The Southampton Plot: Revelations, DNA and Implications

Cover 1A plot to overthrow Henry V was betrayed on July 31st, 1415, just as the invasion of France was about to begin

The leader of the plot, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, and his co-conspirators, were tried condemned and beheaded before Southampton’s Bargate on August 2nd and August 5th. Richard’s head and body were buried in the Chapel of St Julien on Winkle Street (Southampton) and were last seen in 1861.

Henry V was able to set sail for France on August 11th and the expedition culminated in the glorious victory at Agincourt on October 25th. Through odd twists of fortune two of Richard’s grandchildren became kings of England, as Edward IV and Richard III. In this book Bryan Dunleavy describes the background to the plot, the assorted plotters and the convergence of people and events on Southampton in July and August 1415.

And there is a twist to the tale. Recent DNA evidence, coupled with historical information, suggests that Richard, Earl of Cambridge may not have been a Plantagenet after all!

A few months ago I read the the book with the cover shown here. , an independently published study of The Southampton Plot of 1415 by local author Bryan Dunleavy. Entitled as it really only could be 1415:The Plot, The Events in Southampton on the Eve of Agincourt Mr Dunleavy’s book is a comprehensive new study on the figures, events, issues and historical context that bought three noblemen together in the region around Southampton in a plot against the King.

The nature of the evidence being as it is, there is not a lot that is new. Most of the material can also be found in what is still the seminal academic study Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415 by T.B.Pugh. Sadly, that book is now out of print, and copies are few and far between. The author does have one she procured several years ago, and she’s keeping it.

Published, of course, for the Agincourt commemorations last year The Plot does cut through some of the silliness that has been bandied about by dramatists, playwrights, and even some historians. No, Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge the ringleader of the plot  was not homosexual as a recent play dedicated to the plot strongly implied. In fact, he had a son, and was the grandfather of Richard III.

That said, I did not agree with everything the author stated, but one does not have to in every book one reads. In one passage, surprise was expressed that Henry Tudor did not go after the heirs of John Holland Duke of Exeter- well the reasons for that are pretty simple. Holland was eventually married to Henry IV’s sister, Elizabeth, and so his heirs were scions of the House of Lancaster. Contrary to popular opinion, the wicked Tudors did not have it in for anyone with a drop of Plantagenet blood (as my previous post shows, they had a fair amount of it themselves). 

Nor was the charge that the plotters were trying to kill King Henry V ‘trumped up’. I do wish writers would stop quoting the historian who first made that charge verbatim. It makes logical sense to assume that to put Edmund Mortimer on the throne, and secure his position, Henry and his brothers would have had to die. The plotters probably knew this, Henry certainly realized it, and like is not, this part of the plan simply was not confessed because the plotters wanted to get away with a lesser punishment. Aside from a few other problems with typos and repetition of certain content, the book is useful and helpful, with chapters on the buildings relevant to the narrative, family trees, and ancestry as well as the social and economic connections between Medieval noble families. It is a useful guide-book for anyone interested in the subject, and early 15th century English history in general.

Richard of Conisburgh 3rd Earl of Cambridge: Son of York or Son of Holland?

The most interesting aspect, however, was to be found in the conclusion and appendix regarding the so-called Richard III DNA gap. It has been suggested by historians in the last century that Richard Earl of Cambridge, the paternal grandfather of Edward IV and Richard III was not the biological son of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York the fourth and longest surviving son of Edward III (d.1402 ). This is based on a rumour, and various pieces of circumstantial evidence from the late 14th century which suggest his mother had a number of affairs, the most prominent with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and Earl of Huntingdon (d. January 1400) the son of King Richard II’s mother by her first marriage. If true, Holland remains the most likely candidate for Richard of Conisbrough’s biological father.

Hitherto, this intriguing theory had to remain in the realm of speculation (no matter how likely). Until the discovery of the remains of Richard III, when the DNA was tested to identify them, and a scientific publication mentioned a “false paternity break” had been discovered “between Richard III and Edward III. In other words, Richard III did not share the Y chromosome of his supposed ancestor Edward III”. Ricardians and others have asserted that the gap was probably in the male line of the Beauforts, because the DNA was identified was taken from distant relatives of Richard in the Beaufort line. Yet others have remembered the rumours about the paternity of Richard of Conisbrough, and have rightly asserted that this could account for the gap.

