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Genetic Markers: Can Richard III's DNA be Tested for the Plantagenet Congenitally Inherited Blepharoptosis

Updated on May 20, 2015

John Howard,1st Duke of Norfolk displaying drooping eyelid

John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk with genetic blepharoptosis
John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk with genetic blepharoptosis | Source

Facial Recognition in the Middle Ages, How it Affected Royal Succession

The earliest Plantagenet ancestor known to have a drooping eyelid was said to be William the Conqueror. He had an interesting early history, genetically speaking. Almost everyone knows the name "William the Bastard." He was the son of Richard I, a "Norman." Normans were, like everyone of that period, so named for the location of his birth. While he was born in Normandy, he was descended from Viking invaders who decided to remain in France. Richard I was unmarried. He knew that the woman was not faithful, her name was Herlotta, or Herleva, and she was the mother of many children. I have often wondered if her name was the origin of our word, harlot. And yet, knowing all this, Richard I, Duke of Normandy, told that Herlotta had a three year old son that she said was his son. Richard I rode to see the young boy, and, as soon as he saw him , he claimed him as his son. Common logic would question the depth of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, absolute certainty that this boy, who he had never seen, whose mother was known for sharing her "favors" liberally, was his biological offspring. We are told it happened at a mere glance, without looking closely at common similarities, as we do today. A newborn baby is looked at, and after the oohing and aahing the family looks closer. It is instinctive. "Oh, look, he has his father's hair," or he has his mother's eyes, or nose...Grandma's blonde hair, or his Grandfather's hands or toes... We all do it. Yet, Richard of Normandy rode up, spotted one boy playing among several others, and he could tell that boy was his at a glance. None of the young boy's uncles doubted his paternity, either. That little boy, of course, grew up to be William I, King of England, by right of conquest, like Henry Tudor had gained the throne by right of conquest at the Battle of Bosworth. (The difference, of course, is that Henry VII Tudor was descended from the native inhabitants that the Normans beat in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, while Richard III was a descendant of the Norman invaders)

Edward I Longshanks and Eleanor

Rare depiction of a King showing the rare genetic condition normally called "drooping eyelid".
Rare depiction of a King showing the rare genetic condition normally called "drooping eyelid". | Source

Early Images of Plantagenet Kings with Drooping Eyelid

What genetic trait did William see across a courtyard? Many researchers point to the genetically inherited eye condition known as blepharoptosis that is seen in very few royal images of kings and nobles from the Middle Ages to, at least, the Tudor and Elizabethan age. While there are varying degrees of this condition, the Plantagenets appear to have had a mild form of the genetic trait. One has to wonder if artists employed by nobles and even the king might have omitted this trait while rendering a likeness of the king, dukes, and others. That had to be a one of many considerations to be weighed while fulfilling their commission. The trait itself must be carried in both the mitochondrial DNA as well as the paternal DNA. We can ascertain that by one of the images of King Stephen, who usurped the throne from a female heir after the death of King Henry I. He was the nephew of King Henry I. Stephen's mother was Henry's sister, and both were the children of William the Bastard, known to us best as William I Conqueror.

King Stephen, biological nephew of William I

King Stephen, female line (X) Plantagenet descendent, succeeded by Matilda empress' son, Henry I.
King Stephen, female line (X) Plantagenet descendent, succeeded by Matilda empress' son, Henry I. | Source

Can DNA Researchers Look for the Blepharoptosis in Richard III's Mitochondrial DNA?

While my fields of expertise are as a professional historian, Research Librarian, and Archivist, I freely admit to being a novice at anything pertaining to genetics. I whole-heartedly yield to their incredible science. The smattering that I have picked up at the various genetic testing and discussion sites have gifted me with what little understanding I have of the basics. Males have XY chromosomes, each sperm carries either an X or a Y chromosomes. Females carry XX chromosomes, each egg has an X chromosome. Males determine the gender of their children, both female and male can carry all kinds of genetic traits passed down from both parents. I have wondered if the researchers who tested Richard III's DNA, knew to check for known genetic anomalies, such as the blepharoptosis inherited by the Plantagenet forebears. While it may be recessive, and only occurs in the child of closely related parents, such marriages were rampant in the nobility. Examples can be found in the unfortunate Hapsburgs and their genetically inherited jaw, or the mental illness present in Henry VI passed down from his French forbear. ( Having children with the daughter of Charles "the Mad" probably was not the wisest choice for Henry V or Edmund Tudor.) As pointed out frequently in other articles on genetic traits, people back then did not have the degree of understanding of inbreeding that we do today. The Church did forbid marriages of close kinship, but, sadly, Dispensations for such marriages were easily available for nobility, especially Kings. An example of such a Dispenesation that comes to mind is the parents of Richard II, as well as his grandparents.

Clearest Example of Plantagenet Genetic Marker

This is Edward II, Plantagenet (often misidentified as Henry III)  King Edward's drooping eyelid is clearly illustrated.
This is Edward II, Plantagenet (often misidentified as Henry III) King Edward's drooping eyelid is clearly illustrated. | Source

Did Richard II's Ancestors' Inbreeding Make Him Unfit to Rule?

