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Richard III’s Prehistoric Foremother?

Recently I came across this fascinating blogpost by an archaeologist called Katharina, who was working on a Bronze Age burial site in Austria. The skeletons her team excavated have recently been DNA tested–and one of them carried the maternal haplogroup J1c2, which is part of the group to which Richard belonged.

Richard’s Bronze Age foremother?

Now there are differences in their DNA sequences; Richard has a rare mutation, making his exact group J1c2c3. So far, only about a dozen people from all worldwide testing sites have been found to carry this exact mutation. None as far as I know, have been found in continental Europe, so it looks as if the rare mutation occurred recently in his maternal line–either with Cecily Neville, his mother, Joan Beaufort, grandmother, Katherine Swynford, his great-grandmother, or Katherine’s mother, who was a migrant to England.

Haplogroup J, called ‘Jasmine’ by geneticist Bryan Sykes, is thought to be one of the last female haplogroups to enter Europe, first appearing in the Near East around Syria. It is a ‘sister’ to Mtdna haplogroup T, with both  groups having split off from  a foremother carrying the Haplogroup JT, which is not commonly found in Europe but still can be  found in the Near and Middle East. (I am Haplogroup T2b4 ,’Tara’, by the way, so part of the ‘sister’ group.) J and T are both considered, in particular,  hallmarks of the Neolithic revolution (agriculture)  in Europe and maybe even associated with the spread of Indo-European languages, although there were probably some earlier people with these haplogroup in the Mesolithic as well.  Today J and T are considered mid-size DNA groups, with about 12% of Europeans carrying some form of J and 9% carrying T.

All the people with haplogroup J will share a common maternal ancestor with Richard at some point…but it might be well be a 100 generations ago or even earlier! Obviously there are different clades of each haplogroup, each with different mutations, which show where the groups split and diversified, and hence some people with MTdna J will be closer  matches to Richard than others, the closest being those who have that elusive ‘3’, who all seem to come from Richard’s close family. (I myself am in the same maternal group as the last Tsar of Russia but my mutations are quite different to his; I’m more closely related to the outlaw Jesse James! And Ozzy Osborne! Still, they are all my relatives on some kind of  remote level, though!)

It’s quite fascinating to be able to look into the deepest past and see where we all came from, and how interrelated we really all are.

 

mtDNA-J-map

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Scoliosis treatments at the time of Richard III

After centuries of slanders about Richard III, always named as “the hunchbacked king”, it was finally proved that he just suffered from scoliosis.

He was not born with this condition but he probably started to suffer with it in his adolescence between 10 and 15. This is the so-called idiopathic scoliosis that can be, in some cases, very painful and in very rare cases can even be fatal.

This kind of scoliosis can’t be prevented, as the cause is unknown but the culprit could be the growth hormone or a genetic predisposition. This condition can be mild or severe. In the latter, it can affect the appearance of the person and obviously can create embarrassment, low self-esteem and sometimes depression in addition to physical distress, headache, a very thin shape, stomach problems and lung dysfunction.

Severe scoliosis is visible if the person wears tight clothes and, if it doesn’t stop developing, it can cause excruciating pain due to nerve pressure. However, people affected by scoliosis have a normal life and can practice sports, do exercise and every normal, daily activity.

Richard III is probably the most famous person affected by idiopathic scoliosis, along with Princess Eugenie of York, the runner Usain Bolt, the actress Liz Taylor, the singers Kurt Cobain and Liza Minnelli, the tennis star, James Blake, among others.

Today, it is easy to treat this condition thanks to braces and, in the worst cases, with surgery but, unfortunately, these treatments were not available at the time of Richard III and medieval remedies were almost useless, very painful and often they even worsened the situation.

For people affected by mild scoliosis, there were some massage techniques used in Turkish baths along with the application of ointments made with herbs and plants. In other cases, these massages were made in preparation for another treatment. One of the most common ‘remedies’ was traction. The equipment for this treatment was very expensive, so only rich people and the nobility could afford it. As Richard was a member of one of the wealthiest families in England and a noble as well, it is highly probable that he would have gone through traction. The instrument used for this purpose was similar to the ‘rack’ used to torture people. The patient was lying on his back and tied by armpits and calves by a rope to a wooden roller and literally pulled to stretch the spine. The treatment could last for hours and it is not difficult to imagine how horribly painful it was and, unfortunately, it was of no benefit.

Richard’s family would have had the best physicians of the time and these should have been aware of this treatment so it is likely that, unfortunately, he had to undergo traction. It is difficult to imagine that Richard’s family wouldn’t have tried to cure his spine, being such highly-ranked people.

However, scoliosis was not just a physical issue. A person affected by scoliosis was seen as the incarnation of evil and a sinner, while a straight spine represented morality, goodness and beauty. The Shakespearean character of Richard III was associated with wickedness and immorality because of his physical deformity, sharpened to the maximum to create an unscrupulous monster capable of any crime.

Richard managed to hide his condition for his whole life because he very well knew this could have been a reason for being painted as a bad person, twisted in his body and, therefore, also in his mind.

After his death at Bosworth, he was stripped naked and his secret revealed. Shakespeare exaggerated his condition in order to misrepresent Richard and to blame him for every possible crime. His scoliosis became a hunchback with the addition of a withered arm and a limp.

With the discovery of his skeleton under the car park in Leicester, it appeared very clear that Richard had just a scoliosis and the evil hunchbacked king created by Shakespeare was just Tudor propaganda, that made Richard the most maligned king in English history. This discovery helped to reveal Richard in a new light and called into question all the atrocities he has been accused of. There are many reasons to believe that the truth will eventually come to light.

Do you want to know a very strange coincidence? In Ipswich, where the sales office of the Richard III Society is located, there is a surgeon, expert in spinal surgery: his name is Robert Lovell (top)!

Churchill, Celts and Common Ancestry (2009)

It was the new film, Into the Storm that started me thinking. Brendan Gleeson plays Winston Churchill and has commented widely on how ironic it is that an Irish actor is in the role. I recalled the rumours that Churchill fathered Brendan Bracken (a red-haired Irish-born MP and wartime Minister) and the fact that he too had red hair in his younger days. This is almost always the result of a Celtic gene but how exactly does it behave and where did it originate in his case?

Bill, A Scots-Canadian Ricardian, pointed out that his daughter has red hair but neither he, his parents nor grandparents did although his maternal great-grandfathers did. I searched for Churchill on Genealogics and looked back four generations (as with Bill). No given ancestor sounded demonstrably Scots or Welsh whilst the Irish peers listed could have been English in their descent. I stepped back slightly further and found two Scottish Earls, which potentially answers the first question.

Bill suggested that most people have a common ancestor within ten generations – one of 1024 – but there is an obvious flaw here. People, particularly the nobility, tend to intermarry so we have fewer unique ancestors to compare. If the theory really did apply, cubing that number to about 1.073 US billion would cover thirty generations or 750 years – back to Henry III’s struggles with de Montfort – to exceed the then population of the world. Because of duplication, we would need to go back further to pre-Conquest days or Alfred’s childhood.

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