The latter theory is not well-known, and the fact that it has not been mentioned, let alone considered, in certain circles and in the media is somewhat revealing. Why ignore a proposal, known for decades and supported by some contemporary evidence, and look for some illegitimate offspring in tangled lines of the Beaufort family? Besides of which, we already know that Charles Somerset (b.c1460) the last direct male descendant of Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset (d.1455) was born to his son Henry by a mistress, Joan Hill. He was acknowledged as illegitimate anyway, and he never claimed the throne. I believe that the reluctance to consider theory about Richard of Conisbrough might be because of the implications. If his dubious paternity did account for the gap, it could potentially overturn much of what we know about the ancestry of the Yorkist Kings and their claims to royal pedigree. 

1: It would mean they were not descended from Edward III in the male line at all. Only in the female line, through their mother Cecily Neville, and two Grandmothers, Joan Beaufort and Anne Mortimer. Considering the parentage of the former two, it would also mean that the Yorkist Kings were more closely related to John of Gaunt than any of the other sons of Edward III. That they were, in essence, more Lancastrians than anything else, and had no blood link to Edward’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley 1st Duke, through whom they derived their ancestral title to the Dukedom.

2: Considering how the Tudor claim to the throne is so often discounted for being the female line, and marred by the illegitimate birth of his distant ancestor, John Beaufort, (and the possible birth of Edmund Tudor before his parents’ marriage), it would mean the Yorkist Kings also had illegitimate ancestors on both sides. Of course, the supposed illegitimacy of Tudor’s Beaufort ancestors is something of a misnomer, considering that they were in fact declared legitimate after the marriage of John of Gaunt and his long-term mistress Katherine Swynford.

Yet if the above were true, it would mean that the only legitimately born royal ancestor of the Yorkists would have been Anne Mortimer, the great-great-grandaughter of Edward III. Of course, it was through her that they claimed the throne, but a claim through two female ancestors (Anne and her grandmother, Philippa the daughter King Edward’s second son) does not seem so strong when the claims of others are discounted on the same basis.

3: As is mentioned by the author, it would mean that the last King descended from Edward III and his illustrious male forbears in direct and legitimate male line was in fact Henry VI- not Richard III. Richard’s grandfather, if the rumours are true, would have been little more than an illegitimate descendant of Joan of Kent, the daughter of Edward I’s younger son, Thomas of Woodstock- and as stated, above, not a descendant of the first man in England to carry the title of the Duke of York.

Considering the potentially radical implications, that could shake up everything we know about the ancestry of the Plantagenet Kings after 1461, it’s not surprising that some would wish to ignore it. Some today like to level accusations of illegitimacy at various members of the Lancastrian royal family and their relatives in the hope of discrediting the Tudors, but these can just as easily apply to the other side. They should not be ignored. 

Of course, the only way to be certain would be to test the remains of Richard of Conisbrough, which as far as we know, are still interred beneath St Julien’s Chapel in Southampton, where he was originally buried shortly  after his execution in 1415. Somehow, I doubt Philippa Langley and Co. will be adding that to their project list anytime soon.

Further Reading and References

Bryan Dunleavy, 1415: The Plot: The Events in Southampton on the Eve of Agincourt, Magic Flute Publications (Southampton), 2015.  This book is available on Amazon, but can also be purchased directly from the author via the form available on the publisher’s website.

T.B.Pugh, Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415, Southampton Records Office (Southampton), 1988. This is by far the most comprehensive study, and contains transcripts of the plotters’ original confessions. Available on Amazon, used book retailers, and some good libraries.

L. Harriss, ‘Richard , earl of Cambridge (1385–1415)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [] Website requires Login.

See also:

Juliet Barker, Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle, Abacus (London), 2006. Chapter Five ‘Scots and Plots’ contains an account of the Plot.

Anne Curry, Agincourt: A New History, The History Press (Stroud), 2006. Chapters 2 and 3 are the most relevant.

Ian Mortimer, 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory, Vintage (London), 2009. Mortimer’s book contains a detailed account of the plot, although it is highly speculative and questionable, reporting the intimate thoughts and feelings of the plotters, which cannot be known today. It is also rather biased, so should be treated with caution.

Brain Wainwright, Frustrated Falcons: The Three Children of Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York, 2013. A useful little Kindle book with a short chapter devoted to the Earl of Cambridge, discussing, among other things, his first marriage to Anne Mortimer.

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