04 December 2014

The Unfaithful Wives of Windsor

Headlines around the world are questioning whether Queen Elizabeth II is the legitimate queen of England based on DNA taken from a 500-year-old corpse. Who knew that the much maligned (or purely evil, depending on who you ask) King Richard III would become such an important monarch? Depicted as a crippled, maniacal madman by Shakespeare five centuries ago, he now has an entire organization devoted to rehabilitating his reputation and, even more critically, his recently discovered skeleton (in a carpark, of all places) is providing all kinds of information. First, researchers confirmed that he did indeed have a "hunchback" due to an extreme curvature in his spine. Then, forensic modeling demonstrated that he actually looked like his portraits. Now, DNA testing has shown that he had the blue eyes and blonde hair often associated with the Plantagenets.

Whose the mama?

Anne of York and her
second husband

The DNA scientists also took several more steps to try to confirm his identity, testing his paternal Y-DNA and his maternal mitochondrial (mT) DNA lines and comparing with modern descendants. Since Richard himself has no living descendants, the skeleton's DNA was compared to that of people descended from collateral lines. In the case of mT, which is passed directly from mother to child through each generation, they used the great-great-great-etc grandchildren of Richard's older sister, Anne of York, from whom the Earls of Rutland, Earls of Westmorland, and Dukes of Buckingham, among other noble lines descend. This testing showed that Anne and Richard definitely shared the same maternal ancestors; their mother being documented as Cecily Neville, daughter of the 1st Earl of Westmorland. According to the scientists, maternal DNA rarely ever is mistaken. This is because it is usually very easy to tell whether a child belongs to the mother--until very recently, the person who gave birth to a child was always its genetic mother.

He is NOT the father...

Edward III, an ancestor?
Determining the father of a child is not so straightforward. Ask anyone who watches daytime television and you will quickly learn that even a mother is sometimes unsure of exactly who the father is. And, the modern DNA testing on Richard III has opened the door to who's-the-daddy speculation that some are outrageously claiming means the Queen might not deserve the crown. More on that later...

In testing Richard's male-line DNA, which should be passed from father to son over the generations with only minor variations between generations, the scientists found that his DNA did not match that of today's male-line descendants of his great-great-grandfather, King Edward III. (By the way, they had to look to such an earlier ancestor because the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors did an excellent job of killing off nearly every Plantagenet male and making it difficult for any descendants to make it to the 16th century, much less the 21st.) The DNA was not even close; no relationship whatsoever.

Did Philippa love a butcher?
Clearly, at least one mother had an affair and foisted a false child on her unsuspecting husband. This woman could have been any of the wives of the Plantagenets in the Yorkist or Lancastrian lines starting with the mother of both the Edmund of Langley Duke of York and John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster. Some of the articles lob the accusation directly at her, stating that there were contemporary rumors that Philippa of Hainault's son John was fathered by a butcher. Now, I'm not sure how often royal ladies encountered butchers in the 14th Century, but it seems a bit unlikely to me that Queen Philippa, who produced 14 children for King Edward III, is the naughty one. Her reputation has been unimpeachable over the centuries.

This means that some other lady was naughty. (Or, was she? As one intrepid Tweeter pointed out, any of these women could have been raped, a crime that is still under-reported today. The raped wife of a royal or noble would very likely have kept that information to herself because it would have severely damaged her station in life.) The problem is that the geneaologists and the DNA experts have no idea whether it was one of Richard's grannies or some lady in the line to which his DNA was compared.

The accused: York brides

Isabella of Castile, who was the wife of Edmund of Langley Duke of York, was an illegitimate daughter of the King of Castile. This doesn't necessarily taint her character--she was certainly deemed worthy enough to marry a royal son, as was her sister Constance, who married Edmund's older brother John of Gaunt. However, her behavior does make her a likely candidate. Contemporary chroniclers noted her loose morals and she was said to have had affairs. The paternity of her son Richard Earl of Cambridge had been questioned long before this DNA study was conducted.

