The surviving images of Richard come from the Tudor period, and were used as propaganda. Photo: Getty
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Does it matter if Richard III’s DNA suggests infidelity in the royal family?

New DNA research into Richard III’s remains has cast the legitimacy of the royal line into question, all the way down to the present queen.

The Plantagenet dynasty was no stranger to scandal. However, dramatic new discoveries made by scientists at the University of Leicester now suggest that more than one skeleton has been lurking in the family closet. While it has been proven there is an “overwhelming” likelihood that the body in the Leicester city car park is indeed that of the controversial King Richard III, laying to rest many long-standing uncertainties, these latest findings have unleashed a whole new can of historical worms. With the last medieval King becoming the media’s blue-eyed-boy, quite literally as his DNA proves, it would appear that at least one member of his family was not the son of York he believed. Or Plantagenet, or Tudor, or Stuart. New allegations of infidelity cast the legitimacy of the royal line into question, all the way down to the present queen.

Royal legitimacy scandals are nothing new. In the fifteenth century, Richard’s eldest brother, Edward IV, became the focus of unpleasant rumours that led to a dynastic crisis. Although his birth passed without comment, his enemies invented, or exploited, a story that he was the result of an affair his mother had with a French Archer by the name of Blaybourne. Despite having all the appearances of a political smear, timed to discredit the king at the moment of rebellion, the story has lingered. Even in the twentieth century, “proof” of the affair was being offered in a TV documentary fronted by Tony Robinson, based on the reputed separation of Edward’s parents nine months prior to his birth. Yet this evidence only accounted for his father’s movements, not those of his mother, and has been largely discredited.

Then, in 1483, following Edward’s death, a new, more damaging, rumour emerged. Bishop Stillington claimed that Edward was a bigamist, having already been pre-contracted to another woman, Eleanor Butler, who had still been alive at the time of Edward’s union with Elizabeth Wydeville. The fact that Edward had married Elizabeth in secrecy and did not make the match public for several months played into Richard’s hands. On the Bishop’s statement, he was able to claim the throne instead of his nephew, Edward’s son. Yet it would appear, now, that the real cuckoos in the royal nest may have gone unnoticed. While Richard’s maternal DNA is intact, there is no match with the paternal line of his modern relatives.

Richard had no descendants. His heir died in childhood and his two acknowledged illegitimate offspring, John and Katherine, appear to have left no issue of their own. In order to identify him, the scientists needed to trace his ancestry back to a male who shared his Y chromosome, and match it with his direct descendants in the twenty-first century. They found five men alive today who shared the line of Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, Richard III’s great uncle. In theory, all these five should share the same Y chromosome as Richard, yet the tests revealed that none of them did. Dr Turi King, from Leicester University, who led the study, offers infidelity as the most likely explanation. According to her research, cases of “false paternity” account for between 1 and 2 per cent of births per generation. However, there is no way of knowing exactly where the event took place, or under what circumstances. It could have been anywhere between John of Gaunt and the modern descendants of the eighteenth century fifth Duke of Beaufort, who provided the DNA samples. That leaves a staggering six centuries of possibilities.

But does it matter? It’s not really going to change anything and no one is going to suggest the deposition of the current queen as a result. On a historical level, though, the fascination lies in knowing which side of 1485 the illicit paternity took place. After the battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed, Henry VII claimed the throne by right of conquest. This trumps any potential “flaws” in his bloodline. Henry’s royal descent came from Edward III through the Beaufort-Somerset line, which had been legitimised in retrospect but barred from claiming the throne. He was also dependent upon his mother for the claim but the act of seizing the crown at Bosworth rendered all this irrelevant. The current queen is Henry’s descendant through his eldest daughter, Margaret, and her great-grandson James I of Scotland. Her claim actually rests on the 1701 Act of Settlement so this latest scandal in her distant family tree will not be ruffling any feathers at Buckingham Palace.

So where might the false paternity have occurred? The answer is that we simply don’t know, although there have been a few historic murmurings that have festered into theories over time, including the true identity of the father of John of Gaunt. Edward III’s absence during the time of his third son’s birth, coupled with his arrival on foreign soil, in the city of Ghent, cast suspicion on his conception. Yet it was hardly uncommon for a father to be absent, especially when the mother had already produced several surviving children. In addition, most of these rumours appear to date from the end of John’s life, once he had become unpopular. Casting aspersions on the legitimacy of an enemy was a common but powerful slur, which reputedly used to enrage Gaunt. It was a useful political tool used by enemies of both branches of the Plantagenet family, the Yorks and Lancasters. Another candidate might by Richard of Conisburgh, Richard III’s paternal grandfather. He received nothing from his father in terms of income or estates and was not mentioned in his will or those of his brothers, which has led historians to give credence to the rumours that his mother may have had an affair.

Equally, the false paternity might have occurred on either branch of descent, from Edward III to Henry, or from Henry to the present day. Given the statistics, though, the greater likelihood is that the misdemeanour occurred in the line of the more modern Somerset family, which represents the largest percentage of births in the family tree. It may well not have taken place within a royal match; it may have happened more than once. Nor can we assume the circumstances of the encounter; it is just as credible that this occurrence was the product of rape, perhaps more so than a medieval queen committing adultery. In fact, it would be an incredible stroke of luck to identify a single unbroken line of paternal DNA running through six centuries of marriages. This exposes one crucial aspect of historical research and the differing experiences of men and women across time. Until recently, paternity could not be guaranteed. As Richard’s unbroken mitochondrial line highlights, though, the certainty of childbirth lay with the woman. If an illegitimate child was conceived, even within marriage, the mother could not avoid the consequences, while the father’s identity might forever be lost to history. Between the differing experiences of men and women, lies an area of rumour and suspicion to be exploited by their enemies.

This new research has also raised an interesting point about Richard’s colouring. It has often been argued that Richard took more after his father, the short, dark-haired Richard of York, while his tall, handsome blonde brother Edward had the genes of Edward III. This has been used to further argue the case for the elder brother’s illegitimacy. Now though, the scientific evidence suggests a 77 per cent chance that Richard was blonde and it is 96 per cent likelihood that his eyes were blue. While the colour of his hair may well have darkened as he left childhood, another possibility arises. Royal portraiture was more symbolic rather than realistic: the surviving images of Richard, which come from the Tudor period, are well known for the narrowing of his eyes and lips and the raising of his shoulder, to paint him as the villain. With external defects considered to correlate with inner vices, Richard’s hair might have also been darkened from the 1520s onwards to depict what were perceived to be his “dark” deeds. When queens were portrayed as blonde and beautiful regardless of their actual looks, the opposite effect may have been employed as a metaphorical criticism of Henry VII’s adversary.

If anything, these new findings affirm the humanity of the individuals included on the royal family tree. While the likelihood of infidelity somewhere down the line appears strong, conclusions cannot be drawn as the facts stand, and our modern theories comparing the marriages and affections of past royals rest all too often on anachronistic values. Love matches were not seen as being incompatible with a man pursuing physical affairs, nor was the double standard of gendered behaviour always strictly drawn. These results provide another opportunity to reflect on the inconclusive nature of the study of history, and as a caution in regards to drawing assumptions. Until further research uncovers further truths, it must remain another delicious mystery, nothing more. The Royal Household has declined to comment.

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage