Edward III is sometimes described as “The Father of the Nation.” According to one of my old copies of Who Do You Think You Are magazine approximately four million people along with the likes of Danny Dyer are descended from King Edward III. Ian Mortimer’s book on Edward III suggests that the actual figure is somewhere between 80 and 95% of the population of England- perhaps ‘Father of Millions’ would have been a better name.
(And wasn’t it a brilliant opening episode of Who Do You Think You Are?– I hope there’re more episodes this series that go back up a family tree as far as possible but I doubt anyone will look quite as stunned as East Enders’ actor Danny when he found himself sitting in Westminster Abbey with a pedigree as long as your arm in his hand – and then there’s the Cromwell link!)
So, where to start if you want to know more about Edward III? Edward III was rather helpfully the son of Edward II. Edward II was married to Isabella of France – the warmly named “She-Wolf” who arrived in England aged twelve to discover that her spouse had a preference for his male companions, in particular Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despencer. Chroniclers of the period are disapproving of Edward’s friendships. To cut a long and complicated story down to size Edward II was deposed by Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer when young Prince Edward was just fourteen. Edward II disappeared from the scene via Berkeley Castle and a helping hand; though there are some interesting theories that his death was somewhat exaggerated.
Young Prince Edward became King Edward III though the power behind the throne was in the hands of his mother and Roger Mortimer. Edward III became increasingly concerned about his perilous position vis a vis Mortimer who behaved as though he was king. Edward, aged just seventeen in 1330 seized his opportunity in Nottingham when his men were able to sneak into the castle through a network of tunnels, surprise Mortimer and take back power. Edward III went on to reign until his death in 1377; some fifty years plus a few months.
Edward married Philippa of Hainault in York Minster in 1328 and proved a most uxorious monarch though that didn’t stop him having several illegitimate children with his mistress, the avaricious Alice Perrers, after Philippa’s death. The royal pair had thirteen children of whom nine survived to adulthood – I’m not sure what the maths is but to expand from nine (plus a hand full of illegitimate children) to at least four million descendents is jaw dropping. If you want to understand the maths better double click on the picture at the start of this post to open up a new page and an article in the National Geographic which also explains how come you might be related to the Emperor Charlemagne even if you don’t have the family tree and paper trail to prove it.
What do we know of Edward’s children? Let’s deal with the boys first. Edward of Woodstock, the so-called Black Prince and the hero of Crecy was born in 1330. He made a love match with his cousin Joan of Kent (who had a dodgy marital past of her own). They had two sons but the eldest died when he was just six. The second boy, Richard of Bordeaux, became Richard II when his grandfather died – the Black Prince having pre-deceased his father. Richard II had no children. So far so straight forward and no sign of the four million.
Lionel of Antwerp was Edward’s third son but only the second to survive to adulthood. Lionel was married twice. His second bride was Violante Visconti of Piedmont. Lionel died shortly after arriving in Italy and definitely before he had the chance to go doing any begetting. The word ‘poison’ was bandied around at the time and it should be noted that Violante’s second husband was also murdered. Lionel did have a child from his first marriage– a girl called Philippa who found herself married into the Mortimer family in the person of Edmund Mortimer (a difficult opening conversation might have been “your grandfather was my grandma’s lover and then my dad had him dragged off and executed!”) The House of York would one day base its claim to the English throne on its descent from Philippa. That line was also descended from Lionel’s younger brother Edmund of Langley hence the York bit. There are rather a lot of girls in Lionel’s strand of descent through the family tree. Reason enough for bloodlines getting lost over time as younger daughters of younger daughters gradually tumbled down the social ladder and that’s before warfare, treachery, bad luck as well as just being plain unimportant get involved in the equation.
The next son to arrive in Edward III’s and Philippa of Hainhault’s nursery was John of Gaunt. John, the duke of Lancaster, through his first marriage to his distant cousin Blanche fathered the Lancastrian line of kings – Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. He had two daughters with his second wife Constance of Castile but they married royalty on the Iberian Peninsula. It is through one of them that Katherine of Aragon is descended from Edward III.
John of Gaunt also had a third family with his mistress Katherine Swynford. This family was later legitimised by the pope and by parliament. This family were called Beaufort after one of John’s castles in France. It is through the Beaufort line that Henry Tudor would one day make his claim to the throne. Students of the Wars of the Roses know that the problem for the House of Lancaster was that there was a shortage of males by 1485, hence the rather dodgy claim of Henry Tudor. However, there were plenty of girls in the distant family tree when you look at it closely – all of them, well at least the ones who didn’t die in infancy or become nuns, contributing to the projected four million descendants of Edward III.
The next prince was Edmund of Langley who became the duke of York. He married the younger sister of John of Gaunt’s second wife Constance of Castile and there were offspring. Edward III had three more sons after that, Thomas and William who both died in infancy and then came Thomas of Woodstock who was created duke of Gloucester. He’s the one who ended up murdered in Calais on the orders of his nephew Richard II – a mattress was involved – but not before he’d fathered a number of children.
Now – for the girls who, it would have to be said, are much more straightforward. Edward III’s eldest daughter was called Isabella. She had two daughters, one of whom married in to the de Vere family – meaning that the earls of Oxford can trace their ancestry back to Edward III as well as to other Plantagenets. The next girl was called Joan and she was one of the first victims of the Black Death that struck in 1349. Her sister Blanche died in infancy in 1342. The next two sisters weren’t particularly long lived either. Their names were Mary and Margaret. So far as history is currently aware none of the last four had offspring.
Edward III also had a number of known illegitimate children. Alison Weir lists them as John Surrey, Joan, Jane and possibly Nicholas Lytlington who became the Abbot of Westminster but there is uncertainty as to his paternity. He could also have been a Dispenser. I should like to say that as an abbot it isn’t really an issue, except of course being in clerical orders doesn’t seemed to have prevented rather a lot of the clergy from fathering children.
And those are the key names if you’re one of the four million. Of course, it turns out that if you’re from Western Europe and understand mathematics (its true apparently even if you don’t understand the maths) you’re also related to the Emperor Charlemagne – which is mildly disconcerting. If you just want to find out more about Britain’s royal genealogy then the most comprehensive place to look is at Alison Weir’s Britain’s Royal Families published by Vintage Books.
I’m off to find my gateway ancestor… though I must admit to never having seen a genealogical expert just sitting around, waiting for me to turn up in order to point me in the right direction. Ho hum!