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National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery, London

DNA Evidence Casts Doubt on Richard III's Claim to the Throne

National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery, London

Scientists have ruled with 99.999 percent probability that a skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester, England, in 2012 is that of King Richard III. Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet line (the House of York), was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor in 1485. His remains were then buried without ceremony at Greyfriars Abbey, which, sometime between when the friary was dissolved in 1538 and 2012, was turned into a parking lot (or “car park,” as they say in Britain). 

According to the BBC, the skeleton discovered in 2012 was believed to belong to Richard III in large part due to the extreme curvature of its spine—as historians and Shakespeare readers know, Richard III was believed to have had a hunchback. But a team of scientists, led by Leicester University’s Dr. Turi King, were able to finally confirm the skeleton's identity with DNA tests this fall and published their findings in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

While the real Richard III, we know now, did have a curved spine, beyond that he didn’t much resemble the man depicted in 16th century portraits (no contemporary portraits of Richard III exist—according to CNN, the earliest known works post-date his death by 25 to 30 years). DNA evidence suggests that, far from being the dark and brooding figure painted by Shakespeare and 16th century artists, Richard III was blond-haired and blue-eyed (although researchers concede that Richard III may have been blond in childhood but had his hair darken with age). 

The skull of King Richard III, found in Leicester, England, in 2012. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) 

Even more surprising than Richard III’s physical appearance is that the DNA reveals a break in the royal lineage. According to the BBC, this could cast doubt on the Tudor line or Richard III’s claim to the throne.

The BBC and Nature Communications delve deep into all the nitty-gritty biological reasons for this, but to summarize quickly: Scientists were able to match the maternal side of Richard III’s DNA (the X chromosome) to two living relatives of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York. Both Michael Ibsen and Wendy Dulig, 14th cousins and descendants of the House of York, have the same extremely rare genetic lineage as the skeleton found in the parking lot. 

The male side (the Y chromosome) is where things get tricky. The skeleton’s DNA does not match the Y chromosomes of living heirs of the fifth Duke of Beaufort, a descendent of John of Gaunt (all the aforementioned men are descendants of Edward III—you can find a helpful family tree here). The Tudors also descend from John of Gaunt. The lack of Y chromosome consistency between the DNA in the skeleton and of the Duke of Beaufort’s heirs means that, somewhere down the line between Edward III and Richard III, there was a “false paternity event”—aka, an act infidelity. If this event happened along either the Richard III or Henry Tudor (later known as Henry VII) branches of Edward III’s family tree, their lineage’s claims to the throne could be false. 

If that’s confusing, genealogy expert Kevin Shürer may be able to clear things up. “There are some well-known and important people on that chain [from Edward III to his descendants]," he told CNN. "You have two monarchs, Richard and Edward III; if the break occurred on the Yorkist line … then that might raise questions about the legitimacy of the Yorkists' claim to the throne.” As for the Tudors, “The Lancastrian line comes through John of Gaunt's side of the family … so if the break were on that side, it raises questions about the legitimacy of the Lancastrian monarchs, and because there was a Tudor link to that line as well, also the Tudors,” he says.

So, what does this mean for the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, and her family? Apparently nothing. “We're certainly not saying the House of Windsor has no legitimate claim to the throne, far from it," Shürer told CNN. "Royal succession doesn't work like that. There is no linear succession line between Edward III and Elizabeth II. Yes, they are related, but the whole point of monarchy is that over several centuries it takes various twists and turns … Monarchy is about opportunity and chance as much as it is about bloodline.”

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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