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King Richard III

Was Richard III my great great^20 uncle?

You may have heard in the news that the body of King Richard III was recently found buried under a car park in Leicester.  Now it emerges that 15 of his "descendants" have gone to court demanding that, as family, they be consulted about his place of burial - they want his remains to go to his home city of York.

I was struck by this story because, after 500 years, I'd expect there to be rather more than 15 descendants interested in this case.  So I dived into Google, investigated Richard's family, grabbed the back of an envelope and did some calculations.  Here's what I found:

1.  Although Richard III is known to have had three children, his wife's son and legitimate heir died in childhood, and his two others - both illegitimate - are not believed to have had any offspring.  So there are no known direct descendants of Richard III.  The so-called descendants lobbying on his behalf are actually descendants of his nephews and nieces.

2. Richard had five siblings, and a number of nephews/nieces (though Shakespeare reckons he killed two of them, the Princes in the Tower).  Richard's eldest sister Anne had a daughter who, my source says, had eleven children, and one of those grand nieces herself had eleven children.  Richard also had nephews/nieces by his other siblings (including an unknown number of illegitimate children of his elder brother, Edward IV).  So within a couple of generations there was a healthy stock of Richard III relatives to procreate. 

 3.  Let's just assume that one niece had children surviving to adulthood, and let's also assume that on average down the generations each adult themselves had 2 children that survived to child-rearing age.  Finally let's assume one generation is around 25 years.  That would mean (if there was no inter-breeding) there are around 2^20 descendants of his nieces and nephews today, which is about one million.  But that's a conservative estimate. If more than 2 children survive, eg 2.3 surviving children per generation (which was apparently the average reproduction rate in the middle ages, and wealthy families probably had a higher rate than that because of better nutrition) the number of descendants leaps to an incredible 17 million.

4.  However, we know that marriage between distant cousins is inevitable.  This is easily proved by thinking about your own ancestors.  You had 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents etc, and by the time you've gone back to the early 1400s, that would make, say 2^25 = 33 million great grandparents.  But the population of Britain in those days was only 4 million, and the reason for the discrepancy is that many of your great grandparents overlap, so that (for example) some of your ancestors shared a great grandfather.  The same reasoning works the other way round.  As you come down through the descendants of Richard's family, there will be many who were marrying remote cousins.  This will significantly reduce that figure of 17 million, but..

5.  Calculations by academics, including a study by Wachter in 1978, concluded that only about 1% of marriages have historically been between first cousins, and that descendants do tend to rapidly disperse across all sections of society quite quickly.  When it comes to royal family, this dispersion will be helped by all those illegitimate children, who will have tended to be cast out into normal society and to have then paired up with 'plebs'.  The average number of surviving children per couple was around 2.3 in the middle ages (and higher for wealthy people because of their diet etc), so by, say, 1800 the chances would have been high that every town had at least one of Richard III relatives. 

6.  Using these assumptions, it's reasonable to suppose that there could be a million or more people in the country who are descendants of Richard III's siblings. To support this claim, here's a  paper that makes a credible case for saying that if you have any English ancestry, you are almost certainly a descendant of King Edward III, Richard's great-great-great-great grandfather.  If it's true for Edward III, then the odds for Richard III in your ancestry must be fairly high as well.

My conclusion?  Since there's a chance that anyone with English ancestry is related to Richard III, we should all be able to vote on where he should be buried.

[UPDATE: The 'Plantaganet Alliance' (Yorkists) took Leicester to court, to try to get Richard buried in York.  My analysis above, which was done for an item on Radio 4's More or Less, was cited as evidence to support the Leicester cause, and three High Court Judges found in favour of Leicester.]