It turns out that someone somewhere has been skulking along the medieval corridors of power late at night on their way to an assignation– the problem is that we can’t be sure when or even who was encouraging the aforementioned skulk and for the last five hundred years no one – with the obvious exceptions- have been any the wiser. An article published in this month’s edition of Nature has changed that along with the revelation that Richard was a blue-eyed blond or at least a blond baby whose hair darkened with the passage of time.
The story begins with Richard III. He’s a chap who’s provided history with more than one mystery and now there’s another to add to the collection. Most folk are aware of the conflicting theories about the disappearance of Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower of London in the summer of 1483. Was Richard a wicked uncle responsible for the demise of his nephews or has history framed the last Yorkist king for a crime that he didn’t commit? Were King Edward V and Prince Richard done away with as Tudor chroniclers would have us believe and if so who did the deed and who gave the orders? Other scenarios suggest that one or more of the princes were spirited to safety; other folk suggest that the Lancastrians did the terrible deed to ensure their own man’s success. I wouldn’t like to make any definitive suggestions as there’s evidence that can be offered in support of all these options as well as plenty of circumstantial evidence and there are plenty of passionate advocates for the different theories.
This post isn’t about that. It’s partly about a pleasant trip down memory lane and the way that history isn’t something that’s static – it shifts like quicksand. Richard and the missing princes were the first topic that was covered at my secondary school by way of an introduction to history and the trustworthiness of sources. As I recall there was a folder full of ‘evidence’ that had to be sorted and categorised to try to decide whether Richard did the deed – and that’s before we even advanced to his portrait – was he really as physically repellent as Shakespeare portrayed him? While we now know the answer to his appearance thanks to the work of countless professionals– including the surprising blue eyes and baby blonde hair- we still don’t know about his role as murderous uncle – its certainly not a debate I want to get tangled in; not least because I can never quite make up my mind. What I do recall is that I progressed from the facts to Josephine Tey’s Daughter in Time in the space of an afternoon and at the age of eleven became hooked on historical fiction.
What I’m really blogging about this evening are the findings from the Leicester University that were all over the weekend’s papers – the quicksand bit of history. Something which appeared to be solid turns out to be mired in uncertainty. Maternal DNA reveals that Richard really was the king under the car park but further analysis reveals that somewhere along the line of the Beaufort family the paternal line was broken – Richard has a rather unusual Y chromosome but the brave souls- Beaufort descendants who offered their own DNA for comparison do not match up to that of the last Yorkist King. Their Y chromosomes are much more pedestrian. Someone somewhere in the family tree between Edward III and Richard III was a bit of a naughty girl on the quiet.
One line of thought is that John of Gaunt might not have been the son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. There was a persistent rumour that he was the son of a Flemish butcher….an odd possibility. I mean, I can see how Duchess Cecily Neville (the wife of Richard of York and mother to Edward IV and Richard III) might have fancied a fling with a tall handsome archer (more of that in a moment) but how on earth would a butcher have met, let alone struck up a conversation that progressed to a liaison with the English queen?
Generally speaking it has always been assumed to have been a vile slander. John of Gaunt wasn’t popular in England. His palace at the Savoy was destroyed during the Peasant’s Revolt. Folk believed that he wanted the crown for himself even though he was always loyal to his nephew the young Richard II. Apparently the rumour of his supposed parentage made John very, very irritable as depicted in that wonderful fictional evocation of his mistress’s life Katherine by Anya Seyton.
It is equally possible that the cuckoo in the nest could have been John Beaufort, Gaunt’s son by Katherine Swynford – one of history’s love stories… so I really hope not. It would be deeply ironic if the legitimised illegitimate son of the Duke of Lancaster turned out not to belong to the man who claimed him as a son.
Another possibility presents itself. What if Richard was the progeny of a cuckoo in the nest? Or indeed not quite what he seemed. Rumours about Duchess Cecily, his mother, sprang up in relation to Richard’s brother Edward IV. It was suggested that Edward’s father was actually an archer called Blaybourne. There is also contention over the conception dates. Richard, Duke of York was in Pontoise while Cecily was in Rouen. It seems quite difficult to reach a definitive conclusion without the existence of undisputed primary evidence – though that’s only my opinion. Certainly Edward’s baptism at Rouen was very low-key but then again the Duke of York didn’t deny paternity and in Medieval terms that meant Edward was legitimate. The rumour floated to the surface at a time when George, Duke of Clarence took a shine to the crown and its not difficult to see that George might have used gossip for his own ends (supposition again). When Richard needed a public justification for his claim to the throne in 1483 the rumour was aired again. And as we all know mud sticks and there’s no smoke without fire. I’m sure if I think I can come up with a few more clichés.
Whatever the truth about Plantagenet goings-on in the bedroom department, the very informative University of Leicester website reveals that false paternity is to be expected – apparently it runs at 1-2% per generation which if you’re a family historian should make for disturbing thoughts about your own ancestry.
Ultimately, the fact that someone passed off the child of their lover as legitimate makes no difference whatsoever to the events of the Wars of the Roses or the monarchy thereafter but what it does do is add another fascinating layer to a story that already has many complex twists and turns. Who needs soap opera or even Cleudo when we’ve got the Plantagenets?