Cecily Neville, one or more
 bastard boys?
Young Anne Mortimer, wife of Isabella's son Richard Earl of Cambridge, seems a less likely suspect. The couple married without parental consent and the match brought no financial benefit to the husband; these things simply were not done in those days, which could mean they genuinely wanted to marry each other for affection. (She was, however, a descendant of Edmund Duke of York's older brother, the Duke of Clarence, and it was through her that the Yorkist claim to the throne was alleged, so...maybe that was a strong enough motivation.) Anne died at age 20 after giving birth to Richard Duke of York.

Interestingly the reputation of Richard Duke of York's wife, the aforementioned Cecily Neville, was impugned during her own lifetime. When her older son became King Edward IV, rival factions, especially his own cousin, alleged that he was illegitimate. Some historians believe the claim could be correct. If one son was not a true royal heir, could that mean her younger son King Richard III was also illegitimate? Just how loose was this royal lady, who by the way, never dignified the accusations with a response.

The accused: Lancaster/Beaufort/Somerset brides

The much-married
John of Gaunt
The five men to whom Richard III's male-line DNA was compared all descend (allegedly) from Henry Somerset 5th Duke of Beaufort, the 13th-great grandson of John of Gaunt. That means that a "false-paternity" event could have occurred in any of 15 generations. (Apparently a false-paternity event also occurred in a subsequent generation because one of the five men was also not a match to the other four.)

So, let's take a look at these potential cheating ladies.

Katherine Swynford (read my post about her, Kate and Pippa: Sisters on the Rise), was the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt before he married her. All of their children, surnamed Beaufort, were born before their marriage and were later legitimated. The Dukes of Beaufort and the House of Tudor descend from this match (the Tudors through Henry VII's mother Margaret Beaufort.) Despite being the "other woman" through John's second, loveless marriage and be called an "infamous whore," I don't think Katherine was unfaithful to him. She waited quite a long time to get her man to herself. Plus, she was raised in the court of John's mother and named governess to his legitimate daughters, hardly a role that would be given to a woman of questionable reputation.

Margaret Holland, daughter of Thomas Holland and granddaughter of Joan the Fair Maid of Kent, whose third marriage to Edward the Black Prince (first son of Edward III) raised much ire because she had a second husband while still secretly married to her first husband, Mr. Holland. Her second husband imprisoned her for a while but that marriage was eventually annulled and she went back to the first husband, who died before she married the Prince. Got that? Margaret married John and Katherine's son John Beaufort 1st Earl of Somerset. She had six children including the 2nd Earl, the 1st and 2nd Dukes of Somerset, a Count, a Countess and a Queen of Scotland.

Eleanor Beachamp, daughter of the 13th Earl of Warwick. A widow with three children, she married Edmund Beaufort 1st Duke of Somerset in an unlicensed marriage that was later pardoned. She had least ten more children, two of whom became the 2nd and 3rd Dukes. After so many children, she was still up for a third marriage after Edmund died.

Elizabeth Hastings
Joan Hill, mistress of Henry Beaufort 3rd Duke of Somerset. He never married and had no legitimate children. Their son Charles Somerset was legitimized and created the Earl of Worcester. From him descends the only remaining male-line descendants of the Plantagenets--unless the apparent infidelity happened before this point, in which case, there have been no Plantagenets since the 16th century.

Elizabeth 3rd Baroness Herbert, sole heir of her father the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, held extensive lands in Wales. She married Charles Somerset 1st Earl of Worcester. Her only child was the 2nd Earl.

Elizabeth Browne, a courtier's daughter, second wife of the 2nd Earl of Worcester, mother of nine or 10 children including the 3rd Earl. She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn and was one of those who testified that Anne had had several lovers, including the Queen's own brother. Although her testimony helped send the Queen to her death, she still named the daughter she bore later that year Anne.

Christian North, a baron's daughter, wife of the 3rd Earl of Worcester, mother of three children including the 4th Earl.

