The DNA of Richard III and anonymous relatives of Henry Somerset (1744-1803) revealed two years ago that somewhere, in one of the lines of descent, there was a break in the male line that means at least one of those branches of the Plantagenet family tree was not in fact descended in the male line from Edward III. The rumour of this at least is nothing new and suggests that the whole House of York that participated in the Wars of the Roses in the mid-fifteenth century might not have been what it appeared to be.
Edmund of Langley was the fourth surviving son of Edward III. He was created Earl of Cambridge by his father on 13 November 1362 and given an annuity of 1,000 marks. Edmund received a few endowments through the 1370’s, including Fotheringhay Castle, which would become the family’s seat. Despite this, Edmund remained poor in lands compared to others amongst his father’s nobility. As part of the efforts of his older brother John of Gaunt to win the crown of Castile, Edmund was married to Isabella, a daughter of King Peter of Castile and younger sister of Constance, who married John. On 6 August 1385, Edmund was created Duke of York by his nephew Richard II during an expedition to Scotland. Edmund was trusted by his nephew, who left him in control of the kingdom several times when abroad, the last and most fateful time being in 1399 when another of Edmund’s nephews took the throne and became Henry IV with little resistance from his uncle.
Edmund and Isabella had three children. The first was Edward, born around 1373, who became 2nd Duke of York after his father, was a favourite of Richard II, a friend of Henry V and the highest profile English casualty at Agincourt in 1415. The couple’s daughter Constance was born a year later around 1374, married Thomas le Despenser, Earl of Gloucester and was great-grandmother to Queen Anne Neville, dying a year after her older brother in 1416.
The third child of Edmund and Isabella was Richard of Conisburgh, the toponym suggesting that he was born at Conisburgh Castle, but his date of birth is so poorly recorded that it might have been as early as 1375, a year after Constance, or as late as 1385. Richard held no title but nevertheless served the new Lancastrian regime after Henry IV’s accession. Like his brother Edward, Richard fought in Wales against the rebellions there and in May 1402 he wrote to the Council from Hereford to explain that his term of service and that of his men had expired and complaining that none of them, including him, had been paid. He was trying to keep his men together but was struggling to stop them drifting away, concluding the letter by ‘praying payment for himself and them’.
It was not until the Parliament of 1414 that Henry V bestowed a title on his cousin Richard. The Parliament Rolls record that ‘the king, of his special and gracious will, created and promoted Richard of York to be earl of Cambridge’. The title was the first given to Edmund of Langley and had been a long time coming, since Richard was somewhere between thirty and forty by this point. The title brought with it little financial gain or security for Richard, though, and as his brother Edward became a pillar of Lancastrian government, Richard seemed firmly out in the cold despite his service.
It was perhaps the sleight that Richard felt at his lack of reward or the embarrassment his relative poverty caused him, particularly in comparison to his brother, that led to his involvement just a year after his promotion to an earldom in a plot to murder Henry V. The plot was brought to the king’s attention whilst he was at Southampton preparing to leave for what would become the legendary Agincourt campaign. The aim of the plan was apparently to place Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March on the throne in Henry’s place. Edmund was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s second son and Henry from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward’s third son, but significantly, Edmund’s descent was through a female line. The question of the superiority of this claim would have to wait another forty-five years until Richard’s son brought it before Parliament in 1460, because Edmund himself lost his nerve and blurted out the details of the plot to the king.
Henry grabbed those involved and had them tried quickly.
Henry, Lord Scrope had been named and his claim that he only joined the plot to ensure that it failed did not save him. Sir Thomas Grey of Castle Heaton was also involved and all three were executed., Grey on 2 August 1415 and Lord Scrope and Richard, Earl of Cambridge on 5 August. Significantly, Richard was not attainted and his son, Richard, was able to inherit. This became more important when Edward, 2nd Duke of York was killed at Agincourt just weeks later. With no children of his own, his nephew Richard became the new Duke of York and one of the most important magnates in the land at the age of just four. Little Richard was also an orphan. His mother, Anne Mortimer, sister of Edmund, Earl of March, had died not long after his birth in 1411. This connection was to become vital when Edmund also died in 1425 without children, leaving his nephew as heir to the wealthy earldom of March and the line of descent from Edward III’s second son.
Quite why Richard of Conisburgh was not well-rewarded or provided with enough income to support himself properly is a mystery. Certainly, the House of Lancaster was nervous of its newly won position in the opening years, even decades, of the fifteenth century and might have feared rewarding too many of royal blood too well. Richard’s marriage to Anne Mortimer appears to have been conducted in secret and the union of the two lines from Edward III would have been a cause for concern to the Lancastrian kings, but it came towards the end of Richard’s history of being overlooked and might have been his own petulant rebellion against it.
There was a well-known rumour that the reason for Richard of Conisburgh’s long history of being ignored was that he was illegitimate. Edmund did not leave Richard anything, concentrating all of the York inheritance on Edward. In her will of 6 December 1392, his mother Isabella listed several gifts she wished to make before bequeathing the remainder of her estates to King Richard II on the condition that the king provide her youngest son Richard, the king’s godson, with an annuity of 500 marks. Isabella was clearly worried that Richard would otherwise not be cared for.
T.B. Pugh described Edmund and Isabella as ‘ill-matched pair’ and the King of Castile’s daughter was to develop a reputation. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham considered her to have somewhat loose morals and T.B. Pugh believed that the possibility that Richard was illegitimate ‘cannot be ignored’. The duchess was most closely associated with John Holland, who has been speculated to have been Richard’s real father.
John Holland became Duke of Exeter in 1397 and had been Earl of Huntingdon since 1388. He was a half-brother to King Richard II, both men being the sons of Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. John was a child of Joan’s first marriage to Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent and Richard II of her third marriage to Edward, the Black Prince. Joan herself was the granddaughter of Edward I. Pugh described Holland as ‘violent and lawless’, but if he was Richard of Conisburgh’s real father, it might go a long way to explaining why Richard was overlooked by his father, his brother and the Lancastrian kings. It would also explain why Isabella might have believed Richard II was the person best placed to provide for Richard, since he would have been the childless king’s nephew, though she might simply have had no other way to provide for her youngest.
There is no way of resolving this matter, beyond finding remains that could be DNA tested. If Richard of Conisburgh was not Edmund of Langley’s son, then the male line of the House of York became extinct at Agincourt when Edward died without any children. Richard, 3rd Duke of York would not have been descended from the fourth son of Edward III, though he would still have been descended from that king’s second son in the female line and from Edward I’s second son, Edmund of Woodstock, via Joan of Kent. Was this the break in the male line DNA of the Plantagenet family? Maybe it was one of the breaks.
As part of the DNA testing, a man named Patrice de Warren came forward to provide a sample. He could trace his male line descent to an illegitimate son of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry II’s father, so should have been a match for both Richard III and the relatives of Henry Somerset. He matched neither Y chromosome DNA, suggesting a further family secret in either his line or Henry Somerset’s. Perhaps the question is not whether someone somewhere along some line was the result of an extramarital affair, but just how prevalent such slips might have been. In the days before DNA testing on Jeremy Kyle, how many secrets were easily hidden? The danger is that it is possible to see hints of illegitimacy all over the place and it is important not to get drawn into considering every child to be possibly illegitimate. Nevertheless, the science tells us it happened in at least two cases….
Matt’s book Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, reveals a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses
A new biography of Henry III: Son of Magna Carta is available now from Amberley Publishing, seeking to uncover the true story of a king all too often forgotten to history.
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.