The DNA of Magna Carta – A 21st Century Scientific Analysis

King John was forced to grant the Great Charter of liberties in 1215 - 800 years ago. Not only did Magna Carta concede legal rights but in articles 52 and 55 it empowered twenty five barons and Stephen Langton to overrule the king:

"by the verdict of the 25 barons...for the security of the peace, or the verdict of the greater part of them, together with the aforesaid Stephen Archbishop of Canterbury if he can be present and others whom he may think fit to bring with him."

We know the identity of the twenty five barons, a great deal about some of them and a little about others. Stephen Langton himself was described by Professor Powicke in his biography "Stephen Langton," published in 1928 as "one of the least known figures of English history".

There will be a plethora of accounts of Magna Carta this year with competing historical theories all seeking to be believed. Can the emerging twenty first century science of DNA throw a new and different light on the origins of Magna Carta and exactly who Langton and the barons were?

It seems a mighty difficult challenge for all this was a long time ago. Are we going to locate, identify and dig up the bodies of the 25 barons? Perhaps even if that were possible, such an emotive course of action might not be necessary.

Most people's British DNA is remarkably similar because the islands are an outpost of Europe; a genetic cul-de-sac. The inhabitants could not flee beyond Ireland to escape any invaders because there is an inhospitable ocean in the way. This is why the male Y chromosome is remarkably homogenous for the islands in comparison with continental European countries.

Group R1b is dominant forming between 60-90% of the population, varying according to location within the islands, greater in the west than in the east. Next is group I1 of Scandinavian origin introduced by the Vikings and Normans and varying between 5-30%. Other groups such as E, G, I2, J1, J2 and T have small numbers.

We should expect the barons to be either the Scandinavian I1 or R1b because R1b is also the predominant group in continental Western Europe including Normandy. With almost everyone in the British Isles belonging to the same two groups, our task of finding the barons DNA looks simply awesome. We are going to have to hope that some of them belonged to unusual groups and even then it is going to be horrendously difficult. What are the possible ways of determining the DNA of such a historic person?

A) We know where the body is, we can access it and have clear evidence that this is indeed our intended person. The best example of this is the Pharaoh Tutankhamun with his name helpfully within a cartouche, who seems to have been R1b. More recent British burials usually have a headstone or engraving but the further back we go the fewer clear inscriptions there are. King John is buried at Worcester and his nemesis Langton at Canterbury but where most of the barons are buried we simply don’t know.

Their burial places may originally have been grand but by now they are either unidentified or lost in other ways. Even if we did know, it is not straightforward just to dig up historical remains, and how certain is the identity of the skeleton?

B) Another possibility is to trace down the female genetic line to a living descendant in order to achieve confirmation of identity.

A recent example of this followed the uncovering of a spinally deformed skeleton by a mechanical digger in a Leicester car park. There was apparently some written evidence that Richard III might be buried there and despite the excavators penetrating his skull with a pickaxe, enough remained of him to extract his mitochondrial DNA, handed down by mothers to their children. The body despite the written evidence and the spinal deformation could have been any person with a spinal condition.

To prove it was indeed the body of the last Plantagenet king the researchers traced down the all female line from Richard’s sister and lo and behold there was a match with the skeleton’s DNA. The Mitochondrial DNA was group J1c2c occurring in about one British woman in twenty. Of course, this is not absolute proof, it could be that the skeleton is one of the 5% of the population that just happen to share the Mitochondrial DNA of Richard’s sister’s descendants. However putting the DNA, the written record and the spinal deformity together the counter argument that this is not the king has a lot of evidence to explain away.

C) The obvious possibility is to trace down the male line where helpfully the surname remains the same. Unfortunately there are a multitude of problems. Some of the barons had no male descendants and their relatives' lines might have died out.

Using surnames is difficult; there are about ten different R1b Lacey lines, only one of which could have belonged to John De Lacy at Runnymede, but which one? A big problem is that particularly when surnames were in their infancy, name changing was not infrequent. If you married an heiress and gained her property you might well change your name to hers. This is precisely what the De Lacys had done, they originally had a different surname but adopted the De Lacy name in order to inherit. There can therefore be multiple DNA legitimate lines with a single name, although sometimes the descent is through a female line.

A further problem is that whereas one can be pretty certain about maternal identity, paternal identity can be a good deal less certain. Edward IV was born after his father had been away fighting for 13 months - an unusually long pregnancy. Even where there is certainty about a surname and a male line it may just lead to a confusing tangle of the populous R1b group.

An interesting example of tracing down the male line is the case of USA president Thomas Jefferson who was alleged to have had children by his mixed race slave girl, Sally Hemmings. Historians strenuously denied that this was the case. Testing of Sally Hemmings male line children and a descendant of Jefferson’s uncle showed that both belonged to the rare group T. Essentially Sally’s descendants got lucky, she had been impregnated by someone with a rare Y genetic group. The chances of this being a coincidence are less than 1%. This does not of course stop some from claiming that it is inconclusive. It does of course have a far greater degree of probability than most historical arguments.

Unlike Richard III, Thomas Jefferson was not dug up but the result is compelling. There is just the faintest of doubts that he was the father of Sally’s children or to put it another way: of course he was. His case proves that you do not need to dig up a body to find out someone's DNA, but having rare DNA sure helps your chances of success.

In many cases it is possible to trace descendants of the 25 barons but usually this involves going through female lines, indeed some people have multiple descent from a number of barons. Tracing the male Y chromosome descent from the barons simply cannot be done in most cases. There are however a handful of exceptions. The second article in this series will give the DNA of one of the twenty five.

Copyright David Langton 04 February 2015 all rights reserved.