Elizabeth Hastings, a descendant of the York branch of the Plantagenet family and daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon, wife of the 4th Earl of Worcester, mother of 15 children including the 1st Marquess of Worcester.

Mary Capell
Anne Russell, a baron's daughter, wife of the 1st Marquess of Worcester, mother of 13 children, including a Catholic priest and the 2nd Marquess.

Elizabeth Dormer, sister of the 1st Earl of Carnarvon, first wife of the 2nd Marquess of Worcester, mother of three children including the 1st Duke of Beaufort.

Mary Capell, who as the wife of 1st Duke of Beaufort (her second husband), was renowned as a botanist and gardener. She had seven children with her second husband, or did she?, one of whom was Charles Marquess of Somerset.

Elizabeth Berkeley
Rebecca Child, daughter of a baronet, wife of Charles Somerset Marquess of Somerset (who predeceased his father), mother of two children, including the 2nd Duke of Beaufort. Her daughter married an illegitimate grandson of King Charles II.

Rachel Noel, second wife of the 2nd Duke of Beaufort, mother of two sons, each of whom became the 3rd and 4th Dukes of Beaufort in turn.

Elizabeth Berkeley, sister of a royal governor of Virginia, wife of the 4th Duke of Beaufort, mother of six children including the 5th Duke.

Elizabeth Boscawen, daughter of an admiral, wife of the 5th Duke of Beaufort, mother of 13 children.

All of the men used in the DNA study are presumed to be the direct male descendants of the 5th Duke of Beaufort.

Is she the Queen or not?

So, what does all of this have to do with the question of Queen Elizabeth's legitimacy. Not a thing. In fact, earlier versions of the DNA story have even been updated by reliable news agencies like the BBC to better explain why none of this matters to today's Royal Family. To start with, Richard III lost his throne to Henry Tudor, whose mother was a Beaufort descendant of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster. Especially since the Beauforts had been barred from succession to the throne at the time that they were legitimized, his bloodline claim was extremely thin--imagine an unknown great-great-great grandchild of Queen Victoria coming forward to displace Prince Charles as the heir. Henry Tudor became King Henry VII by right of conquest--he defeated the King and seized the throne. He solidified his place by marrying Richard's niece, Elizabeth of York. This gave Yorkist supporters the ability to support him for her sake and united the two warring houses so that their descendants were both Lancasters and Yorks.

However, the House of Tudor lasted only three generations before passing through the female line to the Scottish House of Stuart. Due to centuries of fighting between Catholics and Protestants, the rightful Stuart line, which happened to be Catholic, was eventually thrown out by Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in favor the Protestant children of King James II. When these children failed to produce living children of their own, Parliament again intervened with the 1701 Act of Settlement, which barred all Catholics from the throne and declared that only the heirs of the distant Stuart cousin Sophia Electress of Hanover could reign in Britain. (Read my post, When Protestant Princesses Have Catholic Daddies.) The current Queen derives her legitimacy from those decisions, not from any Plantagenet blood that may or may not be flowing in her veins.


  1. Elizabeth of York, was Richard III niece. Not sister. Although one of the Princes of the Tower (her brothers) was named Richard after his uncle.

  2. Thank you so much for clearly reading the entire post!! Thank you also for alerting me to this error. I have corrected it.

    1. There are still a few Plantagenets around. My paternal uncle's DNA matches Lancaster, York, DeWarren, Bryan, Stafford, DeSpenser, De Vere, Neville, Stanley, etc - all the meaningful names of this time period - at about 900 yrs back. Paper trail also matches but we are still trying to untangle. My uncle is a Weeks, formerly De Wyke or Wyke. There are also some deep matches with Anjou and Hapsburgs. We were pretty surprised. We have been in touch with some Lancasterian genealogists and found that some of our other matches like Beauchamp, Hatfield, Ball and Satterwaite have connection (far back) to royal line. Our Y haplogroup - E1b1a is also odd and more rare in Europe. Maternally, the connection is with De Clares as well. Anyone with information on these Plantagenet era tangles of genealogy please do provide comment :)