Blackadder: That bastard brother of mine!
Baldric: If only he were, my Lord…
This past fortnight there has been some excitement about the DNA of King Richard III. Tests have shown that King Richard III’s paternal DNA does not match that of five living descendants of King Edward III. Who, the papers have been asking, was illegitimate? And how – if the findings are correct – does this affect the present Royal Family? The arguments are explained very well here, but the short answer is ‘it doesn’t.’ What the New Statesman calls this ‘delicious mystery’ has been a jester’s pig’s bladder to beat the Crown with for this past week; but the Throne is secure by Right of Conquest and Act of Settlement, and the Queen has medieval Royal Blood in more than one line.
In the middle ages, in a brittler country, these would have been more serious questions. Back in the summer of 2012 I was walking through London one Sunday afternoon during the celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. A shop on Piccadilly had a flag of these arms in the window, draped in bunting.
It was an odd moment. With England and France quarterly they look like the old medieval Royal Arms, the arms of Kings in Shakespeare history plays. But the blue and white border makes them specifically the arms of the Beaufort Dukes of Somerset, descendants of King Edward III through his son John of Gaunt. The Dukes of Somerset were major players in the Wars of the Roses, and these arms would have seen action on some of the bloodiest battlefields in English history. They are still used today by their heirs the Dukes of Beaufort.
I imagined myself five centuries ago, when seeing them displayed royally like that would’ve meant someone was declaring for a rival House in the middle of a Royal Jubilee. There was a chill as if the sun was shadowed by the leaning gables of tall half-timbered houses. Accusations of illegitimacy would just be the beginning. There would be bloodshed, battles and beheadings. From the bus back to Victoria I saw one of the heralds turn the corner of St James’s, and I wondered if he was going to make a Visitation.