Extensive genetic and genealogical analysis involving both male and female-line relatives of Richard III have confirmed that the skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park is that of the lost Medieval king, researchers announced today (2 December).
Bayesian statistical analysis has proven the remains’ identity to a probability of 99.999% ‘at its most conservative’, the University of Leicester-led team says — and these findings also reveal new information about Richard’s hair and eye colour, and raise ‘interesting historical questions’ about royal lines of succession.
When a male skeleton was discovered during the excavation of Leicester’s Grey Friars friary — historically held to be the location of Richard III’s grave — the bones were identified as a ‘prime candidate’ for the ill-fated Plantagenet (CA 272). Not only had the individual been hastily buried in the right part of the friary church, the choir, but he also showed signs of injuries compatible with the Richard’s brutal death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
Radiocarbon dating revealed that the man had died in AD 1455-1540, and he had also suffered from scoliosis, an S-shaped curvature of the spine tallying with near-contemporary accounts of the king’s appearance.
Now, Dr Turi King and Prof. Kevin SchÃ¼rer of the University of Leicester have led an international team of researchers in a ground-breaking project, published in Nature Communications, to identify living relatives of Richard III, and to compare their DNA with samples taken from the Grey Friars skeleton.
Part of this work focussed on mitochondrial DNA (mDNA), which is passed down the female line to both male and female children. Here the team built upon genealogical research by Dr John Ashdown-Hill, who had traced a female line of descent from Richard’s older sister, Anne of York, to a modern woman, the late Joyce Ibsen (CA 296). While verifying this family tree, the researchers also identified a second descendant of Anne, Wendy Duldig, allowing them to triangulate their results, comparing DNA from one of the skeleton’s teeth to samples from Wendy, and from Joyce’s son, Michael. The result was a conclusive match (CA 277).
Y-chromosome (male-line) DNA was also examined, involving living relatives of Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort. Here, however, there was no match. The team argues that this indicates that the male line has been broken at some point, with at least one false paternity recorded in the family tree.
“The fact that we do not find a match between the living male-line relatives and the skeletal remains is not at all surprising to me – we knew from work that I, and others, have carried out in the past that the incidence of false-paternity, where the biological father is not the supposed father, is historically in the region of 1-2% per generation,’ said Turi. ‘Even using a conservative rate, we knew there was a ~16% chance of finding there would be a false-paternity in this chain.’
‘This raises some interesting historical questions,’ Kevin added. ‘Depending on which link in the chain is broken — and there is a possibility that there could be more than one break — this asks questions about the Plantagenets, and the claim to the throne of both the Houses of York and Lancaster.’
Despite the mis-match in the male line, the team concludes that statistical analysis combining the triangulated mDNA results, examination of the skeleton, the archaeological circumstances of the burial, and the radiocarbon dates, indicates that these are the remains of Richard III, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
As such, analysis of other elements of DNA from the skeleton also provide new clues to Richard’s physical appearance — something of interest to historians as no contemporary portraits of the king are known to survive. The study indicates that Richard III had blue eyes and, in childhood at least, fair hair. This suggests that the best known representation of the monarch is likely to be the portrait held by the Society of Antiquaries, which was painted in c.1510-1540.
We will be covering this research in greater detail in CA 299 – watch this space!
Click here to read the Nature Communications paper containing the newly-published results – freely available online.
For more information on the search for Richard III, and work to identify his remains, you can explore our previous coverage of the project here.
The University of Leicester was the principal funder of the research. Dr King’s post is part-funded by The Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.
The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society