the current bunch are all cuckoos anyway – the true king of England is His Majesty, Francis II.