The identification of Richard III
Online Science Editor Vincent Plant discusses how an international team identified the last Plantagenet king in 2013
Richard III, the last monarch in the 330 year long Plantagenet dynasty, is nowadays most famous for being the villain of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, depicting a tyrant who murdered the infant sons of his brother, Edward IV, to seize the crown for himself. His overthrow by Henry VII brought an end to the War of the Roses, a civil war between two families that had gripped England for years. He is a household name today. And yet, despite all this press, his body was lost for centuries. Until 2012, that is, when his body was famously discovered in a Leicester car park. The question is, how did researchers succeed in identifying him?
The first step was to sequence the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA for short) of the long-dead king. As mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to daughter more or less without mutations, a step towards confirming his identity would be to track down a matrilineal relative to match the DNA to. Mitochondrial DNA is also a useful tool for genealogists because it is far more difficult to have a case of false maternity than it is false paternity – for obvious reasons. Richard III would have carried the mtDNA of his mother, Cecily Neville, meaning that a mother-daughter line from his sisters would have to be traced. Fortunately, the study found two, both descended from his Richard’s elder sister Anne of York (1439- 1476), a man named Michael Ibsen and his distant cousin Wendy Duldig. When their mtDNA was sequenced, the match was clear; one of the two relatives had a perfect, base-for-base match with the mtDNA of the king, while the other had only a single substitution.
The match was clear; one [relative] had a perfect, base-for-base match
Next, the study turned to the male equivalent – the Y chromosome, passed down from father to son through the generations. This would have been a more exclusive club, as the Plantagenet family were extensively killed off by Henry VII to prevent rivals to the throne, a case in point being Richard III’s nephew Edward Plantagenet who was executed in 1499. Despite this, some male-line relatives can be tracked down through an illegitimate son (John Beaufort) an his descendants. Five descendants of the 5th duke of Beaufort, Henry Somerset (1744- 1803), were eventually used in the study. The results were unexpected- the Y chromosomes did not match, meaning that there is a false paternity event at least somewhere in the family tree.
The body was predicted to have had blue eyes and blonde hair. Now, this is at odds with the portrait of the king commissioned in the 1510s. However, the genetic hair colour predictions matched hair colour in childhood, and in some people hair colours darkens as they mature. Based on this, the authors concluded that there was a high probability of a match in this regard. Finally, the skeleton itself was examined and was shown to have scoliosis, which would match the impression of him gained from the play ‘Richard III’. On the whole, the authors felt that the probability of the remains being King Richard III of England was at least 99.99994% – as close to certainty as you can reasonably get.
[The result was] as close to certainty as you can possibly get
How his body ended up underneath a carpark in Leicester is a fairly simple story to tell. Richard III had died in 1485 in the battle of Bosworth Field and was originally interred in the Greyfriars Friary in Leicester. However, during the subsequent dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 by Henry VIII, the tomb was lost, leading to the search that eventually saw the remains unearthed.