Richard III, snooker and probability

One thing of which we can be certain is that Richard III never played snooker. It was not invesnookernted until 1875 in Jabalpur by a Colonel Chamberlain (1). Nevertheless, it is an excellent vehicle for demonstrating the laws of probability with particular reference to the descent of the Plantagenet Y-chromosome from Edward III.

Imagine that you have walked into a snooker club where a member lends you four white balls and fifteen reds, the white balls obviously from more than one set, but in a drawstring bag. The cue balls represent the paternal links from Edward III to Richard III and the reds represent the descent from Edward III to Henry, 5th Duke of Beaufort (2). We already know that the 5th Duke’s living putative descendants have a different Y-haplogroup to Richard III, indicating that there is at least one “false paternity event” in one or both lines, but “Somerset 3” has a different Y-chromosome to his putative cousins, showing that another such has occurred at some time since 1760.

The bag is now held towards you and you are invited to insert your hand and withdraw a ball but you cannot discern its colour until you are holding it outside the bag – we are assuming randomness a priori. The probability of one random ball being red is 15/19 or approximately 79%. If you withdrew two balls, the probability of both being red is 15×14/19×18 or about 61%. The probability of three balls all being red is 15x14x13/19x18x17 or about 47%.

The probability of any paternal link in these chains being false is the same as stated above. We only know that there is one such event and it is 79% likely to have been in the descent to the 5th Duke but 21% to Richard. We cannot yet assume there to be more than one broken link in either chain and it would take three “milkmen” for the red ball (Beaufort) probability to fall below 50% and for a York false paternity event to be probable.



By super blue

Grandson of a Town player.


  1. Well said. I am getting tired of people making the assumption that the line was definitely broken on the York side, due to Isabella of Castile’s affair with John Holland.It is one of those ‘possibilities’ that, in some circles, has become ‘the truth’ even though there was never any contemporary mention of Isabella having a child, just the usual statement of suspicion– ‘the youngest son was left nothing by his father,’ which could be for a number of reasons, maybe even a suspicion that was not neccesarily true.
    I was interested to read that Edmund of Langley, when his skeleton was exumed, was found to be a slightly shorter than average (for the era) man with a very strong, masculine jaw, which could be coincidental, but sounds very like some later York descendants. Only DNA could tell us for sure.
    This recent idea about Isabella and Holland having a child may fall into the same category as the recently debunked ‘Joan of York,’ a supposed daughter of Cecily Neville and Richard Duke of York. Several authors stated her existance as fact but it turned out Alison Weir had got her name from a 1960’s geneology tree. That is right– 1960’s, not 1460’s,lol. It turns out…there was no Joan. Repeated a few times on the net and in books, though, and it quickly became ‘fact.’


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