A headline in the Daily Mail reads “Richard III’s ancestors demand a York burial”. Really? How have they got in touch? Through a ouija board?

The article begins “The living descendants of King Richard III have joined the campaign to demand that his remains are reburied in York.”

So the writer of the article, as opposed to the sub-editor writing the headline, knows what is “up” and what is “down” in genealogy. However, the sentence is still wrong, because to the best of my knowledge, Richard III has no “living descendants”. He had one legitimate child, who died before Richard (who was himself only in his early thirties when he died). There were also at least two illegitimate children of whom, again, at least one pre-deceased Richard. The current disputants are actually descended from Richard’s sister. If anyone wants to claim that this is a distinction without a difference, consider whether your own brother or sister’s children are your descendants. I don’t think we want to go there!

The online version of the Daily Mail story has changed “ancestors” to “descendants”, so one cheer for semi-accuracy.


  1. What words should we use for descendants of an individual’s sibling? Once you get beyond a couple of “greats”, nephew and neice don’t quite work as shorthand. “Ancestor” is often used in the sense you criticise. I am helping with some biographical research at the moment about an 18th century figure who died without issue; the author is descended from his brother, but often refers to him as his “ancestor” because it is more concise than “7x great grand uncle”. “Collateral” seems to wide. What word should we use?

  2. Peter – I agree with you that “collateral” seems, at the least, too vague, but to me, “ancestor” implies direct ancestry, and in the case you cite, giving the author too much reflected glory. However, combining the two in the phrase “collateral ancestor” could solve the problem. It’s vouched for by the OED as well!
    Does anyone out there have any alternatives to suggest?

  3. It’s the Daily Mail. Enough said.

  4. As a keen amateur genealogist, it drives me crackers when people misuse the word “ancestor” to mean “descendant”. I don’t think I have ever seen the error made the other way round. “Ancestor” is the word everybody knows – “descendant” tends to be used more by genealogists, and therefore to be used properly.

    Another interesting topic is the use of “cousin”, especially in locutions like “half-cousin” and “second cousin”. What most people call their “cousin” – the son or daughter of an aunt or uncle – is strictly speaking a “1st cousin”, so the children of two 1st cousins are “2nd cousins” to each other. Where I come from in Scotland, a traditional east-coast fishing village, it was common for two 2nd cousins to marry, and the local Scots term for the relationship was “cousin’s bairns”.

    I had a great-uncle (my father’s uncle!) who was married 3 times, and all his wives were related to him, the 2nd and 3rd ones being sisters, and his own 2nd cousins. Only the 2nd wife bore him children. When she died, her sister, a widow, came to keep house for her brother-in-law, and of course this caused tongues to wag in the village. So one day Lizzie’s old mother came on a visit, and said, “John, wad ye no’ tak Lizzie tae wife?” so he did, and made an honest woman of her.

    Americans and Australians of a genealogical bent tend to call the remotest relative “cousin”. I have been “cousin Harry” to people whose relationship to me is tenuous in the extreme.


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