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Did you know you can compare your DNA to Saint Leopold III?

The mystery of Saint Leopold's choice of his successor

Everyone knows that it is common practice for royal and noble titles to be passed from the father to the eldest son. Then why did Leopold III, Margrave of Austria, overlook his first-born son, Adalbert, and instead pass on his title to his second son Leopold IV?

Leopold III was from the House of Babenberg, a prominent family in Austria. In 1095, he succeeded his father as the Margrave of Austria, a position he held until his death in 1136. Leopold is remembered for the development of Austria and for founding several monasteries, including the Klosterneuburg, Heiligenkreuz and Seitenstetten. In 1485, 350 years after his death, Pope Innocence VIII canonized Leopold as the patron saint of Austria, Lower Austria, Upper Austria and Vienna.

Saint Leopold was married twice. His first wife, from the von Perg family, died in 1105. The following year he married Agnes of Germany, the widowed daughter of Henry IV (Holy Roman Emperor), with whom he had 17 children. Upon his death, his eldest son, Adalbert, was ignored in the line of succession in favour of another son, Leopold IV. The reasoning for this uncommon succession is unknown, and historians speculate that maybe Adalbert was not Agnes’ son, and he was instead Saint Leopold’s son from his first marriage or an earlier unknown relationship.

Drawing of Agnes of Germany
Agnes of Germany (1072 – 1143)

In 2013, scientists used DNA tests to determine Adalbert’s true parentage. DNA samples were obtained from the skeletal remains attributed to Saint Leopold, Agnes and Adalbert. Each of the skeletons were found in different chambers of the monastery of Klosterneuburg, Lower Austria, which Saint Leopold had founded in 1114. Initial DNA tests confirmed the gender of each skeleton – two males and one female. Next, the researchers analyzed 15 different genetic markers in the autosomes – the chromosomes not involved in sex determination. This parentage analysis showed that the markers from Adalbert’s presumed skeleton had one marker in common with each parent at each marker tested – as expected for a parent-son relationship.

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This parentage was confirmed using both paternal (Y-DNA) and maternal (mitochondrial DNA) analyses. Y-DNA is passed down unchanged from father to son along the direct paternal lineage. The Y-DNA profiles from the skeletons attributed to Saint Leopold and Adalbert were identical, indicating that they descended from the same paternal lineage, as expected for a true father and son pair. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down from mother to child along the direct maternal lineage. Once again, this agreed with the initial parentage analysis, as the mtDNA profile from Agnes’ skeleton matched to the mtDNA profile from Adalbert’s presumed skeleton, aside from one minor variation in a highly mutable region of the mtDNA.

Now, I say Adalbert’s “presumed” skeleton, because this same study also analyzed the DNA from another skeleton that was thought to belong to Ernst, a known son of Saint Leopold and Agnes. But there was no DNA match at all between Ernst’s presumed skeleton and his supposed parents, meaning that this skeleton belonged to a completely unrelated individual.

DNA Paternal Ancestry Test box

DNA Paternal Ancestry Test
$119

But who was that individual? Is it possible that the skeletons of Adalbert and Ernst were swapped at some point? In support of this theory, historical records indicate that extensive renovations took place in the monastery of Klosterneuburg in the middle of the 13th century. If that were the case, it would mean that Adalbert was not a son of either Saint Leopold or Agnes. Maybe he was an illegitimate son of Saint Leopold’s first wife? Providing a perfectly understandable reason for Adalbert being ignored in the line of succession as Margrave of Austria. However, there is currently no other evidence supporting a skeleton swap, so Adalbert may really have been a biological child of Saint Leopold and Agnes. In which case, we may never know the true reason as to why he was not his father’s successor.

Despite the fact that this study did not answer the question of Saint Leopold’s successor, it has provided us with the Y-DNA profile of the paternal lineage of Saint Leopold and the mtDNA profile of the maternal lineage of Agnes of Germany. There are many notable historical figures in these two lineages, including Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor and Bertha of Savoy. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can see if you may have descended from the same maternal lineage as Agnes of Germany. Likewise, if you have taken the DNA Paternal Ancestry Test you can determine if you have descended from the same paternal lineage as Saint Leopold III.

Reference:

Bauer CM et al. (2013) Molecular genetic investigations on Austria’s patron saint Leopold III. Forensic Sci Int Genet. 7(2):313-5.

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