Drawing on DNA analysis, genealogy and archeology, scientists at the University of Leicester, who unearthed 500-year-old royal bones found under a municipal car park, have definitively identified the remains as King Richard III.
In their recently published findings, the team determined that the bones are indeed that of the monarch made infamous by Shakespeare.
“The evidence directly indicates that these are the remains of Richard III,” says geneticist Turi King of the University of Leicester in the U.K., who led the team reporting the results in the journal Nature Communications.
Much of the findings conformed to contemporary accounts of Richard III, who died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – the last English monarch killed in combat. Depicted by Shakespeare as a deformed, paranoid and power-hungry villain, it’s clear that the Bard took some poetic license in his characterization of the king. For one while Richard’s spine shows he clearly had scoliosis, he wasn’t a hunchback.
The excavation of the car park also uncovered the old tiles of the church, the Greyfriars Church, where it was said that Richard had been buried. And his bones revealed more details that matched historical accounts, his curved spine and the wounds he suffered in combat. The team also looked at genetic markers involved in hair and eye color, determining that he likely had blue eyes and blond hair. There were no surviving portraits of Richard made during his lifetime, but one that was made about 25 years after his death shows Richard with blue eyes and light brown hair.
But it’s the DNA analysis and the matching with living relatives that most fascinated us here at 23andMe. Comparing the mitochondrial DNA from the skeletal remains to DNA from living relatives, researchers were able to make a match on Richard’s maternal line. In a mind-boggling case of finding lost relatives they determined one of the relatives is a niece, but 21 generations removed. The other is a nephew, 19 generations removed. (Richard’s maternal haplogroup is J.)
But researchers didn’t have the same luck when they compared Richard III’s DNA with living relatives on his paternal line. Richard had no male heirs, so researchers had to trace Richard’s lineage back in time and look for a common ancestor with living relatives. They found five men who could trace their paternal line to Edward III, Richard’s great-great grandfather, a connection that goes back 18 generations. But unlike on Richard’s maternal line, the researchers didn’t find a match.
This finding suggests that somewhere on the male line there was a break or an illegitimate son born (a “false-paternity” event). Where that might have happened in that long paternal line, no one knows. It’s possible that it happened before Richard’s birth, which would cast into question the legitimacy of both Richard and his brother’s claim to the monarchy. (Richard’s paternal haplogroup is listed as G-P287.
For 23andMe users that is a subgroup in the G2a haplogroup.) While revelations have also triggered a flurry of stories about the legitimacy of the Tudors – the dynasty that followed Richard III after defeating him in battle – the story of Richard’s bones offers us all a rare chance to take what we know about a historical figure, use DNA and living relatives to piece together new information about the past.