The Princess and the Gene Pool: The Plantagenet rebel who held the secret to Richard III’s DNA

The Princess and the Gene Pool: The Plantagenet rebel who held the secret to Richard III’s DNA

By Sarah Gristwood

When the team from Leicester University announced this week that the bones under the city car park were indeed those of Richard III it was, of course, a triumph for modern science. But the story, like the genetic chain, goes back more than five centuries, to Richard’s mother Cecily – and to her eldest daughter Anne, who carried her genes through to the modern day.

Richard III is perhaps the most controversial figure in British history and historians will long be discussing what new light the finds cast on his story. But the long-forgotten Anne was herself a creature of scandal – a woman who openly took a lover; divorced her husband; and kept his family lands anyway. A Plantagenet princess who acted with all the freedom of a Manhattanite on the make today.

Even if Richard himself had been survived by children, they wouldn’t have carried this particular gene strand. Nor would the present royal family, descended from another of Cecily’s sons. The mitochondrial DNA concerned can be passed only through the female line. So the identification goes back to Anne, who was born in 1439, the first surviving child of Richard, Duke of York and his wife Cecily, the beautiful ‘Rose of Raby’. She was only seven years old when in 1447 she was married – presumably at first in name only – to Henry Holland, fifteen year old heir to the Duke of Exeter, a great nobleman descended from John of Gaunt and thus in the line of succession to the throne.

From the very start, they seem to have got on badly; the more so since the young Exeter (as soon he became) was reported to be a violent and angry young man – ‘fierce and cruel’ as an Italian report has it, and furiously concerned to seize the position to which he felt his bloodline entitled him. Anne may have taken her lover, a Kentish gentleman called Thomas St Leger, before she was twenty. But soon the politics of the age gave point to her personal her unhappiness. As the Wars of the Roses broke out – around 1455, the same time as Anne bore Exeter a single daughter – all family loyalties drew her to one side of the conflict, while her husband was on the other.

The Wars set Anne’s father York in conflict with the Lancastrian king and queen, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. But Exeter took the Lancastrian side – indeed, he was actually a commander at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 in which Anne’s father York and one of her brothers were killed. He fought again just months later at the dreadful Battle of Towton; but this time it was a Lancastrian defeat and Exeter had to flee abroad with the deposed queen Margaret. It was Anne’s eldest brother Edward who instead took the throne, in 1461 becoming Edward IV – and, under the circumstances, whose side was he likely to take, in the marital dispute? Why, his sister’s, naturally.

Exeter was attainted – which means not only that he himself was outlawed but that his lands were forfeit to the crown. (In Bruges, the chronicler Commynes reports that he, who used to ride out with 200 horsemen in his train, was literally begging his bread.) Edward secured her husband’s lands to Anne, to be inherited by ‘her heirs by the duke’, ie their daughter. In 1464 Anne and Exeter secured a formal separation.

In 1467 King Edward ‘extended the remainder’ of the greater part of the lands from his sister herself to any heirs of her body – that is, decreed that they could pass not only to her daughter by Exeter, but to any children she might bear in a subsequent marriage. The comparatively humble St Leger had been in Edward’s favour from the first days of his reign, made an esquire of the body and awarded a steady stream of grants and lands; and it was probably Anne who won him that favour.

In 1470 Edward himself was briefly deposed from the throne he had captured, and Exeter came back with the Lancastrians; back into his own huge house at Coldharbour which his wife had been enjoying. Edward and Anne’s disaffected brother Clarence had, extraordinarily, thrown his lot in with the rebels: but several sources say that it was ‘the mediation of his sisters, the Duchesses of Burgundy and Exeter’ that persuaded Clarence to turn his coat back again, and restore Edward IV to the throne.

That same turn of the Wheel of Fortune brought Anne’s estranged husband down again. As the house of Lancaster was defeated so too was the duke; wounded and left for dead on the field at Barnet. Exeter’s servant found him lying wounded, and took him to sanctuary at Westminster, where he languished until moved to the Tower.

In 1472 Anne was granted what the chronicler John Stow called a divorce, but was probably an annulment, given on a technicality. She is recorded as being present that year at a great banquet the queen gave to honour a Burgundian visitor, Lord Gruthuyse – festivities that showed the court in all its splendour.

When the king mounted an expedition against the French in 1475, Exeter ‘volunteered’ to serve, and was released from the Tower to do so; but on the voyage back he fell overboard and was drowned, most unfortunately . . . ‘How he drowned, the certainty is not known’, says Fabyan; the Milanese envoy in Burgundy reported definitely that it had been on Edward’s orders. By this time (the dates are unclear) their daughter had herself died without children, thus bringing the lands firmly back to Anne, who around 1474 had married St Leger and, by the time Exeter died, was already pregnant with her second husband’s child.

In the January of 1476 Anne bore St Leger a daughter but in doing so she died. On the one hand it meant she did not have to see Edward IV’s execution of the-ever troublesome Clarence; or her youngest brother Richard’s seizure of the throne from Edward’s sons. On the other, with both husband and child from Anne’s first marriage dead, her baby now stood heir to the Exeter lands.

The baby – named after her mother, another Anne – was happily too young to be involved in the political turmoils which saw her cousins fall foul of one another. Even her father was executed for rebellion against Richard III but she grew up into a Tudor dynasty.

This second Anne, Anne St Leger, was married in 1490 to George Manners, Lord Ros. Their son Thomas became a favourite of Henry VIII, Earl of Rutland and master of Belvoir; while their daughter Elizabeth married Baron Sandys. Though they had to weave their way through the dangerous controversies of the sixteenth century the grandchildren of our first Anne survived – survived to pass on their line to the Manners Dukes of Rutland and the Capel Earls of Essex, the Dukes of Bedford (which Russell family also gave its genes to Diana Spencer) and to the Earls of Shaftesbury. As well, of course, as to the ordinary family whose DNA samples have suddenly become so crucial today …

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (HarperPress/Basic Books)

Click here to read our interview with Sarah Gristwood

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