Science and history rarely collide, so make the most of Richard III

The full skull of the skeleton of Richard III found at the Grey Friars church excavation site in Leicester. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The full skull of the skeleton of Richard III found at the Grey Friars church excavation site in Leicester. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Hats off to Richard III who, last week, surprised us again. The discovery last year of the King in the Car Park gave us fascinating insights: he wasn’t a hunchback, but he was killed in battle by blows to the head; he may even have been handsome with fair hair and blue eyes. But last week was the most astonishing yet, with the news revealed by his DNA that there was infidelity in the bloodline – and so our royals might not be royal at all.

Last week, the genealogy of Richard III was headline news across the world. Analysis of Richard’s DNA suggested there had been a break in the male line, somewhere in the generations before or possibly since. In other words, one of his kingly male relatives had been cuckolded by his wife and his children were not actually royal but the offspring of another man, more likely another high-born courtier than the medieval equivalent of the milkman.

Historians immediately started speculating on who had an unfaithful wife and plumped for the one most often gossiped about – Edward III. His third son, John of Gaunt, was slanderously said to have been fathered by a Flemish butcher – his name was a version of “John of Ghent”, as he was born there in 1340. And if John of Gaunt is not royal, then the whole house of cards falls down, for Henry VII and thus the whole Tudor dynasty staked their claim through him.

Our present Queen’s ancestry goes back to the Tudors – to John of Gaunt (via Sophia of Hanover, mother of George I, who was granddaughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England). So the news about Richard might make HM somewhat less royal than we thought.

As Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice, it is a wise father that knows his own child. Anglo-Saxon kings often used to favour their sister’s son to their own – for at least you could guarantee there was your own blood in your sister’s son! By the 15th century, strict rules were in place to ensure the virtue of queens. It was high treason to be unfaithful to the king (as Anne Boleyn found out). Queens were surrounded by their ladies, visits from men other than the king strictly supervised. And yet one wife – clearly – got away.

But certainly, no one in Buckingham Palace when I stood outside filming for CNN last Tuesday night would be quaking in their royal boots. Under English law and the law of succession, the child of a marriage is the legitimate child and heir, so if it wasn’t the right father, it is immaterial. As long as his parents are married, the child is his father’s heir.

But what does Richard III and his skeleton say for history, this interdependence between history and science? What does it mean that the most incendiary insights about the past have not come from a dusty old document in a library, but from hi-tech DNA testing in a laboratory? Usually, historical revelations come from days of legwork, ploughing through piles of letters and papers in archives or even private homes, looking for the telling phrase or letter that someone else has missed. As historians, we spend days in archives, gazing at account books. We train would-be historians in the arts of deciphering letters and documents, early Latin, scribal handwriting, medieval French. Should we now all be learning about pipettes and test tubes instead?

For with Richard and his DNA, we’ve had amazing discoveries. And we are also dependent on science – we have to wait to see if scientists can work out the real bombshell: where the break in the line came and who was unfaithful. Further analysis of Richard III’s skeleton should also be able to suggest to us a lot about rather less newsworthy, but still fascinating, questions that touch on his daily life – what did he eat, how did he exercise, what diseases did he suffer? At present, we infer Henry VIII’s huge meals and appetite from records and reports from the court; research on a skeleton gives precision.

It’s the first time that science has really had an impact on our understanding of the past, in terms of royal history. Analysis of soil, grave goods and skeletons has been key to our understanding of archaeology and the migration of peoples, as well as their daily lives. But in mainstream history, we tend to stick to documents.

But what of the historical documents of the future? The Queen still writes in her diary every night and sends proper letters, but the rest of us mostly text, email or tweet our thoughts. Can someone’s collected tweets give us as much as their collected letters? Certainly, 100 years from now, perhaps DNA analysis will reveal more about what we really did than looking at our archived pages from Facebook.

However, this is not the beginning of an avalanche of news, derived from royal DNA. Most royals are properly buried in Windsor or Westminster Abbey and their bodies are not available. The state and Church of England have, rightly, very strict rules on exhuming bodies – it’s just not going to happen.

If we had access to royal skeletons, hundreds of mysteries could be addressed through science – did George III have porphyria? Why did Henry VIII have such poor luck producing offspring? And who else was unfaithful to their husband? We could finally put to bed the recurring myth that Elizabeth I was actually a man. But unless there is a radical change of the law, Henry, George, Elizabeth and all the rest will be sleeping soundly in the royal vaults for years to come.

A royal find such as Richard III only comes along once in a lifetime. Although researchers are hunting for Alfred the Great – and I’d love to see his body found – I think it’s unlikely I’ll see a discovery like this again. For now, all our other historical insights will come from the usual, painstaking work: sitting in archives, ploughing through piles of documents.

DNA isn’t the answer to everything. In the end, history is about great movements above, created by the decisions of kings or by thousands of smaller decisions below, as we move into the period of democracy. When the answer is about historical decisions, we need information on why these decisions were taken and under what pressure. Analysis of Richard’s skeleton may be able to tell us who was unfaithful, but it is only a letter, a document or a diary that can tell us why.

Dr Kate Williams’s books include Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen and Josephine Bonaparte: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon.

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