Richard II's father was Edward, the Prince of Wales. Edward's father, Edward III, was a cousin to his wife, Philippa of Hainault. Edward, Prince of Wales, married Joan Holland, "the Fair Maid of Kent." Joan, as discussed in my earlier article, was first cousin to her father-in-law, Edward III and second cousin to her mother-in-law, Philippa. Edward III died while his grandson, Richard II, was still a child, too young for anyone to determine his kingly ability. Richard II's uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was his regent until he reached his majority. Both Richard II's uncle and his first cousin, Henry (Later Henry IV of England, the "usurper") are recorded as thinking Richard II was "unfit" to rule. Richard II's half brother, known for his hair trigger when he could murder anyone in a flash of anger, had a powerful influence on the young king. This half sibling, John Holland, son of Joan Holland, who was, herself, the product of inbreeding, was charged with killing another noble in a pique of temper, and let off very lightly by Richard II, his half brother. After Richard II was deposed, he died months later, in captivity. Because of his known behavior, he is thought to have been so depressed that he refused to eat. It is possible that he suffered from some form of mental instability, or personality disorder. Was he genetically predisposed to have bouts of depression? I leave that question to others who have the expertise to answer it. My area is history and research, so I can not hazard a guess.

What other nobles inherited this genetic trait?

While working on some family genealogy, I first thought I recognized some family resemblance between the Plantagenets and the Howard family. The first image that I found that confirmed this in my mind was the detail image of Henry Howard, one of my favorite historic figures. When I first noticed, I had not yet connected them to the Plantagenet tree from another line. Further research has confirmed that the Howards were related to the Plantagenets. Most people are only aware of the royal connection of the Howards to the Tudor King, Henry VIII. Mary Howard was married to Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII's son by a mistress, Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, both beheaded wives, Mary Boleyn, mistress, and the tragic George Boleyn (his mother was a Howard). Lately, I have been wondering if their disproportionate misfortunes (if beheadings and imprisonments in the infamous Tower of London can be categorized with such a minimal description.) Did nobles realize where this genetic anomaly originated? How could they not have known? Written history, oral history, paintings, and so on would have been available to the Tudors. Henry VIII, instead of embracing his Welsh roots, and declaring that native Bretons once more ruled their own country, and not the invading conquerors, the French. and their descendants who still had their French ancestry in their coat of arms, the French fleur de leis...

The author, Dan Brown, touts eclectic memory in his main character, Robert Langston. Those of us who have one, know that it can be inconvenient and even annoying at times. My brain chooses what to save to my hard-drive, and what to save to the floppy-disk. And, it does not save the things I need, like, where I left my car keys, or when my doctor appointment is, but it stores the darndest little pieces of information, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, until it puts all the pieces together to form a whole picture.

Back to the question of who knew about the tell-tale genetically inherited eye condition? The Tudors? Would Henry VIII penalize a family so obviously descended from William the Conqueror, and through so many notable kings, and royalty... Of course he would. I do not think we need to take a poll on that question. Should Richard III's DNA or the Beaufort or Lancastrian DNA be checked for this genetic marker or others? I leave that answer up to the genetic experts,

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

 Plantagnet genetic eye condition called drooping eyelid. No family was as singled out for beheadings and imprisonment as Howards.
Plantagnet genetic eye condition called drooping eyelid. No family was as singled out for beheadings and imprisonment as Howards. | Source

Richard III Rightful King or Usurper

Should Richard III have been King or His nephew, Edward V?

See results

Henry Howard, Earl of Surry, Poet

This subtly shows a drooping eyelid. Compare his face to Edward II portrait  My favorite historical figure.
This subtly shows a drooping eyelid. Compare his face to Edward II portrait My favorite historical figure. | Source

Thomas Howard with drooping eyelid

This young man died while young, Howard blepharoptosis.
This young man died while young, Howard blepharoptosis. | Source

Richard III Villain or Victim?


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    • profile image

      Hugh Brian Hull 

      2 years ago

      My family has been traced from Elizabeth of Rhudlan Plantagenet through the Butler and Fitzpatrick families in Ireland (? Accuracy). It is interesting ,however, to note that my first cousin who is male(70years) has the drooping eyelid.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      i felt that edisonization much beettr than edisonlization...And the other define should be includes, e-ethic and d-destroyed i-ignored s-silly o-oriented n-node in new generation.Ethic- Destroyed and Ignored person with Silly-Oriented Noder in the HK new generation.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      5 years ago from Shimla, India


    • Lynn Weisen profile imageAUTHOR

      Lynn Weisen 

      5 years ago from South Amboy

      Thank you. I stumbled across this quite accidentally and became intrigued by the genetic implications, especially with all the DNA articles on Richard III...

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      5 years ago from Shimla, India

      Thank you so much for writing such an informative post. Both my parents are scientists specializing in biology. So this made an an interesting read.

      Voted up :)


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