Richard III's (alleged) killing of his nephews broke the ultimate taboo
Richard III is buried today, the climax of a week of events that has captured the public imagination (nothing like as much as Jeremy Clarkson obviously, but Richard was only king of England, not presenter of Top Gear).
I’ve already incurred the wrath of the Ricardians on the subject of the unfortunate disappearance of Richard’s two nephews, but I’d like to add an article that appeared a decade ago which explained how the War of the Roses fitted a Darwinian theory of natural selection, or should that be Hamiltonian (W.D. Hamilton being the most famous proponent of kin selection).
It was a war between second cousins in which people fought alongside their brothers, and most of the killings fit in with this pattern of “me and my brother against my cousin”. Richard III, almost uniquely, broke this rule by (allegedly!) killing his nephews and, some argue, one of his brothers.
Here is the article (H/T Steve Sailer – original link a 404.)
A study of British royal executions has determined that the killings followed consistent patterns that correspond to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory. The study helps to explain why so many British royals killed family members, particularly over a 200-year period called The Cousins’ Wars that spanned the 14th to the 16th centuries.
It also suggests that human behavior, even family murders, can be consistent with patterns of survival under circumstances in which resources are scarce, yet highly valued, life-supporting and gained only through inheritance. According to the researchers, such conditions existed after Edward III’s death in 1377.
The king and his wife produced five sons and three daughters who survived to adulthood and who all had their eyes on the crown.
Richard II, Edward’s successor and eldest son, proved to be a weak, despised leader. Richard’s cousin, Henry IV, executed the king and began the apparently Darwinian Cousins’ Wars.
“Darwin’s major contribution to science was selection – natural and sexual, which depend upon competition between individuals and their choices,” explained Kathleen Heath, who worked on the study, which has been selected for publication in The History of the Family journal.
Heath, an associate professor of anthropology at Indiana State University, added, “Those who adapt best – better than his/her competitor — in a particular environment are favored by natural selection, that is, live longer and have a better chance of passing on their genes to the next generation.”
Heath and her colleagues determined that the murdering royals never sacrificed lineal relatives. Of the 47 killed, only five were not cousins. These included one brother, two uncles and two nephews. The researchers assigned genetic relatedness values to each individual, so that a parent, for example, is 50 per cent, or .5, related to a child, while a full first cousin is .125. Using these values, the scientists found that executioners never killed in excess of their own nuclear relatedness, meaning the total value assigned to the individual and his or her children.
If they had killed in excess of this amount, it “would have been the equivalent of evolutionary suicide,” according to the researchers, since the killers would have been eliminating, instead of furthering, their genetic family line.
Finally, the study found that the longer an individual lived and served as monarch, the more people he or she killed. Elizabeth I, whose long, stable reign ended the Cousins’ Wars, wound up killing five cousins, all of which were perceived threats to her life and throne.
“Some royals killed as a simple insurance policy – the poster boy for this is Henry VIII, who would not allow anyone to come close to his son’s claim to the throne,” Heath told Discovery News. “As a mother is violent when her children are in danger, there is an inherent drive to protect one’s offspring/lineage by whatever means – love or murder.”
She said non-royal wealthy families had to devise other means for reducing inter-family competition for resources. These tactics included sending relatives off to military service, on quests, to the priesthood or to a nunnery.
David Zeanah, graduate coordinator of archaeology at California State University, Sacramento, and graduate student Henry Lyle told Discovery News that the researchers were “ingenious” in “finding a source of data where the consequences of human behaviors for reproductive success can be evaluated.” Zeanah and Lyle added, “This not only offers tremendous potential benefits for Darwinian approaches to studying human behavior, but promises new insights into the ultimate, Darwinian causes of historical events that have previously been understood in terms of proximate causation alone.”
That is partly why Richard III was seen as such a monstrous figure. The killing of his two nephews would have been, in Darwinistic terms, a huge crime. Shakespeare also has him responsible for the death of his brother George, the Duke of Clarence; although the two hated each other for years, Clarence was openly rebellious against his elder brother Edward and behaved in a way that brought about his own destruction.
This week I’ve been reading Desmond Seward’s classic Richard III: England’s Black Legend, which has just been reissued by the Folio Society. Richard grew up in a period of extreme uncertainty and violence and, as Seward points out, it was a surprise to contemporaries when he reached his second decade. “Richard Gloucester” came of age during the crisis of 1470-1471 when his cousin Warwick Kingmaker, who had helped bring Edward IV to the throne, made an alliance with the Lancastrian faction, arranging a match between his daughter and Henry VI’s psychotic teenage son Edward of Westminster (in Game of Thrones terms, Joffrey).
Warwick was also Richard’s childhood mentor, and the youngest of the York sons spent much of his youth with him and his brood (Richard would later marry one of Warwick’s daughters). Yet while middle brother Clarence sided with Warwick for his own ends, Richard of Gloucester stuck with Edward during even his darkest moments when he was exiled and broke. After Edward’s restoration in 1471 Richard was rewarded with a powerbase in the north (as Seward points out, England has had umpteen foreign monarchs, but Richard III is the only northerner we’ve ever had on the throne), but his entire life until the age of 30 was devoted towards furthering the interests of his elder brother. And in this he was utterly ruthless.
However, when Edward IV gorged himself to death Richard then seemed to commit the ultimate crime against kin selection by apparently murdering his two nephews (which as Haldane might have said, is like killing one son).
Of England’s monarchs, only King John did something as monstrous, and his nephew Arthur was old enough to be a combatant and by the sounds of things probably deserved it (before being captured by John, Arthur had just besieged his own grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine).
Yet it all makes sense in some gruesome way; Richard’s coup was in order to pre-empt a takeover by the queen’s family, the Woodvilles; when Elizabeth Woodville married Edward IV she ensured that he found suitable matches for her siblings, of which there were 12 living at the time, and by Edward’s death in 1483 they had risen from being an obscure clan to the most powerful family in the realm – and so widely hated. By killing his nephews, therefore, Richard would be curtailing their power, and so such behaviour would have made sense in the context of the time.
Kin-killing remains a taboo, even metaphorically – David Cameron managed to slip in a Richard III joke at the expense of Ed Miliband at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. There is something at odds with nature in the way that the younger brother took the crown from the eldest; throughout history, right down to the Kennedys and Bushes, it has been the function of younger siblings to help the elder and, therefore, the family, something even Richard III understood, up to a point. In Miliband’s disastrous rule, which seems disaster-prone and cursed, there is something almost Shakespearean.